A point of clarification: at least if we let them tell the story, the early Anabaptists were not schismatics. According to Menno, schismatics and those who refuse Christian admonition are indeed the only ones who merit exclusion–“and that with sorrow and pain,” in order to turn them back to the Word of Christ (Complete Works, 1060–61). If there is a time for excommunication, it is only to be undertaken with an eye to unity and to reforming (never destroying!) the person or group who is excluded (p. 1049). What’s more precious to the church than her unity? A church divided can never witness to the reconciling power of Christ, or the constancy of the Father. Pilgram Marpeck likewise urges,
“If you truly contemplate these things [I have said] you will honor this great treasure of the bride (love), which is unity in the Holy Spirit, and preserve it in your midst without laziness and carelessness. For this treasure alone the Bridegroom prayed to the Father on behalf of the bride, that is, to keep the unity with one another as the Father and Son are one in Spirit and truth. This is the true and chief treasure of our most holy Bridegroom, Christ.” — Pilgram Marpeck, The Unity of the Bride of Christ
I say this, of course, in response to Eric’s recent post: get your schism on!. The title, I know, is offered in some jest with Eric’s usual wit—but it is nonetheless a devastating mark of a certain apathy with respect to the church as church, of a habitual irreverence with respect to its transcendent character. The true insight of the post—to expose the entropy of Mennonite moral rigor—is obscured by the lighthearted attitude towards rupture, which attitude can only be the result of our failure to see the church as anything other than a gathering of likeminded activists. If the church is truly the body of Christ, as the New Testament and Christians everywhere have always held; that is, if the church is a sacrament of Christ, and even a sacrament of the unity between the Father and the Son (John 17:11), then we will always speak with the deepest gravity and even, with Menno, sorrow at the prospect of division. Even with renewed moral rigor, schism will never be the answer to disobedience but always discipline: cautious, specific, performed in care and love and with the explicit hope of future communion. This was the spirit in which the early Anabaptists parted company with other Christian confessions, and the only spirit that could possibly justify our continued separation. Perhaps Eric intended this spirit, but the stark alternatives he proposes, headstrong schism or universalist moral indifference (neither of which have ever been espoused by any Christian confession), suggest otherwise. He seems to think it impossible to insist on Christian accountability without a reckless divisiveness that would end in countless ‘churches’ of one. I hold out hope for some better option.
“My dear ones, constrained by the love in Jesus Christ, I wrote this letter because of the schism which, until now, has existed between us, because we have never recognized in our hearts and consciences the acknowledgment and understanding of Christ Jesus in each other, nor have we ever been able to meet. Nevertheless, in my heart, I have always, and even now, consider you to be zealous lovers of God and His Christ, although you lack knowledge and understanding of Christ. Every hour and every moment, I am also concerned about this lack in myself, and I have to be, for eternal life depends on knowing…” — Pilgram Marpeck, Judgment and Decision