What does Mennonite Brethren theology have in common with that of other Christian denominations? And what are the distinctive emphases of Mennonite Brethren theology? Our Confession of Faith is a short document, informed by Scripture, that names the perspectives through which we read God’s Word in order to live as Christ’s followers. This is the eleventh article in a series by the Board of Faith and Life exploring the 18 articles of this formative document.
Why did Jesus communicate through riddles and actions, not simply instructions? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire Scriptures consisting of poems, stories, allegories, conversational letters, and apocalyptic images, not only rules and theological assertions?
One reason is that God wants us to become his adult children, not remain infants. To embark on that process, we need a life-changing vision of God. Jesus and the Scriptures inspire that vision by engaging not only our minds, but also our imaginations, curiosity, voices, bodies, and relationships.
Article 11: Marriage, Singleness, and Family in the Confession of Faith of Canada’s Mennonite Brethren churches addresses human intimate relationships. Like many of the articles about discipleship, this article mainly describes what believers should do and not do. As for a compelling vision, Article 11 simply states that these behaviours are God’s design.
When our neighbours don’t know Christ and his church though, we need to offer them an engaging vision of God-honouring relationships that goes beyond dos and don’ts. We do that through stories, conversations, explanations, the arts and especially our lives.
To communicate effectively, we ourselves need to catch the Bible’s three-part vision for how intimate relationships help the world know God.
First, when women and men help each other tend the world on God’s behalf, God is portrayed visibly. God created male and female humans in his image (Genesis 1–2). God commissioned them to tend the planet on God’s behalf, and to create generative relationships founded on love.
Jesus showed that this assignment means much more than marrying and having children. Jesus embraced single and married men and women, commissioning all of them to help each other in God’s mission – as the early church demonstrated. In whatever ways women and men cooperate in God’s good work, they portray God to the world.
This primary vision is to guide all our intimate relationships.
A secondary vision is specific to married couples. They portray the relationship between Christ and the church when they adopt a Holy Spirit-ed life of mutual submission (Ephesians 5). For instance, when husbands sacrifice themselves for their wives and wives respect their husbands, the character of God and the church become visible. Parenting, decision-making, coordinating employment, and sexual intimacy are all to be shaped by loving mutuality (cf. 1 Corinthians 7 and 11).
Marriage, as described in the Confession of Faith, ultimately demonstrates attributes of the persons of the Trinity: faithful, reliable, self-giving, passionately desirous, generative, productive, and alike yet different.
A parallel secondary vision is specific to unmarried adults. This includes people who’ve chosen not to marry and those who are unmarried involuntarily. They may be no longer married because of bereavement or divorce; legally married but living separately; unmarried yet having sexually intimate relationships; living with a partner without getting married; or elderly with a live-in friend. Significantly, many of these people feel excluded from church life.
The apostle Paul, who was unmarried, writes that the Lord is the most important person in the life of an unmarried person (1 Corinthians 7). Adults who accept this vision live entirely according to the interests of Jesus, who too was unmarried. In this vision, unmarried people are full members of Jesus’ community.
Theologian Stanley Grenz points out that the church needs both married and unmarried adults.
Married couples reflect the exclusive love of God, whose love creates community based on covenant.
Unmarried people reflect the inclusive love of God, whose love reaches far and wide, seeking to encompass all of humanity in community. By showing the love of commitment and the love of openness, married and unmarried men and women together reflect a fuller image of God.
This three-part vision is a starting point for practising “marriage, singleness, and family” in ways that portray God faithfully to our families, neighbours, and critics.
I also think that this vision can contribute to the conversations Mennonite Brethren and Canadians need to have about cohabitation, domestic violence, same-sex attraction, transgender identity, divorce, remarriage, pornography, sex before marriage, and welcoming people who seem “other.”
I pray that this vision of God’s character and mission will help us engage those conversations – and our Confession of Faith – with the joy and humility befitting God’s adult children.
[Andrew Dyck is assistant professor of Christian spirituality and pastoral ministry for MB Seminary at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg. He and Martha fellowship at Westwood Community Church and Winnipeg’s Imago Dei Group.
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