Reflections on Spiritual and Biological Connection
I have often heard the metaphor used that Mennonite Brethren are a family. In recent years, that metaphor has often arisen in the context of laments about what has been described as the sad state of the Mennonite Brethren family. I believe it is true that we are not only diverse, we have become fragmented. In family terms, it is not unfair to say that we have become disconnected to an unhealthy extent. I am convinced that an important reason for this is that we have lost sight of what it means to be a spiritual family.
I came into the MB world far later in life than many people I encountered upon my arrival. In addition to learning theological convictions and cultural practices, I learned about the Mennonite game and the unique form of family that Mennonite Brethren see themselves as being to one another.
I recall vividly the first provincial conference I attended as a new MB pastor. Conversations during the coffee break were cut short when I introduced myself and people realized that I was not related to anyone they knew. The look of sheepish disappointment in their eyes was palpable. Whatever family was, I did not meet the standard.
That same year (2007), Bruce Guenther cogently highlighted at the study conference in Abbotsford that the collective identity of Mennonite Brethren has long been connected as much around ethnicity as faith. Ethnic identity has often been associated with the implication that “only Mennonites with D-G-R-S [Dutch-German-Russian-Swiss] roots are ‘true’ or ‘real’ Mennonites.” This has created “a kind of terminological imperialism that creates unhealthy insider/outsider social boundaries.”1
What kind of family are we called to be?
This tendency has also blurred the distinction between biological and cultural family connections and spiritual/theological family connections, much to the detriment of our denomination fellowship.
The widespread association of ethnicity with MB identity came as a great disappointment to me as well, but for different reasons. I had entered the MB denomination (if not the family) in part because of a deeply felt theological affinity. I was chagrined to discover that many MBs seemed to define family not theologically, as I did, but biologically and culturally. This did not seem right to me, not because I did not value biological and cultural family connections. Quite the contrary. I found the web of connections interesting, and valuable. What concerned me was that biological and cultural connections had overshadowed theological connections. That did not accord with what I saw in the life and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, and I feared the trouble that would ensue.
In the past couple of years there have been multiple rounds of very difficult theological conversations among Mennonite Brethren. Let’s just name the elephant in the room. Conversations about LGBTQ+ inclusion have revealed that the different ways of considering one another family have dramatically complicated an already difficult conversation topic.
I am not so bold as to presume to dissolve the LGBTQ+ question other than to point to our Confession of Faith as a source of theological guidance. But I think our further conversations can be helped by reflecting theologically on what it means to be family, because understanding what this means can help orient us in the right direction.
Jesus’ Call to Spiritual Family
Jesus’ words from Matthew 10 are a stark reminder to me that the call of discipleship is not always friendly to the expectations and demands of being part of a biological or cultural family. Jesus’ statements are so jarring that the French philosopher Voltaire insisted that there was a copyist’s error in Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword. Voltaire said instead that Jesus actually came to bring peace, not a sword, and that a later writer transcribed Jesus’ words incorrectly, because Voltaire couldn’t wrap his head around the implications of Jesus’ words.
But the call to discipleship in the Gospels is not unclear in its requirement of total commitment to Jesus first, before any other loyalty. Jesus presciently saw that this call would turn family members against one another, would demand awful self-sacrifice, and would cost some people their lives. It’s enough to make one think twice about becoming a follower of this Jesus of Nazareth.
If Jesus’ words from Matthew 10 are not enough to shake up our notions of family, his reply to the arrival of his mother and brothers in Mark 3 should break it completely. In a comment that almost seems throwaway, Jesus simply and succinctly makes a statement that reorients our priorities about what family is in the Kingdom of God. In Mark 3:33, Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Not waiting for a reply, Jesus continues: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).
In one swift blow, Jesus knocks down any misapprehensions we might harbour in which we confuse the relative importance of biological family and spiritual family. For Jesus, spiritual family necessarily comes first. Blood may be thicker than water, but spirit is greater than blood. What is more, no familial obligations can ever trump the call of discipleship. Christians are to take up their cross, no matter what other calls may echo in their ears – even calls from family members. The drama of these statements becomes even more prominent when we consider the importance of family connections in the Middle Eastern culture in which Jesus spoke. Family was everything. But not in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was creating a new family.
What it Means to be a Spiritual Family
So what’s the takeaway for Mennonite Brethren? This is where it gets real, and where it becomes truly difficult… but also vital. As hard as it is to say no to parents, children, siblings, cousins—those we love dearly, the call to say yes to Jesus takes precedence. The call to uphold what we believe our faith in Christ demands necessitates that we prioritize the unity of the spiritual family even ahead of those beloved biological family members we would like to affirm. This is profoundly hard. It may seem like exclusion, but it is not. It is faithfulness.
It does not mean complete and utter dissociation. Conversations may continue. Friendships may persist, and should. Most of the time, biological and cultural connections are to be enjoyed and celebrated. But theological divisions that arise cannot be subsumed beneath calls to maintain the unity of the family. Theological connections are the measure of true family. Membership in the body, the sign of formal theological affirmation, is connected to theological unity rather than historic connections.
It is painful to see fellow believers with whom we have many years of history articulate theological commitments that take them beyond the limits of the convictions that we have long confessed together. We want to think of them as family; who could countenance not viewing them in this way?
But on the other hand, what do our theological convictions mean if we are willing to surrender them in times of challenge? It has been suggested that because we view our Confession as a living document, now is the time to review – and revise – it to permit this increased diversity. With respect, I suggest that this is like deciding to go shopping when one is famished – not a good idea. And more, the conversations that our denomination has had over the past decade have yielded a substantial consensus that ought not be overturned by a vocal minority, however earnest and well-meaning.
In the context of the Kingdom, we are not a family if we are not a spiritual one. We are united not simply in a common commitment to Jesus, but in a common understanding of what that commitment entails. We need not anathematize those who differ. Indeed, we all know believers from other families in God’s church. I have precious connections to Anglicans from my time at the Anglican college where I did my graduate studies. But there are important reasons why I am not Anglican, and why they are not Mennonite Brethren. That is okay.
Knowing when and why to part ways can be a sign of theological maturity rather than theological failure. And it can remind us what it means to be a family. For the right reasons.
Bruce Guenther, “From Isolation and Ethnic Homogeneity to Acculturation and Multi-cultural Diversity: The Mennonite Brethren and Canadian Culture,” Direction 39 No. 2 (Fall 2010), 152.