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.
I am saddened that an article that calls us to prioritize “the unity of the spiritual family even ahead of those beloved biological family members we would like to affirm” in the context of theological differences regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion would not include an acknowledgment of the tragic reality that LGBTQ+ youth from evangelical families are at greater risk of family rejection and homelessness than other youth. Surely the position that spiritual family “takes precedence” over biological family has contributed to Christian parents rejecting their LGBTQ+ children. Family rejection is one of the two leading risk factors for LGBTQ+ teen suicide. As I learned from the BCMB-promoted Posture Shift seminar, 42% of youth in evangelical families fear being disowned by their parents. 9% are kicked out of their homes. 85% feel uncomfortable coming out to their parents. 81% fear being seen as disgusting by their parents and they are 8 times more vulnerable to suicide if family rejection occurs.
While the author admits that this difficult form of “faithfulness,” does not mean “complete and utter dissociation” and that “most of the time biological…connections are to be enjoyed and celebrated” it seems insensitive, if not irresponsible, and certainly out of step with the pastoral concern encouraged by Posture Shift to fail to acknowledge the suffering that the rejection of biological and spiritual family members has caused and continues to cause LGBTQ+ people. I wonder how this conversation about prioritizing spiritual family over biological family shifts when such prioritization contributes to harming the vulnerable members of our churches and wider society.
In the early church, when people’s belief in Jesus ostracized them from their biological family, the new Christian spiritual family went to great lengths to welcome many of these new believers – many of whom were women and were particularly vulnerable in a patriarchal society when detached from their biological family. The contemporary North American Christian evangelically influenced church has largely amputated vulnerable LGBTQ+ believers from their spiritual body and many of those who do stay experience harm as churches are sadly often a haven of ignorance, misinformation, and bigotry. Surely we cannot bracket the reality of harm out of a discussion about the ramifications of prioritizing the spiritual family over the biological.
I do appreciate the article’s call to not “anathematize those who differ.” However, the comment causes me to wonder why I was referred to as a ”false teacher” by a BCMB leader in front of over a hundred people even when no evidence was ever produced of me publicly teaching anything contrary to the CoF. That certainly felt anathematizing. While I was hoping my departure from the BCMB could have been seen as akin to what Andrew describes as “parting company over significant differences” the PMC’s investigation of me as a potential “false teacher” was a hurtful approach that exacerbated conflict in my former congregation.
Lastly, I wonder what exactly “substantial consensus” means. If it simply means a majority, I’m not sure “consensus” is the right word. Furthermore, a majority is not hard to maintain when you simply kick out dissenting voices. Also, historically when it comes to discerning social/theological issues such as the enslavement of people and women in leadership, the majority was wrong for long periods of time while the vocal minority has often embodied the prophetic role of condemning injustice and advocating for reform.
Lee, insisting that theological unity takes priority does not mean that we reject one another in cultural or biological relational terms. Those relationships must remain; it is only social and familial relationships that allow us to gain any opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ to others, to share our faith. I agree that family rejection of LGBTQ+ family members is lamentable and wrong. But this does not require affirmation of sexual practice or gender identity that conflicts with theological convictions. And disagreement need not cause relationships to be severed. The call of Christ is to lovingly bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ to those in one’s sphere of influence, whether or not people are willing to listen.
I cannot comment on the accusation made against you, but I will say this. Teaching on human sexuality touches on core theological issues related not only to sexual expression, but also human identity that, for Christians, is to be rooted in the new creation in Christ, not in one’s past or present self-perceptions. Teaching about discipleship that contradicts this is seriously in error, and it is not a surprise that it might be met with a strong rebuke. It would demonstrate a grave lack of integrity to hold to convictions about human identity and sexuality and not speak against those who violate them.
This is a very good article, well-composed and speaks directly to some of our core challenges as Canadian MB’s. Thanks for being bold and leading by helping to facilitate deeper conversation, which is much needed at congregational and organizational levels of the CCMBC.
I appreciate your call to not “anathematize those who differ.” I’m curious, would you consider your affirming Anglican Church of Canada friends to be false teachers?
Insofar as any of my Christian friends might teach what I am convinced is theologically false, I suppose I would have to confess that they are false teachers, by definition. It is not an appellation I would throw about casually. It is, however, something that is a necessary corollary of truth. If there is such a thing as truth, then there have to be some things that are false. Or else nothing is true. It also does not necessarily mean the end of the friendship. But it would affect our ability to have Christian fellowship.
I would like to bring the perspective from someone outside of North America, I’ve been a christian since I remember, I’ve been married almost 36 years and we have three children that are all now adults. They are part of a new generation that look to the world in a complete different way that most of us grew up…they are much more aware of some realities that we never thought and they will discuss, dialog, decide, in a much inclusive way. If we think subsjects like – climate change, gun control, gender, poverty, war…are “liberal, leftist…” well dear friends, then we are not heading to the best place I tell you!!! Regarding specifically to the gender issue and LGBTQ+ we, has parents, are having open discussions with our children and the basic feedback is this – they have friends that are part of it, they have them has friends and by any means they reject them and they actually invite them for christians activities. And that also happens to the majority of this generation, they are more focused on the person and they love the person the way they are. Unfortunately when I see leaders of the churches saying that the church is declining, there are less people attending their services did the leaders ever asked why is that happening? If we don’t approach in a humble, inclusive, loving way, and essentially dialog about these subsjects…and simply deny, rebuke, expell people, because they don’t comply with our selfish vision, well then we cannot be surprise to see things getting worst. I would like to tell the story of someone I meet that is and excellent musician that used to play in the church services…as soon as the church leaders found that he was gay they took him out and expelled him. Is this the “christian way” to be inclusive and love one another? I don’t think so.
OK, so I am understanding you think friendships with those who differ in their theology of human sexuality should persist, can be enjoyed, and even celebrated, but theological unity cannot be maintained with them for they are not “true family.” Social and familial relationships outside of theological true family should also be maintained because they provide opportunites “to demonstrate the love of Christ to others,” to “share our faith,” and to “bear “lovingly witness to the truth of Jesus Christ.”
Strong rebuke may be necessary when people teach anything that contradicts the MB Confession of Faith when it comes to human sexuality. Such errant teaching is “seriously in error.” Furthermore, theological integrity demands that MBs speak against those who violate an MB theology of sexuality as currently expressed in the CoF. But this strong rebuke “need not anathematize those who differ.”
I am curious. Do you think a theology that endorses Christian same-sex marriage as a potential venue for godly companionship and mutually sacrificial love fits with 1 Timothy 6:3-5’s description of teaching that “does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness…”?
Even when I was an MB pastor, I couldn’t fathom being obligated to offer a strong rebuke to people who held an affirming theology. Especially since many of the affirming folks I served as a pastor had arrived at their position after years of rigorous study, earnest prayer, communal discernment, witnessing the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of affirming LGBTQ+ loved ones, and a desire to reduce the harm that so many have testified to have experienced by Christian churches and para-church organizations who have held a traditional view.
I think if current MB pastors were held to the standard of needing to speak against affirming Christians in order to maintain theological integrity, many pastors would need to resign. Perhaps it’s a matter of Conference integrity for MB leaders to be consistent in keeping pastors accountable for speaking against all those who violate any confessional convictions. It seems to lack integrity for the Conference to be so selective when it comes to policing particular Confessional articles and ignoring “drift” away from others like non-violence, peacemaking, and creation care. Is Confessional consistency vital for maintaining a “true family” identity or not?
After being involved in a para-church ministry that held a traditional view of marriage and sought to help those experiencing “unwanted same-sex attraction” live in congruence with their theological convictions, after years of journeying with friends trying to live out their traditional convictions and those who are now living in congruence with an affirming theology, after reading many books and articles, attending numerous conferences, and taking courses from affirming and non-affirming Christians, I can’t imagine rebuking Christians who teach and or live out an affirming theology. I have been convinced by scholars, theologians, and pastors like Song, Keen, Malena, Inkpin, Alison, Van Steenwyck, McKenna, Brownson, Brueggemann, DeFranza, Rogers, Anstey, Cooper, Gary, Gushee, Keesmaat, Loader, Johnson, Otto, Rempel, Grimsrud, Smedes, Wink, Williams, etc. and couldn’t personally imagine rejecting their work so thoroughly as to think a disputable matter view is untenable.
I think it is sad when folks who do the hard intellectual, personal, prayerful, and relational work of examining the traditional view and who wish to make room for an affirming position and affirming Christians, are forced to leave the Mennonite Brethren. I think this impoverishes the Conference and as I argued in the most recent issue of Direction, (see “Identity, Anxiety, and the Holy Spirit”), I think it fails to account for the complexities and dynamic nature of identity formation and reformation.