It usually happens – when Christians of different cultures meet, theological questions arise.
This summer was no exception as Mennonite Brethren from North America met with Mennonite Brethren in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. (The tour of church life in these countries was part of the Assembly Scattered segment of Mennonite World Conference.)
At the MB School of Missiology in Kinshasa, a sincere student asked whether a recent theological decision by the Congolese Mennonite Brethren Conference might strain the relationship between the MB Church in North America and the MB Church in Congo. The decision in question was one the Congelese Mennonite Brethren had made to ordain women pastors.
The first step of this decision was taken in August 2000 when the MB Church of Congo ordained Madame Lukala Londa Charly. In many ways, her ordination corresponds to the pre-1957 North American MB practice of ordaining women for overseas mission work. Madame Charly was ordained to serve as a pastor overseas, in a Mennonite congregation in Chatenay-Malabry near Paris, France, where she had done her internship while studying at the Evangelical Faculty of Vaux-sur-Seine.
In Congo, the discussion in the Mennonite Brethren churches continued after Lukala’s ordination. If the church could ordain a woman for ministry overseas, could it not also ordain women serving on pastoral teams in Congo? If the Holy Spirit was poured out on women as well as on men in Acts 2, should the church withhold their blessing of women’s ministry?
After much prayer, Bible study and theological debate, the MB Church in Congo discerned that it was biblical to apply the same standards of ordination to women as they did to men. On August 24, just days after returning to Kinshasa from the Mennonite World Conference, Pastor Mama Kadi Tshinyama was ordained by the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo.
Mama Kadi, recently widowed, has served as a pastor in the Congolese MB Church for many years and has also given significant leadership to pastors’ wives in spiritual formation and economic development. As an active member of the Congolese Women Theologians, she is also often consulted when theological issues arise in the MB Conference.
Theology has a direct impact on daily life; the United Nations has identified “Mama Theologians,” as they are often called, as key players to address the poverty and health of Congolese women. According to the U.N., Congo has the highest mortality rate in childbearing in the world. Mama Kadi is committed to responding to these issues in two ways: by helping women in the MB Conference establish small businesses and by calling for equitable distribution of resources among men and women in the Congo.
While her commitments remain the same as before, Mama Kadi’s ordination marks a critical turning point in the national MB Conference.
It also signals a healthy changing relationship among the national conferences of the worldwide MB church. Historically, there has been a shared perception that the North American church, “the parent church,” is the leader and teacher, and that other national churches, “the mission children,” are responders and learners. Currently, in the context of the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB), a group of about 20 national MB conferences, this perceived relationship is being redefined as each conference comes to the table as a mature community of faith.
The Congolese decision to ordain women is a clear illustration that the Mennonite Brethren Church in Congo is willing to reach resolution on a theological issue the MB Church in North America continues to debate. At this point, no other MB conference ordains women for pastoral ministry, although many allow women to serve in leadership roles.
The emerging self-identity and leadership of the Mennonite Brethren Congolese Church is further illustrated by a recommendation made to the visiting North Americans from the women’s group of the MB District of Kikwit. It states, “We thank the church of the Democratic Republic of Congo for having accepted the ordination of female pastors. In light of this decision, we propose that the Church of America and of Canada follow this example.”
Lynn Jost, chair of the U.S. MB Board of Faith and Life and the U.S. representative on ICOMB comments, “Clearly women in pastoral leadership is an issue that is difficult for Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. to resolve . . . I believe that the Congolese church has the authority to make this decision regarding polity, but I also believe that we could all benefit by considering the question together.”
David Wiebe, executive director of the Canadian MB Conference and secretary of ICOMB, states that the Canadian MB Board of Faith and Life is studying the matter of the role of women in leadership. The church can learn from the experience of the Congo Conference, he says. “This is how community hermeneutic works. We affect one another, even on a global scale, as we discern the way of God in this world.”
“Simply put,” Wiebe continues, “the Canadian Conference, as individuals and church groups, would benefit tremendously by ongoing, reciprocal dialogue on the Bible and theology with sisters and brothers from the ‘South’. Their theology and approach to doing God’s Kingdom mission has been developed within various hostile contexts.
“The North American context is increasingly unsupportive, if not already hostile [to the church] in some ways. We are generally unprepared for this condition. We do well to learn from our African brothers and sisters.”
—Mary Anne Isaak is a pastor at College Community Church, Mennonite Brethren, in Clovis, California. She was part of the visit to Congo this summer and a speaker at the Mennonite World Conference.
—Jeanine Yoder is professor in the Biblical and Religious Studies department at Fresno (Cal.) Pacific University. She and husband Greg spent the summer visiting sister churches in Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
—A version of this story first appeared in the November issue of the Christian Leader.