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Troubling times

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Biblical guidance for how to disagree on fractious issues

“What’s happening in our denomination?” Sometimes I’m asked this question at the archives where I work as church historian. My short answer? A shift. A shift from an era of institution-building and resource-providing to a new era where organizations serve as host, pointing to an array of providers from which churches can choose the services they want (for a fee).

Usually, during the transition period between these eras, letters to the editor and blog discussions are strong. Some mourn the loss of “our” schools, teachers or theology; others are excited about freedom to discover training, programs and theology wherever they want, on their own terms, without worrying about denominational loyalty.

Also, the increasingly polarized discourse in the political sphere – liberal vs. conservative – has crept into the church. Assimilationists vs. separatists; progressives vs. traditionalists. Word grenades are lobbed from one group to the other. The rhetoric can sound shrill and anxious from both sides. Each group defends their view of God.

Calls to “take back our country” or to rescue the church from having “lost its way” may sound like misguided attempts at protecting privileges. Yet, calls to “be relevant” or “because it’s 2017!” seem equally misguided, championing self-actualization at the expense of looking out for one another. The times are uptight, anxious and troubling.

However, when we take the long view (that’s what historians do!), indications are that God is not worried. Religious institutions have come and gone through history, but the reign of God has continued to thrive, always finding new ways to promote life, wholeness, justice and peace.

So, what can be done to reduce the fearful and anxious attempts – on all sides – to defend a one-sided view of God?

A. Continue to proclaim the good news that God reigns.

While church institutions of all sorts are declining in the Western world with the ending of Christendom, the reign of God is not in decline.

Church historian Phyllis Tickle argued this is just another transition, another in a series of eras; this new one she called “the era of the Holy Spirit.”

Evidently, God is not anxious; why should we be?

  • Yes, there is change happening at an unprecedented rate.
  • Yes, the role of Christendom as an empire is ending in the West.

But Christianity still offers good news of freedom, healing and power. The church will look different in the new Holy Spirit era – less denominationally driven, more loose associations or networks of churches, a mix of small faith communities, house churches, and mega churches – but the church remains in good hands. To quote Jesus, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NRSV).

B. Learn to live with differences.

Consider three social issues where Mennonite Brethren have evolved theologically over the last 50 years – divorce & remarriage, women church leaders, and cremation. In each case, a three-stage movement can be charted that eventually led to shifts and even reversals of opinion.

  1. Outright denial of tenability – with biblical support.
  2. Preference for tradition, with grudging toleration of the new view – also with biblical support, but with different biblical texts.
  3. Acceptance without judgment, allowing individual/congregational choice – again with biblical support, with yet different texts.

Contrary to some assessments, this evolution need not be a sign of “giving in” to culture. It may well be another indication of God’s Spirit on the move; after all, God is the Lord of culture too.

In the next years, MBs will face more social challenges – gender fluidity, dying with dignity and others we haven’t begun to anticipate. There will always be something on the horizon.

The increasing theological differences “in the family” will continue to challenge MBs to exercise the “blended family” negotiating skills that launched the MB renewal movement in the first place. 

But this is not new. Much like the first churches (you can see this in Romans 14), MBs can find encouragement in Paul’s counsel to sit with a variety of opinion, refusing to break fellowship over differences, listening together to the Spirit’s leading and leaving final judgments with God.

Even though Paul in his context probably wouldn’t understand some things that Christians disagree about today, we can still use his negotiation strategy for disputed matters in Romans 14 when navigating subjects that divide MBs today.

As Paul says, on these issues where believers genuinely disagree, we are to sit together with differences, not forcing others to go against their convictions – traditional or progressive – and let God have the final say. We will all have to give an account for our life, ministry and treatment of others on the judgment day.

Yes, the times are troubling, but we are not alone; and we even have a good strategy for navigation.

[Jon Isaak is director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg. He has served 30 years with the Mennonite Brethren church – as missionary (1987–1998), Bible teacher (1998–2011), and historian (2011–present).


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