June 8th, 2012 – by Mark
Note: This essay offers reflections on “The Purposeful Plan,” a document written to guide the Mennonite Church USA some years into the future. It was discussed at the last national convention in Pittsburgh in 2011. It has been or will be discussed by individual Mennonite congregations, by delegates within regional conferences this summer and as I understand it will be discussed by delegates at the national convention next summer in Phoenix. Below are some of my reflections on the document. I hope they will generate helpful conversations
“We believe that God is calling Mennonite Church USA
to develop a culture of high expectation for people who call themselves members of the church.
Each church will provide a welcome
to seekers, skeptics, doubters, or explorers
and invite them to become fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ,
meaningfully engaged in God’s mission in the world.”
I love this quote from the “Purposeful Plan” of the Mennonite Church USA. It names very well why I became an Anabaptist over thirty years ago, got my first Master’s degree at AMBS, became Mennonite and now happily teach at a Mennonite seminary myself. It also names what I have seen as descriptive of a number of the churches I have been a part of throughout my Christian life, beginning at age 17. I am always delighted to be a member of a Christian community that holds a vision before us that entails high expectations (while, in the midst of this, offering a broad welcome to potential disciples). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “[The gospel] is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.” Knowing what this means, in its fullness, requires a lifetime. But that journey is a part of what constitutes the Christian life.
I know that some regional Mennonite conferences will be discussing “the Purposeful Plan” this summer. And in fact it is specifically designed to shape our conversations about our identity as a Church over the coming years. I wanted to offer some reflections on the document for two interconnected reasons. First, I am called to be a theological teacher within our Church. And second I have some questions about the document. In a sentence, my concern is that I don’t think the Purposeful Plan, as a whole, articulates the “high expectations” named in the two wonderful sentences I quoted at the top of this page.
However, before I offer any critiques, let me name two other things.
First, I realize it is difficult to write a document like this. I assume that the document has already been affirmed by various executives in the denomination. And then, of course, eventually the hope is that it will be adopted by delegates representing many of the churches that are members of the denomination. All of this entails pleasing people with various perspectives, alienating as few as possible, all the while generating excitement—a virtually impossible set of tasks. To put it differently, the document is attempting to articulate central convictions to guide the Church into the future, but in a way that will nurture the unity which everyone desires for the Church. No small feat.
I applaud the effort. And there are many particulars within the document that could be, and should be, applauded. For instance, Jesus is front and center. He is named as both Lord and Savior. God’s grace and our actions both receive strong affirmations. Evangelism and commitments to peace and justice are held together as jointly supportive commitments. There are numerous descriptions and affirmations that acknowledge both changes in our culture and denomination within the last decade or so. There is due attention given to the varied dimensions of maintaining congregational life while giving a strong call to be missional beyond the walls of church buildings. These are just some of the emphases that are worthy of affirmation for the attempts to hold forth a holistic vision that will move our Church forward in unity.
The second thing I want to do before offering criticisms is to locate myself biographically so I am not misunderstood. I became a Christian and a conscientious objector/pacifist during the Vietnam War. I have been a pastor in several congregations and a child protective services social worker. For about ten years of my adult life I was a peace and justice activist. During six of those years I professionally taught about peace and justice in more than 150 different congregations in a broad range of Christian traditions, after having studied peace studies at AMBS. I am also an expert in the writings of John Howard Yoder. All of this is to say that peace and social justice concerns have been and are of great importance to me. At the foundation of my convictions is a commitment to biblical authority that calls me to care about the poor, to do mercy, to affirm various dimensions of social justice—and to embody love for neighbors and enemies. In fact, why would I not be committed to such things? For I have seen the kingdom of God come near; I have touched the hem of the garment of my Lord Jesus and experienced his healing, redemptive touch.
So then, what are my criticisms of “the Purposeful Plan”? In general terms I would name my concerns in three brief sentences. First, despite its claims to the contrary, I don’t think it is adequately biblically holistic. Second, in its attempt to be unifying it really has not issued a call to “high expectations” in terms of discipleship. And third, despite its call to avoid “partisan politics,” it has in a certain way articulated a vision that expresses partisan politics. Perhaps these are three ways of naming the same thing; perhaps not.
Peace & Justice
Let me begin by naming the focus on peace and justice in the document. The word peace appears many times throughout, which seems appropriate for a peace church. However, not once is the word “pacifism” nor the phrase “love of enemies” used. Given my background, I am quite conscious that many (typically liberal) churches have a strong emphasis on peace in official church documents (and not pacifism). But most of these traditions, unlike ours, do not have teachings and practices regarding love of enemies so clearly in the roots of their traditions, as do we. I realize the word pacifism is not very popular today (for various and sundry reasons). However, as a theologian, I have come to realize that one of the things that’s valuable about the word “pacifism” (rather than peace) is that its offensiveness—being willing to die rather than kill—is given its intelligibility in light of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (None of this is to suggest that peace is not also about more than this. It is also of course about active peacemaking, with the manifold dimensions of this calling.)
I realize that in the U. S. we Mennonites are coming to have a high percentage of people within our churches who did not grow up Mennonite; I am after all one of them. However, I would suggest it is one thing to want to have patience with those who didn’t grow up Mennonite or for other reasons have difficulty with the teaching of pacifism. It is another to filter the teaching out of a document that is supposed to be developing a “culture of high expectation.” From my extensive experience with other Christians, I am also aware that when “peace with justice” appears without clarity about loving enemies, it equals: we reserve the right to kill people we deem to have violated our sense of justice. And besides, either “peace” has some substantive (and offensive) meaning or it is a vague abstraction. After all, everyone believes in peace (including every U.S. president in my memory).
Justice & Righteousness
At the same time that the word justice appears numerous times in the document, the word righteousness never appears. I won’t go into the details regarding Greek and Hebrew, the languages for the New and Old Testaments. But suffice it to say that the very same word translated “justice” in the New Testament can, and often is, translated “righteousness,” and in very many cases in the Old Testament the same thing is true. It would seem that “justice” and “righteousness” should both be in the Purposeful Plan. I am well aware that in English the two different words connote different things. The word righteousness connotes right relationships—both with God and with each other. Since the intention stated near the beginning was to put “God at the center” of the Plan, then it seems peculiarly odd that the language of righteousness is absent. (Justice, in English, simply doesn’t have the inherent connotation of right relationship to God.)  The language of righteousness has its primary home in the context of a covenantal relationship with God and God’s people. Though it also denotes how God’s people relate to those outside the covenant. Because it is defining of right relationships righteousness language is relevant for how we think of social relationships (the realm of justice). However, unlike the word justice, in English the language of righteousness sometimes denotes what are considered the more personal dimensions of moral behaviors.
Specific Righteousness/Unrighteousness: Only Divisive?
“Human sexuality” (implicitly including sexual morality) in the purposeful plan has been consigned to the hinterland of “divisive issues.” (see lines 662ff.) But in two ways I think this section is misleading and distorting. First, sexual morality is thrown together in the opening paragraph of this section with five other issues—as if they were all alike somehow. But four of the issues are specifically related to governmental policy matters. For instance, deciding “the role of the federal government” is complex in many ways, including what one means by even posing the issue. Of course we could discuss “human sexuality” or “same-sex relationships” in relation to government policies. But—unlike the role of federal government issue—issues of sexuality are issues for all of us in our individual, family and church community lives. Moreover, the Scriptures speak specifically and frequently to the issue of sexual immorality (and not about the role of the federal government in our lives). The noun and verb form of the word (porneia) that is translated as sexual immorality (or fornication) appears thirty-one times in the New Testament. All but six of the twenty-seven New Testament books have something to say about sexual immorality. Of all the sins listed in the twenty-two different vice lists in the New Testament, sexual immorality is listed most frequently. It is in fact the only vice to appear in the majority of the lists.
Besides the prominence statistically there is the strength of what is said. Jesus says that sexual immorality is one of the “evil intentions that emerges from human hearts.” (Mk. 7.21) The Council in Jerusalem, after serious deliberation, agreed on only a few essentials for all Christians—Jews and Gentiles. One of them was to refrain from sexual immorality. (Acts 15.28-29) Ephesians 5.5 is rather representative of what Paul had to say: “nobody who indulges in sexual immorality or impurity can inherit anything of the kingdom of God.” So, why is this moral teaching optional for Mennonites, unnamed in this document (except as something divisive)? Someone might say: “yes, but we don’t really know the specific behaviors that are being prohibited by this teaching.” And I would respond: “Tell me how this is different from peace and justice.” Once we get beyond platitudes matters become contentious and divisive. But I thought we were aiming for “high expectations.” I would have thought Mennonites, of any Christian bodies, would at least have a desire to take Paul seriously when he says not to be conformed to the world in Rom. 12.1-2. And that would be true regarding sex as well as love of enemies and caring for the poor (to name major issues of key importance in the Scriptures and relevant to all our lives—and when all are held together we avoid partisan politics).
But why would we as Mennonites imagine that sexual immorality is trivial or merely divisive or partisan but peace and justice are centrally defining? The Scriptures don’t offer such divisions. Neither did Menno Simons. It’s all related to the discipleship to which we are called. It is all related to a “culture of high expectation.” Growing up in a non-Christian home, I became a Christian at age 17 in a non-Mennonite church. I knew when I turned 18 that I had to register as a conscientious objector because my Lord said I was to love my enemies. I also knew at age 18 that I was called to celibacy outside of marriage. I was also beginning to be aware that my vocation should be expressive of my Christian faith, that I could no longer imagine choosing a job mostly because of pleasure or money. My life was no longer my own; it was to be given, joyfully, in praising and serving my savior, with my whole embodied life.
Of course the only way peace and justice are unifying rather than divisive is if we leave the two words largely abstract—and thus trite. If peace equals dying by the hands of your enemies rather than killing them, because our Lord said to love our enemies; if loving our enemies means we don’t (willingly) send our children or ourselves to go Iraq or Afghanistan to kill, then “peace” is no longer such a unifying word. If justice comes to be linked to specific behaviors for or against most anything specific, then, again, it is a divisive not a unifying word. (Perhaps “righteousness” could have also been dropped into the document—equally undefined and thus trite, but at least appearing to offer balance by signaling a concern about matters of personal morality and linking the concerns to a right relationship to God.)
I won’t say as much about money, but I could. Maybe it is too much to think that a unifying document cannot do more than center on banal words like stewardship, which is hardly a concept in the New Testament. Rather, Jesus’ call in relation to money is about the rich not being able to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is about not being able to serve two masters or love money and God. It is about every last one of us, more than anything else, being called to be servants of Jesus, knowing that that is always our first vocation, while discerning together with brothers and sisters how that relates to putting food on the table and a roof over our heads.
Sin, Salvation & Being Missional
There is of course much talk about witnessing, of being missional within the document. There is also an occasional use of the word salvation. However, never does the word sin appear. And there is no indication that sin is a very present reality in the world—and that from its captivity people need to repent or be saved or redeemed. Thus being missional or evangelizing doesn’t appear to need these realities to be named. Now, let me be clear, I could say much about the superficial ways in which the language of sin (or the word “saved”) has too often been used. And partly because of these bad habits we often avoid the language today. However, I would argue we make a serious mistake if we do avoid it altogether (and I’m relatively sure the Scriptures and the Anabaptist tradition are on my side). Sin has multiple and complex dimensions. It is personal and social (and/or structural). It is acts and attitudes. It is done by us and to us. It is both a general condition—Sin (with a capital “S”) or brokenness—and very specific acts. It is a power to which we are enslaved and, in Christ, from which we are freed. We need a supple, rich language of sin; but we do need it! Moreover, without it, “welcoming strangers into the midst of community” (line 272) can simply equal a cheap-grace kind of inclusiveness. Where are the high expectations in that?
Agreeing to Disagree in Love
And then there is “agreeing and disagreeing in love.” I appreciate much that is in this denominational document. It is intended to help us have healthy processes as we wrestle with contentious issues. I am sure it has been helpful in that regard. And I am very grateful to those among us who have gifts and skills that they have offered to our church (and the larger world) to help us deal with our conflicts in healthy ways. We need their gifts within our churches and in the world. However, sometimes I fear we are ceding the identity of our Church to our professional conflict mediators. I mentioned in my “Naming What Unites Us” essay a sermon I preached on Ephesians 2.11-22. This is one of the most rhetorically powerful passages in the New Testament on reconciliation. But when we read the potent words on reconciliation in the context of the whole letter we notice the larger purposes given in the letter, within which teachings regarding reconciliation appear. We “once lived among [the disobedient] in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath,” says Paul, as his way to set up the need for reconciliation. (2.3) By God’s rich mercy, by his grace, we have been saved, given new life in Christ. (2.4) This means we have been reconciled to God in Christ, and to one another, and made “citizens with the saints,” “members of the household of God.” (2.19) But what does it mean to “members of the household of God”? It means we “must no longer live as the Gentiles live.” (4.17) And for Paul this means numerous particulars. We are certainly to “speak the truth in love.” (4.15) But we are to speak the truth! This means that we should know that we should not be “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” (4.14) “Be sure of this,” says Paul, “that no sexually immoral or impure person, or the one who is greedy (that is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (5.5)
What I am sure of is that this passage from Ephesians is hardly unique in the New Testament. Many of the biblical proof texts used in the “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love,” if examined in context, would yield similar teachings. It’s not at all clear to me how this equals the moral and doctrinal neutrality implied by (continuously) “agreeing to disagree in love.” (Which is not the same thing as saying that processes regarding disagreement should not be conducted in healthy ways. Nor is it to suggest that sometimes, for a time, we suspend the goal of coming to a position in order to work through other issues. Nor is it to suggest that all matters of disagreement are of equal importance or must lead to the taking of a position. No, in all cases discernment is needed to test these sorts of issues, believing that unity in Christ is our goal, while speaking the truth in love is a means to that goal. But true “unity in Christ,” as Ephesians says, equals particulars in both living and believing.)
Yesterday I finished teaching a course on the Sermon on the Mount. Frederick Dale Bruner, in one of his many intriguing comments on these three chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, said that the Christian life to which we are called by this sermon is “an extreme sport.” What a wonderful and alluring image. It reminds me of the picture of the very long line of people moving toward the peak of Mt. Everest—filled with anticipation. Stanley Hauerwas’ way of naming something similar is to say that the Christian story, into which we are grafted, is an adventure, an exhilarating adventure. A young man in my class, about thirty years old, affirmed this image. He agreed that from the gracious beatitudes pronounced at the beginning to the challenging words throughout, this Sermon is a call worth hearing, a call with high expectations that makes the Christian life exciting and the following of Jesus truly life giving. It is probably unrealistic to think a formal document could begin to match this Sermon, but it would be wonderful if it tilted more in that direction.
 “Desiring God’s Coming Kingdom: A Missional Vision and Purposeful Plan for Mennonite Church USA,” February, 2012, lines 752-755.
 This is not to mention that individual congregations will also be studying it at various times.
 I won’t name this specifically as I move through various issues. But a denominational document that makes peace and justice rather central while never mentioning righteousness (and naming an issue like sexual ethics as merely divisive) is in fact holding forth a “partisan” vision.
 I should add the word “nonviolence” is not used specifically as something to which we are called, although it is used once as a descriptor, that implies it is something to which we as Mennonites are called.
 The term “social justice” also doesn’t appear in the document; but it doesn’t need to because in English typically the word “social” is assumed by the reader because of the way the word justice functions in English. (Although it should be said, that all of this is a reminder that the word justice has varied and sometimes conflicting meanings in English.)
 The language of holiness or holy living is also absent from the document, perhaps more understandably than righteousness. This language would also have drawn a clear focus to God’s active, redemptive work in our living.
 The topic of the relationship is complicated on a variety of levels. Aaron Kauffman has suggested that one way to distinguish the two is to see righteousness as referring to doing what is right, justice about making right what has gone wrong; justice is about fixing something that’s broken, righteousness is keeping it from being broken in the first place.
 This paragraph needs to be developed further. But for now, I’ll leave it as is.
 I mention this here because this document is referenced toward the end of the Purposeful Plan.