Church Order and Unity

From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2017. Article 16: Church Order And Unity.

A big part of the new Testament and of our confession of faith centers around the topic of the church getting along together.

Paul, in his letters to various churches, talks about a lot of different topics and they might seem to be all over the place, but the primary purposes of his letters is to end certain disputes and keep the church focused on it’s mission. The church in Corinth is a model of disorder which is why we find such good teaching from 1st and 2nd Corinthians.

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

1st Corinthians 14:26 NIV

Paul is telling the church to find ways to let everyone contribute to church life, but don’t do it in a haphazard fashion, do it so that it builds the church up. And we find this same type of thinking in our confession of faith:

From the first paragraph of Article 16 of our confession: We believe that the church of Jesus Christ is one body with many members, ordered in such a way that, through the one Spirit, believers may be built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

One of the most amazing things about the Christian church in general is it’s unity. At the same time, one of the biggest challenges of the Christian church in every generation is finding a way for the church to stay together.

The church I grew up in for the most part stayed together, yet it faced many divisive issues. Millersville Mennonite has had a similar experience. And Lancaster Mennonite Conference has had problems keeping churches within the conference together. In the last year, a handful of churches have left our conference.

Being united and staying together as the larger Mennonite church is a struggle and it has hurt the church in it’s mission.

Witnessing by being united

Jesus’ disciples would on occasion argue amongst themselves and so Jesus prayed for unity.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23 NIV

Confession: As God’s people, the church is a holy temple, a spiritual house, founded upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Church order is needed to maintain unity on important matters of faith and life so that each may serve and be served, and the body of Christ may be built up in love. Love and unity in the church are a witness to the world of God’s love.

When our conference was deliberating over leaving the Mennonite Church USA denomination, one phrase that was often repeated was that we needed to leave the denomination so that we could focus on church mission instead of being mired in church politics. Yet that idea seems to ignore scripture that indicates that church unity is a significant part of the church’s mission to the world.

For a High School project, I interviewed a former pastor from the church I grew up in. He had left the church a couple years earlier on bad terms. The congregation had divided on some issue that had centered around him: ½ the church loved him and the other half was pretty close to hating him. I never knew what happened because the church didn’t tell the young people what was happening. Many of the people that were too young to know what was happening but old enough to be affected by the problem ended up going to other churches when they became older, or they ended up not going to church anymore. I’m sure most people wouldn’t point to this incident as the reason for leaving, but I would consider it a significant factor.

My school project was on the topic of church divisions and my former pastor explained to me that within the church there were many issues and that church divisions typically came about when small issues were made into big issues. And while I think there is a lot of truth to what he said, I believe the more important ingredients to church division are strong personalities and power struggles and issues become the tools people use to create division.

Paul often faced power struggles especially against people who were intent on dividing the church. In 2nd Corinthians 11:5, Paul mentions “Super Apostles” who were claiming that Paul’s teaching was inferior. There was a Jewish group of believers that were promoting the idea that Gentile Christians had to convert to Judaism before they could be included in the church. And that a person’s family heritage mattered when it came to your importance in the church. This is why Paul spent so much time arguing why the Law couldn’t save people and why it didn’t matter who the messenger was because what mattered most was God’s grace through his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

Not all church divisions and issues are the same. Some issues are misunderstandings. Some problems come from being immature Christians. These lesser divisions aren’t nearly as problematic as the power struggles. Power struggles hurt the church’s mission because in the process of the power struggle Jesus is removed as Lord of the church and replaced with intellectual arguments or the Bible or birth right, or entitlement of another sort. The cornerstone of the church is not our Bibles, it is not our intellect it is not western European culture it is Jesus Christ. And without that cornerstone in it’s place, the church breaks apart.

The difficulties that churches face in staying united and keeping order is heavily influenced by our culture and how we make decisions.

A vote for consensus

Confession: In making decisions, whether to choose leaders or resolve issues, members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as the constant guide. Persons shall expect not only affirmation, but also correction. In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions.

Another way of saying this last sentence is: With really difficult decisions, it is better to wait a long time for an answer that satisfies everyone than to make a quick decision, because sometimes we need time to really hear what God is telling us.

Consensus is a way of making a decision that isn’t common mostly because it is not democratic and it’s slow, but consensus has one very important positive: When you have consensus, even the people who don’t like the decision are still all in with it. That is what consensus means: whatever decision you make, you all stick with it, even if you don’t like it.

Churches prefer the democratic approach of voting because whenever it comes to making a decision, the majority always wins and it’s a quicker way to make decisions. The problem with the democratic approach is that it promotes power struggles and divisions and it doesn’t make it necessary to wait to hear what God is telling us through his Holy Spirit.

We are given a lot of examples in scripture about how to be the church, but one of the glaring omissions in scripture is how the apostles would’ve preferred the church to structure it’s institutions so that we could function effectively. Should churches have denominations and conferences and districts? Should we make decisions by having members vote or just have the leaders vote? Should decisions be made by a 2/3 rds majority? Should our meetings follow “Roberts rules of order”?

The Bible doesn’t go into details about how decisions should be made and so we have picked methods that we find practiced in politics and businesses. And while these methods aren’t bad methods for making decisions, we haven’t spent a lot of time debating whether they are suitable for all decision making in the church.

Acts 15:28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us

Before meeting Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, Peter has a dream where God prepares him to understand that the vision for the church is going to include Gentiles by showing Peter unclean animals and telling him that they are now made clean.

Acts 15 describes one of the most significant meetings of the early church and it’s the best model that our modern church has for how we should make difficult decisions. It is called the Jerusalem Council. The main issue is whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised before they could be saved, or in other words, did people have to first convert to Judaism before they could become Christian.

What is interesting in this story is how we see the debate progress. There is a group of believers that are Pharisees, which is interesting in itself considering how harshly Jesus criticized Pharisees in the past. It’s this group that is promoting the idea that Christians should be Jewish converts first. This group is not included in the decision making process because scripture says that the Apostles and Elders met to discuss the question.

The next big moment happens when Peter, a pillar of the early church, makes a statement in defense of the Gentiles not needing to convert to Judaism first. He tells about the conversion of Cornelius and how he was surprised that the Holy Spirit came on Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, just like the Holy Spirit came on the disciples who were circumcised. If the Holy Spirit didn’t discriminate, then why should they? Then Paul and Barnabas shared stories of their own mission work and how God was working to confirm the Gentiles salvation.

The final word belongs to James, the brother of Jesus, who then confirms that scripture talks about how Gentiles will be included in God’s blessing. And so the church comes to a decision that carries the phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” which shows that the church not only worked to find consensus among it’s leaders, but also consensus with the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.

The church leaders send a letter to the Gentile churches telling them that they don’t need to convert to Judaism, but they do advise them to keep certain important Jewish customs. These customs were important for social interaction with Jewish believers. It’s a compromise for the sake of unity.

Acts 15 ends on an ironic note. Paul and Barnabas want to visit the churches they planted on their first missionary journey, but they get into such a divisive argument over including John Mark, a young man that had deserted them on their first journey, that Paul and Barnabas decide to travel separately. So while the church wins a victory for unity on one issue, it still suffers divisions.

Leaving Mennonite Church USA

This is a picture of a delegate session at a Mennonite Church USA convention. I was likely somewhere in this room when the photo was taken.

Confession: The church is a variety of assemblies which meet regularly, including local congregations and larger conferences. This diversity in unity evokes gratitude to God and appreciation for one another. According to the example of the apostolic church, the local congregation seeks the counsel of the wider church in important matters relating to faith and life, and they work together in their common mission. Decisions made at larger assemblies and conferences are confirmed by constituent groups, and local ministries are encouraged and supported by the wider gatherings. Authority and responsibility are delegated by common and voluntary agreement, so that the churches hold each other accountable to Christ and to one another on all levels of church life.

In other words, our confession is saying, our church is structured on many different levels: The local congregation, the conference and denomination for the purpose of working together to accomplish our mission in the world. We do this by holding each other accountable. It is a good ideal, but it’s not something that we see in practice.

In 2004, Lancaster Mennonite Conference joined the Mennonite Church USA denomination. There were a number of congregations that didn’t respect the conference’s decision to join and decided to leave the conference.

By the end of 2017, Lancaster Mennonite Conference will have completed the process for leaving Mennonite Church USA because the conference did not respect the decision of the delegates from the denomination that decided to leave disciplining church leaders for performing same-sex marriages at the conference level instead of at the denomination level.

As a result of our conference’s decision to leave, some churches have, again, decided not to respect the decision of our conference and are leaving the conference. And within these congregations are members that don’t respect the decisions of their congregation and they decided to leave their congregation.

What we say is that we value accountability, but what we see is that there is always a part of the church that doesn’t respect decisions that are made. The issue of same sex marriages is a divisive issue, but the one question that we forget to ask because we all get caught up in the issue is this: Why can’t we stay united as a church?

I have heard plenty of statements as to why Lancaster Conference should never have joined Mennonite Church USA. I have heard statements as to why Lancaster Conference shouldn’t have left Mennonite Church USA, but what I wonder is what is it that we should have been doing if we actually wanted the Mennonite Church in the US to be united. Jesus and the Apostles seems to say that it’s possible for the church to be united, why does it seem impossible?

Mission, maturity and unity

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV

Just recently, a mentor for Millie and myself was telling us about a business that she is involved in. A group of business leaders in her community came together to start a coffee shop. All of them invested a lot into it, but it’s facing challenges. Part of the challenge is lack of maturity in leadership. The interesting thing is, because these investors are so heavily invested in this project, they are not willing to give up on it. Despite the hardships of staying together, they need each other to succeed.

In Acts 15, when Paul and Barnabas part ways because of their disagreement over including John Mark, I consider it one of Paul’s failings as a young evangelist. Paul felt that Mark would hinder his mission and he didn’t need him, but Barnabas thought differently and continued to invest in Mark. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul asks Timothy to send Mark because he needs him in his ministry. It’s a sign on how things change, how both Paul and Mark mature and how the church’s mission is the driving force for being together.

Paul says that it is through works of service that the church is built up and it’s through this building up that we become mature and united in our mission as a church. It would be my suggestion, that if the conference or denomination ever wanted to try to work at unity again, I would suggest that the primary gathering point be works of service instead of delegate sessions or meetings. That way, we’d first learn to depend on each other before we argued against each other.

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