A Church Shaped by God's Grace
When I was talking with my mother about this symposium earlier in the
week, her comment was, "Why did they ask you to talk there?" Thanks for
the vote of confidence Mom! But underlying her questions was the reality
that I am not a scholar but a pastor, and a relatively inexperienced one at
that. And I am a new Mennonite. I hate that term "new Mennonite," but I
am coming to terms with it. For yes, I am probably newer to the Anabaptist
tradition than most of you. I am also in that small group of people who are
non-ethnic-white Mennonites, and it occurred to me last night that the
acronym for that would be N.E.W. Mennonites.
I was raised in a Baptist church, so I know about altar calls, and being
I attended a Presbyterian seminary, so I know about doing things "decently
and in order." (Don't you envy their Book of Order just a little? If only we
had even a "pamphlet of order"!) I joined a Friends Church in college, so I
know about the light of Christ with us and in us. Then, I became a
Mennonite 10 years ago, so I know that I don't like vereneke and I can't sing
#606 without the music.
Maybe those aren't fair comparisons -- it's apples and oranges -- liturgy,
polity, theology, and culture. But somehow we seem, in Mennonite circles,
to have them all tangled up together, so that, the church, in addition to being
the gathering of committed followers of Jesus Christ, has also become the
repository of an ethnic heritage, the guardian of culture, the borderline
between the "us" and the "them" in our worldview.
What do I bring to the understanding of the Anabaptist Theology and the
shape of the church in the new millennium from my ecumenical past and
my present Anabaptist convictions? I bring the experience that there is no
perfect church, there is no one theology or liturgy or polity or culture that
completely captures what the Spirit of Christ is doing in all times and
I bring the knowledge that among faithful believers there are times in all
churches, when the church is a visible sign of the reign of God. I bring the
experience that there are also times when all churches are visible signs of
the brokenness of humanity and our need for God's grace. And I bring the
discovery that the Mennonite church is concerned, more than most, with
who is "in" and who is "out". There is a concern, in Mennonite Churches,
about who is on the inside and who is on the outside, that I have not
experienced in other Christian denominations, at least not to the same
I have been trying to come up with a visual "shape" for how I see the
Mennonite church now, and I've had a hard time with it. The best I can do is
to draw a boundary. The church is here and here and here, taking different
shapes in different places, but all to often with walls around it. (Make a
circle with fingers and thumbs of both hands and move as if cutting biscuits
Those who have lived through the changes in the church in the past century,
and who have experienced what may have felt like assimilation with
mainstream culture, those who have seen external distinctives set aside,
may see not the walls, but the rubble where they have been attacked,
and I won't take issue with you over that difference in perspective. Maybe
the walls are not as high as they once were, maybe they are not as thick,
but they are still there. The Mennonites are still, primarily, an ethnic church
where culture as well as theology, is used to determine who is included.
In fact, I find it interesting that current areas of church growth are occurring
not within traditional ethnic Mennonite churches, but in new churches
aimed at reaching other specific ethnic or immigrant groups. In North
America, growth is happening in Hmong Mennonite Churches, Hispanic
Mennonite Churches, Indonesian Mennonite Churches, African-American
Mennonite Churches, you get the idea, in churches that are largely defined
by language or ethnic group. (So at this point I'm thinking maybe I there's a
need for an English Mennonite Church! Is such a thing even possible?) But
the shape is still this and this and this. (Again defining small circles) There
is no little irony in the fact that a church that claims as a central tenet of
faith that the church transcends nations and governments, has found a niche
in developing, encouraging and supporting congregations largely defined by
I will confess that my first contact with Mennonites was the cookbook, but when I joined the Mennonite church it was not out of an appreciation for the culinary arts, or because of a preference in worship styles, but because of theology. And though I am a new Mennonite, this was still before the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, so you can imagine the difficulty I encountered ascertaining just what it was Mennonites believed.
Still, certain themes emerged: The centrality of Christ -- in all things,
including Biblical interpretation. The value of scripture -- but not in a
fundamentalist interpretation. The gathered community -- as the place for
discernment of the Spirit. Discipleship --- as the way to follow Christ in
everyday life. Peacemaking -- as an authentic witness to the Lordship of
These core values resonated with what I had believed and lived in my faith.
But there was more. I unexpectedly bumped up against the unvoiced
theology of what it means to be a believers church in Anabaptist theology.
And some of it, I believe, is not helpful theology.
"The church is a gathering of committed followers of Christ." So far, so
good. "The church is a voluntary community, one becomes a member by
choice, not nationality or birth." Yes, that works. "The church is not an
invisible reality, but a visible sign of the reign of God, as seen in the lives of
faithful discipleship lived by believers." Well, by the grace of God perhaps.
"Because the church is made up of transformed individuals, the church is to
be pure and spotless, and church discipline is necessary to preserve the
integrity and faithfulness of the church." Wait a minute! If that is what we
believe, no wonder the boundaries are so important to us!
I want to propose today, that a theology of the church marked by corporate
perfectionism has not been helpful in spreading the gospel, it has not been
helpful in nurturing the faith of new believers, it has been at times hurtful to
those in desperate need of the grace of God. And I don't believe it's a good
reading of scripture. The letters to the churches in Revelation, the epistles to
churches by Paul, and Peter, and John and others, make it clear that the
church was never perfect, that the church is always on a journey, that it is
Christ who will present the church pure and spotless, not us.
God's grace includes believers growing in faith as well as those who are in
need of salvation. God's grace includes the church, as it stumbles and falls,
and is picked back up again to move on in faith. To demand from one
another a perfection that we can not attain ourselves, is to set up a church
that nurtures judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and exclusivity. We are not
changed and transformed by our will or the will of others, but by the power
of the love of God.
Am I advocating abandoning church discipline? Not at all. But there are
different ways to discipline. My husband came from a family tradition that
valued obedience in children and, despite being part of a peace church
tradition, used physical punishment to reinforce parental demands. My
family valued autonomy and viewed corporal punishment as an unnecessary
violation of a child's personhood. I managed to convince Ken that we
should not hit our children, but when our first child came along he was
tense about discipline. It was important to him to be able to demonstrate to
his family, that he could raise an obedient child even without hitting her.
And so we had many power struggles with that first child. In the name of
consistency and parental authority, there were multiple "time-outs" and
consequences. And you know what? Allison turned out to be a good kid,
respectful of others, and having a strong sense of right and wrong.
Then eight years later the third child came along. By this time we were, like
most parents who've been at it a while, more confident about parenting,
more relaxed, and, to be honest, just plain tired. So we didn't fight with
Abby nearly as much. In fact, within reason, we pretty much gave Abby
everything she wanted. Sometimes we even gave in after initially telling
her "no"! And as the youngest grandchild on both sides, with two doting big
sisters, not to mention a child care provider who adores her, Abby gets an
abundance of affection. The recipe for disaster, right? She's got to be a
spoiled brat! Not at all. Abby is turning out to be a good kid, respectful of
others, who wants to please those who love her and is devastated when she
thinks she has misbehaved.
Which is the better way to raise children? To give them unconditional love
that calls forth their best in an effort to please those they love? Or to
enforce strict boundaries and standards that play on their fear of loosing our
love? After three children, I can tell you which is the more joyful way.
Discipline, in a family or a church can be maintained by force, or it can
grow out of love. We can stress purity and boundaries, or we can stress
grace and redemption, and either way can lead to lives of faithful
discipleship. It is time rethink our theology of the church and to let the
transforming power of the love of Christ rather than a theology of corporate
perfectionism create a church pure and spotless. A church shaped by God's
grace, not the force of human will.
And then perhaps we will experience the shape of the church is not like this separate and walled, but like this, (spread arms out to the side as if giving a hug) open and loving -- a church that takes it's shape from our Lord and Savior who reached out his arms and died for us.
"Love, like death, has all destroyed,