Differing convictions given fair hearing at BFL conference
By Connie Faber
It was obvious when talking with James Gilliland, of Memorial Road MB Church, Edmond, Okla., and Shelly Schroeder, of Buhler (Kan.) MB Church, that these two had come to the USMB Board of Faith and Life study conference with some history.
Clearly the duo had thought carefully and for some time about the two articles—Society and State (Article 12) and Love and Nonresistance (Article 13)—under discussion during the study conference held Jan. 24-26 in Phoenix, Ariz.
It was less apparent that Gilliland and Schroeder spent so much of the study conference together because they are siblings who are good friends even though they haven’t always agreed on the use of violence, military service and pacifism.
The study conference, “Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict,” provided the Gilliland siblings the opportunity to continue discussions and debates they’ve had since high school.
“The night before the conference we stayed up late talking, and we spent most of the conference together,” says Gilliland. “We spent a lot of time asking, ‘What about this…?’ Or, ‘I read….’ or ‘Does that mean…?’”
Gilliland and Schroeder were among the 174 study conference participants who came to Phoenix to discuss two articles in the Confession of Faith about which there are significant disagreements.
“We are here…because we are not in agreement. So we’re going to have a family talk,” said Ed Boschman, USMB executive director, in his opening remarks. “We are not here to make a decision. We are not here to exercise verbal combat, but we do want an open discussion.”
And that’s what happened over the next three days. The plenary speakers were well prepared and courteous. Participants dealt graciously with one another during table group conversations, open floor discussions and informal break times.
It was also true that no decisions were made. In fact, attendees engaged in only limited discussion about the two articles themselves and gave limited attention to broader confessional issues that emerged during the conference.
Attendees did affirm peacemaking as a key descriptor of U.S. Mennonite Brethren, although there were significant differences in how participants believe that should play out in practice and conviction.
Participants were asked to offer feedback and counsel to BFL using a seven-question survey distributed at the closing session. The board reviewed these suggestions when it met March 13-14 and have issued a letter outlining their next steps.
The format of the study conference, “Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict,” was simple. Two papers were presented on each of the two articles. A fifth paper challenged U.S. Mennonite Brethren to be radical peacemakers while living with diverse perspectives on what exactly that means. Papers were followed by a prepared response in which the responder reviewed key points, clarified issues raised and, in some cases, noted questions not addressed.
Valerie Rempel, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (FPBS) associate professor of history and theology, coordinated the table conversations that followed each paper and response. After the small group discussions, Rempel moderated floor discussions during which attendees were invited to make personal comments or share about their table talk.
The good mix of participants in terms of age, profession and geography enhanced discussions. While each of the five USMB district conferences were represented, attendees noted with regret the lack of representation from Hispanic and Slavic congregations.
Although attendees were most interested in discussing Article 13, the study conference began with the preceding article on society and state. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, spoke about the relationship between early Christians and the Roman Empire. Dina Gonzalez-Pina, Fresno Pacific University (FPU) assistant dean of multicultural ministries, gave the response.
Terry Brensinger, FPBS professor of pastoral ministry, offered contemporary applications of Article 12. Laura Schmidt Roberts, FPU associate professor of biblical and religious studies, was the responder.
While each of these speakers emphasized allegiance to God above loyalty to an earthly government, it was the claim by both Brensinger and Roberts that Christians are to have a singular allegiance to God that prompted spirited table discussions and numerous floor comments.
“The question left in my mind is how this (devotion to one God) is manifested,” said Vernon Janzen of Reedley, Calif. “I am totally devoted to God but also to my wife, Tabor College and my athletic team. Is there devotion and love that is expressed in many ways?”
Friday the attention shifted to Article 13: Peace and Nonresistance. Roger Poppen, who served Laurelglen Bible Church, a USMB congregation in Bakersfield, Calif., for 20 years as senior pastor, presented a case for protective violence. Del Gray, assistant professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kan., advocated for nonviolence by sharing his own theological journey.
Poppen began by suggesting that Article 13 “could benefit from further thought, development and clarification”—specifically language suggesting that all forms of violence are evil and inhumane.
Poppen cited Jesus’ statement that we love God and we love people by obeying the commands found in both the Old and New Testaments to argue that sometimes God’s power and force were used for good purposes.
“I admittedly struggle with some of the Old Testament violence commanded and ordained by God,” said Poppen, “but for our purpose today I’m attempting to communicate that if every command of God to his people is an expression of his love and is designed to protect those whom he loves from immorality and idolatry, how can we conclude that all violence is ‘evil and inhumane,’ especially if it is exercised or commanded by God for the loving protection of his people?”
Using the story of his own “conversion” to pacifism as a framework for exploring the merits of nonviolence, Gray argued that violence, even when we think we are using it redemptively, is not “God’s intended way for us to live.”
Studying Paul’s teachings while in college led Gray to acknowledge that the cross is the “ultimate revelation of who God is and how he wants his people to live.” His seminary course in the gospels guided Gray to conclude that, “the kingdom of God is the center of Jesus’ life and teaching. This one insight … ultimately led me into pacifism.”
Gray emphasized that Jesus commands his followers to act with integrity while pursuing peace and that killing is “a line that we cannot cross in our efforts to bring about peace.”
Elmer Martens, FPBS president emeritus and professor emeritus of Old Testament, responded to Poppen, and Paul Robie, USMB pastor from Salt Lake City, Utah, responded to Gray.
While open floor discussions on Friday regarding Article 13 were livelier than those Thursday pertaining to Article 12, people spoke briefly, calmly and were not confrontational.
Several people suggested that the title and content of Article 13 be changed to reflect active peacemaking.
“Nonresistance implies non-activity,” said Tim Neufeld of Fresno, Calif. “How can we be peacemakers who are also aggressive and assertive?”
More than one participant suggested that clarifying the role of the Confession of Faith would be helpful.
Tim Geddert, a BFL member and FPBS professor of New Testament, gave the final paper. “My goal this afternoon is to call us to radical peacemaking, even while we continue to debate the issues on which we disagree.”
Geddert challenged U.S. Mennonite Brethren to remember that Jesus is Lord over all competing authorities and priorities, to continue talking with one another and to remember that both “sides” aren’t as far apart as they may think.
“If we can get past the caricatures of the ‘other side,’ if we can see clearly what can be terribly un-Christian on ‘our side,’ then we can learn together to be a peace church, even while we disagree on some ways this should be expressed,” said Geddert.
In his response, Brent Warkentin, pastor of First MB Church in Wichita, Kan., encouraged attendees to remember that for some people “nonresistance” is an “essential” that is clearly taught in Scripture while to others it is less important or less well-defined or both.
Friday’s focus on Article 13 concluded with an evening forum moderated by BFL Chair Nikkel (pictured left). Nikkel asked participants to record their answers to five questions related to how USMB churches are practicing peacemaking, and then Nikkel facilitated a discussion about the topics covered. The first question, for example, asked whether a church board, team or other structure was in place to deal with conflict. Another asked for information about the programs dealing with violence, reconciliation and recovery in which congregations participate. Response sheets were collected so that the BFL can review the information.
The study conference concluded Saturday morning with brief reports from the various Mennonite Brethren ministry leaders and inter-Mennonite agency representatives who attended the study conference. A communion service led by USMB executive director Ed Boschman followed the official close of the study conference.
In their report, members of the Listening Committee, comprised of BFL members, affimed the study conference attendees for their commitment to the USMB church, said Tim Geddert.
“We believe in our church family—not just the topic,” Geddert said. “You were here not only because of Articles 12 and 13 but because of the U.S. family, and that encourages me.”
That sense of connectedness is something Shelly Schroeder took home with her following the BFL study conference. “Something that surprised me was my rediscovery of the MB church conference,” says Schroeder in an email following the study conference.
“Our church is not alone,” she says. “We have brothers and sisters around the U.S. and around the world. Talking about the good our churches are accomplishing should encourage us to keep working. The job isn’t done yet.”
Among the things James Gilliland gained from the study conference was an appreciation for active peacemaking. “People might hold different positions about violence and war, but both desire to build peace in their community. If enough communities build peace, maybe the violence and war become a non-issue,” says Gilliland.
Study conference attendance an encouraging sign
Organizers were hoping that at least 100 people would register for the 2013 Board of Faith and Life (BFL) study conference. That a total of 174 people attended indicates that U.S. Mennonite Brethren “care deeply about these topics,” said BLF chair Larry Nikkel.
The five district USMB conferences were each represented. According to a pre-conference registration list, 57 registrants came from the Pacific District Conference; 54 from the Southern District Conference; 12 from the Central District Conference; two from the North Carolina District Conference and one from the Latin America MB Conference. Additionally, 21 people from the Canadian Conference of MB Churches leadership team attended the conference, as did 15 representatives from various USMB and inter-Mennonite agencies.
“Your presence here spoke volumes,” said Gary Wall, Pacific District Conference minister who as a BFL member served on the Listening Committee. Wall noted that some people attended at their own expense and that lead pastors of larger churches attended as did representatives of denominational schools and agencies.
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