Discussion affirmed BFL’s leadership, highlighted areas of ongoing disagreement
By Connie Faber with files from Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
Many of the 121 U.S. Mennonite Brethren (USMB) delegates who attended the July 2014 National Convention viewed the decision regarding a new version of Article 13 of the Confession of Faith (Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation) as the reason to attend this year’s convention.
As delegates arrived and mingled Friday afternoon in the hallways of the Santa Clara Marriott, the proposed revision to Article 13 was one of the things they talked about. And so some delegates were concerned when Leadership Board chair Steve Schroeder announced at the opening business session that afternoon that amendments to the proposed revision could not be made from the floor.
But Saturday morning the Board of Faith and Life (BFL) report—both the tone and the content—seemed to calm those concerns and to foster a cordial atmosphere for the discussions that followed. BFL chair Larry Nikkel began by emphasizing the importance of delegates understanding the background of the proposed revision.
“My worry about all of this is that many of you have not been a part of this process,” said Nikkel. “What that means is that what has been thoroughly processed in many ways will feel very abrupt.”
To help delegates understand how the change was processed, Nikkel reviewed the 20 steps taken on “the road to the recommendation to alter Article 13 of the Confession of Faith.” The list began with a 2010 survey conducted at the biennial convention that year in which 57 percent of the delegates indicated that Article 13 should be reviewed and possibly revised.
After considering possible responses to the 2010 survey, BFL decided to initiate a review of Article 13 “with the hope of starting a new conversation that could lead to a deeper level of understanding and commitment to the essence of Articles 12 and 13, possibly including revisions,” said Nikkel.
Based on the feedback BFL received at a January 2013 study conference, the board determined that no changes would be made to Article 12, The Society and State, and that the board would revise Article 13. BFL drafted and circulated a revision to Article 13. After receiving feedback from a variety of groups, the board developed a second and then a final recommendation.
The revision describes nonparticipation in the military as a choice that “many of us” make. This replaces a more explicit directive not to serve in the military when there is a draft. The new article also broadens the understanding of peacemaking to include “reconciliation in families, churches, communities, in our nation and throughout the world.”
A document comparing the revision with the former Article 13 is available online.
“Our peacemaking convictions originated in the heart of Jesus,” said Nikkel as he concluded his remarks. “That’s our spiritual heritage. If we turn our back on that part of the gospel, we’ve turned our back on the heart of Jesus.”
A floor discussion moderated by BFL member Tim Geddert followed Nikkel’s summary. Delegates with a variety of viewpoints spoke courteously during the discussion that morning as well as during the afternoon workshop again moderated by Nikkel and Geddert. Prior to the vote that was taken during the final business session Saturday afternoon, delegates were again given the opportunity to speak to the issue.
Speakers affirmed the time and energy that BFL had invested in the process and recognized that the revision had been crafted carefully with thought given to each word and phrase with the goal of writing a statement that all USMB pastors and teachers will support.
“I am so pleased at the process,” said Frank Lenihan, pastor of the Lustre (Mont.) MB Church, who became a Christian while a Marine and called himself the “poster child for an extreme position.” Speaking in favor of the revision during the morning session, Lenihan said, “(The process) wasn’t roughshod. It wasn’t rushed through.”
Among the delegates who spoke during the morning business session was Elmer Martens, of North Fresno (Calif.) Church, who asked how MB conferences around the world were impacted by the change to Article 13. David Wiebe, executive director for the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, responded that the ICOMB representatives saw the first draft in 2013 and that broadly speaking the group affirmed the changes.
Several speakers addressed specific changes in the revision—primarily the omission in the recommend revision of the sentence: “In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.”
Brent Warkentin, of First MB Church, Wichita, Kan., asked, “How do you respond to people who feel that this is watering down our stance?”
Geddert replied, “It's not so much a watering down as what we can actually confess together. We are really divided on the statement that we don’t participate in the military.” Can U.S. Mennonite Brethren claim to confess something that only half of us agree with, asked Geddert.
The recommended revision attempts to find “common ground where we can confess together,” said Geddert. “It’s common ground where we can grow and discern and that calls us to work out how it is lived in various situations.”
That afternoon during the BFL workshop, Geddert again emphasized the importance of “broad consensus” regarding Article 13 and identified what groups BFL was hoping to unify. “The broad consensus should apply to leaders and teachers, not people who are in the churches,” said Geddert. “It's precisely in order to be a confessing community that leads us to change Article 13 so that we as leaders and teachers can agree to this.”
It was evident from comments made during the morning business session and the afternoon workshop that U.S. Mennonite Brethren continue to debate whether a Confession of Faith should be prescriptive or descriptive and do not agree on “what the Bible means when the Bible says what the Bible says,” to use Nikkel’s words, with regard to living out the call to be peacemakers, particularly when it comes to military service.
In the end, with a ballot vote of 103 to 10, delegates approved a new statement on Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation. The delegates also unanimously passed a motion from the floor that mandates BFL to “foster communication within our congregations to encourage the study of, commitment to and growth in biblical love, peacemaking and reconciliation, guided by the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith Article 13, and to report the response to this initiative at the 2016 convention.”
The recommended revision to Article 13 wasn’t the only recommendation on which delegates took action. Delegates also approved recommended changes to the bylaws of the U.S. Conference of MB Churches and MB Mission as well as revisions to the Historical Commission memorandum of understanding. Delegates affirmed nominees to the various Mennonite Brethren and inter-Mennonite boards and committees. These decisions were made without discussion.
Photos by Steve Wiest
Photo 1: USMB Leadership Board vice chair Marv Schellenberg collects ballots as delegates cast their vote for or against the recommended revisions to Article 13. Photo by Steve Wiest.
Photo 2: Board of Faith and Life chair Larry Nikkel, left, and BFL member Tim Geddert, right, prepare to hear from the delegates during the Saturday morning floor discussion regarding recommended changes to Article 13 of the Confession of Faith.
Photo 3: Frank Lenihan, Lustre (Mont.) MB Church, speaks in favor of the revision, saying it is important to have integrity with regard to Article 13.
Photo 4: Tim Thiessen, Birch Bay Bible Community Church, Blaine, Wash., encourages U.S. Mennonite Brethren to have "deeper conversation" about the Confession of Faith during the BFL workshop Saturday afternoon.
View Conection 2014 photo album.