There’s nothing like cleaning out your parents’ worldly belongings after they’ve passed on to their eternal reward to remind one that we’re all just passing through. In sorting through Mom’s many treasured keepsakes (ah yes, she was a saver,) I discovered a Christian Leader magazine from 1977. She kept it because it contained an article written by long-time MB missionary to Africa, Arn Prieb. He wrote a tribute about our relative George Wall, a missionary pilot in Zaire/Cameroon who had died in a plane crash.
The feature story of that 1977 CL was about the USMB convention, held that summer at Rosedale Bible Church in Bakersfield, California. There were the obligatory photos of the youth group selling cups of Pepsi for a quarter, the oil well on church property (that went dry as soon as the church mortgage was paid in full) and a youthful pastor from Kansas named Larry Martens, enjoying a California plum. The reporter noted that convention proceedings were tense at times—severe financial problems were threatening Fresno Pacific and Tabor College and the delegates were not happy with how things had been managed. “Despite strong comments from the floor, the mood was surprisingly benevolent, suggesting many had taken seriously earlier entreaties to pray for a spirit of peace and brotherhood,” the editor wrote.
As I write, our study conference on women in pastoral ministry is fresh on my mind. I was pleased that a good number of our younger leaders, pastors and church planters were present as we engaged in this conversation. They’re in their 20s and 30s; I’m in my 50s, and it won’t be long now that the conference leadership baton will be passed. What I hope is remembered, and what I hope we, who gave leadership to the study conference in Phoenix, passed along, is that we can maintain fellowship and unity even when we disagree.
One of the highlights of the conference was receiving affirmation from those watching us from the “outside”—brothers and sisters from other parts of the country and world there to observe or report. We U.S. Mennonite Brethren were affirmed for the way we graciously engaged with one another. As Lynn Jost, director of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary’s Center for Anabaptist Studies, put it, “We listened and talked without rancor…. We were more than civil; we were Christian sisters and brothers.”
We disagreed, but we did so in a Christ-honoring way. Maybe, just maybe, for all the things this current generation of MB leaders is getting wrong, we got something right and have passed it on to the next generation of leaders. We can still be family even when we come to differing conclusions on important matters of faith and life. We don’t have to adopt the ways of our culture when we differ—hate, hostility, denigrating of character, mean-spirited discourse and dismissive behavior have no place in the body of Christ.
In Phoenix, we spoke to one another passionately and with conviction. The Bible and its interpretation and application matters to us. It’s vitally important, and so we care deeply. But on matters such as these where scholars who love the Lord and take the Bible seriously disagree and come to differing conclusions, in my view we ought not part company and break fellowship. Perhaps my children will find a 2019 CL report while rummaging through my things one day, and maybe they’ll be reminded of some people back then who did their best to follow the Jesus way.
Gary Wall has been the Pacific District Conference minister since 2002. In addition to his ministry among 110 Mennonite Brethren churches in the western United States, he has been encouraged and challenged by his international MB experiences in India, Thailand and Colombia. He and Tami have been married for 31 years and are Papa and Nana to Addilyn and Harper.