Thirteen years ago, the U.S. Conference of MB Churches (USMB) started a process that led to changing Article 13 of the Confession of Faith. At the time, the article was called “Love and Nonresistance.” It contained, among other points, this line: “In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.”
The new version of Article 13 has the potential to rally us together around some of the core components of the Christian faith.
The current version is called “Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation.” It is different from the former version in significant ways. It is less explicit about the implications of a commitment to peacemaking, deleting the claim that we believe we should avoid military service (though it still reports that many of us choose to avoid it). It is also more expansive, stating clearly that a commitment to peacemaking makes us agents of reconciliation in all of life: in families, churches, communities, our nation, the whole world.
I was deeply involved in the process of changing Article 13. I was (and still am) a member of the National Board of Faith and Life (BFL) that led the process. I consulted with MB leaders in the U.S. and around the globe and with international representatives of Mennonite World Conference. I was one of the plenary speakers at the study conference where the key issues were discussed. I was a participant in meetings with district faith and life boards. I contributed to various proposed drafts of the new article and to the final decision-making process where the new Article 13 was adopted.
Allow me to reflect on how I experienced this whole process and how it helped shape my own convictions:
• about whose Confession of Faith this really is;
• about what I should do with my own convictions;
• and about what matters more than agreeing on a definition of peacemaking.
I’ve changed my mind on all these issues!
The idea of revising Article 13 was considered by the Board of Faith and Life even before the 2010 USMB National Convention that really got the ball rolling. There we documented what we all knew: Many Mennonite Brethren were convinced Article 13 should be revised.
At the time I was adamantly opposed to the idea. I was among those convinced that the traditional Peace Church stance on military (non-)participation faithfully represents what Christian discipleship implies. I knew I was in the minority among faithful Bible interpreters, perhaps even among U.S. Mennonite Brethren. But that was my conviction, and so I assumed it was my duty to oppose any attempt to revise the Confession of Faith.
When we “discovered” (wrongly, it eventually turned out) that the U.S. would not be able to change the Confession of Faith without the Canadian Conference of MB Churches agreeing to the same change, I inwardly rejoiced, thinking: That kills the idea. The Canadians will never agree to the change we were contemplating. Our Confession of Faith will continue to declare that we do not participate in the military. Yay!
But I changed my mind. No, I did not change my mind on my basic convictions about what peacemaking means. I changed my mind about whose viewpoint the Confession of Faith should reflect. I had previously assumed I should try to get the Confession of Faith to say whatever I believed. I no longer believe that. The Confession of Faith should represent “our shared” beliefs, not “my personal” beliefs. If “we” cannot credibly claim that “we” believe something, then we should stop saying we do. Our integrity as a confessional body is at stake. Besides, the whole Confession of Faith becomes quite meaningless if everyone gets to decide which article they want to asterisk and say, “That one doesn’t matter.”
Along the way I discovered that many Anabaptist leaders were alarmed at what we were proposing. How could one national MB Conference delete from its Confession of Faith a core conviction that had always been present in every confessional document of every other historic Peace Church? I remember difficult conversations with key Anabaptist leaders. Some of them were adamant: “The Confession of Faith must stay as it is. Your mission, Tim, should be to try to get people to believe what the Confession of Faith says, not to help change its claim to match what people believe.” That used to seem obvious to me as well.
But I changed my mind. I guess on this matter I had changed my mind a long time ago. We claim so easily that our biblical and theological duty is to try our best to get everyone to believe as we do. Really? Bearing witness to our convictions is often appropriate. But is it really our responsibility to try to get everyone else to agree with whatever we believe? (If you are married, don’t assume that this is how you should always treat your spouse!)
If we exclude from our faith communities all who don’t see eye to eye with us on a whole host of topics, we will perhaps be able to create insolated and isolated communities of like-minded people, but at what cost? We need to listen to and learn from each other, honor sincerely held beliefs that are different from our own and model for the world a core Christian conviction: Unity does not require uniformity.
We are peacemakers as we listen to each other, explore shared convictions, publicly declare what we can honestly say we agree on.
One final important point. The new version of Article 13 has the potential to rally us together around some of the core components of the Christian faith. All believers can and should be able to confess with us: “God in Christ reconciles people to himself and to one another, making peace through the cross.” Surely all followers of Jesus can boldly profess: “We actively pursue peace and reconciliation in all relationships by following Christ’s example and his command to love God, neighbors and even enemies. We strive to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation in families, churches, communities in our nation, and throughout the world.”
Peacemaking is not only the topic of Article 13. Peacemaking characterized the entire process of revising it! We are peacemakers as we listen to each other, explore shared convictions, publicly declare what we can honestly say we agree on. The very wording of the new version of Article 13 is the result of a reconciling, peace-promoting process of overcoming differences in order to reach a strong consensus that promotes peace.
I used to believe that almost nothing was as important as arguing for “the peace position” that I personally believe is the right one.
But I changed my mind! In our hyper-polarized world, where culture wars and political strife are tearing the country apart, often ripping apart families and churches along the way, there is a more pressing Christian priority than arguing for a particular definition of peacemaking. And that is modeling peacemaking, as we provide a radically loving, reconciling and peaceable alternative to the polarization of the world around us. The new version of Article 13 calls us to this radical alternative.
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. He is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life.