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Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible has likened the Bible to a pilgrim wandering through the ages to which each age brings its questions. During the 1970s when I was academic dean at Fresno Pacific College (now Fresno Pacific University), we questioned whether we could hire a highly recommended candidate for a faculty position in biblical studies who was divorced and remarried. In the end, the candidate’s reasons for the divorce were not sufficient to overcome the simple face that the candidate was divorced. Divorce was a critical question in that time.
Early in Mennonite history and again during 20th century wars, participation in the military surfaced as a critical question. Through the generations, one can name issue after issue that has been under contention as our Bible pilgrim wanders through the ages. Slavery, for example, is one issue for which Christians once found biblical justification. In our larger culture, we are now still working out the consequences.
My local Mennonite Brethren church has been discerning what it means to be inclusive, particularly in reference to persons of the LGBTQ community. Even before this process, I had informed my pastor and church moderator that at the age of 84, I was stepping back in favor of having those younger than me grapple with issues of this generation.
So, though I am disengaged from the current conversation in my local church, I ponder what seem to me to be some leading questions pertaining particularly to Confessions of Faith. Following are a few.
Is a Confession of Faith “descriptive” or “prescriptive?” “Prescriptive” demands conformity. “Descriptive” leans toward more open dialogue with what a faith community asserts it believes. Such a view affirms the proverbial saying that “a person convinced against his or her will is of the same mind still.” Belief is that which one is persuaded to be true.
In 1966, the Danforth Foundation published its seminal work on Church-Sponsored Higher Education in the United States. In a typology of such colleges, it noted that some colleges are “defender of the faith colleges.” A contrasting type is what they called a “free Christian college,” faith-affirming, surely, but open to conversation about even difficult matters of faith and ethics on which people disagree.
Churches may also be so categorized. “Defender of faith” churches tend to view Confessions as prescriptive, and so demand conformity. “Faith affirming” churches are more likely to view Confessions as descriptive, as more of a teaching instrument, while leaving the door open to conversation about aspects on which members disagree, without expulsion.
Who is entitled to discern matters of faith and ethics? Anabaptist-Mennonites are known to practice a “hermeneutic of community,” meaning that individual beliefs need to be tested and discerned in a community. “Where two or three are gathered in my name” the shekinah presence of God is also present. But who are the two or three?
Deviations from a Confession of Faith community norm tend initially to be individual and local for multiple reasons. Inviting persons to declare their reasons, however, becomes irrelevant if the matter is viewed as already having been decided by a regional or national conference. Local faith communities, though knowing best those who disagree, will then not be allowed to discern whether a disagreement may have some validity and so be permitted.
What is the difference between “centered thinking” and “boundary thinking?” The early churches’ centered Confession of Faith was “Jesus is Lord.” Faith affirming communities will focus here. For them, practices at the boundary will be more fluid and may change from time-to-time. Could it be that people who profess Jesus as Lord but smoke, drink, dance, go to movies or play cards may actually get to heaven? And what now about LGBTQ persons who, too, confess Jesus as Lord?
Defenders of the faith will more likely hold strictly to the boundaries, not taking into consideration that people may confess Jesus as Lord while still having many reasons for deviating from an aspect of a Confession or ethical norm of a community.
A leading Mennonite Brethren pastor of the past once shared with me that sitting with parents and their unmarried, pregnant daughter in the confines of his office made the option of abortion look different than what he could say publicly to his congregation. Life can be complex, not easily resolved with confessional generalizations.
How best does one hold to what one believes to be true? In a 1970s Fresno Pacific College Hour address, a speaker from the Center for Research and Development in Higher Education from Berkeley, California, excited students with his strong affirmation of the kind of college they were attending. At the end, they gave him a standing ovation, a rare occurrence in a college chapel, certainly during the 1970s.
In his remarks, however, the speaker also counseled students with what he called “provisional certitudes.” We all need certitudes in life, but it makes a difference how we hold them. Certitudes held absolutely without question can lead to a closed mind. Certitudes held provisionally until challenged by greater wisdom leads to a learner’s mind.
In the face of challenges to what has been, does grace ever trump judgment? In parliamentary debate, the presumption favors the status quo. Those who deviate are judged, while those who wish to see change are obligated to make their case. Those are the cultural rules at all levels of Western society.
Change, however, also happens through cultural drift. In practice, a few adventurous souls usually step out, deviating from existing norms. A few others then follow. And as more follow, the culture changes, as is even now happening in regard to certain traditional cultural norms. The usual practice is to judge those who lead out in ways that differ from what is perceived to be normative. But as Paul and Barnabas demonstrated in the early church, those initially judged may in the end turn out to be right (Acts 15).
Confessions of Faith, too, change over time, but the process is usually slow. In the meantime, what might happen if we replace judgment with grace extended to those who for discerned good reasons, even new biblical insights, see things differently? History is replete with examples where those excommunicated, and the churches they belonged to, would have been better served by extended grace rather than judgment.
Rather than rushing to judgment where persons find biblical warrant for disagreeing, a further alternative is to follow the recommendation of first century Gamaliel to wait and see what comes of it (Acts 5:33-39).
Church life is filled with disagreements. Fortunately, when we get stuck, we have options other than separating and going our respective ways. The foregoing questions suggest some possibilities. As I ponder these questions, I am grateful for our Bible pilgrim wandering through the ages. This pilgrim has patiently endured all of our questions as it also once journeyed toward that centered confession that “Jesus is Lord.”
Dalton Reimer, faculty emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, is a member of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, California. He is the author of Story-Formed Pathways to Peace.