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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.
This article has been posted by Christian Leader staff. The Christian Leader is the magazine of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.
This is an incredibly unfortunate article. I recommend anyone who reads this to read a wise response to such a posture with Anthony Costello’s blogpost published on the same day “Dialogue Without End?: The Prideful Doctrine of ‘Intellectual Humility.'” Here is an excerpt:
“In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a vivid image of the kind of person who remains ever open to endless dialogue about God, yet who cannot accept God for who He says He is. We discover this ‘Episcopalian theologian’ as a passenger from hell visiting heaven. Heaven, we come to find out, is far too stilted a place for the theologian’s intellectual capacities to run free. His freedom, however, is a freedom of the damned. It is a freedom which requires one to never stand too firm on a biblical doctrine, especially a doctrine like hell, but to always keep his mind open to other possibilities,
“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? ‘Prove all things’…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.
“One can easily imagine on earth this theologian would have been seen as ‘intellectually humble,’ always looking but never finding, always open to the opinions, arguments and research of his peers. How beloved he must have been by his colleagues!
“However, Lewis’ insight is, as usual, penetrating. For the day will come when such dialogues end, and the monologue of the Word of God will be proven absolutely true. Paul tells us that knowledge itself will pass away as the Love of God is fully revealed to His saints (1 Cor 13:8). In the end, there will be no debate over God in the presence of God. Nor will there be any dialogue over the validity of His moral law and His divine decree.
“Christians who find the need to engage in endless dialogue over immoral teachings like same-sex marriage, abortion, or transgenderism, or to submit endless research papers attempting to revise uncomfortable doctrines like the doctrine of Hell or espouse more culturally palatable views of the atonement, should consider Lewis’ intuition seriously. While we must take every person espousing such falsehoods seriously, we need not feign a false humility to win over their affections.
“We should be careful, therefore, that when we speak of ‘intellectual humility,’ we first mean humility before the authority of the Word of God, and only then humility before the conjectures of men. This, after all, was Christ’s humility.
“…If we allow the devilish doctrine of endless dialogue to further integrate and infect our churches, we may find ourselves one day, in the very distant future, still thinking about God but never knowing Him. A dialogue without end may sound humble, as progressives will make it out to be, but unless we realize that the Word of God is the End, then it is only the height of arrogance.
“‘When you enter any town, and they don’t welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We are wiping off [as a witness] against you even the dust of your town that clings to our feet. Know this for certain: the kingdom of God has come near. I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom that for that town. Luke 10:10-12.'”
Though I don’t agree with every one of Costello’s applications of his argument, his summary position is sound. The entire article is here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/theologicalapologetics/2021/11/dialogue-without-end-the-prideful-doctrine-of-intellectual-humility/?fbclid=IwAR1wbGeePDyKYTdAaa5YbkA_YCFALw5uPHvYtgG3D5WclCe7fa4DxygYK3M
This article is disturbing. The Confession of Faith is only as good as its Biblical basis, yet by attacking, watering down the Confession, might we be cushioning ourselves from the harsh reality of watering down our faith? After all, we as humans and Christians generally sin by degrees rather than “taking the plunge,” and we lose our faith in the same manner.
Sadly, this article by Mr. Reimer makes it clear why Willow Ave. is departing from the MB family.
A few observations to illustrate:
1) We have decided together as a larger MB family that our confession is prescriptive. That’s why each article starts with, “we believe”. If the MB confession is not a guide for understanding Scripture, then moving on or adopting another confession is in order.
2)People who confess Jesus as Lord, confess the Lord of the Scriptures. They may have their reasons for deviating from them, but no justification. And are we really comparing playing cards with wholesale redefinitions of biblical marriage and sexuality?
3) There is no rush to judgement here. This trajectory has been followed for years.
4) Following the advice of Gamaliel in Acts 5 implies that we don’t know how things will turn out. But we do. We have watched Presbyterian, Episcopal and other denominations travel down this path and further decline and apostasy has been the consistent result.
Here is my appeal, brother. Please turn from this path. It will not yield the fruit that you hope for. Let’s be reconciled around the Gospel message as articulated in our MB confession of faith. Let’s see if the Lord Jesus won’t then give us favor in reaching the lost and searching from every walk of life.
I am very grateful for the responses (to Dalton Reimer’s article) here. God is patient even with our wanderings, and has proved himself so throughout the history of his people, but God is not patient with our wandering out of some divine apathy or broad permissiveness on his part. In his patience he calls for and awaits our repentance, without which there is surely judgment.
Have we as a people at times enforced elements of the Confession too harshly? Probably. For example, in years past, some divorced persons were treated without mercy, even though they were humble and repentant. (I have stories!) But to say the MB Confession itself is not prescriptive but only descriptive (or suggestive?) is to say there is no need to give up my life to take up the cross. We either believe or we do not, and correct our ways accordingly.
I’m reminded of Peter’s message at Pentecost, when queried by those under the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
“Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “’Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” Acts 2:38-40