Just over a decade ago, the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life (BFL) initiated a process of reviewing Article 13: Love and Nonresistance of our Confession of Faith. This article dealt primarily with a Christian’s participation in violence and war. It was reviewed at least in part because many perceived it as too radical, and it was no longer taught or preached in our churches. Pastors were told unofficially that they would not be forced to preach Article 13 but were forbidden to speak against it.
The article, speaking against all forms of violence, had always suffered from a lack of compliance. For example, 31.5 percent of Mennonite Brethren men entered military service in World War II as combatants instead of accepting other options available to them that did not require combat, reports Paul Toews in his book Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970. This was true for other Mennonite groups as well.
BFL members traveled across the country meeting with churches and church leaders, testing the pulse of the constituency’s response to proposed revisions to Article 13. As a result of these meetings, BFL revised the article and broadened the peace mandate to include peacemaking in our homes, churches, communities and around the world.
“We hoped that revising Article 13 would move us forward together, bridging the differences between us. That we, as a denomination, would have integrity with our stated commitment to a peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-keeping agenda.”
The proposed article, renamed “Love, Peacemaking and Reconciliation,” was approved overwhelmingly at the 2014 national convention. It provided an opportunity for U.S. Mennonite Brethren to embrace a comprehensive approach to Jesus’ plea for unity, the core of which is peace.
We hoped that revising Article 13 would move us forward together, bridging the differences between us. That we, as a denomination, would have integrity with our stated commitment to a peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-keeping agenda. It is my impression, not supported by data, that the revision of Article 13 has in fact had little effect on our congregations and constituency.
And so, I invite us to commit ourselves to being vigilant in matching what we do with what we say we believe (James 2:17) and prioritizing Jesus’ commitment to peacemaking. Patrick Henry is reported to have said that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” It could also be said that eternal vigilance is the price of theological integrity.
Peace is central to the ministry of Jesus. His passion is seen in his prayer just before his crucifixion when he pleads for the unity of the church for one critical reason: that “the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The unity for which Jesus prays is a recurring theme of his ministry.
Earlier in John, Jesus introduces a new mandate that serves as the centerpiece for the unity for which he prays: “A new command I give you, love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another” (John 13:34). Our discipleship is built on the foundation of love.
We live in a deeply fractured society. A society whose values and actions easily draw our attention away from being serious Jesus followers in favor of political and social action. One such distraction is the way politics has infiltrated both our lives and the life of the church to the degree that our primary allegiance to Jesus is almost indistinguishable from our allegiance to our government.
Politics, by its very nature, is divisive and creates winners and losers. When we get overly attached to one political party or another, we tend to lose our objectivity and find ourselves behaving as though one party is always right and the other is always wrong. We would do well to focus more on what is right than on who is right. What is right? That in all things, we attempt to follow the example of Jesus.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, he found the Jewish people in a terrible situation, living under the oppressive rule of the great Roman Empire. The Jews were eagerly awaiting the coming of a Messiah who would free them from this oppression. So how much time does Jesus spend confronting the Romans about their atrocities? Zero. It’s not that he didn’t care. It’s just that it was not his agenda. Jesus couldn’t afford to get distracted by the political situation of his day and neither should we.
Judgment or love
Another area that can lead to distraction and disunity is our tendency to be critical and judgmental. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37). Judging others is not unifying; it divides. Seldom are we in a position of knowing fully the circumstances under which others are living.
Instead of judging others, we are called to love one another. In I Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul says, “And now three things remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the antidote for jealousy, discrimination and other attitudes that lead to creating emotional distance between us and others.
Rick Warren got it right when he opened his book The Purpose Driven Church with the words, “It isn’t about you.” When we in the church quibble over things of secondary importance, we violate our commitment to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We embarrass ourselves in the eyes of the community, and we rob ourselves of joy and peace.
Our commitment to peacemaking does not mean we will somehow avoid conflict. Perhaps the biggest “peace buster” I’ve experienced in my lifetime is the way some responded to the shift in our style of church worship music, going from a traditional to a more contemporary style. Many were quick to judge the faith of others based on their music preferences. An extreme example occurred when a church custodian confronted a college student who played the drums in a recently formed “praise band.” The college student was taken aback and said, “I’m just trying to serve my God.” The custodian responded, “Then you serve a different God than I do.”
While weathering disagreements about worship style has not been easy, many of us agree that worship style is a secondary issue. There continue to be positions taken that threaten to divide Christians—for instance, views about gun control, the role of women in church and other debatable issues. For some of us these are secondary issues and for others they are primary. We are told to stand firm in our convictions on these and other issues to the point that I’ve heard some say that those who disagree with their view aren’t “true” Christians.
Being peacemakers means we will work through differences that can create conflict and division. Article 13 calls us to “actively pursue peace.” Many times, we know what to do to pursue peace, but we have difficulty doing it. We need to figure out how to practice what we preach.
It is easy for us to become discouraged when we see so much pain, anger and disorganization and so little peace. There are issues that cause fear and depression, increase our anxiety and rob us of peace. While we are not expected to solve these issues, we are expected to do what we can to promote peace and love in our circles of influence.
We can demonstrate our love by writing a note, offering someone a ride or taking in a meal. We can resist the temptation to doubt one another’s faith commitment when we disagree and commit to trusting one another. Remember that what you can do is what you can do. These small actions empower us and bless others.
When we engage in these practices of loving one another non-judgmentally and serving each other with grace and humility, we are contributing in small but meaningful ways to God’s agenda of peace in the world. The apostle Paul says it this way, “Don’t get tired of doing what is good. Don’t get discouraged and give up, for we will reap a harvest of blessing at the appropriate time” (Galatians 6:9).
Larry Nikkel was the chair of the U.S. Board of Faith and Life from 2008 to 2016. He served as president of Tabor College from 1990 to 2008, with Mennonite Health Services from 1993 to 1998 and as CEO of Prairie View Hospital and Mental Health Center from 1967 to 1993. He is a 1964 graduate of Tabor College and in 1974 received a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina. Nikkel has served on 16 boards and is currently a member of the Blue Stem Communities Board for Kidron Bethel and Schowalter Villa retirement communities. He and his wife, Elaine, live in Hesston, Kansas.