BFL Study Conference explores how we follow the Prince of Peace in the real world
U.S. Mennonite Brethren are invited to gather Jan. 24-26 in Phoenix, Ariz., to study, pray and talk together about Articles 12 (Society and State) and 13 (Love and Nonresistance) of the MB Confession of Faith.
In preparation for this event, Christian Leader editor Connie Faber hosted a telephone conversation with three USMB leaders about our Confession of Faith and the circumstances that prompted this study conference.
Ed Boschman is the USMB executive director and a member of the national Board of Faith and Life (BFL). Larry Nikkel, President Emeritus of Tabor College and former president and CEO of Mennonite Health Services, chairs the BFL. Lynn Jost, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary dean, chaired the General Conference of MB Churches (U.S. and Canada) BFL and its Confession of Faith Task Force when the Confession of Faith was last revised in 1999. Jost also served on the International Community of Mennonite Brethren task force that published an international Confession of Faith in 2003.
CL: Let’s begin with a basic question: Why do we need a Confession of Faith?
LN: Our Confession of Faith reminds us and others of the doctrinal beliefs we hold.
EB: The Confession guards our orthodoxy as a family of faith. It helps us with two strategically important core values as a family. One of those is clarity and the other is cohesion. Who we are is closely related to what we believe together. If we know what we are committed to together, we have a much better chance to be one and to have the authority and witness of the spirit of Christ and his mission.
LJ: We also need a confession because we need a bridge from the Bible to our lives. The Bible doesn’t change but the context does. Our context determines what issues we’re going to include in the Confession.
It also means that we’re confessing both the things we have in common with other evangelical believers and some things that are distinctive within the Christian community. Both are appropriate in a Confession.
Also, I think a confession includes both doctrine and discipleship. We believe that right behaving has a place right alongside right believing.
CL: So then what role does the Confession of Faith play for U.S. Mennonite Brethren? What role should it play?
LN: I like the way Lynn talks about needing a bridge from the Bible to daily living. That really starts to answer this question. I think our Confession should guide us in our preaching, teaching and living. How well we’re doing at that, I guess, is part of what the study conference is about.
EB: This question speaks to an ongoing discussion that we have. The introduction to our Confession of Faith tries to answer whether this document is prescriptive or descriptive. I believe it plays a role both to guide us and to provide boundaries for us as we live in our local church realities and beyond that.
LJ: I think Ed is right. There is an appropriate place for boundaries and for freedom from boundaries and figuring out which is which is what we wrestle with. We need both boundaries and a center towards which we go.
CL: Why is this study conference focusing on Articles 12 and 13?
LN: We’ve known for a long time that we do not have a consensus around Article 13 (Peace and Nonresistance) and because we don’t have consensus we don’t really have unity. We’ve probably never had the sense of unity on this issue that some may think that we’ve had. Two years ago the Board of Faith and Life began looking at where we are on this issue, and we are all over the map.
EB: From a pastoral point of view, these variations among us sometimes create tensions and have the potential to be divisive. We have a reality that needs to be talked through so that we can move to a place (of agreement) that will give us the kind of authenticity that is important to us.
LJ: We’re a historic peace church, confessing that allegiance to Jesus trumps national allegiance and that Jesus teaches us to live in peace. And yet we’ve always had differences of opinion. Now our leaders have called us together to understand what the Bible says and to encourage us to live out our convictions.
CL: How did these differences on come about?
LN: Part of what has happened—and I’ve personally been a part of it—is that when we started new churches and tried to reach out to our communities, we were just delighted that people from different persuasions wanted to be a part of our congregations. I remember this so well.
EB: As we have reached out to our neighbors and the people in our communities, some of them have come to faith and joined our churches. Among them are police officers and military personnel.
LN: In most of our churches we didn’t hide this element of our Confession, but as we welcomed people from different theological backgrounds we did not force them to support our Confession of Faith in its totality.
The same thing applied to our pastors. I don’t know how hard we’ve all worked to call pastors who were Anabaptist in their orientation. But I think there weren’t always enough to go around and in some cases I think we were more interested in pastors of the evangelical stripe.
LJ: My sense is that our differences are a product of inadequate leadership and I think that I’m old enough to say that since I’ve been in leadership for a while. It’s an inadequate system of orientation and accountability. What I remember saying to new church members and especially to new pastors is that you don’t have to agree with the Confession but you agree not to teach against it and to be open to learning because this is what our church believes.
On the positive side, the current BFL is working very hard to reverse the trend of inadequate orientation and accountability and that’s what I applaud. One of the things that makes us healthy is that there really is a center towards which we want to teach.
EB: I would agree with Lynn’s assessment. There certainly was not a stringent expectation through the process of credentialing for incoming staff that said you must clearly commit yourself to every nuance of our Confession of Faith.
CL: What is your greatest hope for the study conference?
LJ: What I really want is for people to come away with a strong commitment that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and to leave with a growing recognition that reconciliation is at the heart of what God wants to see happen; it’s not a tangent. I’d like to see that kind of commitment. I think that very well could happen.
LN: I absolutely support that. My hope is more of a process thing than anything else. What I really want is for people to come with a soft heart. To come with as much commitment to understanding as there is a commitment to being understood.
Some one has said that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. And I hope we don’t have hammers. We need open hearts and open ears and a real commitment to understanding another person’s point of view whether we agree with it or not. And so I’m hoping that people leave feeling that they were understood and that we have a greater sense of trust and understanding.
Most people will come already knowing what they believe and why. My fear is that people will come trying to win the day for their viewpoint instead of really listening hard to others’ viewpoints. My fear is that some people will come with a spirit of winning people to their viewpoint so that there will be winners and losers.
EB: My greatest hope is that we still stay absolutely committed to what the Bible says and that we will allow the Bible to speak its truth to us with open hearts and minds.
My second hope is that we recognize that clearly committed Bible students and followers of Jesus have various views about how a commitment to peace works itself out in the real world. We don’t renegotiate whether we are followers of Jesus and whether he has called us to be peacemakers; I totally agree with Lynn. But there are application issues we have to talk about.
CL: Are significant differences of opinion on an article in our Confession of Faith an indication that we are a healthy denomination or an unhealthy one?
LN: Differing opinions are not indicative of health or sickness. An indicator of denominational health is what we do with these differences. That’s, I think, why we’re doing this study conference. We have said that if we are going to be a family we have to talk. I hope that we can do this in a way that demonstrates strength and health and commitment to hearing and understanding each other.
EB: I view this as an incisive question. It gets to whether this one specific topic of discussion is the absolute non-negotiable core of what it means to follow Jesus or not. Are there some articles in our Confession of Faith about which we will not allow divergence or significant difference of opinion and others where we would? That discussion is not simple.
CL: It has been said that it is helpful to think about various positions on peace and nonresistance as a continuum; that there are points along the line on which we all agree. Do you agree with that picture of a continuum? If you agree, where do you see that point of disagreement emerging?
LJ: My seminary colleague, Tim Geddert, asks a question in one of his classes something like this: At what point do you believe that the use of force is consistent with faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus? If the continuum model works, we all have a point at which we’d exercise force—but maybe not violent force.
LN: I believe in the continuum idea. During the Vietnam War, a lot of people thought the war was immoral but they drew the line at different spots along that continuum. Some people registered as combatants, some as noncombatants and some didn’t register at all. Some withheld a portion of their taxes and some drew the line at paying taxes at all.
We’ve focused on the contentious point of taking up arms to the point that we’ve done a poor job of teaching, preaching and living the rest of it. One of the things I hope comes out of this study conference is that we bring into clear focus the whole continuum of what it means to be lovers and seekers of peace.
CL: What happens after the study conference?
LN: This is not a decision-making meeting. I think the BFL will take into consideration all that they see, hear and feel during the study conference in discerning whatever follow-up there is. We will want and need to have conversations with churches or groups of churches within our constituency at some point. Any proposed changes—if there are any—will come to the 2014 convention for the delegates to approve.
CL: Who is invited to the study conference?
LN: We’ve talked about this quite a bit. On the one hand we’ve said this a family discussion—a chance to get together to talk. We want every pastor to be there. Furthermore we would like church leaders to come so that we have a broad representation from our church family.
EB: I cannot imagine doing this without having all district BFL members in full attendance. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing where we need full partnership.
LN: There is also a lot of interest in this topic in the broader Mennonite family. So we’ve invited Ron Byler as a representative of Mennonite Church USA to come as a participant/observer. We’ve invited the Canadian MB Conference executive director and their Board of Faith and Life, David Wiebe from the International Community of Mennonite Brethren and Cesar Garcia of Mennonite World Conference.
We want everyone to come and especially those we’ve listed. If you’re interested in this, we’re interested in you coming.
Registration information is available online at www.usmb.org/2013-study-conference. Registration and hotel reservations are due Jan. 11, 2013