Article 13, peacemaking and the lordship of Jesus
By Trent Voth
God calls us to be peacemakers. No argument there. But how should Christians make peace? Is it appropriate for Christians to coerce with violence, especially as a means of protecting the innocent? Or is the use of (coercive) violence incompatible with following Jesus and nonviolence the litmus test of Christian faithfulness?
We don’t just differ on the issue of violence. U.S. Mennonite Brethren also disagree on what the Bible actually teaches on the topic. We differ on how to interpret these teachings. Which authorities have our allegiance? Who is more and less deserving and what they are deserving of? The list goes on and on. It’s a deep divide.
Many in leadership believed that revising Article 13 of our USMB Confession of Faith—which proclaims our position on peacemaking—could bridge the divide and move us forward together. So over several years, Article 13 was revised through multiple rounds of consultation with congregations as well as a study conference in Phoenix, Ariz.
The revised article was approved with a resounding support (90-plus percent) at the USMB 2014 National Convention. Now, the USMB Board of Faith and Life is charged with educating the conference in this new article. As part of that awareness campaign, I was asked to write about the themes and features of the new Article 13. But that poses two problems for me:
First, we don’t have enough space to discuss all the ways the new Article 13 is an improved proclamation of what we’re aiming to be, so we’ll all have to settle for the best and biggest improvement the revised article makes.
And as much as I think the new and improved Article 13 is a superb proclamation of our faith, it won’t make everyone happy, and we need to understand why.
Because Jesus is Lord
Both of these issues can be addressed by looking at the core feature and change made in the revised article.
The new Article 13 has many themes and features worth reflection. It expands the scope of the peacemaking discussion beyond “military participation” and “self-defense” to also focus on peacemaking in our homes and congregations. It employs positive language, describing what we strive to do rather than describing what we don’t do.
However, if we’re going to look into what Article 13 is really all about there’s one theme that is central. The most important message in the entire article—indeed the most important message in our entire confession—is: “Because Jesus is Lord, his example and teaching take priority….”
That is, without reservation, the best statement we could possibly make. That’s not just what the new Article 13 is all about. It’s what we are all about: the prioritization and centralization of Jesus and his way. It’s the summary of our entire Christian faith. We live out the proclamation that Jesus is “Lord” in every sense of the word—spiritually, socially, theologically and politically. We embody the declaration that Jesus’ actions and teachings are better than any other way or teaching, and we mold our identity corporately and individually with Jesus at the center.
Asking a different question
That’s the brilliance of the revised Article 13. It’s a subtle yet monumental shift from the previous version. It changes the focus, theme and discussion in a beautifully appropriate way and refocuses the attention where it should be, on Jesus. It’s a huge improvement. In effect, we exchanged a divisive answer to one question for a unifying answer to a different question—a more important question.
For decades the previous iteration of Article 13 proclaimed an answer to the use of violence, stating: “We view violence in its many different forms as contradictory to the new nature of the Christian. We believe that the evil and inhumane nature of violence is contrary to the gospel of love and peace.”
We U.S. Mennonite Brethren never fully agreed with this statement. Some disagreed theologically, others practically and still others for personal reasons. I imagine some saw it as an impediment to spiritual, numerical and financial growth. It became an optional confessional statement, even for those in leadership. An optional article led to an ignorable confession, which has subsequently led to a divided and dividing USMB identity. Something needed to change, and since this sentence lay at the heart of the ignorable, divisive Article 13, some concluded a new core proclamation was needed.
So, that’s what we did. We didn’t just change the divisive sentence; we changed the core question Article 13 is built around. The heart of the revised article is more a declaration about Jesus than a declaration about violence. That’s as it should be. The revised Article 13 doesn’t proclaim an answer about violence. It proclaims an answer about Jesus, namely, that Jesus is our example. Jesus’ answer to the “violence question” is our answer. It’s a massively important and subtly different question. It’s the better question. As Christians, identifying the right place to take a stand and standing there becomes simpler (although not easier) when you’re imitating Jesus.
We declare in this confession that Jesus’ position on peacemaking and violence takes precedence. We approach the question of peacemaking the way Jesus does: “We actively pursue peace and reconciliation in all relationships by following Christ’s example and his command to love God, neighbors and even enemies…. Because Jesus is Lord, his example and teaching take priority over nationalism and the demands of human authorities.”
Don’t we all agree on that? After all, what’s the argument against making Jesus our example? Since Christians are people “of the way,” Christians go the way Jesus goes.
However, as great as the new Article 13 is, and as much of an improvement as it is, it won’t resolve our theological disagreement about the use of violence. It wasn’t intended to. It merely reorients our focus and the question we’re answering. It forms the direction and scope of the conversation we must have.
Differences in biblical interpretation
Under the previous version, our division seemed to revolve around whether one agreed with the statement on violence in Article 13. That won’t be the division any longer. The division will now revolve around interpreting the Bible, which is where the division has actually been all along.
For some, the improvement of the revised Article 13 was the removal of the disagreeable sentence(s) in the previous version. I worry that some who voted to approve the revision were primarily interested in removing the previous wording and didn’t notice the importance of reorienting the question to center on Jesus. The implications of reorienting the discussion to center on Jesus’ example and teachings are immense. The discussion is no longer built around what we believe about violence. The discussion is now built around what we believe Jesus believes about violence. Yes, that provides some common ground, but it also jettisons some heavily relied upon arguments.
It’s not about what you or I might think about violence anymore or how you or I might want to respond to various scenarios. We’re starting the discussion on what Jesus would do. Hypothetical situations and one’s response to these hypotheticals are secondary to Jesus. The expectations and laws of societies are, at most, secondary to Jesus.
Now, one might argue that Paul’s statements in Romans 13 about submitting to the government should impact our perspective on the appropriate use of violence. Aside from the fact that Paul may be communicating something much deeper than simply, “do what the government says” (considering he and his readers are persecuted and executed for not doing what the government said), here again, where Jesus and Paul seem to disagree (and I can’t emphasize the word “seem” enough), Jesus takes priority. That goes for Jesus and the Old Testament as well.
Hypothetical situations about home invasions, historical scenarios like Hitler and World War II, interpretations of the Old Testament or Paul’s views that seem to conflict with Jesus are all secondary to Jesus. They always were, but now we’ve finally all agreed to it. Regardless of whether these lines of discussion hypothetically could support a Christian’s use of violence, where the example and teaching of Jesus advocates the opposite, Jesus takes priority. That’s a significant shift in our discussion.
The center of the discussion
What do we believe Jesus teaches and does on this subject? That’s the better question to be asking. Jesus should be at the center of every discussion, but especially this one. Our discernment of Jesus’ example and teaching in passages such as these (and many others) will be central to the conversation: Matt. 5-7 (especially 5:9, 38-48); Matt. 10:34-39; Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 6:20-49 (especially 6:27-36); Luke 22:35-38, 47-53; and John 2:13-22.
We should discuss these passages (and others), discerning them in our congregations, with our leaders and with each other. Together, we should figure out what Jesus teaches and does in these passages and throughout the Gospels.
I’m confident for every interpretation of these texts arguing for nonviolence there’s another interpretation that leaves the door open and vice-versa. The point is: Jesus sets the direction and boundaries of the conversation. Ultimately, determining Jesus’ position on the question is all that matters. If Jesus allows for the use of violence, no matter how many valid arguments there may be for nonviolence, we are not faithful disciples to close what Jesus leaves open. The opposite is equally true. If we, as a community, discern that Jesus opposes the use of types of violence, it doesn’t matter what all the other arguments and reasons may be, it is wrong for faithful disciples to use or support those types of violence.
Because Jesus is Lord, his example and teaching take priority. It’s time to identify where Jesus stands and stand there.
Trent Voth is a former associate pastor of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kan., and College Community Church MB in Clovis, Calif. He is an alumnus of Tabor College (’07) and Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (’12) and is currently working toward a doctorate in biblical studies (New Testament) at the University of Toronto’s School of Theology in Toronto, Ont. He currently facilitates a conversation forum on behalf of the USMB Board of Faith and Life discussing the revised Article 13, which can be accessed at USMB13.com.