new Mennonite Life logo    September 2000     vol. 55 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

One Church with Different Orders

Marion G. Bontrager

We all do our theology out of our life experiences as well as from rational or intuitional sources. I speak only to the Mennonite Church in the U.S. Since this is a manifesto, I have not sprinkled my remarks with biblical references or even Anabaptist Mennonite documentation.

I try to use Mennonite as an adjective to the noun Christian. Mennonite Christians have been and are caught in a dilemma. Christianity defined as faith discipleship in all of life (rather than primarily doctrinal belief or experience) ultimately leads to the creation of a culture of application. And through the years when the Mennonite church has been unfaithful in evangelism, faith and culture have become confused. The biological and the Christian church families become confused and often coterminous. That confusion is behind some of the front issues the church is facing today. Hence you end up with Mennonite foods and things which are really scandalous to the evangelistic nature of Anabaptism.

Because of the consistently strong teachings about church unity in the New Testament it seems to me that there needs to be very good reasons not to have one Church. Although I would insist on different orders within that one church. With orders one avoids the melting pot of least common denominator unity. There is strength in connected diversity. In order to have diversity, there needs to be clearly defined groups within the whole. That, I believe, is part of the genius of the Roman Catholic orders except their orders should be lay rather than "religious" orders.

Faith, Discipleship, and Identity. Let me begin with two comments about the church in salvation history. The Jerusalem conference was the culmination of the biblical story of salvation history. The boundaries transcended at Pentecost were still within Diaspora Judaism. The Jerusalem conference decided that Jesus is lord. And where Jesus rules, Paul said, there is a miraculous New Creation, the church (II Cor. 5). In that New Creation there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female slave or free and so on. The Greek word "ecclesia" translates the Hebrew "Qahal" meaning "people of God." Church in the New Testament may mean either the entire body of Christian believers as a general Church or a local congregation.

Among the many images used for the church we will note only several: "Body of Christ," "covenant community," and "family" (brother/sisterhood). In comparison and contrast to H.S. Bender and others, I summarize Anabaptist emphases beyond and/or distinct from both Catholic and Protestant Orthodoxy.

I envision a church where Scripture is the highest authority. Scripture, not human reason, the values of the failed Enlightenment or the mores of the dominant society, should be the highest authority for faith and discipleship. Rejected are the individualistic and relativistic values and ethics of the postmodern existential U. S. culture.

I envision a church were the Bible is interpreted Christo-centrically. The flat and dispensationalist hermeneutics are rejected. God does not have two or many changing wills, but one will ultimately revealed in the complete faithfulness of Jesus. Scripture is interpreted by word and Spirit rejecting both the overly literalistic dead letter and the subjectivity of the Spirit alone. The Bible is interpreted in historical and literary context considering the characteristics of various genres while avoiding the extremes of contextualizing the Bible into irrelevancy to our culture. Scripture is not interpreted individualistically or privately but in the gathered Church lead by the leaders. This is a church where members are biblically literate relative to the salvation history story (Heilsgeschichte), who can do inductive Bible Study, and know the basic hermeneutical approaches among contemporary Christians. This is where the Bible is studied systematically with both head and heart.

I envision a church where adults and youth are baptized having responded to the proclaimed and lived gospel and have given evidence of God's work of grace in their lives. Rejected is the ahistorical forensic atonement that disconnects salvation from discipleship. Also rejected is both works salvation and salvation without the power to transform lives. In such a church persons are baptized into the concrete Body of Christ or Church of Jesus Christ. We reject individualistic, private salvation and Christianity where baptism is separated from the Church or membership. In such a church, baptism is the most significant celebration in the Church, not child dedication or marriages. Baptism becomes a powerful experience of God's blessing and empowering of the Holy Spirit and the warm reception into the fellowship of the church.

I envision the church as a visible, loving, disciplined, sharing community of believers separate from the state and the "world." The church should be the voluntary primary community of belonging and authority; a joyful, loving, disciplined sharing community of believers. Here the church (with all its humanity) is respected and loved as the Body of Christ. In such a church, membership in the visible covenanted community of believers is prized, meaningful, reviewed and renewed. Here members are brothers and sisters submitted and willing to give and receive counsel, blessing, nurture and support. Here members understand themselves to be part of an alternative community where Jesus rules with alternative ethics, values and disciplines counter to those of the majority culture and state.

I envision a church whose boundaries are spiritual and ethical discipleship boundaries, not cultural or ethnic. For when membership is clearly defined anyone knows and can belong fully. A new creation community transcends the non-ethical barriers of race, gender, nationality, class and culture. Such a church is confident in its relation to the "world" (the gates of Hell shall not stop it, greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world) but not triumphalistic. It witnesses boldly and intelligently evangelizing both persons and the fallen out-of-place powers. In such a church personal evangelism and "powers" evangelism, witness and service are rooted in prayer and Bible study. The same people do both types of evangelism. Where people are loved enough to be disciplined and constantly challenged to make further steps of faith and obedience. When covenant is broken repeatedly and persons reject counsel, the church confirms in lament their action of placing themselves outside of the Body of Christ (Matt. 18).

I envision a church where the ethics of Jesus and Scripture, not professional ethics, are followed in all of life. All have the same calling (vocation) to be Christian. We reject both the Catholic and Lutheran-protestant misinterpretation of "calling" in the Bible, (some called to be clergy with Jesus' ethics and the laity to a lower level of ethics, or Luther's calling as station-in-life.) This means we reject work or offices in which we cannot follow Jesus' teachings and example.

Biblical Nonviolence, Forgiveness and Peacemaking. I envision a church committed to biblical, surprising-grace, nonviolence grounded in Scripture and prayer. Biblical nonviolence and peace witness should be mainstream and synonymous with the church, not some minority group's emphasis within the church. In such a church, when persons come into membership and are not yet committed to biblical nonviolence, they commit themselves to be open to study the Scriptures and to not teach counter to the teaching of the church and its leadership.

I envision a church whose living community attracts and evangelizes people. Here it is common for people to ask for and to give forgiveness. Here children through adults are taught the biblical roots, principles and skills of reconciliation and peacemaking. Here people practice an ethic of faithfulness rather than effectiveness. In such a church people understand the ethical methodology (hermeneutics, theology) so they can effectively dialog with other Christians whose ethical method does not lead them to biblical nonviolence.

I envision a church where the Christian life is discipleship or following Jesus. This is a growing process as well as an event of encounter and commitment. Here the Christian life is more discipleship or following Jesus than doctrinal belief or experience. In such a church there is a constant call to make an initial response to God's call and grace as well as further growth commitments. Such a church is prepared and with a plan to teach and lead people in growth and equip them for ministry. In such a church people are not treated as if they were all at the same place. This is an empowering community that helps the Holy Spirit transform people and helps them resist their unique temptations to sin and unfaithfulness.

A church should have an open place or "altar" where persons of all ages may go for special thanksgiving, for commitment, healing, ministry and prayer. It should have ceremony, ritual and the freedom to communicate God's grace to persons, to hear and lead in holistic healing and commitment for all ages. A church should provide intentional retreat experiences for all ages. It should constantly work to shore up marriage and family life. It should challenge and help persons and parents make decisions of priority. The church should help people take charge of their lives, to lead active creative lives and control technology.

I envision a church that has many creative ways to bless, celebrate and communicate God's grace to people, that empowers them for mission, that teaches the vigorous demands of following Jesus wrapped in prior grace. Such a church knows how to love rather than tolerate. It doesn't confuse tolerance with love. The church should know how to preach and teach the ultimate will of God while dealing redemptively with persons. The church should be a dynamic fellowship organism rather than another service agency, worship center or institution of society. Here people should be able to think and experience corporateness. Here persons can understand the corporate/systematic nature of evil/sin and salvation.

The Concrete Shape of the Church. The shape of the church is important because how we do church determines understandings about the church and the Christian life.

I envision a more presbyterian form of church structure and leadership with a direct and simple relationship from each conference to the church as a whole. The cohesion of the church community should be more familial, personal, and spiritual rather than complex and organization. Congregationalism leads to isolation and lack of loyalty to the larger church and its institutions. This means conferences have to be limited by geography or size to enable persons knowing each other and more frequent inter-congregational activities. Children and youth should learn to know each other through camp experience, junior high, high school meetings, churchwide conventions and then church college. In the non-traditional church that I pastored in Cleveland, Ohio, the children and youth who went to church camp, conference youth gatherings and churchwide youth gatherings, and inter-congregational youth programs remained in the Mennonite Church.

I envision a church with congregational plural leadership that involves levels of ordination with distinct roles with the lead person teaching and empowering the other leaders. We need new vocabulary for local church leaders. The terms "pastor" and "pastoral" communicate a kind of glorified social workereeze with little authority. Envisioned is a leadership that recaptures the prophetic, preacher, teacher, shepherd role of the leaders. Pastors should spend more time teaching. Twenty minutes a week doesn't and won't do it. A church should have a clear plan to identify, call forth and nurture church leadership.

I envision a new form of church leadership and lay education with area conference teachers who hold classes for both members and leaders. Such a church would spend more money on teaching and preaching than on committee meetings. It would have a more vigorous and dynamic program and curriculum for the initiation of youth and adults for baptism/and or membership. Conference and church wide leadership should be done by leaders rather than by managers and administrators. Church members, including the leaders, should interact and work together more at various levels with other Anabaptist Mennonite groups around the larger Anabaptist Mennonite table (including visiting each other's churches) . We need church leaders who transcend their denominations or orders within the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite family like C.F. Klassen, Orie Miller, H. S. Bender, Myron Augsburger and Robert Kreider.

I envision a Mennonite Church that engages other churches and traditions about questions of the Christian life, discipleship and faithfulness to Christ in our context. (I am not speaking of working together and avoiding the rigorous questions of discipleship and faithfulness as if there are no significant differences.) This assumes that we learn as well as teach. The scandal of denominations or different orders with the Body of Christ is not so much that they exist but that they do not engage each other.

I envision a Mennonite Church that has different orders within it emphasizing various discipleship and spiritual disciplines. These orders are loyal to and submitted to the larger church while giving witness to their kind of discipleship without insisting that they are the only ones who do Anabaptist "chicken right."

I envision a church where every congregation has a sister church of another ethnicity in the U.S. or in another country. Thus, when people gather for worship they sense being a part of a larger church gathering throughout the world. I envision a Mennonite Church where most congregations are more of a Holy Spirit created multi-cultural New Creation that transcends the non-kingdom boundaries of the world.

I envision a church that has either larger congregations with many small groups or churches limited to a number that allows for primary relationships, contribution, support and accountability. We should have more cell churches.

I envision a church where fifty percent of our youth take at least some of their higher education studies at a Mennonite College. Colleges need to serve the church more intentionally with creative course offerings for students who attend non-Mennonite universities and schools. The church should invest money in these students so they get a minimum of Anabaptist biblical studies and hermeneutics, church and Anabaptist-Mennonite history and thought, and biblical nonviolence and Anabaptist faithfulness ethical methodology.

I envision a church that has Anabaptist House Centers at a dozen or more universities around the U.S. to teach courses in Bible, Anabaptist-Mennonite history, theology and ethics.

I envision a church that evangelizes our socio-economic peers rather than primarily those below us. Every congregation should engaged in planting a church, cooperatively or by itself. Every church should be willing to pay the price of evangelism and church growth.

I envision a church where youth and seniors who are able are expected to give a year of more of service to the church. People should tithe their time as well as their money.

I envision a church that does creative rural and urban community renewal and positive environmental lifestyle, a model for society as were Mennonite Disaster Service, mental health programs, and other service programs.