The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was developed in 1995, and is the most recent systematic statement of belief for Mennonite Church USA.
Over the course of the next several months, we will be releasing “roundtable posts”, featuring two to three members of Mennonite Church USA congregations reflecting on an article from the Confession of Faith and how it impacts their ministry, congregational life and theology. We’ll move through the articles in numerical order. You can read all the past posts online.
Today’s authors are reflecting on Article 14: Discipline in the Church. Writers appear in alphabetical order.
How important it is to clarify what our faith community is!
We must ask ourselves what we are calling the church. Is it our worshiping community, our circle of friends, our denomination or the church universal? How we determine who or what is the church changes this article greatly.
The wider church families such as the Mennonite denomination, Christian followers or people of the world who make up the people of God I also consider the church. However, I don’t look to them to apply discipline to my church or me directly. I see them as the church because they are part of the universal household of God. These people may be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, etc. If someone is speaking what is right and just for all people and not just a select few, then I am bound to listen and act accordingly.
I am from a diverse body of believers. Because we come from different backgrounds culturally, socio-economically, spiritually, religiously, educationally, etc., we are careful with this article from the confession. We make space for differing views and work hard to remain in community with one another. We trust each other, and when discipline issues arise, we seek someone in the congregation who is close enough to the person to initiate a conversation.
Even when someone is doing wrong or committing a sin, its important to have someone there that they trust when confronting them. It’s also important for the confronting group to go into the conversation with open minds and hearts, willing to listen and work to find a solution together, instead of going into the conversation with the plan or solution in hand.
I have been blessed to see worshiping communities handle tough disciplinary issues within the church with grace and mercy and that renewed my spirit in the church. I have seen congregational leaders work hard at first listening to the issue, taking the time to sit in the uncomfortable space with the sinner, and then looking to God for the direction that leads to reconciliation and redemption.
When worshiping communities confront “Sin,” we need to be aware that this takes time and we must be willing to walk with one another until we get to the underlying problem that caused the “Sin.”
On the one hand, discipline in the church is needed just as discipline in any craft or practice is needed for it to advance with integrity. As such, Article 14 reads very well in theory.
On the other hand, things are always more difficult in practice. Due to many real-life stories of discipline-in-the-church-gone-wrong, we have either neglected to do discipline, forgotten how to do it or don’t want to do it lest we perpetuate the examples we abhor.
Article 14 calls for discipline that leads to an increase of justice and righteousness and freedom from sin. Article 14 calls for discipline that ends in reconciliation, forgiveness, restoration and bold witness. Unfortunately, stories from victims, the fracturing of our denomination, impasses around process and dwindling numbers indicate that we have failed to achieve these ends in the Mennonite church.
Moreover, Christians in America are virtually indistinguishable from the rest of our politicized, consumeristic culture of autonomous individuals and in our own Mennonite Church one can observe a growing lack of basic biblical literacy, decreased commitment to nonviolence, the persistence of racism, and waning virtues such as faith, perseverance, hope, patience, humility, and charity (of both attitude and resources).
In a farewell address to his students, Karl Barth famously left them with this parting advice: exegesis, exegesis and more exegesis. For the church today, we might say: teach the faith, teach the faith and teach the faith more. Or disciple, disciple and disciple some more.
The pre-Christendom church had high demands for discipleship and entry into the faith. Catechism for new believers was based intensely on the Sermon on the Mount and could last multiple years. This was not seeker-sensitive. This was not an effort to just “get the kids baptized.” This was a spirit-infused exercise of discipline toward transformation into Christ-likeness through the renewing of the mind.
The answer about church discipline is not in returning to a supposed golden age when the church did discipline well. Even if we wanted to, we would not achieve a unifying consensus on what grounds and under whose authority discipline should be exercised.
If we do that well, patiently and intentionally for two or three generations, then we might be at a better place to discern what good church discipline looks like in practice and not only on paper.
In the Mennonite congregation of my birth and first years, I have vague remembrances of “public confession” that took place in front of the entire congregation. I heard the tone of voice used in these cases and knew it must be serious.
As I grew older the practice changed and the “confession” was usually made before the pastors and board of deacons. Somehow I understood that these confessions usually had to do with sexual sins, though I recall some conversation around an individual who held lodge membership, which required the taking of an oath.
During my years at Goshen College, I experienced a profound awakening of faith and my understanding of the church and the ways we relate to one another in the Body of Christ were expanded and deepened. None of us lives unto themselves as followers of Jesus. Marlin Jeschke’s 1972 book, Discipling the Brother, offered a fresh interpretation of Matthew 18’s call to discipline.
At the same time, I studied Anabaptist history and the Schleitheim Confession. Initially article 2 on the ban seemed excessive, but when I discovered other physical punishments and public shaming common at the time for the sins of gossip, thievery, greed, etc. the ban seemed almost gentle, though historically it came to applied with legalism and rigidity.
Article 14 reads, “Discipline is intended to liberate erring brothers and sisters from sin, to enable them to return to a right relationship with God, and to restore them to fellowship in the church.”
What good intention!
Here are three very different experiences which raise questions:
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