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Confession of Faith roundtable: Discipline in the church

5.17. 2017 Written By: Cyneatha Millsaps, Joel Shenk and Mary Lehman Yoder 455 Times read

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.

Cyneatha Millsaps is Pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois.

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.

I consider my church to be my immediate and local worshiping community. These are people I share my life with on a daily basis. This group of people I have committed myself to, through my baptism and Christian walk.

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.

I think far too often we seek action before living in the space. The action we often label as sin is usually the outward expression of something going on deep inside.

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.”

Joel Shenk is Pastor of Toledo (Ohio) Mennonite Church.

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).

We have failed to discipline ourselves well toward that which God calls us and we are paying a steep spiritual price.

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.

In fact, I believe the recovery of intentional discipleship will help the church navigate the often choppy waters of church discipline.

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.

Rather the answer of church discipline is in a renewed commitment to teach and pass on the faith. It is in the formation of communities devoted to the Apostles Teachings, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. It is in the re-founding of the church on Jesus Christ, the only foundation that can be laid, who called us out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

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.

Mary Lehman Yoder is a pastor from Goshen, Indiana.

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!

But here’s the problem: I am not aware of any illustrations when all three of those goals were met with the church’s application of discipline.

Here are three very different experiences which raise questions:

  • I think of my uncle who served as physician in the Navy in World War II and lost his membership in his Idaho Mennonite congregation. My uncle did not remain in the military beyond his time of service; I have no question about his standing before God. He found meaningful fellowship as an active member in the Presbyterian Church, but he was never restored to fellowship in the Mennonite Church.
  • Despite numerous attempts on the part of many to follow the guidelines of Matthew 18, the work with John Howard Yoder was fraught with challenges, missteps and myriad failures. It was costly first to victims, but also to John’s family members, congregation, conference, the seminary, the Mennonite Church, and the global Body of Christ. How are we to understand this when Matthew 18 was the template for addressing the ongoing sin? Was this a failure of the process?  Was the refusal of the violator to admit wrong-doing the failure? Or was the situation far beyond the scope of Matthew 18 and church discipline processes despite the good intentions of those applying the process?
  • As a pastor I recall vividly a deeply painful experience of visiting a couple whose living arrangements appeared questionable while one was in the process of divorce. I intended to speak with gentleness, to ask questions, to offer support for choosing a different path. To this day I can see no good outcomes from my action. The alienation that ensued was deeply painful and longstanding. Can I say they did not want liberation, did not want a right relationship with God, did not long for the fellowship of the church? No, I dare not pass that judgement.
The love of Jesus, the mercy of God, the mysterious transforming work of the Holy Spirit all tell me there must be another way. While I value Article 14, I confess as a pastor and as a member I know less and less about how to live it out with grace.
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