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 15: Ministry and Leadership. Writers appear in alphabetical order.
When I went to college, my plan was to be a pastor. I worked in the chaplain’s office and joined the pre-ministry club and served as president of the Campus Christian Fellowship. Then, at seminary, we talked a lot about the theology of ministry and leadership. It was a Baptist seminary (Eastern, now Palmer), so we didn’t read the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, but their theology of church leadership is very similar. (At least in the Baptist seminaries that would accept female students like me.)
I was so utterly convinced by the idea that we are all called to serve God and the church, that I decided God could use me to serve the church and the world just as well—maybe even better—if I were not a pastor. So when I graduated from seminary, I went to grad school for my English degree.
By the time I graduated (again), I was a Mennonite, and I was thinking about a pastoral vocation (again). Was I equipped by the Holy Spirit “for service in the church and in the world” the way that all believers are equipped? Or was I one of the particular people called by God “to specific leadership ministries and offices”?
Ultimately, I discerned God’s call to pastoral ministry. I was drawn by the holy obligations described in this article. In my 10 years as a pastor, I have learned that there are a lot of pastoral tasks that aren’t covered by Article 15. I “preach with authority” and price items for our church garage sale. I “equip the saints” and remove downed tree branches from the parking lot. I “speak truth with boldness” and babysit. I “lead the congregation in faithful living” and sometimes I follow their lead.
I appreciate the way our Confession of Faith acknowledges both the call to ministry for all believers and the particular call of those who serve the church vocationally. The one thing I do not appreciate about this article is the claim that “the character and reputation of leaders is to be above reproach.” I see two ways to understand this assertion, and both are problematic.
We can read this to say that only perfect people are allowed to be pastors. But if this were true, then we would have no pastors. My character is certainly not above reproach: I can be impatient and self-absorbed (just to get the list started). And my reputation, in certain circles, has definitely been reproached.
This line, however, can also be read to suggest that once people become pastors, others cannot reproach them. While the first reading is problematic, this second is downright frightening. This mentality is surely part of the reason that some conference and denominational leaders refuse to acknowledge and disclose sexual misconduct charges against pastors and pastoral candidates. It is the reason toxic pastors are able to do so much damage to so many congregations. Nobody should be beyond reproach.
The dangers of this second interpretation are why I appreciate the final paragraph of the article so much: ordination is about mutual accountability. The church—both the particular congregation and the broader church—is accountable to the minister. And the minister is accountable to the church.
Of course, working out what that accountability looks like is complicated and messy. It can help for us to remember that we are all called and gifted by the Spirit, that the call, for all of us, is to continue the work of Christ in the world.
Article 15 in the Mennonite Confession of Faith states: “We believe that ministry continues the work of Christ… in the church and in the world.” This implies to me that each Mennonite church should serve as God’s visible witness in the world. This relates to Jesus’ pronouncement from his Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
It is understood that spiritual darkness is prevalent in this world: “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19,ESV). And from John 3:19, ESV: “People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Against such darkness, Jesus came to be the light of the world so that we who receive him will walk in the light (John 8:12). We become his witness in this world. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul affirmed Jesus’ teaching when he encouraged the believers to live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).
How can we become the witness of Christ’s life? This requires our active engagement with the world through our incarnational living as modeled by Christ: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14).
Throughout his life on earth, Jesus did not live an isolated life. He identified with the world he came to live in. Jesus spoke the local language, Aramaic. He associated freely with the people that he encountered. He went to local feasts. He ate with the tax collectors. He made friends with the sinners. He did not live in exclusivity.
Jesus’ incarnational life brings redemption. He restores a broken life to wholeness. John 1:4 says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” Apart from Christ we have no life. We see in the Scripture many examples of the lives transformed when people came across Jesus. One example is the woman of Sychar (John 4). She was living a licentious life. Her unrestrained passion led to her multiple relationships (4:18). After meeting with Jesus, she received transformation. She no longer lived in shame. Rather, she became a witness for Christ, and through her testimony, many from her village became the followers of Jesus (4:42).
This is what I understand about the witness of the church: We ought to live an incarnational life so that we bring a redemptive message to the lost and the broken.
About two months ago, in early August, an African-American man dropped into our church by accident. He came to the wrong building, and it happened to be when our worship team was practicing. He asked whether he could stay enjoying the music while waiting for his appointment and since then, he has been attending our service. He told us the reason he has been attending: Most of his adult life he has lived alone as an army veteran and now he has found a family.
Article 15 on Ministry and Leadership weaves together two important characteristics of church life: ministry as the responsibility and calling of everyone and the calling of some individuals to specific leadership roles.
Everyone is called to some sort of ministry. In my setting, we give opportunity for anyone to volunteer for a variety of services within the church: some bring refreshment, some assist in the cleaning of the facility, some selecting music, etc. Our pastor is considered to be part-time, so we regularly have services without a prepared message. Instead we give everyone the opportunity to share what they have seen God doing in their lives and community. These opportunities for service and testimony remind us that all of us are called to be ministers in one way or another: no one is a spectator.
At the same time, however, some are called to, and gifted for, specific ministry roles. Some are teachers, some can lead worship, some can imagine the future, some can make God’s Word clear and applicable, and a variety of other roles and giftings. These individuals generally have more visible roles and more responsibility in the church. We call them our leaders and we trust them to seek and follow the Holy Spirit as they set the pace for others to follow.
As I reviewed this article I was particularly drawn to the phrase, “[leaders] so appointed… interpret the Scriptures and the faith diligently…” This has become one of the most difficult responsibilities of leadership, and at the same time it has become one of the most neglected. The Scriptures have, at times, been misused and abused. As a result, in many circles, the Scriptures have been set aside or only used for casual reference. The church needs to recognize that Biblical understanding (sometimes called prophesy) is a gift that some have and all other should notice. We need to get back to what was important to our forefathers, the study and application of God’s Word.
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