Dorothy Nickel Friesen is former pastor of Manhattan (Kansas) Mennonite Church and First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio; former assistant dean at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, […]
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”—Galatians 5:13-14 TNIV
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.—James 2:12-13 TNIV
The writers of Scripture wrestled with some of the same challenges we’re facing in the church today.
In our relationships as individuals, congregations and area conferences, we have sharp conflicts between the longing for freedom on the one hand and the desire for accountability on the other. The stories recounted in the book of Acts and the letters to the churches illustrate the ways they worked at the problem.
The conflicts surrounding freedom and accountability are not a problem that can be solved but are a polarity to be negotiated. The two poles—freedom and accountability—are meant to be held in creative tension with each other. Both are essential to the health of the church.
Although Mennonite Church USA has not officially embraced the principle called “subsidiarity,” we have acted in accordance with its values in response to the conflicts we face today. (See “subsidiarity” in Wikipedia.)
In short, we believe social problems should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution.
In other words, we believe a central authority should primarily have a supportive rather than a controlling function, performing only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The concept is applicable not only in the church but in many fields, including government and business.
The following sentences from the Purposeful Plan illustrate how we apply this principle in Mennonite Church USA:
“As Anabaptist Christians, we believe that congregations are the primary expression of God’s work in the world. Following the lead of other fellowships of faith, we have also organized ourselves at the level of area conferences and a national conference. We do not, however, see ourselves as a highly centralized denomination organized to regulate the life of conferences or congregations.”
The following paragraph from the Membership Guidelines illustrates the principle as well, (emphasis is mine):
“Where area conferences with their congregations are committed to the vision, mission and teaching positions of the denomination, they have the freedom to seek God’s wisdom and discernment as to how to apply these principles in a life-giving way in the many chaotic, broken and/or sinful situations that present themselves to the church. This should be done in consultation with the broader church in a spirit of mutual accountability.”
We need a healthy balance between the poles—freedom and accountability—because each pole has upsides and downsides. Two obvious upsides of freedom are that it can provide the empowerment that comes from self-governance and allows people to adapt ministry to their local context.
But there are downsides: People can miss the broader perspectives that bring valuable insights to local situations, and people can easily become self-absorbed or inward-focused.
Two obvious upsides of mutual accountability are that it helps people stay meaningfully connected to each other and applies a diversity of perspectives to local situations.
The downsides are obvious as well: People can try to control each other in unhealthy ways or stifle the creativity that others can bring to local situations.
As members of Mennonite Church USA, we can take some comfort in knowing that God’s people have always struggled to find the best balance between freedom and accountability. Yet as we rely on the same Spirit that guided God’s people in the past, we can rest assured we, too, will find God’s way for the future.
Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA.
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