Anabaptists, Ecclesiology and Community

Yesterday I reflected on the ways that the movie, Lars and the Real Girl, offers us a vision of ecclesiology that is founded on radical love for the individual and for a whole community. Love that is both fluid/adaptable and inherently particular.

John Howard Yoder

The Mennonite and Anabaptist faith tradition also takes seriously the particularity of each church body. In his book, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World, seminal Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, addresses the diverse and evolving nature of Christian communities. Yoder notes that congregations must see moral discernment as an ongoing process. He writes, “Just as a wisely written constitution for an institution or government provides procedures for amendment and for decision making rather than immutable prescriptions, so the Christian community is equipped not with a code but with decision-making potential.” He goes on to emphasize that communities must take their social location and overall situation into account when developing ecclesiological standards. Yoder writes, “Any full system of goals and procedures which could be adequate to guide the obedience of Christians in one specific situation, would by that very fact have to be out of date or out of place in other situations.”

Yoder’s ecclesiological practices are similar to  Marjorie Suchocki’s process ecclesiology, which I discussed yesterday. Both emphasize

Marjorie Suchoki

that the ways love and justice, the guiding principles of the church, manifest themselves and will need to be discerned within each individual church community. This may seem obvious. The various Mennonite congregations that I have had occasion to visit all have different ideas about what it means to be church, and their ministries reflect these distinctive callings. Congregations full of middle-class professionals in Goshen, Indiana will support each other in different ways than a congregation in the midst of a rapidly evolving agricultural area in Pennsylvania or than the congregation full of first-generation immigrants to the United States in the middle of Los Angeles. Although there are Mennonite and Anabaptist congregations that fit each of these very diverse distinctions, and the majority of these congregations identify their work as growing out of the legacy of Jesus Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and love, each of these congregations interprets their call to ministry very differently. 

Yoder also describes the process of moral discernment and the discovery of community standards as a community process that must be inclusive of all members of each church or group. Building on the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, written out in the Bible, Yoder emphasizes that “everyone has something to say.” The emphasis on the priesthood and participation of all believers is one of the distinctive elements of traditional Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology.

In the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective, one attempt to represent the key beliefs of Mennonite Church USA in this current moment, it states, “In making decisions…all members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as a constant guide…In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions.” This focus on consensus-building and the inclusion of all members’ voices is important. Although the church has often fallen short of privileging the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and others, the underlying principle of the church emphasizes the importance of including as many voices as possible in a decision-making process. In fact, due to some unfortunate circumstances surrounding Yoder’s relationships with other women (which could certainly merit a whole other series of blog posts on their own), he himself was at one point asked to submit to the broader church’s discernment and communal discipline.  In fact, one could suggest that an Anabaptist ecclesiology implies that the broader the swath of voices included, the more integrity a decision-making process has. 

This focus on equality and inclusivity is also compatible with Suchocki’s process ecclesiology. It seems logical that any ecclesiology that emphasizes love and justice as guiding ecclesiological principles will care about equality and inclusivity. Suchocki emphasizes the importance of both the individual and the community. She notes that it is the community that brings an individual into being, but that in return, the individual contributes to the life of the community. She also emphasizes that the church can only “manifest holiness” through its communal structure. Individuals within each church are bound together by a common identity in Christ, and are therefore each called to participate in the communal work and ministry of the church.

Clearly, the ecclesiology espoused throughout Anabaptist history is much more radical and inclusive than we perhaps believe and/or live out today.

So, how does your church fit within this picture? What does the idea of church and/or ecclesiology mean to you?

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