Tag Archives: Ecclesiology

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could be adequate to guide the obedience of Christians in one specific situation, would by that very fact have to be out of date or out of place in other situations.”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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Ecclesiology in Lars and the Real Girl

“We need never ask, ‘God, what should I do?’ Because the Lord has told us what to do. Love one another. That, my friends, is the one true Law. Love is God in action.” – Reverend Bock. From the movie, Lars and the Real Girl

A few years ago, I watched a small indie movie that stuck with me. The film follows the story of Lars, a young man (played by Ryan Gosling, now of infinite feminist Tumblr fame) whose mother died while bringing him into the world. He is left to grow up with his older brother, Gus, who struggled to finish school and leave home as quickly as possible, and an increasingly distant father. These experiences early on in life leave Lars traumatized about childbirth and unable to build intimate and meaningful relationships with other humans, even his brother and sister-in-law. However, despite his limitations, Lars is kind, soft-spoken and caring, and he is a well-loved member of his small town community and the local congregation that he regularly attends.

One day, Lars announces to his family that he has met a friend, Bianca, on the internet, and that she is coming to visit. But when Bianca arrives, to everyone’s surprise, she is not a “real girl,” but instead is a life-like doll that Lars has ordered from an “adult website.” Concerned for his mental health, Lars’ brother and sister-in-law take him to a local doctor, who diagnoses him with a delusional disorder. But her prescribed treatment is surprising: she suggests that Lars’ family and friends should get to know Bianca and to treat her as a real woman.

The film that follows traces the story of Lars and his journey to healing within a loving, caring community. As the film progresses, members of the community and his family, because of their love and care for Lars, accept Bianca as one of their own. She begins to be invited to volunteer events, she is given a makeover by some of the local women, and she is accepted as a companion for Lars in public spaces like church. Slowly, in the awareness of this loving and caring community, Lars is able to process the events of his childhood and to replace Bianca with new, real relationships. 

Lars and the Real Girl paints a picture of a community that is willing to adapt and respond to the particular needs of community members, no matter how obscure or odd. Instead of responding in judgment or fear, members of the community reached out to Lars and loved him back to wholeness. As the quote above illustrates, for the community that Lars is a part of, love is the guiding and binding principle.

Although the film centers around the actions of an entire small town, and not simply one church or congregation, its themes can certainly be extrapolated and applied to ecclesiology more broadly. According to Philip Clayton in his book, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, ecclesiology raises questions about the nature of the church and the ways that it is distinctive and different from its surrounding society.  The type of ecclesiology embodied by this film suggests that the guiding principles of the Christian church are commitments to love and justice, which must necessarily manifest themselves differently in each unique church location and should be lived out and interpreted in consort with the voices and experiences of all members of each given community.

For me, in ways similar to eco-feminist theologian Sallie McFague in her book, Life Abundant, it is important to understand God as a being concerned primarily with love, in all of its many manifestations. As McFague writes, “If, however, God is the love that creates, sustains and transforms everything that is – if God is the declaration that reality is good – then all is changed. It is not, then, so important that ‘I believe in God’ as it is that I align my life with and toward this reality.” Although McFague is speaking as an individual, this statement can be extrapolated to include churches (the lived reality of ecclesiology) as well. Therefore, I see myself and the church as agents of that love, enmeshed and intertwined with the world and the communities around us and engaging all parts of creation with love. 

In her book, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki describes a process ecclesiology. Suchocki echoes this belief that the work of the church should be focused on the pursuits of deeper senses of love, and she expands this definition to include justice (an expansion that I appreciate).  Suchocki describes the church’s fundamental purpose as such: “The church is called, by its identity in Christ, to be love and justice, to be openness and mutuality, and in the living dynamism of these qualities, continually to move into deeper forms that manifest these qualities.” This is both a fluid ecclesiology, and an ecclesiology that is inherently particular and meets the needs of the individual. For example, because of Lars’ particular historical experiences, and his need to work out human intimacy in a safe space (visibly represented by Bianca), his community needed to extend their love not just to Lars, but they needed to find ways to affirm his experience and Bianca’s existence, as well. Bianca was real for Lars, and the community took this very particular, and perhaps odd, reality seriously.

If you haven’t seen the film, I’d highly recommend it. It’s lighthearted, but also points to the very real challenges that churches face when they try to figure out how they will relate to members and to those outside of congregational walls, as well.

Tomorrow, I’ll be exploring ideas about Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology. But in the meantime, share your thoughts. What does ecclesiology mean to you? How can communities responsibly care for one another in extreme situations? How do communities make space for healing?

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