As I write this, Mennonite Church Canada is having its national Assembly in Waterloo, Ontario. One resolution that has been proposed for this gathering (though it may yet be withdrawn) was drawn up by the group Harmony, which bills itself as “Mennonites for LGBT Inclusion”. The text of the resolution [link updated July 10/11] can be found at Harmony’s website. In brief, the resolution says that past statements issued by the predecessors to MC Canada have caused various forms of suffering among LGBTQ people in Mennonite congregations, and that the churches ought to openly acknowledge and welcome non-heterosexuals in their midst and expedite MC Canada’s discernment process regarding homosexuality.
What particularly struck me about the resolution was its insistence on the absolute openness of Christian fellowship. Consider the following statements taken from the resolution.
“And whereas the intent of the Saskatoon Resolution never was to exclude from the fellowship of Christ’s table, nor the discipleship of the Church, any person who confesses Jesus as Lord in the context of an Anabaptist perspective, but rather to articulate the then-current understanding of MC Canada that certain kinds of sexual activity were to be regarded as sinful…”
This paragraph disconnects “activity … regarded as sinful” from “the fellowship of Christ’s table … [and] the discipleship of the Church”.
“And whereas the church is a body formed by those who ‘have sinned and come short of the glory of God’, and there is no mandate for the Church to exclude from its fellowship, those whom Jesus invites to His table…”
This statement appears to be predicated on the unspoken assumption that the call of Jesus is for everyone (a sound belief, in my view) and that nobody therefore ought to be excluded from Christian fellowship. This explains why the following paragraph from the resolution functions as an implicit condemnation of the current state of affairs within Mennonite Church Canada:
“And whereas the way the Saskatoon Resolution has been applied … has led to schisms, withdrawals and disciplinary action for individuals, for their families, and for congregations within MC Canada…”
That the various disruptions in Christian fellowship described above are presumed to be self-evidently bad things, in and of themselves, betrays a departure from traditional Anabaptist views on the subject. Specifically, the Harmony resolution, and particularly the paragraphs cited above, are at odds with Articles II and III of the Schleitheim Confession, the earliest confessional document of the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren, ratified in 1527.
Article II concerns the use of the ban (variously also called excommunication or disfellowshipping). It states that baptized church members who have fallen into sin ought to be warned twice in private, and then admonished in public before the congregation. It goes on to state that this ought to happen before the breaking of bread, so that there may be unity in the bread and in the cup. Participation in church fellowship, then, was understood to involve being subject to the judgment of the church. The exercise of discernment by the church, then, was not understood to be inherently bad, but rather a healthy practice that preserved the unity of the church from being compromised by sin.
Article III states that participation in the Lord’s Table, on account of its unifying function, ought to be restricted to those who share in the unity of the church, and its beliefs and practices. This article reinforces and elaborates upon the content of Article II, similarly qualifying who can properly partake of the Lord’s Supper.
The practice of the ban to ensure the unity of the church clearly dates back to the very origins of the Anabaptist movement, and has been a characteristic of most of the churches that trace their lineage to 16th-century Anabaptism. However, the Harmony resolution implicitly renounces this element of the Anabaptist heritage in its assumptions that the practices of church discipline are inherently bad, and that Christian fellowship is fundamentally characterized by openness.
This departure from Anabaptist tradition appears to be an extension of the policies and attitudes present in the General Conference Mennonite Church since its founding in 1860. (An essay on the topic can be found here.) The first GC’s were concerned about the overuse and abuse of the ban, and from their foundation they worked to tighten up the grounds on which a person could be disfellowshipped, while setting down an institutional tolerance for variations in belief and practice on “non-essential” matters.
The signatories to the Harmony resolution who identified their home congregations within MC Canada hail overwhelmingly from congregations that were part of the General Conference prior to the merger of the General Conference with the (Old) Mennonite Church to form MC Canada; only ten signatories out of 243, or about four percent, were from churches that used to belong to the (Old) Mennonite Church. Several of those were or are students at Canadian Mennonite University, which has roots in the General Conference but not the (Old) Mennonite Church.
The Harmony resolution, with its emphasis on open fellowship and negative view of church discipline, goes further than the official positions held by the General Conference Mennonite Church or Mennonite Church Canada, and is at odds with the Schleitheim Confession and historic Anabaptism. Nevertheless, it is based on an extended form of the ideals of the General Conference Mennonite Church. In light of this, I make two predictions.
First, MC Canada congregations and members who were formerly part of the General Conference will support the Harmony resolution and similar ideas in higher proportions than those with roots in the (Old) Mennonite Church. I do not believe the (Old) MC’s ever shared the level of discomfort with church discipline present among GC’s.
Second, Mennonite Church Canada will be more receptive to these sorts of ideas than Mennonite Church USA. In MC Canada, the proportion of former GC’s to former (Old) MC’s is roughly equal. In the US, the (Old) Mennonite Church was several times larger than the General Conference of Mennonite Churches.