What makes us a church?
Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leadersby André Gingerich Stoner
What makes us a church and binds us together as Mennonite Christians? We are not church together because we have a pope. We are not church together because we have a fixed and timeless creed. We are not church together because we all have the same last name and attended the same colleges. We are not church together because we all use the same logo and the same shade of green.
In our congregations, area and national conferences, we are church because we have been drawn together by Jesus and because we keep wrestling with each other and the Spirit about what it means to let him shape, guide and use us.
Somewhere, somehow, sometime, each of us has been touched by Jesus’ love and grace, and our lives have been changed. His words and vision have taken hold in us. Through Jesus we have been drawn into a new community with new allegiances and with a deep love for each other.
When we enter that community, we promise to give and receive counsel. This is one of the things we pledge to each other when we are baptized. We recognize that we need each other to help us find our way. We are different parts of a body, and the give and take between us is like blood flowing between the heart and the fingers and the kidney. As we encounter new situations, we discern together what it means to follow Jesus in that time and place.
Not only do we talk with each other, but we talk with our mothers and fathers in the faith. We listen to the words and witness of Peter Dyck, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, James and Rowena Lark, Dirk Willems, Michael and Margarita Sattler. Even if some of them were quirky and didn’t get it all right, we give thanks for their faithful witness and place ourselves in that ongoing stream.
Likewise we engage with statements that our community has lived by, including the Schleitheim, Dordrecht, 1963 and 1995 confessions of faith. They aren’t God’s final word, but we take them with utter seriousness. We enter into dialogue with them and heed their insight and wisdom.
As a community of faith we often have a common mind. But sometimes a new situation or a new experience raises questions where we thought there had been agreement.
These are times when it is especially important to listen and speak with each other to test the new insight that some are claiming. This is a tender and challenging time of both honoring what we have agreed on and being open to see if the Spirit has a new word for us.
Dialogue is different from a debate in which the assumption is that one side is right and the other side is wrong. The goal in a debate of that kind is to prove that you are right. In dialogue the assumption is that each side holds some of the truth, but God alone holds the whole truth. The goal in a dialogue is to speak and listen carefully in order to uncover the truth that each of us has so that together we can come to a greater understanding of God’s truth.
We enter these conversations in the name and spirit of Christ. This means approaching each other with love as sisters and brothers, listening with generous and open hearts and speaking honestly, honoring the weaker brother or sister, being patient, submitting to each other. It means hanging in there with each other without being dismissive and contemptuous of each other or threatening to walk away or break ties. It means trusting the Spirit to guide us.
We are people gathered around Jesus, seeking together to make ourselves available to him. When we stop giving and receiving counsel, we stop being the church. We may be an organization with plans, we may be an institution with programs, but when we stop talking we are no longer the church, where the Spirit speaks and guides.
Yet when we love each other and are open to each other and to God’s Spirit, God is able to accomplish through us abundantly far more than we can ever ask or imagine. This is our hope and our faith.
André Gingerich Stoner is director of holistic witness and of interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA.
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