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2006-05-02 issue:

Anabaptism & pastoral authority

The importance of Anabaptism’s major themes and understanding of pastoral authority

by Heather Ann Ackley

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The key themes of an Anabaptist understanding of pastoral leadership center on the relationship between ministerial leadership and the church as the body of Christ. The first of these is the need for “uniformity and clarity” of polity created by the integration of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, which had different leadership traditions (Mennonite Polity, see “Works Cited"). That process has led to this polity’s “new protocol” of shared three-part leadership (Mennonite Polity). This tripartite leadership model is based on Hebrew, early Christian and Anabaptist precedents (Mennonite Polity).

The second key theme
is the grounding of congregational leadership and polity in our biblical and historical Anabaptist belief and tradition: “Discipline, structure and organization consistent with the gospel of Christ are … required to equip the church for ministry” (Mennonite Polity).

The third theme, closely intertwined with the first two, is that ministry belongs to the church as a whole. Thus, the universal priesthood of believers is affirmed, as are the tripartite leadership model and the church’s discernment and guidance of the individual’s “call” (Mennonite Polity).

These three themes come together in historical Anabaptist Christocentrism (Christ-centeredness) and its relational understanding of our Christian faith, particularly the emphasis on discipleship. In relation to ministerial leadership, this means emphasizing the servanthood of pastors, a biblical understanding of discipleship as inner service to God, personal devotion that bears fruits of mercy, justice and righteousness (Mennonite Polity).

As Menno Simons affirmed, ministers are “messengers of peace” and “servants” rather than high priestly, glorified heirs of “a formal tradition of apostolic succession” (Mennonite Polity). The life of a disciple, including a pastor, is an ongoing, reciprocal, responsive relationship between the servant and her Lord. Congregations and pastoral leaders may need to be led to view this Anabaptist confessional emphasis on servanthood as an equal, even greater, part of one’s ministerial duties.

An Anabaptist Christocentric view of pastoral leadership contrasts with business, academic and political polity and leadership models: Majority rule and an “employer/employee mentality” in the church diverge from truly Anabaptist, Mennonite and biblical beliefs and historical practices of consensus, spiritual discernment and mutual submission (Mennonite Polity). Congregational expectations of a business model of action-oriented ministry that can be logged hourly and evaluated for cost-efficiency may work up to a point, but the congregation’s understanding of servanthood as the pastor’s correct biblical emphasis must always be promoted by the pastor, the pastor’s family and the conference and denominational leadership.

The role and authority of pastoral leadership in Mennonite Church USA: A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership admits that ordination is not necessarily biblical, lacks clear support in the Christian tradition until the third century and is not even present in early Anabaptist confessions (Mennonite Polity). However, ordained ministerial leadership has become a tradition in Christian churches generally, including Mennonite Church USA. Therefore, the denomination has outlined a biblically based model of servant leadership with particular emphasis on Jesus Christ’s teachings and example with regard to dealing with conflict. Jesus’ sermon on Christian relationships (Matthew 18:15-20) is central to the Anabaptist understanding of appropriate relationships within the body of Christ. Following the teachings of Jesus in this sermon, the Mennonite polity document reminds us that we are to deal with conflict privately, directly, respectfully and lovingly, going first to the brother or sister with whom we are experiencing conflict. Our pastoral relationships are to be characterized by courtesy, honor, respect and purity, the polity exhorts, citing 1 Timothy, where we are exhorted to “follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” (1 Timothy 6:11).

It would help to lance the boil of dysfunctional communication in and among our Anabaptist churches, with their phobia about directly confronting conflicts, to add Ephesians 4:15, mentioned elsewhere in the polity (“By speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we grow up in every way to Christ, who is our head”) and include in the polity document the more strongly worded texts against indirect communication, e.g. Philippians 2:14: “Do all things without murmurings and disputings” and James 1:26: “If anyone among you seems religious and doesn’t bridle her tongue, but deceives her own heart, this one’s religion is vain.” These exhortations seem to be the biblical underpinnings of the polity handbook’s guidelines for communication. Even for “pastoral” reasons, such as leading group prayer, the confidentiality of others in the congregation, denomination and world is to be respected, not violated.

Sometimes this is not as clear as our polity document seems to suggest; however, our polity helped me understand why people reacted negatively when I was first licensed to ministry and not yet familiar with these guidelines. For example, in my first month or two of pastoral service, I asked the congregation to pray for a person who was ill. The person had phoned me to request prayer and support from me but had not said anything about the rest of the congregation. The polity document clarifies the boundaries in a situation like this. Following its guidelines, I soon understood that I can ask the congregation to pray for a person in need only when that person has specifically asked or given permission that their need be shared.

Otherwise, the matter is private.

Likewise, at first I asked for clarification on relational issues by sharing conversations between conference representatives and me or between members of the leadership team with the congregation. The polity handbook reminded me that the “Jesus way” (outlined in Matthew 18) for dealing with such confusions and conflicts is to go first to the source, communicating directly and privately. During this same, early pastoral period, I also tried to intervene gently or mediate unobtrusively in conflicts between congregants or between the congregation and the conference. Like Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 18, the polity handbook explains that it is appropriate to do this only when invited to do so by both parties and only after doing everything possible to encourage them to communicate with each other directly.

Another helpful point in our polity handbook is the assertion that area ministers and other conference administrators must share information with other conferences and denominations in order to respect the integrity of the office in which they have been called to serve. This is not a boundary violation or “triangling” but a holistic approach to conference ministry.

Finally, I appreciate the warning to speak the truth about oneself “wisely.” While I often share part of my personal testimony as part of preaching and teaching in order to witness to the power of God’s redeeming love in my life, due to the nature of my experiences the warning not to speak too explicitly about certain personal, private matters and experiences is relevant (Mennonite Polity). To speak too explicitly about certain topics is a violation of the office in which others have called their pastor to serve.

A biblical metaphor: When preparing for a pre-ordination exam administered by the conference in which I was licensed, I sought a biblical verse to describe the Anabaptist vision for ministry, prayerfully letting my New Testament fall open, looking for the first words of Jesus the Holy Spirit showed me. My eyes rested on Mark 11:2: “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here.” Though it seems so inapplicable, the verse reminds me that we Anabaptists have not yet fully realized our ideal. Anabaptists believe we are called to “go into the village opposite us,” the kingdom of God rather than “the city of Man.” Immediately as we enter, Jesus assures us, we will find what he has sent us after. Further, the colt “on which no one yet has ever sat” may be a good metaphor for the community that Jesus preached to us but that we have failed to realize. Anabaptists have tried from the beginning to be this church, but we haven’t really slipped comfortably down in the saddle and ridden out our value system, our relationship with Jesus, our submission to God. “Untie it and bring it here,” he commands. Maybe this is a verse to call Anabaptist pastors and churches into the 21st century.

Heather Ann Ackley is associate professor of theology at Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University.

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Works cited

Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Herald Press, 1995).

Building on the Rock: A Biblical Vision of Being Church Together from an Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspective by Walfred J. Fahrer (Herald Press, 1995)

A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership, edited by Everett J. Thomas (Faith and Life, 1996)


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