Sunday, March 22, 2015

Anabaptist Amnesia

For a fairly small group Anabaptists have managed to divide themselves up into a ton of distinct groups, especially within the largest group, the Mennonites (although they are plenty of divisions within the Hutterites and Amish of course). Some Mennonites have decided that the evangelical model is the way to go. There are a couple of those groups near us, one that is basically a huge church that is indistinguishable from any other Evangelical group (they even took "Mennonite" out of their name) and the other a quasi-Charismatic mess. There are a number of groups that are marked more by concerns over holiness and being unspotted from the world where the men wear the traditional suit coat and the women wear plain dresses and headcovers. Then there are the "progressive" groups that focus on "social justice" and militant pacifism. I would suggest that most of these groups have forgotten their heritage, some (like the "progressives") more so than others.

This has gathered some recent attention from the mainstream media, always a group likely to totally mishandle a question of religion. Amid the Presbyterian Church - USA voting to celebrate sin last week, I came across an interesting article in the Atlantic of all places on a regional conference of the Mennonite Church USA, probably the largest progressive group in the Anabaptist tradition. The article, Gay and Mennonite, features a banner with the ubiquitous rainbow banner and a woman wearing a cap, which seemed odd because I am pretty sure that most Mennonites who wear the covering are not having conversations about embracing homosexual behavior. The essay looks at the recent decision of the Allegheny Mennonite Conference regarding member church who had normalized sinful behavior and how the conference should respond.
On a Saturday in March, the Allegheny Mennonite Conference met in Springs, Pennsylvania, to determine the fate of Hyattsville Mennonite Church. A decade earlier, the Maryland congregation had been formally “disciplined” for accepting gay and lesbian members. Now, there were three resolutions on the ballot: let Hyattsville back into the conference as a full member; remove Hyattsville from the conference altogether; or, if no agreement could be found, dissolve the conference.
This is probably not much of a spoiler but in the end the conference voted to retain fellowship with the church that embraced homosexuality to the point of sending delegates to the regional conference that were open homosexuals. That is not surprising but I found some of the quotes from those in attendance to be telling in this troubling situation. This is the first one:
During conversations like these, pastors and church members who object to same-sex relationships tend to return to certain passages in the Bible. At Springs, they quoted Leviticus 18:22, which states that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which says that “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men … will inherit the kingdom of God.”
For Christians who are gay, words like these could be taken as a direct assault on both their faith and their gender identity. But Miller said he tries to ignore them. “I don’t react very much any more—maybe an eye roll. Anything that biblical writers were addressing had nothing to do with modern same-sex couples,” he said. “Some people’s whole focus about gay and lesbian relationships is all about sex—thinking below the belt, and that’s not the totality of what our life together means.”
Ironically and tragically that is precisely what it is. When a man couples with another man by seeking to substitute the natural relationship between men and women with a disordered and perverse action it inherently makes the relationship "below the belt". We are not talking about celibate same-sex loving relationships but rather relationships which have at their foundation a sexual act. The Bible doesn't prohibit a man from loving another man but it does call sin a man having relations that are restricted to a heterosexual, married relationship with another man. This particular statement from that quote really gets to the heart of the entire debate:
Anything that biblical writers were addressing had nothing to do with modern same-sex couples
So here we have it. At least he doesn't try to pretend that the Bible doesn't say anything about homosexual behavior like some do but he states what many clearly believe: the Bible doesn't have anything to say about this issue to sinners today. I wonder if that would hold true for those who steal or those who murder? Maybe those don't have anything to do with our modern society either. That raises the question, does the Bible have anything definitive and authoritative to say on anything? The answer increasingly for people who claim to follow the Christ revealed in Holy Scripture is no.When you decide that your own opinion is sovereign and creatures get to dictate to the Creator where He can speak and where He must be silent, even when it comes to Him being the Creator in the first place. This is the essence of pagan idolatry, the rejection of a transcendent and absolute authority in favor of an ephemeral notion of divinity that is subject to change on a whim and that is why you cannot join the embrace of sin with the sin repenting and self-denying Gospel.

The second quote is just jaw dropping, even for a cynic like myself (emphasis mine):
The floor opened for debate. Almost immediately, a representative from Springs proposed an amendment: Hyattsville should be allowed back in, but “members of congregations who are living lifestyles not generally accepted in conference should not be eligible to hold an elected position.” This restriction would apply to anyone whose lifestyle wasn’t in keeping with the Mennonite USA confession of faith, he said.
The pastor from Springs, Eric Haglund, rose and said that he had helped draft this amendment and written the morning’s sermon with it in mind—the conference needed time to adjust, he said, and this offered a compromise. “We can’t put deadlines on the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We have all been so bound up, I’m not sure we could recognize the Holy Spirit if he came crashing through the roof.”
But as another woman pointed out, the amendment might have unintended consequences. “I stand here a sinner: I am divorced, and I am an adultress,” she said. “I would like us to consider the challenge that would be before the leadership council if they had to screen people of certain sin categories from the leadership council. 
Wow and yet in a lot of religious circles that might not even get a raised eye-brow. Keep in mind that when the apostle Paul, patriarchal misogynist as some would label him, wrote to Timothy regarding the qualities that are non-negotiable in an elder (i.e leadership in the church) he said:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
Lest we think this is an anomaly, Paul wrote something very similar to Titus:
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9)
My point here is that leadership in the church in inextricably linked with a visible witness that is largely based on not sinning. So yeah, it might be a challenge in our world but we absolutely have to screen people based on certain sin categories. Of course the Bible also screens women from holding formal leadership in the church but that ship sailed a long time ago based on the number of "pastors" who are quoted in this story that are also women. A post revisiting the growing linkage between egalitarianism and embracing homosexuality is forthcoming. This is a pretty simple problem, namely that a lot of people don't want to be told that their own personal decisions and choices have ramifications for leading in the church. We live in an age of no accountability, of zero consequences and missing responsibility. I want to be an elder and I don't care if the Bible says that I can't.

The article points out that immediately a number of local congregations withdrew themselves, as they are unwilling to compromise the truth for the sake of a false unity. Good for them but they largely whiffed on the issue a long time ago. Many probably see their decision to leave as being inflexible but the decision to do so, like others who have split from progressive denominations, was forced on them.

This is a microcosm of the same conversation happening across the progressive Anabaptist sphere and one that has gone even farther in the "mainline" Protestant denominations. It is a "no going back" decision, once this door is opened it usually means the eventual wholesale departure of any contrary voices who can no longer be unequally yoked with their accommodating former brethren. This leaves the "progressive church" to sit around agreeing with themselves and affirming their error as they quickly die out.

Progressive Mennonites are, if not in the vanguard, at least part of the main host of the religious cultural accommodation movement. This flavor of Anabaptism is very in vogue these days for a lot of non-Anabaptists because they seem to have found an established, respected, historical movement that practiced non-violence and in turn have adopted and twisted what it means to be an Anabaptist.

This is where the amnesia comes in. Historically the men and women known as Anabaptists were not accommodating the culture, they were just the opposite and in turn were persecuted and killed for it. No one burned an Anabaptist at the stake or drowned them for agreeing with the powerful religious elites. When the rest of the religious world embraced a state church, the Anabaptists demanded a free church. When the rest of the religious world nonchalantly accepted war in the name of Christ, the Anabaptist chose instead the simple way of peacemaking. When the religious world "baptized" infants and bestowing purported membership in the New Covenant church on those who had not been born-again, the Anabaptists insisted on a believers church made up of the regenerate alone. This was radical, real radicalism, and non-accommodating and was as far as possible away from the movement to diminish sin, emasculate the Scriptures and embrace error. The historical ignorance by contemporary religious types who claim the heritage of Anabaptists is so counter-historical that it boggles the mind which is why I found this quote ironic:
Being a person of any faith means finding a balance between taught tradition and the moral imperatives of modernity. In the Mennonite church, the call of the past is particularly strong across the theological spectrum.
The first sentence  might be true of some religious traditions but it is not a part of Christianity and especially not Anabaptism. The second statement is sort of accurate but not across the theological spectrum. At all.

I tell people who are interested in the Anabaptists that they need to read the actual, historic Anabaptists rather than contemporary writers who cherry pick or flat out ignore what the Anabaptists taught and practiced. The historical ignorance and amnesia that infects a lot of "Anabaptism" has made the very notion into a fuzzy and empty feel-good religious club. If you want to be an Anabaptist you had better be prepared to stick to the Bible and not get too worked up when the culture doesn't like what you say, especially the religious culture, and be prepared for some suffering for your faith. It comes with the territory.

1 comment:

Kendall said...

Interesting you mention head coverings
We have headed down a slippery slope. In the 50st, at all Christian churches, Women wore head covering. It was determined that Paul letter to Corinth was just for that time and city. Quote "Anything that biblical writers were addressing had nothing to do with modern same-sex couples" put it another way
Anything that biblical writers were addressing had nothing to do with Women wearing head covering. I am saying, not wearing a head covering is sin, it is a principle\scripture which should be a concern to "search the scriptures" to learn the whole counsel of God