I’ve been thinking a lot about community recently. Much of my thinking originates with the challenges facing my congregation, as many who read this blog will be aware. (Those of you aren’t acquainted with our struggles will be able to learn more in the archives.) Mennonites tend to talk a lot about community – for good reason, I think. When we do community well, we do it really well. We emphasize communal discernment in matters of scriptural interpretation and hearing God’s call. We practice mutual aid in times of trouble. Our potlucks are awesome.
But we also have a knack for doing community pretty poorly at times, too. Think about this – the existence of both Amish and Mennonites is just one example of community gone wrong. And one can find other examples of church, conference, and denominational splits – the rending of community. I suppose that these splits stem from a need to define community. If you value it, you want to protect it. You want to guard it. You want to keep it pure.
When it comes to scriptural discernment, I wonder if what we really do is to find a like-minded group of believers who will remind us (at the appropriate time) of applicable scripture; or rather, will remind us of the scriptures that the community has already regarded as applicable. In this sense, the community becomes an accountability group (put nicely) or a law enforcement body (not so nice). This isn’t necessarily bad, but it avoids the actual process of scriptural discernment. And this raises the question of what to do when a disagreement develops within the community. Do we have room for someone who, in good faith, believes differently than the community; or is such a person regarded as rebellious? Have we left room within our boundaries for the movement of the Holy Spirit? Is there space for the prophetic?
You can guess which way I’m leaning, just because I’m bothering to ask the questions in the first place. I think that in some ways, Mennonites have made community a priority – that is, as long as boundaries aren’t stretched, we’ll be a very good community. We rejoice when we should rejoice, mourn when we should mourn, provide support when needed. But when you reach the boundaries, then orthodoxy becomes the priority so that the purity of the community is maintained. However, I wonder if this ought to be the case.
What was Jesus’ priority – community or orthodoxy? Let me give you one possible answer that I’m exploring – my hypothesis, if you will. Maybe Jesus’ orthodoxy was community. Is it possible that the whole of Jesus’ teaching comes down to this: an ethic of love for your community. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.
Now – perhaps that “ethic of love” sounds a little too open ended. If that’s the case, run everything through the “Fruits of the Spirit” filter. Does this action bear the fruits of the Spirit? Then it’s permissible. There are a few times in the New Testament where we hear the puzzling admonition to “judge for yourselves…” Do we dare take that literally?
And think about this – are there examples where Jesus actually broke fellowship with someone? There are many examples where people broke fellowship with Jesus: when the radical nature of his message became just too much and the Good News just didn’t seem too good anymore. But I can’t remember any times when Jesus was the one walking away. We are quick to remember how Jesus told us to treat those who have sinned against us – as tax collectors and gentiles. But we fail to remember that Jesus spent all of his time with tax collectors, and that we ourselves are gentiles.
I’m aware that I’m leaving tons of questions unanswered, but I’m going to proceed anyway and pose even more questions. In the end, this blog will be all questions. No answers.
So, let’s suppose that we truly make community our priority. Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to break community? I think that an abusive community is no community at all. If someone leaves for their own health – spiritual, emotional, or physical – they are justified in doing so. This is clear.
Also, I think that some marriage imagery is useful: Jesus talked about permitting divorce when someone has been unfaithful. But this is where I start to struggle. What would that mean in a community setting? For example, I recently spoke with someone about welcoming LGBT brothers and sisters into our congregation. “I see it as a social justice issue,” he said. “I couldn’t be a part of a congregation that wasn’t welcoming.” To illustrate his concern, he asked, “Could you be a part of congregation that condoned slavery?” Exactly. Precisely. I agree fully. But what if I had been an abolitionist 150 years ago in a congregation struggling on this question? How long do you live in disagreement? How do you respect the noble intent of your brother or sister in their interpretation of scripture on one hand, when on the other hand you think that their understanding is unfaithful to Jesus’ ethic of love?
Let’s move on from the current challenge in my congregation, because I’m also curious about the bigger question: If you prioritize community, are there certain issues or beliefs that are non-negotiable? Are there times when we say, “you have to believe in a certain way, or you can’t be part of our community”? Abortion? Military involvement? The role of Mary? The Eucharist? Even the deity of Christ? Would Jesus turn away anyone who sincerely wanted to follow him?
All of this has a profound effect on how we think about church membership. I’m starting to think that Jesus would frown on the whole idea. But you might say, “Wait – if we don’t have membership, how do we define who can be a teacher or a preacher? I don’t want someone teaching my children things that I don’t support.” Of course, you’re right. But maybe, when we try to make these decisions ahead of time, then we’ve created an institution (or a principality or power, to use biblical language). At that point, we are no longer working from community. Maybe the better way is to deal with these questions as they arise, living with grace, maintaining the unity of the Spirit, and bearing with one another in love. And if we really need a way to define ourselves and are concerned that our community not become an “anything-goes, free-for-all”, we can say (as the Church of the Brethren does) that our creed is the New Testament.
As for myself, all of this leaves unanswered the question of what to do when you find yourself in conflict within a congregation that prioritizes orthodoxy above community. Or worse yet, when you find yourself between opposing sides. The only thing that I seem to know in all of this is that Jesus, on the night before his death, prayed for the unity of his followers. If he felt strongly enough about the matter to put it into his final prayer, then we as his followers should probably do our best to figure out how to make that happen. So far, we’re struggling.