Category Archives: Mennonite

Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)

[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]

Merger and the “Membership Guidelines”

In February of 2000, an open letter was published in the Mennonite Weekly Review signed by close to 1,000 Mennonite church members, including numerous pastors and other church leaders, calling for a more inclusive approach. The letter asked for more conversation among those in Mennonite churches and sought to demonstrate that those who favored inclusion made up a sizable minority of church members.

I signed the MWR letter and afterwards learned that I was the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) to sign it. About a year after the MWR letter, VMC issued a statement requiring ordained people in the conference to agree not to advocate against the statement’s points about “homosexual practice”—including this one: “We believe that the practice of homosexuality is rebuked by Scripture as sin.” This requirement was never actually strictly enforced, but I did face an extended process of having my credentials reviewed. In the end, the conference pressured me to resign my ordination but was not quite willing to remove it when I resisted the pressure.

The MWR letter was released in the midst of negotiations between the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church to merge. Numerous people took the impending merger as an opportunity to exert pressure to keep Mennonite churches from allowing for the presence of the inclusive perspective affirmed in the MWR letter.

At the joint general assembly of MCs and GCs in 1999, the GCs voted to affirm the merger. And, Canadian members of both denominations decided to join together apart from the US churches and form Mennonite Church Canada as a separate entity from the US churches. However, the MC delegates did not achieve the pro-merger vote that was required, so the process continued. One of the main stated issues was that numerous MC delegates threatened to reject the merger unless the anti-inclusive stance of the denomination were strengthened.

So, what became the 2001 Membership Guidelines were formulated. Enough of those who opposed inclusion found the strict anti-inclusion provisions acceptable (and enough of those who supported inclusion were willing to give up on a more inclusive denominational stance for the sake of achieving the merger) that the delegate approved the merger and Mennonite Church USA was created.

It was notable, that in face of the threats by some not to agree to the merger, these Guidelines, a relatively short document (4 pages) that spoke to the key issues that would shape the proposed new denomination devoted about 25% of its length and one of its three main sections to “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” in effect giving the “homosexuality” issue status as the most important issue facing this new denomination (I have written a critique of the Guidelines here). Continue reading

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Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

The denomination I have been part of since 1981, the Mennonite Church, is going through a bit of a rough patch right now. The longer-term trend for some time has been shrinking membership totals and an aging demographic.

Downward trends

The college where I teach, Eastern Mennonite University, was founded and has existed with the purpose (not always directly stated) of keeping Mennonite young people in the Mennonite community. When I began teaching here in 1996, the student body was a bit more than 60% Mennonite. Now, with the enrollment being roughly the same, the percentage of Mennonite students in our first-year class is about half of what it was 17 years ago. Not a good sign.

Another factor that has led to MC USA shrinking, besides smaller families and the younger generation losing its loyalty to the denomination, has been a steady stream of conservative congregations leaving the denomination—and numerous others continuing to threaten to leave. (It is an interesting phenomenon that it is only conservative congregations that are voluntarily leaving—the couple of progressive congregations that left MC USA since its current structure was established in 2001 with the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Church were kicked out.)

In recent weeks I have heard dispirited speculation from several denominational leaders better informed and much closer to the centers of power than I am that MC USA may not be long for the world. I have no idea how realistic such speculation actually is. I do find it difficult to imagine that the denomination itself would die, but I suppose it is reasonable to imagine a significantly diminished institution.

I perceive that it would be pretty difficult to describe accurately all the factors that are contributing to these troubles. Most of those who talk about these things (including me) may have ideological axes to grind in our analyses. Our understanding of the why of the problem is often shaped by our ideals about what we want the denomination to do.

What I want to reflect on in this post is not so much a wide-ranging diagnosis of the factors that are troubling MC USA as taking one particular factor and thinking about how it might have contributing something to our current situation. This is my thesis: The soul of MC USA has been damaged by a tendency for church leaders and others to allow those who are opposed to efforts to make the denomination more gay-friendly to exercise influence by use of threats to leave the denomination. Our current crises follow—at least in part—from this tendency. Continue reading

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Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?

Ted Grimsrud

I wrote my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, out of a conviction that the Bible does contain a coherent peace message (or, I could say, a coherent healing message or a coherent mercy message). Surprisingly to me, I wonder now whether this conviction is shared by all Mennonite academics.

While I would have preferred a more sympathetic reviewer, I appreciate the issues raised by Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman’s review of Instead of Atonement in the January 2014 Mennonite Quarterly Review. I want to reflect on several of those issues, not mainly to argue with Suderman but more to take the opportunity offered by his review to address some key elements of how we wrestle with the Bible in face of our call to be agents of healing in the world today.

There will be five issues that I will write about: (1) Is the best way to approach “biblical concepts” through focusing on the big picture or on analyses of specific words? (2) How do we understand God’s judgment in relation to God’s mercy? (3) How seriously should we take the Bible’s own way of summarizing its salvation story? (4) Is suggesting that the Bible has a coherent message actually making an inappropriate “universalized claim”? (5) What kind of assumptions should we have as we approach the Bible? Continue reading

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“Mennonite Systematic Theology”: An opportunity whose time has passed?

Ted Grimsrud

David Cramer’s recent interesting Conrad Grebel Review article, “Mennonite Systematic Theology in Retrospect and Prospect” (31.3 [Fall 2013], 255-73) has stimulated my thinking quite a bit. He surveys the past thirty years, discussing the rise of interest in doctrinal theology among Mennonites and suggesting that while it has been good for Mennonite theologians to engage the broader Christian tradition it is still necessary for Mennonites to develop “more radically particularistic, integral Mennonite Systematic Theologies” (p. 257).

Though I have quite a bit of sympathy with Cramer’s suggestion (and I hope to say a bit more about a “particularistic” approach to Mennonite theology at the end of this post), his discussion triggered some thoughts that leave me feeling a bit discouraged. One response I have to this essay is to wonder if it might actually be too late for Cramer’s proposal. I hope not….

A theological attraction to Mennonites

Not long before Cramer was born (he cites his year of birth, 1983, as coincidentally the moment when it seems Mennonite academics made a self-conscious turn toward doctrinal theology), I had first encountered the Mennonite tradition. Drawn to Mennonites’ pacifism as mediated through the writing of John Howard Yoder, I made the move from being a generic evangelical to joining the Mennonite church in 1981. This step of formal membership followed a year of residence at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

From the start, my attraction to the Mennonite tradition had everything to do with Mennonite theology. Like many evangelicals at the time and since (I think this may be true of David Cramer himself, at least to some degree), I read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and felt a strong attraction to the tradition that had generated such a profound perspective on the gospel. I was fortunate soon to discover a generous-spirited small Mennonite congregation in my home town that sought, with significant success, to embody that peaceable message.

The people, the relationships, the social ethics, the service work, the tradition and practices of “nonresistance” and conscientious objection, all attracted me powerfully. However, I was also passionate about the ideas, the intellectual grounding, the theology of peace that I discovered among Mennonites. It wasn’t just Yoder. I avidly read Norman Kraus’s writings along with the 1976 festschrift for Guy Hershberger, Kingdom, Cross, and Community, that contained any number of rich essays. My wife Kathleen and I went to hear Myron Augsberger preach when we visited her family in Phoenix in March 1977. We were beside ourselves in excitement that evening. Here was a perspective that promised to make sense of what it means to think as Christians in our violent world. Continue reading

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Glen Stassen’s reflections on the Yoder case (guest post)

[Glen Stassen, Smedes Professor of Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, was a close personal friend of John Howard Yoder's. He wrote the following response after reading the series of blog posts on this site about John Howard Yoder's sexual misconduct as well as other recent writings that reflect on the Yoder case. Glen, along with his and Yoder's friends and fellow theologians Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon, was involved in several conversations with Yoder during the time of Yoder's working with a Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference disciplinary committee in the early 1990s (here's an account by Hauerwas of this process). In his comments here he adds an important perspective on that process. I am grateful to Glen for sharing his reflections. Ted Grimsrud, 9/24/13]

These are enormously insightful blogs and comments on Ted Grimsrud’s blogsite. Thank you all! You help me to wrestle with my own conflictedness. Ruth Krall is so right that we need therapeutic and spiritual resources for victims, public education events, and work to change the surrounding culture. Barbra Graber suggests for writers, and “For Mennonite pastors and bishops: No more secrecy and silence.” (And other churches as well.) Sara Wenger Shenk’s policy decisions for AMBS, and Ervin Stutzman’s appointing a new review committee, are truly important and impressive initiatives. As Mark Nation wrote, “I agree with Sara that egregious behaviors were allowed to go undisciplined for far too long—perhaps in large measure because of Yoder’s own efforts to avoid such discipline.” Mark’s recent 16-page blog (September 23, 2013) seeks balance.

Let me speak to just a few of the excellent comments on the various posts about the Yoder issues.

Dan Umbel wrote insightfully that Yoder’s work leaves very little room for the honest acknowledgement of human frailty, the recalcitrance of human sin, and the depths of our estrangements from God, self, and one another. . . . (as well as the more affective/emotive needs of human nature as well) in a way that may have made it difficult for him to admit his own frailty, sinful habits, and/or emotional needs. Others write of John’s striking social awkwardness.

Dan continues: “I would offer as a caution, however, and point out that there is probably not a causal connection between Yoder’s theology and his actions. Rather, . . . what is lacking in his work did not give him the tools necessary to adequately acknowledge his own inner issues.”

Ted Grimsrud adds: “Combined with a pathological lack of empathy toward the women he wanted to try this out with.” This seems exactly right to me. How can I deal with Yoder’s actions and still express my gratitude for what he did for me? I am conflicted.

Heike Peckruhn and someone else suggested “the possibility of Asperger’s. . . via Temple Grandin. . . . I am guilty of hurting others, sometimes quite deliberately, and yet I do not want to be dismissed as a theologian because I am a fallible human being.”

I (Glen) totally identify with that. And all the rest Heike says about how we think of ourselves as Anabaptists.

My own son David, whom I deeply love, and who is sweet, kind, and thoughtful, has Asperger’s. [My plea to others; do not stereotype Asperger’s (caused by missing parts of the right brain from before birth) with autism (caused by missing parts of the left brain; the behavioral results are almost opposite. Do not stereotype and confuse by writing of “the autism spectrum.”] Continue reading

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Reflections of a chagrined “Yoderian” (part five—where to now?)

I am grateful to Barbra Graber for her initiative in writing and circulating her statement. It clearly has served the purpose of stimulating thought, conversation, and hopefully even action. It has led to an unprecedented amount of attention to this website, for which I am grateful. It also challenged me to keep thinking and to write as I think (see the earlier posts—Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4).

I have taken the discussion in a more theological direction due to my own interests. I’ll conclude my set of reflections with the post, confessing that my brain feels a bit fried in relation to this topic. In fact, it is difficult to think of much more to say right now. I invite comments and questions in the comment section below for a chance to think more about aspects of this issue that remain unsettled or unclear.

I will close with just a few comments: Continue reading

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Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part four—Yoder’s theology)

Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2013

A great deal of my energy for “thinking aloud” here about John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence stems from how important Yoder’s theology has been for my life and work. I can’t really put into words how important that theology has been for me. So, how do I reconcile this influence with such deeply problematic behavior? I have been reflecting on the behavior, and now I want to take some time to reflect on the theology—to sketch why I have found it so important. It’s not just that Yoder is famous and important and widely read and cited. It’s that his work has had a profound effect on my own life and thought in many, many ways.

I can probably pinpoint pretty much the exact moment when John Howard Yoder became my most formative thinker. I was a recent graduate of the University of Oregon and in the winter of 1976-7 worked swing shift at a Eugene, Oregon plywood mill. For about two months I had “lunch” all by myself. During those thirty minutes, six days a week, I got a lot of reading done. I read The Lord of the Rings and The Politics of Jesus—a fascinating juxtaposition.

After that winter, I read everything by Yoder I could get my hands on and a few years later, Kathleen and I moved out to Indiana to study with Yoder at the Mennonite seminary where he taught. One of the highlights of that eventful year was receiving copies of two sets of Yoder’s at the time unpublished lectures, “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” and “Christology and Theological Method.” I also photocopied numerous unpublished articles that were in the library.

I have continued to read Yoder and absorb his theological insights. I would like to believe, though, that I have followed a path he would have approved of, which is using his ideas as stimulants to develop my own. Yoder himself did very little writing where he focused in detail on other people’s theology. He mostly referred to the Bible, history, and to the practical outworking of the ideas. It was not theology about theology but theology about life.

As my friend Earl Zimmerman presents it in his fine book on Yoder’s intellectual development, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics, Yoder’s decision to become a theologian came a young adult working in post-World War II Western Europe. He became convinced that the epic disaster of that war was an indictment on Western Christianity. What the world needs is a different way to think about faith and social life. Yoder believed that the 16th century Anabaptists provided a good model, but that what was needed was something more universal—which he found in the life and teaching of Jesus.

So, what I see as the model Yoder provided was an approach to theology that cares deeply about contributing to peaceable social life in the world for the sake of the world and draws deeply on the Bible and the Anabaptists. Yoder’s theology was anything but “sectarian.” The on-going power and influence of his work witnesses to the perceptiveness of his insights. I have been inspired to follow his method and construct theology that is socially engaged based especially on the Bible and inspired by the Anabaptists. Yoder’s ideas are catalytic for my own constructive work—which I would call “peace theology,” not “Yoderian theology.” Continue reading

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