As we were working out her Kingsview & Co prose and poetry posts, Barbara Esch Shisler mentioned that “unraveling” as I had used it in a series of posts on the church “seems right. I have a friend who sometimes uses unraveled yarn to make a new scarf.”
As I told Barbara, I loved that image. The unraveled yarn points to all that is coming undone in church and culture and climate. Yet what hope also lurks in the metaphor of making a new sweater or shawl.
This reminded me of a Paul Hiebert image of church as a centered instead of fuzzy or bounded group (“The Category ‘Christian’ in the Mission Task,” International Review of Missions 272, July 1983, pp. 421-427; elaborated on in Michael A. King, Trackless Wastes and Stars to Steer By, Herald Press, 1990, pp. 115-136). When I first encountered his model in the 1980s as a young pastor, same-sex relationships posed for us a core discernment riddle, as seems perennially the case. Hiebert’s model became a key resource.
But rather than focus yet again on same-sex considerations, let me leap to my most recent pastorate, where Hiebert again proved invaluable. There the riddle involved our views of peace. Although Mennonites belong to the historic peace church tradition, many of the participants in my congregation were from backgrounds that made them wary of pacifism. What to do? Should they be required to convert, in effect, to Mennonite pacifist views to become congregational members?
Hiebert provided possible responses. We could answer yes. We could insist that membership include full embrace of the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which in Article 22 states that “As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service.”
If we went this route, we’d be adopting the bounded model of church. Here, based on clear rules and doctrines, people are in or out. This might be imagined as a clearly drawn circle with dots representing people clearly inside or outside the circle. Persons are in the circle if they agree to the rules and beliefs that say who belongs in the circle. They’re outside if they don’t agree.
Yet a stark move toward an either/or bounded model seemed wrong in that congregation. Those not long formed within Article 22 types of understandings had understandable concerns and questions about pacifism.
I still remembered the horror I felt when, during the first weeks I met her at Eastern Mennonite University, my wife Joan, from an American Baptist, non-pacifist background, reported what her classmates were saying to her: Her father, whom she had lost to Hodgkin’s disease when she was ten months old, was in hell. This was because he had been in the military. The violence of this pacifist rejection seemed to undercut precisely the teachings of Jesus from which it emerges: love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.
So maybe we needed to move toward Hiebert’s “fuzzy” or unbounded model of church. Here there is little clarity or concern about who’s in/out—or whether there is an in or out. We might imagine dots of loosely clumped people together, perhaps, because some like each other, some share similar interests, some just happen to be there at the time.
If we went with this approach, we could live and let live. We could free congregational participants to believe whatever they wished to believe or already believed regarding war and peace. Some of us would remain pacifists; some of us would understand love of enemies as applying, say, only to other Christians or to a future era in which God’s ways triumphed over the inevitable imperfections of our current sinful age.
Interestingly and perhaps predictably, many of us preferred the bounded model when our own core beliefs were what we wanted supported and the unbounded model when we didn’t want to be bound by beliefs with which we disagreed. There were in fact congregational participants who wished to adopt a fuzzy approach to peace understandings.
But we were a Mennonite church. I myself was and remain a committed pacifist. Article 22 seems crucial to me. Was there a way to honor the historic peace church commitments yet not revert to violence such as Joan had experienced? Hiebert’s centered model of church seemed our best option.
In this model, people are flexibly in or out of the group based on whether traveling toward or away from the teachings of Jesus the group sees as core.
We might imagine a central circle labeled Jesus (and his teachings) with people as arrows traveling toward or away from Jesus. Here people aren’t so much in or out as moving deeper into or away from the group. They’re going deeper when headed toward the center. They’re moving away when aimed away from the center.
People may start out close to the center and so for a time seem closes to Jesus even while pointed away from Jesus. Over time they’ll end up far from Jesus. Or people may be far from the center yet traveling toward it; ultimately they’ll end up nearer to Jesus than those close to the center yet aiming away from it.
If we adopted the centered model in relation to peace as core value, we would in fact maintain the way of peace at the center of our understandings of Jesus. But we wouldn’t set up either/or church membership. We wouldn’t say sorry, you and your household are going to hell if you don’t agree with this, get with the program or get out. Instead we’d say, amid whatever questions, concerns, complexities you see here, are you ready to travel toward peace instead of war?
Now centered-model membership in a peace church still wouldn’t fit for a gung-ho we need-to-go-kill-all-the-bad-guys-in-the-name-of-Christ type of Christian. There comes a point for saying membership doesn’t make sense for those of us actively intending to travel and fight against the core commitments of a given church.
Yet the centered approach can offer a life-giving blend of clarity and flexibility. It allows a congregation to say, Indeed we’re a peace church. You can be a veteran and become a member here. You can still be struggling with that classic painful question, If my loved one were attacked, what would I do? You can show us that the good-faith wrestlings with whether just-war criteria have something to contribute to Christian understandings of war and peace deserve respectful attention. You can ask hard questions about whether pacifists ride on the coattails of the soldiers who defend our freedoms—even as I may ask you what makes it okay to kill the enemies Jesus told us to love.
This doesn’t mean anything goes. If you want to give a sermon on why Jesus call us to vaporize that city of “villains” with a nuclear bomb, no, not here. But if you want to be part of a community exploring, amid all the riddles and difficult questions, what it looks like in your life and mine to journey closer toward Jesus as peacemaker, you don’t need to have it all together or be in full agreement to be warmly welcome.
Along with plenty of others, I’ve been exploring resources of the centered model for decades, yet here we still are, amid so much unraveling. The centered model hasn’t and won’t miraculously create a new sweater or shawl. Nevertheless, I hope exploring how it might apply war/peace beliefs suggests the potential for the centered model to use and re-use so many of the threads that might in other approaches primarily weave straitjackets or remain too loose and shapeless to keep us warm.
What if, for instance, across our many divides we were to explore together whether we could conceptualize placing at the center a Jesus large enough to win our allegiance beyond our polarizations? It seems to me we already have something of a template for this: Mennonite World Conference, the global fellowship of Mennonite and Anabaptist-related groups, affirms seven shared convictions. These Jesus-centered convictions in turn become, in effect, the MWC center toward which MWC participants agree to travel.
So when over 7,000 MWC members celebrated a week of worship and fellowship and mutual learning in Harrisburg in 2015, we didn’t replicate the tussling over boundaries so common in other denominational contexts. Instead amid each other’s rich and variegated testimonies and music , we worshiped a God uniting us across countless languages and cultures.
The details of our beliefs still mattered and needed ongoing attention in our local contexts. Yet if we had focused primarily on details, we’d have been back in the bounded model and its tussles. Instead, in what seems to me the MWC centered model, we gathered in love and left refreshed to continue our journeys with Jesus across a world so hungry for more healing and less hate.
Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. Portions of this material have been tested in such settings as Germantown Mennonite Church, Spring Mount Mennonite Church, Franconia Mennonite Conference, and Salford Mennonite Church.