Response to “Losing the Trust”
Some time ago there appeared in several in-boxes a letter written to an Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite bishop attempting to explain why there may be in some cases a loss of trust in Eastern administration. Though that letter was the result of some extensive research and reflected both the experience and viewpoint of many people, it may have overlooked some basic concepts that ought to be reconsidered if the "trust" can be totally regained. The death of Uzzah would not have been prevented by having used horses instead of oxen to transport the ark. David was using a "Philistine method" and he needed to change his concept to the Biblical plan for carrying the ark of the covenant. And so it is in all of the Christian life. All of us are faulty and we all have at least a degree of "tint on our glasses" but we must desire to live as closely to the Bible principles as possible if we are to expect the harmonious results and respectful relationships that the New Covenant promises us. Following are seven such principles, written in a very brief format, that attempt to address the administrative concepts of our Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church brethren. This writing is neither a criticism nor a rebuke. It is offered with respectful recognition of much good that many have received from this fellowship of congregations that left the Lancaster Conference in 1968.
1. "Rules and Discipline" will never do for a Brotherhood what discipleship is intended to do. Lancaster Conference had a "discipline", but for as Anabaptist as it would have claimed to be, it was weak on discipleship. The Great Commission says, "Make disciples of all nations". To any question, problem or issue there can be both a legal and a spiritual answer. It was considered imperative to have a "right discipline". It was the single issue that gave birth to the "new grouping". But it takes more than a right discipline to bring true life to the Body. Too much focus here allows the discipline to become the administrative tool rather than making discipleship the primary aim. And in this case, it was the "rules and discipline" that were emphasized. Did this, perhaps result in a "legal" mindscape that then became the criteria for evaluating Eastern members and all others who were seeking to live out their faith in their own fellowship? Perhaps the second point we help us better understand this one.
2. When the focus becomes "right administration", when the evidence of "strength" is administrating the "district" according to the "group conscience", something will not turn out well. Sheep are nurtured by pastoring the flock; not by administrating the farm. And as many have come to learn, no position will long endure if we do not have the hearts of our people. Would an example be helpful here? Brother Aaron Shank had a problem at Shirksville. We will not mention the specific issue. He was being urged to "deal" with the matter that surfaced there. It represented a violation of the discipline. (It hardly seems appropriate here to mention the ignominious "nick-name" that some gave to this congregation in the Lebanon District.) Bro. Aaron was sincerely attempting to maintain the agreed upon position. But he felt responsible to take time and visit and work with his people. He thought the issue was "solved" only to discover that there was still a "violation". He was burdened about it, asked for counsel and went back to the "offender". He understood the difference that results when discipleship is the tool used to arrive at a Biblical standard. He was trying to secure the heart of this member at Shirksville and not only compliance. His was a method that "saved" some for the Church that otherwise may have become "lost". The member is more important than the dress she is wearing or the watch band he has on his wrist. And every member needs to know that the bishop feels this way about him.
3. It may be because of the unique rendering found in the King James Version that the concept of "bishop oversight" developed as it did in Eastern thinking. At any rate, it is imperative that this concept be tested by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. So with time there were "bishop boards" and "bishop statements" and "bishop districts" and "bishop authority" (one writing stated that no man or committee or board could be "above or over" the bishops.) So the "bishop committee" met ad infinitum. Would it not be true that any so-called Bible reasoning to support this structure could also justify a "college of cardinals"?
The "rule over you" concept perpetuated by the 1611 English translation of pastoral oversight certainly influenced our thinking. Neither "rule" nor "over" is in the Greek text of Hebrews 13 nor in I Thess. 5:12. It is not found in the Spanish text. The idea is to "stand before", indicating care and diligence, referring to a pastoral ministry. It is the task of one who is "attending", watchful, paying attention, and available. A shepherd serves among his sheep, not over them. Jesus said, "I am among you as he that serveth". Lu. 22:27. ("He that ruleth over men" in II Samuel 23:3 is translated "He that governs among men" in the Spanish RV.) As soon as a bishop is "over" others, he assumes a position that only Christ dare assume. Even so, frequently the resulting attitude is more harmful than the "position" itself. (It may be of interest to note that "office" is not a concept found within the Christian Church. The emphasis is always on function and never on placement or position. "Over" indicates an assumed position.) Until this concept is understood Biblically, trust will be difficult to regain.
Looking at this concept from the negative side, "rule over" violates the clear teaching of Lu. 22:25,26: I Pet. 5:3-5; III Jn. 9 and of course, Mt. 5:3. And this does not negate valid Biblical authority. The term "government" in I Cor. 12:28 means "pilotage" in the Greek language. Be it in a ship or on a plane, a pilot has authority. So does a true shepherd. But how is that authority gained? There was never a doubt about the authority of our Lord. And twice Paul told the Corinthians that though he had authority, it was "for edification and not for destruction". When one views his "authority" instead of his call to service, the result will sooner or later be disconcerting.
4. The Eastern Brethren faced a problem that the Lancaster Conference before them did not have. The "new group" wanted to uphold the "1954 Discipline of the Lancaster Conference, which they considered to be "stricter" than the earlier 1943 version. They sincerely wanted to "preserve" the 1940's era of the Conference. They held this "snap-shot" of the Church as a right model. The Conference did not have that "model" to emulate. But was this emphasis properly placed? When the "new" discipline of 1968 was adopted, the EPMC Brethren withdrew. And God honored that withdrawal and the evidence of that is quite clear. But the problem was in what constituted "a right model of Church life". It was this mistaken purpose that established for Eastern the emphasis on "church". It gave them a reference point that decided when things were "right", something the Early Church knew nothing about; nor has the Pilgrim Church throughout the ages and across the world. And this same criteria that Eastern uses to "judge" themselves is what they use to judge all others. How can Christ be the "one thing needful" in a situation like this? "Church" does not begin with a Conference, no matter how venerable that Conference may one day have been. So the emphasis became "building Church". And we are called to be laborers together with Christ, but He will build His Church, but scarcely will it model the "Conference" wherever it is found around the world.
5. The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church is no more "right" because it became "more conservative" than were the Pharisees. There is something even more important than "being right". With what spirit are we "right"? What do we think about ourselves, the ones who are "right" in this case? And just how do we feel about others who may be in some areas different from us? Most Eastern members would easily know the answer to these questions. This concern is closely related to #4 above, granted, but just how did they go about "building Church"? With the model clearly placed before them, they were able to determine what made "church building material" and just what did not. Perhaps we need to be reminded that Christ Himself was rejected as "building material". Mt. 21:42. The Eastern bishops approved a writing in the "Testimony" which gave several reasons against the wearing of a beard among the membership. Bishop Benjamin Eshbach once said, "If Christ (who had a beard) would want to join us, He would submit to the Church and shave His beard." Is not this an example of the kind of reasoning that is sure, sooner or later, to lose the trust of a spiritual, discerning membership? Christ is the Head of the Church; the Church submits to Him. When "what is right" is based upon tradition or on "status quo" the Christian life is reduced to imitating or to "acting" and comes dangerously close to hypocrisy. "Life" is reduced to lifestyle, and "I thank thee, that I am not as other men" lies quite close to the door. Let us return to I John 5:12.
6. Our Eastern Brethren felt called to "keep the trust". The "trust" had been kept for the previous 1968 years; ever since Pentecost. That was long before there was a new grouping born out from the Mennonite Messianic Mission. What they felt they were "keeping" by leaving Conference was being scripturally and spiritually maintained by many other faithful groups. Was it not the exclusiveness that was foundational to losing the trust? Bro. Aaron Shank, mentioned previously, once said, "There are many kinds of pride, but the worst of them all is Church pride". Supposing a spontaneous gathering of new believers, enthused with their recent discovery of Bible truth and living faith would seek to live out their embryotic expression of the Christian life. To what extent would this resemble the Lancaster Conference of 1945? What did Barnabas "see" when he came among the new Gentile believers at Antioch? Acts 11:23. Unfortunately, groups of sincere, Bible-believing and obedient Christians who do not subscribe to the Eastern model pose a threat to the security of the "Church". It then remains for administrative regulation to "preserve" the Church from the influence of "modified conservatism" or from such "unproven experiments". Again, the problem is not that Eastern sincerely wants to maintain a "right fellowship" and a sound position; there is value in that, but the spirit with which this is done is what undermines trust in the Church.
7. This brief writing has called attention to the "focus" that give the Eastern Church its direction. It was on "building church". So the emphasis became "rules", Mennonite traditions, "church building material" and as said in "Keeping the Trust", in "our church group", perhaps at the loss of the dynamic, the nature, the mind, the Spirit and the life of Christ Himself. Did Eastern trust Christ to build His Church? They felt called to be the stewards of this "trust". Others, outside this "stewardship" were suspect. May this have been possibly the most serious "error"? After all, just who of any of us has "come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ"? Should we not be clothed with humility, ministering grace one to another and receiving one another as Christ received us? No one is afraid of humility. No one is scared of the gentle light in a lantern on a stormy night. People will want to come to it. Sheep love their shepherd. They want to hear his voice and bring their wounds and needs to him. They do not want to leave him. No one fears a bishop with a pastor's heart, upon his knees in prayer, presenting the precious sheep to God one by one. If we are losing the trust of the people, it may be more because of what we truly are instead of the cause we were seeking to promote. All of us can tell if someone truly loves us. Are we "caring" for our flock? ("Take care" in I Tim. 3:5 is the same as "take care of him" found twice in Lu. 10:34,35.) Do you know of anyone who would lose confidence in one offering a spiritual ministry like this? Maybe we should just quickly check ourselves a bit, "Did I put on my white apron this morning?" That is, did I clothe myself with humility at the beginning of day as I thought about my responsibility as a bishop to feed, guide, heal, restore and bless my sheep?
—D. Eugenio Heisey