ast summer Vernon Myers and I represented EAF at the joint convention of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church in Wichita. The two major issues facing delegates were (1) whether or not the two denominations should merge into one and (2) whether or not the proposed Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, substantially revised after its first draft provoked abundant negative reaction, should be adopted as the denominations' official statement of belief and practice. Both issues were resolved in the affirmative.
I had just returned to the exhibit area following the General Conference vote on the Confession of Faith when a brother whom I had never met before, a member of a GC congregation in the Midwest, approached our booth, smiling knowingly.
"Well, we have just done a very Mennonite thing," he announced.
"Yes?" I replied. "Say more."
"Well," he went on, "we have just adopted a document to serve as our official statement which we will immediately begin to ignore."
I know exactly what he meant. As an observer in that very session I noted that, as soon as the delegate vote was registered, a long line formed at each of the floor microphones. Speaker after speaker reminded the delegates that Mennonites are a "non-creedal" people, that the Confession should not be viewed as a "litmus test" for orthodoxy, and that adoption of the document need not imply endorsement of its total content.
During the MC deliberations on the same issue, one delegate, I learned later by reading a press report, sought to make the point that, "we don't even agree on what the Bible says, much less will we agree on every jot and tittle that appears in the Confession of Faith." (Mennonite Weekly Review, August 3, 1995, p. 3) Well call me dense, but I thought the purpose of a Confession of Faith was to summarize, for a specific group of Christians, their common understanding of what the Bible says. Is it too much to expect that members of a particular theological communion will affirm and endorse the content of a Confession of Faith in toto?
According To Whom?
This is not a critique of Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Rather, I draw upon that document, and the perception of many as to its place in contemporary MC/GC church life, to illustrate my central thesis. That is, that modern Mennonites are more adept at obfuscation than at enlightenment, that written words mean what the reader defines them to mean, and that it is virtually impossible any longer for church leaders simply to say what they mean and mean what they say.
For instance, the new Confession states that "we accept the Bible as the Word of God written." I have listened patiently (and, at times, not so patiently) to Mennonite pastors and teachers explain that, although they agree with that declaration, they do not mean what the Christian church has historically meant by its use of those terms. One Pennsylvania pastor even went so far as to declare that it is impossible for him to refer to the Bible as the Word of God, despite the apparently clear statement in the Confession. Do Mennonites believe that the Bible is the Word of God? According to the newly adopted Confession of Faith, yes. According to many Mennonite pastors and teachers, yes, if you let them define the terms. According to others, no. Even on so basic and fundamental an issue as the nature of the scriptures, it seems, it is impossible for us simply to say what we mean and mean what we say.
Depends Upon Whom You Ask
Then take the most controversial issue in the contemporary Anabaptist community, homosexuality. Why does this debate continue to rage among us? Because we are incapable of simply saying what we mean and meaning what we say.
Does the Bible forbid the practice of homosexual genital activity? According to the statement adopted by the Mennonite Church General Assembly, July 8, 1987, yes. ["It is our understanding that (Biblical) teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual genital activity.] According to the newly adopted Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, yes. ["We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life . . . . According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship."]
Yet the debate goes on. Why? Because so many church leaders have expressed personal doubt about those statements or have allowed alternative interpretations to go unchallenged so often that the membership at large is confused. Do Mennonites reject the practice of homosexuality as fundamentally opposed to the plan and purpose of God for human sexual expression? Depends upon whom you ask. Again, we have failed to say what we mean and mean what we say.