The problem is epidemic within contemporary Mennonite preaching. I visit numerous Mennonite congregations in the course of a year. I hear lots of preaching. Most of it suffers from a single, fatal flaw--it doesn't say anything, or at least not much. And virtually nothing in clear, unequivocal and unambiguous terms. How often, lately, I have resisted the urge to rise out of my pew in the middle of the sermon, walk to the pulpit, grasp the preacher by the shoulders, give him a good shake and fervently entreat, "Please, sir, just say what you mean and mean what you say."
For example, during Advent each year, please tell us, at least once, precisely what you believe about the nature of Mary's conception of Jesus. During Passion Week please tell us, at least once, precisely what you believe about the cross of Christ. Was it the place where God the Father judged human sin through the sacrifice of His only Son? Was it merely the prime embodiment of non-resistance? Please tell us what you believe.
On Easter Sunday, please tell us precisely what you mean when you use the word resurrection. Did a literal body come out of that Judean hillside tomb? Did a dead body come back to life? Or do you mean something else when you use this word which comprises so much of the core of historic Christian faith? If so, please tell us.
Tell us what the symbolism of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and footwashing portrays, in simple, straightforward language that even the children can comprehend. Tell us what you believe about divorce, remarriage, and the respective roles of men and women, in the home and in the church.
Do you believe in Noah's flood? Tell us, and why. If not, tell us that, too. Do you believe in the Tower of Babel, the walls of Jericho, the fiery furnace? Tell us why or why not. Do you believe that God heals physical illness when Christians pray? Do you believe that Christians ought to run for political office? Do you believe the Bible teaches that wealth is inherently evil and poverty inherently noble? Do you believe that Mennonites should be able to call a policeman to protect their possessions but not receive him as a member of their congregation? Should men who engage in genital sexual activity with other men, and women with other women, be accepted into full fellowship of the church and have their unions blessed as a relationship equivalent to heterosexual marriage? If you believe that, then tell us. But tell us also how, in an Anabaptist congregation, you could receive a practicing homosexual into your fellowship while, at the same time, barring him or her from pastoral ministry on moral grounds. Tell us what you believe. We may not agree, but at least we will understand.
"Like People, Like Priests"
Through the prophet Hosea God told Israel, "My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge." (Hosea 4:6 NIV) The immediate context of that verse is a divine denunciation of Israel for their ignorance and spiritual apathy. And, since their religious leaders arose out of their midst, they, the priests, developed the same lamentable characteristics. "Like people, like priests," God said in Hosea 4:9.
And that, I am convinced, is the best explanation for fuzzy thinking, faulty logic, and obfuscatory communication on the part of contemporary Mennonite church leaders. For years we have been insisting that our leaders, particularly our pastors, should simply be "one of us." Administrators not prophets. Conciliators not proclaimers. Facilitators not scholars. Alas, we have achieved what we so desperately pursued. "Like people, like priests."
Where are the leaders among us who will set a course which we can clearly follow? Who will help to guide us through the maze of competing ideologies, the morass of confusing interpretations? Who will raise a standard for absolute truth in a world characterized by relativism and consumed by hedonism? Who will, by the consistency of their lives and the depth of their convictions, dare to declare, as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1, "follow my example as I follow the example of Christ."
Sound A Clarion Call
Three chapters later in the same book, Paul, in addressing the proper use of tongues in the congregation, made the following observation.
"If the trumpet does not make a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air." (1 Corinthians 14:8,9 NIV)
The contemporary Christian church is engaged in a battle, whether we realize it or not. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of people. Again, hear the words of Paul to the Corinthians.
"Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NIV)
True, the Scriptures assure us that the cause of Jesus Christ will ultimately prevail in this battle. Still, we are losing some skirmishes, some opportunities to gain ground along the way, due primarily to the unclear and uncertain trumpet call coming from those who should be going before us into the fray.
No Equivocation, No Obfuscation
Although it is troublesome for some contemporary church leaders to admit, what we know of God, including His preeminent revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ His Son, we learn mainly through the words of Scripture. As evangelical Christians, we in EAF believe in verbal inspiration of the biblical text. That is, the very words, the precise words, of Scripture were actually "breathed out" by God. Without limiting the personalities of the human writers in any way, God superintended the composition so that the words of the Bible are the exact words He wanted to use to convey eternal truth.
Such care, such precision, in the preparation and preservation of the text of Scripture establishes a pattern for us to follow in the way we interpret and explain the meaning of the text. Equivocation, obfuscation and deliberate ambiguity have no place in this process.
To Compare And Contrast
My original intent for this article was to compare and contrast the wording of six different contemporary Anabaptist Confessions of Faith. I had selected those of the Mennonite Brethren, the Conservative Mennonite Conference, the Brethren in Christ, the Evangelical Mennonite Church, along with the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith and the newly adopted Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. I read each of these documents carefully. Among other things I observed that verbosity does not guarantee clarity. The new MC/GC document is, along with its accompanying commentary, by far the longest. It is also the least clear and precise, although the revised version (which was adopted) is vastly superior to the original draft in this regard.
I remain convinced that such a comparison would be profitable and enlightening, and that, in key areas, these documents differ in significant and substantive ways. I have now concluded, however, that the heart of the issue extends beyond the words we choose to express our faith traditions and includes the way we define, interpret, and teach the meaning of those words. Thus it is equally important both to say what we mean in the most precise terms possible and to make clear what we mean by the terms we employ.