That’s what they said we were. The people who I got to know in church were not just my friends or acquaintances, they were my brothers and sisters. We even used that language to refer to one another, although it sometimes became a way to hide that you forgot someone’s name. I’m sure we’ve all been there, when we see someone at church and say “Hey…brother.”
This idea of family has strong bearings in Scripture. Those who have accepted Christ and have chosen to follow Him are the body of Christ. All other identifying factors become secondary to our new identity as children of God (John 1:12). We become family in Jesus.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” (1 Timothy 5:1-2)
I usually look with some prejudice on other churches who have decided to spilt up. They weren’t happy with their family anymore and decided to find a new one or just go their separate ways. Reasons for divorce have always been varied. Sometimes it was music, language, biblical interpretations or something else where I would have laughed and said, “that will never be me. I will never be a part of a family that divorces because of something so trivial.”
How is it that we can call ourselves a family and then be so quick to divorce when we disagree? The only way I can explain this is that perhaps we are actually okay with divorce and if we disagree with our nuclear family we would also move towards immediate divorce and ex-communication. Or, and I think this is more likely, we really don’t see each other as family. We use the language, we believe the passages, but we don’t take them seriously.
What we are really saying in times of church divorce is that we don’t believe that the other person or church is being faithful, or even worse, that they are not real Christians. I was taught that sentiment growing up to some extent. I was warned not to engage with certain churches because they would lead me astray. And I’m not talking about cults. I’m talking about Catholics, United, and Reformed folks (I don’t think this way anymore). Judgement and stereotypes are the after-effects of this kind of separation, where our refusal to work things out now leads to later generations refusing to interact.
I’m not talking about a growing church deciding to split to reach more people or to keep their model of church. I’m not talking about people moving to different churches because they feel called by God to serve and be present there. I’m talking about those instances when we come up against disagreement, and instead of following through by loving one another and communicating, we defend our sides, don’t listen to each other, encourage others to pick sides, denounce one another, and move in our own direction. If God doesn’t call us to do this in our nuclear families when we disagree, then how can we possibly believe He calls us to do it in our new, real family?
I currently find myself in a church family that has been working on preventing this kind of divorce, yet we are still finding ourselves in turmoil. As we discern around questions of same-sex marriage, we have tried hard to stay united but it’s been a hard road. Churches are all over the spectrum of opinion and belief. Some churches have taken sides and some churches have decided they can no longer be in communion with us.
I can live with the need to defend your belief to some extent. What gets me is how quickly we get to that point. Without accountability, communication, trust, and relationship, the body becomes broken. I am not pointing fingers. I think we all carry parts of the blame. I do as well.
It’s out of this context that I read the letter below to our delegate body at our Mennonite Church Manitoba gathering last weekend. This is a personal letter that represents where I, not necessarily my church (Sterling Mennonite Fellowship), am at. Since I got a few requests from people to send them this letter, I thought I would share it more widely.
My hope is that we would actually practice what we preach and treat each other as family. I would never divorce Jess because we were in different places in our understanding of same-sex marriage. I would work hard, as she would too, to learn, discern, pray, and love each other. I do understand that sometimes divorce happens in the nuclear family. Sometimes it is even for the better, as broken and hurtful as those situations are. Sometimes churches do go in different directions and sometimes they split. I don’t think anyone should be coerced against their will into the family of God. It may even be a good thing to have diversity of churches in the larger body. But let’s not be so quick to give up without looking for ways to stay united, love each other, and live up to our commitments as family.
Dear Mennonite Church Manitoba,
Thank you for reminding us that we are the body of Christ together. Thank you for reminding us of all the things we do together that we could never do on our own. Thank you for calling us to the Christly standard of unity. Thank you for the work you do for us, even though it sometimes goes unnoticed and unappreciated.
Like parents of a married couple going through hard times and the possibility of divorce, you have worked hard to keep us together. You don't like seeing your kids go through broken relationships, so you have worked hard to encouraged us and make things work. You have listened with us, cried for us, and reminded us of our call as a church.
Although talks of divorce and separation have happened and are in the air, please don't give up on us.
Dear churches who have taken an affirming stance on blessing same-sex marriage in the church,
Thank you for your faithful study of Scripture. Thank you for the hours and years you have put in to study and listen and learn from one another. Thank you for your commitment to want to welcome all people into the grace of God.
Please don't forget us. When it really comes down to it, we need you! You are in a different place than us, but you are still a part of our church. You are so important to us and we need you in the body.
Dear churches who have, on the topic of same-sex marriage, decided to hold to our traditional understanding as outlined in our confessions of faith,
Thank you for your faithful study of Scripture. Thank you for your commitment to love and invite all people into the grace of God. Thank you for the hours and years you have put in to re-affirming your position and to listening to one another.
Please don't forget us. When it really comes down to it, we need you. You are still a part of our church. You are so important to us and we need you in the body.
I feel like our church (Sterling Mennonite Fellowship) is a child caught in the midst of an ugly divorce. Both sides are doing what they believe is right. Their convictions have taken them in different directions, and so they need the reminder that they have kids who depend on them. Not that we are your kids, but like kids, we are caught in the middle. As both our parents move in opposite directions, we are feeling the pressure to also choose a side. Do we want to belong to this new potential family, or that one. And like any child, we want to shout "no". We need you both. Don't forget about us, don't leave us. If you go, what are we going to do? We will only have one side to listen to. How can we continue to study and discern without your voice?
If you divorce, please don't think that it doesn't affect us at all. It changes how we can do mission together. It changes how we study. But most importantly, it sets an example for us as a local church, that if we disagree, then we should just split again, and again, and again.
We know that our conference is divided. We are not saying that everyone should just agree on the same thing. In our local church, we don't all agree. The message of unity is not about agreement. It is about choosing to love each other and work together in the midst of disagreement.
Please don't forget about us. And most of all, no matter where you are on the issue, remember that we need you.