I promise that I’ll do an update about our trip to Bolivia. However, first I wanted to share with you the article that I just had published in The Mennonite. It’s on tensions between our church colleges. For the original article, click here. I’ve copied it below too. Enjoy.
It’s not every day that you have an epiphany that helps you understand the world in a new way. Several summers ago I had one that helped me better understand my church.
I was sitting in a seminar at the South Central Mennonite Conference annual gathering listening to John Sharp tell about the history of Hesston (Kan.) College. As he recounted the beginnings of the college, he said the question raised at the Kansas-Nebraska Conference gathering in 1907 that began the process of forming Hesston College was, “Would it advance the cause of Christ to have a Mennonite college in the west?” Sharp’s next sentence was, “Never mind the fact that Bethel College had already been there for nearly 20 years.” What became clear to me in that moment was that the relationship between the former General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) and the former Mennonite Church (MC) was not one of antagonism but of irrelevance. It’s not that the two groups were at odds but that even though they would have seen each other as Christian, they didn’t see each other as being similar enough to even be in conflict, let alone consider working together.
Eight years after the official merger of the two denominations, there is still a palpable tension between the church schools. Distrust, misinformation and stereotypes have all contributed to a level of antagonism that leads some to see some of our institutions as not even Christian.
While there is no shortage of inaccurate stereotypes floating around our colleges, the reality of the situation is that if you compared all the Bible and religion faculty at all five of our Mennonite colleges, many would be surprised at their similarity of views and their adherence to mainstream Anabaptist beliefs. All our Mennonite institutions have and are making significant contributions to Mennonite history and theology. From John Roth to Patty Shelly to Trevor Bechtel to Marion Bontrager or Mark Thiessen Nation, all our Mennonite institutions are furthering the rich Anabaptist tradition.
To be truthful, however, we must admit there are some real differences in how our church colleges function, especially in relation to Mennonite Church USA. The differences among the schools, however, come more from the historical differences between the MCs and the GCs than anything else. The problem we find ourselves with is this: We have lost the language to describe adequately the differences within Mennonite Church USA and especially among our church schools. As this language has faded, it has been replaced by terms such as “liberal” and “conservative,” and all our children are left with is that Dad doesn’t like Bluffton or Mom doesn’t like Goshen. Ultimately, the oversimplification of the issues and the language involved is simply inaccurate and unhelpful.
My sincere hope is that we can work through this persistent animosity. To that end I offer a modest proposal.
• Let everyone in Mennonite Church USA agree that all our church colleges are genuinely attempting to be faithful Christian institutions in the Anabaptist understanding of the faith.
• Let all of us agree to speak accurately and truthfully, actively working to dispel all stereotypes and rumors.
• Let us all think it possible that we may have something to learn from each of our colleges and seek to learn from those who are different from us.
• Let us all have the maturity to admit where we have contributed to divisions and humbly ask forgiveness from each other and from God.
Since the merger, our denomination has been struggling to come to a new understanding of identity. Many of us have seen ourselves in a particular way for our lifetimes or even generations. With the merger, many of us are now confronted with a denomination that has a different identity from what we have ever known. While the animosity among our church schools has its particulars, it is one of the concrete areas in which the growing pains of our struggle for a new identity can be felt. In a relatively short period of time, our church has expanded to include institutions and people that some of us, quite frankly, didn’t think possible. What is called for now is not a purging of our differences in search of uniformity but a call to unity that draws strength from our varied perspectives and traditions.