Somewhere in my educational career I was told that it was better to learn how to ask good questions than it was to have all of the answers. Myron Augsburger’s article Alliance for fellowship, witness left me with several nagging questions.
What is meant by “denomination?”
As my understanding and experience with the North American Mennonite world has expanded, I have come to realize there are great differences in what Mennonites believe about what a denomination even is.
I found Augsburger’s idea of an alliance attractive and intriguing but also somewhat redundant. This comes from the fact that what he describes is very close to how I understand what a denomination (specifically Mennonite Church USA) is and should be doing.
Augsburger makes it clear, however, that a denomination is much more about bureaucracy and theological gate-keeping than anything else. While I share his longing for unity in diversity, I also ask why our current denomination is not fulfilling that function both inside of the denomination and in relation to other denominations.
What would this alliance do, specifically?
Augsburger’s stated purpose for this alliance is to increase fellowship with other denominations and to facilitate a larger witness. While these are admirable goals, they are not particularly defined in any concrete sense.
For me, fellowship happens in smaller group settings. While there is something to be said for shared experiences at large group gatherings — such as our MC USA gatherings — the times I consider “fellowship” are in much smaller settings.
As far as a common witness, this kind of thing has happened before, but it most often happens through denominational leaders. Having a shared witness throughout one denomination is exceedingly difficult, let alone across 30 of them. I’m not saying it couldn’t work or be worthwhile, I’m just having a difficult time envisioning what “common witness” might look like.
How would an alliance differ from other interdenominational efforts?
On some level, this idea isn’t necessarily a new one. Anabaptists have and do work together on many different things in many different settings. Mennonite Central Committee is one of the first ongoing interdenominational projects that come to mind. During various wars, many different groups came together to speak with a unified peace witness to our government.
The question for me is not whether an alliance would be worthwhile, but how such an alliance would be different from what already exists. If it would be duplicating another organization, then I prefer to make that organization better rather than trying to duplicate what already exists.
I have many other questions, including who determines the shared beliefs and points of unity; what are the issues that should be addressed and what issues are off limits; is this really for everyone or just denominational leaders; what are the logistics of communication over this large of a group of people.
Augsburger’s idea is one that has great merit. We are at a time when people of various Christian traditions are discovering Anabaptism. It would behoove those of us with historical Anabaptist roots to speak with a more coherent voice that comes from shared experiences and genuine fellowship.