What is the Business of the Church?

I wrote the following response to Elwood Yoder’s blog post, “Let’s Get on With Church” published several weeks ago on “The Mennonite” website. The magazine has posted a shorter version of this piece, along with a response from Yoder. My original post is below in its entirety. Thanks to “The Mennonite” for linking to my original piece. — Jeremy

Every so often, an editorial in a church magazine or a blog post will express the desire to get past rancorous debates in the body of Christ and return to the business of being the church. These editorials lament the divisions within congregations and conferences. They call on brothers and sisters in Christ to lay aside their petty controversies. They urge the church to turn back to the essentials of what it really means to follow Christ. The church, they argue, needs to focus on the true business of the church and leave worldly concerns to the world.

Elwood Yoder’s editorial from a few weeks ago represents the latest example in this genre. In this piece, he describes a collegiate district meeting of the Virginia Mennonite Conference that did not focus on church-wide debates, such as same-sex marriage and the abuse allegations against Luke Hartman. To Yoder’s relief, the meeting instead focused on capital improvements, a powerful devotional and reports on local ministry efforts. Rather than feeling burdened by the “issues of the day in the denomination” Yoder left the meeting “refreshed, motivated, and inspired to be engaged in the work of the church.” As is typical in this genre, Yoder calls on Mennonites to “be about the business of the church, work together, and so challenge the shrill debates so commonplace in our wider culture.”

As a pastor, I am tempted by Yoder’s pastoral and pleasant description of a church meeting. I also sometimes experience controversy fatigue. But I reject Yoder’s implication that sexual abuse and LGBTQ inclusion are not an essential business of the church. When we treat people as if they are side issues or problems that the church can choose to ignore, we no longer follow the Jesus Christ who ate with prostitutes and healed lepers. When we ignore those whose identities and experiences make us uncomfortable, we no longer follow the Jesus who healed on the Sabbath and outraged the priests and Pharisees. When we choose our comfort zone as the basis of ministry, we no longer follow the Jesus Christ who died on the cross and told us to pick up our own crosses to follow him.

What then is the business of the church? What is our business in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre? What is our business following the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile? What is our business in light of the violence committed against Lauren Shifflett? When we define the church’s business to not include those violent realities that exist both within and around our congregations, we disembody the lived experiences of individuals and communities that don’t fit within comfort zones. We turn people into issues.

In her doctoral dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA, Stephanie Krehbiel cites W.E.B. DuBois’s observation in The Souls of Black Folk that while white liberals often sympathised with the social inequality and oppression Black Americans faced in the early 20th Century, they also failed to question an undercurrent in their support: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Krehbiel argues that in their response to LGBTQ Mennonites, the church often treats them as an “unsolvable problem” rather than as people with their own legitimate experiences. I believe this dynamic extends beyond gays and lesbians and includes other uncomfortable realities that the church transforms from personal experiences into “issues” or “problems.” So when survivors accuse well-loved church leaders of sexual abuse and cover-up, the church often ignores them or responds with laments and prayers for healing that rarely turn into reform. When LGBTQ Mennonites share their experiences of rejection and dehumanization, the church treats them as a doctrinal issues to discuss, dialogue and discern. I’ve often heard complaints about the “confrontational tactics” about Pink Menno at our national conventions, but I don’t believe what offends conservative Mennonites is really about tactics. What offends them is their presence. The presence of Pink t-shirts makes it impossible to ignore the presence of sexual minorities in the Mennonite Church.

The body of Christ includes those assaulted, raped, ignored, vilified and condemned, often by leaders in positions of trust and authority. We cannot insist that these experiences don’t matter and continue to serve as Christ’s hope and redemption in a broken world. The church’s business may include capital improvements or charity, but it also includes painful stories that reveal how the Mennonite Church mistreats people who don’t neatly fit into our definitions of what church is supposed to look like.

The debates within the Mennonite Church are not a sign of worldliness, but rather the cost of a church engaged with fundamental questions of what it means to be the church at this moment of human history. This is not a comfortable season in the Mennonite Church, but it’s a necessary season as we begin to pay attention to the people whom we ignored.

What is the Business of the Church?

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