June 21, 2015
There are two things I need to say to the Mennonite Church USA. The first is “Thank you.” The second is “I’m sorry.”
You (the Mennonite Church) came into my life in 1981 when, as a result of God’s providence, I enrolled as a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. At the time I had not, as they say, “darkened the door” of a Mennonite church building. One year later, in the summer of 1982, I (along with my wife) was received as a member of Harrisonburg Mennonite Church, was installed as an associate pastor of that congregation, and received ordination credentials with the Virginia Mennonite Conference, all on the same Sunday in July.
That first year in Harrisonburg (1981-82) was momentous in that it confirmed the rightness of the commitment to “biblical nonresistance” (pacifism) I had made a year or so earlier as a student at Wheaton Grad School. It also opened a door for ministry within the Anabaptist/Mennonite community which would encompass more than a quarter-century of my life.
My early years of ministry among Mennonites would include some of the highest highs and lowest lows I would ever experience in my career. Overall, however, when I reflect on those years, the emotion that grips me most profoundly is gratitude.
To be frank, I never felt completely at home in the Mennonite Church. I was always keenly aware that I had not grown up in a Mennonite community or a Mennonite congregation. Moreover, as a theological conservative and an outspoken evangelical, I never won the trust and confidence of the denominational leadership.
Still, I was given an opportunity to serve in and through the Harrisonburg congregation, and many of the folks I served with in that setting are friends of mine (both on Facebook and for real) to this day. For their friendship, for the confidence they placed in me in that community, and for the context they provided in which I could examine and nurture my convictions regarding Christian discipleship and kingdom living—convictions I carry even today—I give thanks to God.
In the early 1990s, while serving as pastor of another MC congregation in the Harrisonburg area, I participated in discussions which led to the formation, in 1992, of the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship. The church leaders in that conversation, mainly pastors in Pennsylvania, were concerned that the doctrinal foundation on which the Mennonite Church had supposedly been built was eroding under the persistent assault of theological “liberalism.”
At that time, I shared their concerns and used my writing and speaking gifts to advance the EAF cause. Our unofficial motto was “renewing the evangelical heart of our Anabaptist heritage.”
When EAF was chartered in October 1992, I was named its first (and, as it turned out, only) Executive Secretary. For nine years I traveled throughout the US and Canada, pointing out the dangers of encroaching liberalism and the disastrous effects of that perspective on the spiritual character of the Mennonite Church. The primary illustration to which I pointed was the rapid increase in efforts to gain full acceptance of persons from the LGBT community in all aspects of the life of the church.
The purpose of this letter is not to address my personal convictions in that matter—or on any other matter, as far as that goes—as to how they may or may not have changed in the past few years. My purpose is to say I am so very sorry for anything I may have done or said that contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the strife and potential division which the MCUSA faces today.
Regret is generally a useless emotion, since it does not correct earlier mistakes, and it often depletes present energy and clouds future vision. Still, I regret my involvement with EAF to the extent that it is viewed as a predecessor to contemporary movements which undercut the unity and integrity of the church.
In writing these things today, I do not mean to speak for others who identified with EAF during its nine-year existence. (EAF closed in 2001 following the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church into the MCUSA. Most EAF members chose not to identify with the new denomination. At least one new affiliation of evangelical congregations formerly part of either MC or GCMC subsequently emerged.) I do not impugn the motives of my colleagues from those days. At the time, we were all doing what we believed was best and right.
I still have strong theological convictions and beliefs. Some of them are the same as when I served with EAF. Many of them are different today and represent a major change in my perception of truth and my assumptions about the nature of God’s revelation of himself to humanity, primarily in the life and death and teaching of Jesus Christ. Nothing is more important to me these days than unity among Christians in the body of Christ.
In the past, my well-intentioned but wrongheaded words and deeds contributed to an environment that fostered a spirit of division that threatens the unity and integrity of the MCUSA today. For that, I am genuinely sorry. Please forgive me.
Grace and Peace,