Saturday, September 13, 2008

Church Discipline as Loving Dialogue

I want to write a few concluding blogs where I reflect on the bigger questions that have been at the back of my mind during my sabbatical. The first of these is church discipline, the issue that divides Mennonites from Amish. The Amish, in theory, practice a strict shunning, or complete social avoidance of those banned from communion. Mennonites, in theory, just forbid the banned from communion.

I say in theory about both groups because in my experience neither group is uniform in this practice. Participating in the Mennonite Church for 41 years, I have never seen someone banned from communion, though I do know that people have sometimes not participated when they felt they could not.

The father of one of my high school friends was a Mennonite who had been banned for leaving the Amish. Shunning in their family consisted of not eating at the same table. But otherwise they treated him normally. When I recently spoke to an Amish bishop in Shipshewana, he spoke about the shunning of his son. It sounded like the actual shunning consisted of the fact that they could not pass the common serving bowl directly to his son. They had to set it on the table before he could pick it up. To me this seemed like a way to follow the letter of shunning without the spirit of it. This is a long way from what I understand Jacob Ammann to have meant when he spoke of complete social avoidance of those banned.

One of the surprises of my time in Switzerland was learning that what the Anabaptists called persecution the Swiss Reformed called church discipline. They were attempting to correct the Anabaptists, making sure they attended "real" church, which is to say the Reformed church. The Swiss Reformed were famous for their strictness. One of the instruments of Anabaptist persecution were the Chorgerichts, or church councils. The pastor would gather with congregational leaders after the sermon and they would discuss who in the congregation was not behaving properly. So whether the sin was fornication, stealing, or being rebaptized, they dealt with it.

These are some of the instruments of church discipline in the Swiss Reformed Church in Berne. This is the Kafigturm, one of the prison towers in Berne that held Anabaptist and other prisoners.

And this is the Blutturm, or Blood tower, one of the notorious torture chambers used against Anabaptists and others.

So while it may be that the emphasis on church discipline has a lot to do with the Reformed roots of Anabaptism, the methods of disciplines adopted by Anabaptists were very different. The practice of shunning, which seems unconscionable to so many moderns, was in fact a very peaceful type of church discipline compared to drownings, beheadings, burnings, imprisonment, confiscation of property and family, and forced exile. Anabaptists refused to use state power for the church's purposes, and for that matter refused even to participate in the state's use of coercion against its citizens.

It may seem strange that the Swiss Anabaptists, who had avoided any divisions for their 170 years of existence, should divide on a small distinction between shunning and banning. Of course I write as someone who is part of the group who did not see any reason for the division. Why did Ammann insist on such strictness, we wonder?

Of course Ammann was not the first to insist on this strictness. He found support for his ideas in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, a confession from the Dutch Anabaptists. Menno Simons, from whom Mennonites take our name, actually agreed with Ammann more than with his Swiss Anabaptist opponents. In fact, Menno Simons also shunned the entire Swiss Anabaptist church, as Ammannn did 150 years later. In that sense the Amish are more Mennonite than many Mennonites.

But not the Swiss. Unlike their brothers and sisters who migrated to France, Germany, and America, the Swiss did not take the name Mennonite and they did not adopt the Dordrecht Confession of Faith as their authoritative confession. Though they did continue to use it.

There is a collection of Anabaptist writings called "Golden Apples in Silver Bowls," that seems to come from the Palatinate but has Swiss connections. It contains several martyr testimonies, prayers and instructions on their use, and the Dordrecht Confession, though it softens the language in certain places in more of a Swiss direction.

It also has one of the most open statements about church discipline I have seen in Mennonite writings. The anonymous editor says: "If there were someone who had a thievish, adulterous, murderous faith, which would give him liberty in his faith to steal, murder, commit adultery, and similiar abominations: him or her I dare, out of fear of God, neither defend nor condemn, neither judge nor damn, outside the guidelines of my Lord's Word (the New Covenant). If such a person can support his faith on the basis of divine speech, I will let him work it out and carry the burden himself, even if my own feelings are contrariwise."

When I first wrote the above paragraph, I was going to say that this statement was a statement against church discipline. But I realized that I was wrong to say it that way. This is a statement about church discipline, and it even supports church discipline, but it is someone who has withdrawn all coercion from their use of discipline. The writer will only allow themself to use speech against this person who is so wrong about their faith. They have renounced not only sword and fire, but also social avoidance and even banning, all coercion. But what they have not renounced is their tongue. They will speak to the person and expect the person to speak to them to defend what they believe and do.

As I think about my own views of church discipline, I am sympathetic with the anonymous editor. When I was in a congregation that had a young member join the military, which for Amish and Mennonites is sin, I neither ignored it nor did we ban him from communion. Instead I spoke to the young man hearing why he wanted to do this, and I of course tried to dissuade him. And then with his foreknowledge I spoke to the congregation letting them know that we disagreed with his decision but we were not revoking his membership.

As I already wrote, I have yet to see someone be banned from communion in a Mennonite congregation. At times someone has been asked to step back from teaching or other forms of leadership because of divorce or military service, two forms of broken relationships.

So I find myself in the Hans Riest camp of the Amish - Swiss Brethren split of 1693. But I still have some hesitation. And the first hesitation has to do with this question of speaking to one another. What I admire about Jacob Ammann is that he was outspoken about his areas of conflict. He didn't hide his concerns for the sake of unity. He thought they should be dealt with openly and honestly. That is much better than simply ignoring sin or pretending like it isn't happening.

Of course on the down side, Ammann was very quick to move to shunning someone, so that very quickly Reist and others found themselves silenced by Ammann. Some years later Ammann renounced his hasty decision making, realizing that he had not adequately worked with the people that he shunned. He asked for forgiveness from Reist and his other opponents. Ammann did not renounce his conviction about shunning, but about the way he did it.

So what did Reist and others do? Nothing. In fact Jacob Gut in a letter recommends to his fellow Swiss Brethren that they do nothing. So now the Mennonite faction was using silence against the Amish faction, though in a behind the back way. That is, Gut was writing to those in his faction, rather than dealing directly with his opponents.

In that way I admire the honesty of the Amish, the way that they admit that there is disunity and sin when that is what there is. The practice of shunning is a way of taking the rupture seriously and hoping to resolve it by taking it seriously. There is the possibilityof reconciliation in this method which is impossible using Jacob Gut's form of behind the back silence.

In my introductory blog I mentioned the story of the Amish Mennonites, a group of Amish who in the 1860s began to move away from the conservative Amish, who eventually became known as Old Order Amish. Clinton Township, Indiana, where my family has lived since the 1840s, about 5 miles from my home, was one of the sources of this split. I wondered whether these Amish Mennonites, who by the early decades of the 1900s had merged with the Mennonites and simply dropped Amish, were in any way Amish. Is there something about their Amish history that remained with them, or was it completely gone?

As I came to the end of my sabbatical I felt like I had found nothing Amish about these Amish Mennonites, until I kept thinking about this issue of mutual dialogue. In the face of the intensity of the Amish commitment to church discipline and shunning, I think people adopted several ways of working with it.

One thing to say is that they were not like American Mennonites, many of whom, at least those from Swiss background, adopted hierarchical relationships foreign to their Swiss origins--they developed bishops who had charge of a whole district of congregations and who held ultimate authority on questions of banning, communion and baptism.

Contrariwise, the Amish developed no such hierarchy. The Amish have bishops, but bishop for them is the word we would use for senior pastor. A bishop has charge of one district, what we call a congregation, and because a district must fit into each home, since they have no church buildings, it never grows beyond 40 families. All districts are about the same size. And if you look at what the Bible says about bishops there is no sense that they must be a leaders of more than one congregation. That is tradition that developed after the Bible was written.

It is my impression that people who are Amish or come from Amish background have adapted in another way to this intense scrutiny of their lives. They either find the conversation needed to make these decisions too difficult, and so they are silent about any disagreement, or they become very articulate, and are quite able to discuss disagreements and concerns.

In general I have seen the majority of Amish background people as wary of conflict. Recently our congregation saw several Amish background people leave because of a worship innovation. When did they tell us about their concerns? After they started attending other congregations. They had moved in the direction of needing to be in unity or needing to leave. There was less middle ground for them.

But I noticed this tendency towards silence within my own life last year at the San Jose Mennonite Church USA convention. Silence popped up in unexpected ways. First, I met with a childhood friend who in adulthood became openly gay. He is one of a number of friends who have done this. From my perspective I am comfortable with their decision and I can understand why they do it. They have found themselvs to be homosexually inclined and they are open about that. So when I met my friend I wanted to show that even though I am a Mennonite pastor, a denomination that condemns all homosexual practice, that I would not let that get in the way of our friendship. We had a very nice lunch together. He asked me about my family and work, and I asked him about his work. It was only afterwards that I realized that we never talked about his homosexuality. I did not ask him if he had a boyfriend or ask anything that might clarify his family situation. In that sense I realized that I had practiced silence on this question that I worried might divide us.

I had a similar incident a couple of days later when in San Francisco we met with someone who had volunteered with Christian Peacemaker Teams and had been a member of First Mennonite Church in San Francisco. At some point in the conversation he said, "Now, don't freak out or anything, but I converted to Islam." From my perspective we did not freak out since we did not yell at him or ask him why he did such a terrible thing. What did we do? We didn't say a word about it. We just went on talking as if he had said nothing about it. I decided later, as I reflected upon it, that we had freaked out. By not saying a word, we had exercised a form of silencing, a form of silencing that is perhaps friendlier than the Amish practice of shunning, but also probably also less redemptive, because it is not honest about our perspectives.

And so I think of John Howard Yoder, the well-known Mennonite theologian, and his relatives. His sister's family is in the congregation where I pastor and and in another congregation where I am overseer. They are articulate and more comfortable with conflict than most people I know. And I think this training partly comes from the culture of the Oak Grove Amish Mennonite Church, where John Howard Yoder and his sister Mary Ellen Meyer grew up. This is an Amish congregation that eventually was no longer a member of the Mennonite conference because it was so congregational that it did not learn to work with the Mennonite hierarchy like some other Amish congregations did. In my mind this ability to talk about disagreements within the congregation rather than relying on hierarchical authority would seem like one result of the intensity of Amish discipline.

So these are like two poles in responding to Amish discipline. For some people it means keeping silent until you just can't stand it anymore, and then leaving or being shunned. And for others it means learning the ability to talk through disputes in a way that keeps people together. You need to learn the art of loving dialogue. In my mind, then, John Howard Yoder's ability to dialogue both with his own traditon and the wider Christian tradition is an outgrowth of the Amish commitment to deal with sin and disagreement in a way that is open and redemptive.

My other concern about being soft on church discipline grows out of William Cavanaugh's book, "Torture and Eucharist," where he describes the failure of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile to adequately confront Pinochet and the military as they tortured the body of Christ in that country. Eventually the church began to gain a voice in opposition to Pinochet and certainly it played a role in his ultimate downfall. But throughout this time the church continued to give communion to those who tortured. Within my group of mainline Protestant pastors who read the book with me, there was not much sympathy with the idea of banning from communion. For my part I started to think that maybe there are sins that reach the height of banning. This is what Cavanaugh was promoting in his book.

When a group wrote a resolution against conferences disciplining congregations for having gay members, I found myself sympathetic with the concern though disappointed with the wording. I am not against conference or congregational discipline when it is understood in the way that the Golden Apples in Silver Bowls editor describes it. I would envision sustained dialogue on disagreements, a dialogue that may last for decades, but that continues to be loving and based on Matthew 18. The dialogue itself is a form of discipline and it is necessary. What I am very hesitant to do is ban either individuals or congregations who come to have different convictions from the main body of believers. I would choose to let the word of God dwell within those with other perspectives until it comes to bear fruit in their, and our, lives. So speaking the truth in love is becoming increasingly important to me, and at the same time one of the hardest things for me to learn to do.


Lucy said...

you have a very interesting blog!

Doug Kaufman said...

Thank you, I enjoyed experiencing it and writing it. It is basically inactive now, since my sabbatical is over, but I am glad that people are still reading it.