Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of Holistic Witness for Mennonite Church USA.
“Every time the Christian church divided or separated, each group lost one half of the Gospel message.”
So writes Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who has been an important spiritual teacher and guide for many, including Mennonites. Rohr highlights the break between Eastern and Western Christianity in what is known as the Great Schism of 1054, the divisions of the Reformation in the sixteenth century and other splits.
These are sobering words for Mennonites. We are continuing to experience separation and division. Some parts of our fellowship are saying “We can’t be associated with them anymore.” Others are saying “Good riddance.” Others simply shrug. And what is happening among us now has happened multiple times before.
We might argue with Rohr about his percentages, but even if we lose a smaller portion of the Gospel message, we are left impoverished. And whenever a group clings to its portion of the truth, while neglecting other truths, even that particular portion becomes distorted and disfigured.
The New Testament often uses the body as an image of the church. Perhaps we should refrain from using that image unless we genuinely believe that we have been joined together in Christ and that we need each other like the lungs need the heart, or the foot needs the ankle.
Just placing an arm next to a torso doesn’t make it a living body. There must be blood flow, oxygen exchange, hormones, nerve signals and much more passing between the parts of the body. When for many years we live cut off from each other, with mistrust, judgement and threats, without careful, respectful listening and speaking, without attention to dynamics of power and the burdens of the weaker brother or sister, without patience and love – when there isn’t blood flowing and nerve signals passing back and forth, even if we are formally part of the same organization – we stop being a healthy body that breathes and moves and can readily bless others.
The work of interchurch relations is in some respects the effort to try to build relationships with groups from whom we are separated – whether Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals or others. It is an effort to learn from each other about being faithful to Jesus. It is an effort to reclaim parts of the gospel we have lost over the years of separation.
Often it is easier to approach a long-lost cousin with curiosity and respect than it is an estranged brother or sister.
How will we relate to each other when our intra-church relations become interchurch relations? And how will those who continue to affiliate with each other learn new ways of being church together?
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Ephesians 4