(Appeared first in September 2011, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures we might have hope.—Romans 15:4 (TNNIV)
The August issue of The Mennonite was filled with stories about the convention in Pittsburgh. From my point of view, the convention was a beautiful time of celebration, conver- sation, worship, deliberation and discussion. Indeed, it was a time of deep consolation for me: I felt the presence of God’s Spirit in and among us as a people.
There were times of tension as well. On a couple of occasions, I had conversation with groups of people who were unhappy with other people or groups at the convention. And there were a number of people who complained about some aspect of the conference. The convention is like a large family gathering, which provides the occasion for “sibling rivalry.”
The longer I serve as a leader in the church, the more parallels I see between our church and the churches portrayed in the Scriptures. I note, for example, that the majority of the letters to the churches make reference to some kind of conflict. Some churches nurtured a party spirit. Some were immature. Groups within the church interpreted the Scriptures differently. I get the impression that conflict was quite normal in the early church.
Like the church in Rome, Corinth and elsewhere, we Mennonites also have differing convictions about the way we practice our faith. We quarrel over various issues, including “disputable matters.” We even dispute with each other over what belongs in the category of a “disputable matter.” And like the church at Rome, we are tempted to treat our brothers or sisters with contempt when they make different choices from ours (Romans 14:10).
Paul tells the church: “stop passing judgment on one another, instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13).
In the midst of the controversy in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak. We should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” This is the context for the hope Paul expresses in Romans 15:4, cited above.
In the midst of the disputes at Rome, Paul found hope in the Scriptures (which for him were the Old Testament). And not only in the Scriptures but also in the example of Jesus. He found many instances where God’s people were willing to bear with each other in order to “do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
Paul spoke to the Romans about those who were weak and those who were strong. He urged the strong to accept the weak. Personally, I find it difficult to discern who are the weak and who are the strong among us in the church today. So I ask you as a reader, are you weak or are you strong? And if you are strong, how are you “bearing with” the weak?
There is no question that we face deep differences in the church, whether in our congregations, area conferences, denomination or with neighboring Christians in other church communions. If we focus primarily on our differences, we may lose hope. Paul must certainly have felt that way at times, yet he found encouragement in the Scriptures.
While Paul found hope in the Old Testament Scriptures, I now find hope in the New. With the spirit of Jesus in our midst, and the example of the churches who have gone before us, I find hope for our day. I will invest in that hope by doing all I can to love Jesus, love my brothers and sisters and study the Scriptures in company with others. In these we can all find hope.