We believe that the church of Jesus Christ is one body with many members, ordered in such a way that, through the one Spirit, believers may be built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.1
As God’s people, the church is a holy temple,2 a spiritual house,3 founded upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.4 Church order is needed to maintain unity on important matters of faith and life5 so that each may serve and be served, and the body of Christ may be built up in love.6 Love and unity in the church are a witness to the world of God’s love.7
In making decisions, whether to choose leaders or resolve issues, members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as the constant guide. Persons shall expect not only affirmation, but also correction. In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions.
The church is a variety of assemblies which meet regularly, including local congregations and larger conferences. This diversity in unity evokes gratitude to God and appreciation for one another. According to the example of the apostolic church, the local congregation seeks the counsel of the wider church in important matters relating to faith and life, and they work together in their common mission.8 Decisions made at larger assemblies and conferences are confirmed by constituent groups,9 and local ministries are encouraged and supported by the wider gatherings. Authority and responsibility are delegated by common and voluntary agreement, so that the churches hold each other accountable to Christ and to one another on all levels of church life.
(1) Eph. 2:21-22.
(2) 1 Cor. 3:16-17.
(3) 1 Pet. 2:5.
(4) Eph. 2:20.
(5) Ps. 133:1; 1 Cor. 14:33; Eph. 4:3.
(6) Eph. 4:7, 12-16.
(7) John 17:20-24.
(8) Acts 15:1-21.
(9) Acts 11:18.
- Scripture does not prescribe one specific church polity, or government. At the same time, guidelines can be gleaned from both the Old and New Testaments. The priesthood and the temple in Israel’s religious life are reminders of the importance of order and also of the concern for visible worship that upholds justice, kindness, and humility (Lev. 8-10; 1 Kings 6). The apostle Paul asked the church to do all things decently and in order to build up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 14:26, 40). The New Testament stresses that the church be organized in a way that encourages participation of all members and the use of their spiritual gifts–for worship, for decision making, for teaching and learning, for mutual care, and for furthering God’s mission in the world. The Spirit of Christ leads the church in adapting its organization to the needs of its time and place.
- Decision making by consensus is a way of coming to unity in the church (see Acts 15:22). Consensus means that the church has together sought for the unity of the Spirit. The church listens carefully to all voices, majority and minority. Consensus is reached when the church has come to one mind on the matter, or when those who dissent have indicated that they do not wish to stand in the way of a group decision. Consensus does not necessarily mean complete unanimity.
- The church is the assembly of the people of God. The local congregation which meets frequently is the church. Larger conference groups which assemble less often are also the church (1 Thess. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1). Church membership involves commitment to a local congregation as well as to a larger church family which may have more than one level of conference affiliation. More broadly, we are united through our common Lord to the universal church, which includes believers in every place and time. We appreciate this wider family of believers and seek to nurture appropriate relationships with them.Mennonite church structures have upheld the centrality of the church as a community of believers. Some have emphasized the local congregation as the primary unit of the church. Others have seen the wider church (the conference) as the primary unit. The first case reflects a congregation-to-conference polity, where the local congregation determines the extent of its accountability to the larger church. The second has resulted in a conference-to-congregation polity, where the larger church carries more authority. Neither of our Mennonite bodies is clearly on one side or the other. One tendency has been to promote the congregation as the primary unit. This emphasis encourages local initiative, but it can detract from the church’s wider mission and from broader church cooperation. The church should be viewed as one seamless garment, extending from the smallest unit (“where two or three are gathered,” Matt. 18:20) to the worldwide church. Accountability and responsibility apply to every level of church.