My national denomination (Mennonite Church Canada) has engaged the national body of congregations in two major processes. One dealing with an ethical and exegetical matter the other with the overhaul of our organizational structure. These processes as well as my increased involvement with the national church body have heightened my sense of two conflicting ways of being church in the midst of potentially divisive processes. Now what follows is admittedly simplified but I want to take a stab at clarifying at least one basic factor in the division and conflict that we are experiencing. Mennonite Church Canada (as well as many other churches I am sure) is currently a tale of two systems.
In the ongoing discussions around authority and the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process in Mennonite Church Canada I recently heard a well-known leader in the Mennonite Church suggest that we suspend the authority of our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective for a period of, say, 1o years. As much as I can be critical of the various institutional mechanisms of authority in the Mennonite church I was not sure of the usefulness (never mind possibility) of such a suggestion.
In the first post of this series I claimed that the authority in the church is never a matter of a clear or simple line of expression and application. There are various crossing and conflicting lines that we must navigate in how we understand and express authority. A place where many of these lines cross is within and around the Bible. In the Confession we state, “We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship.” Here again, while the Confession does acknowledge the role of the church, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus in discerning the will of God there remains a commitment to, in some way, running these all through the Bible in order for them to validated. In a sense I agree with that. However, I am guessing my understanding of the Bible and its role as authority differs from many I encounter in the church.
The Bible emerged over time and the Bible we have today does not look the same or have all the same books depending on Christian denomination. The Bible owes its existence to experiences and decisions that occurred outside the Bible. So some form of torah was given and practiced by the Israelite people and then along came a prophet and said I hope you know that just following the commands is not really what God intended. This of course was only later intensified with the coming of Jesus and dramatic split it created among those who considered his life, death, and resurrection the revelation of God and those who did not. And then came the decision around which letters and texts should be read and kept among the churches. The Bible exists because people encountered something that did not fit the prescribed authorities of the time. Sometimes these expressions were accepted like supplements but other times they were accepted only after dispute and fracturing.
But you don’t need to study the history of the Bible’s formation to see how this at work within the Bible. There are the daughters of Zelophehad who stand up for the integrity of their cause and force the religious leaders to rethink their position (Numbers 27). There are the prophets who I already mentioned. There is Job who refused to accept the orthodoxy of his friends and would not rest until he was given a hearing with God. With Jesus there are instances where he uses scripture as a source of authority but when approached by John’s disciples about him being the messiah he says simply go and tell John what you see. When facing other religious leaders Jesus puts it more pointedly, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:48). In Acts Peter must decide if experience of the Holy Spirit’s movement is sufficient for him to move away from his biblical position on Gentiles. Paul asks the church to live with ‘the mind of Christ’ allowing him to theologically discern that the biblical precedent of circumcision is not decisive for faithfulness.
In all this I began to see that to take the Bible seriously meant to understand how its formation and its content asks us again and again to be willing to put the Bible down and look into the world to see how the Spirit might be moving; to take responsibility and stand up for and alongside those expressions and individuals once rejected by church doctrine and practice. The Bible and our traditions of authority have never been settled they have always reflected a certain intensity of what was, what is, and what is to come. I hope to look at this image of authority as intensity in my next post.
 In fairness to the Being a Faithful Church documents (which I have often been critical of) these shifts occurring in the Bible are noted as part of the process of discernment. One of my concerns with the BFC has been the way later documents have limited or muted the implications of these observations for how we understand authority (hence this series).
The feedback that emerged from the Being a Faithful Church process indicates that as a national body Mennonite Church Canada does “not have an appetite to change the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” (BFC 7). I do have an appetite and I am guessing others may as well. Over time I hope to work article by article to bring our current Confession into conversation with some of my own thinking in this area. I want submit these reflections here so that further conversation could emerge from those who also have an appetite to re-visit this document.
I first wrestled with my relationship to our Confession in my ordination process with Mennonite Church Canada. Part of the process was to read and comment on aspects of our Confession. I was generally familiar with the Confession but a new question formed in my mind as I read over it again. How does the Mennonite church articulate and express authority? I did not find a clear answer to this question and I it is important to be clear about this ambiguity. Already in the introduction to the Confession we find a puzzling statement,
[Mennonite confessions of faith] provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible.
While I appreciate the openness of such a statement what is troublesome is that this irony, paradox, or conflict of interest is nowhere further clarified or engaged. Instead of wrestling with that fundamental tension I found that the waters were only further muddied in the Articles themselves. Within the Confession we now have authoritative statements on Scripture, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and the church that create additionally confusing lines of authority. In the course of these posts I hope to further clarify these tensions but for now I will try and summarize what I see happening (but don’t take me as authoritative, go and read the Confession for yourself!).
- The confession teaches us how to read the Bible.
- The confession is in submission to the Bible.
- The Bible is the Word of God written and is authoritative for establishing truth and error.
- Jesus is the Word made flesh and so the Bible finds its fulfillment in him.
- Jesus is known in the words of the Bible.
- The Holy Spirit continues to speak.
- The Holy Spirit will not contradict the Bible’s witness of Jesus.
- The Bible is authoritative for the church.
- It is in the church that the Bible must be interpreted.
Without acknowledging the initial tension of the confession and its relationship with or as authority these statements unfold as a recipe for confusion, frustration, and abuses. As I read our Confession as well as our Being a Faithful Church documents I see the commendable desire to engage the ongoing task of discernment but I remain concerned over the continued ambiguity of authority. The lines of authority that are mapped out in these documents continue to end ultimately with the question of who holds the most persuasive or influential reading of the Bible. Setting aside all of this ambiguity the BFC documents in particular continue to assert that the final authority rests in the Bible. What I want to suggest is that such statements are not only unhelpful but also unbiblical. In the next post I will offer a few biblical images that could hopefully shift many current notions of biblical authority in the church.
 The Being a Faithful Church documents reflect a multi-year process of developing tools for congregational discernment and the application and development of these tools for specific issues. These documents develop a commitment to ongoing discernment and the openness to reaffirm, modify, or change previous positions. The full package of documents can be found at http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/43/13465.
 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995. Waterloo: Herald Press.
Towards the end of his recent interview by the New Books Network Paul Verhaeghe makes the case for authority (which apparently is the topic of his next book now released in Dutch). Verhaeghe distinguishes between power and authority. Power is the relay of competitive forces that is maintained by the creation and imposition of rules. Verhaeghe is thinking mostly of the current neoliberal context in which economic power structures are imposed on the various relations that determine much of our lives as well as promote the pervasive myth of ‘meritocracy’ and the goodness of competition.
Verhaeghe sees this as filling the void after the dismantling of patriarchy which he views largely in terms of authority. Authority is a structural relationship in which two individuals or institutions are defined hierarchically by their relationship to a third element. So in patriarchy the ‘third’ was the figure of the Father (ultimately based in a certain concept of God; though Verhaeghe does not say as much).
The West has dismantled much of this authority structure and Verhaeghe has no wish to go back to it. However, he does advocate for authority as opposed to power (I am sure his terms could be debated). He says that when authority is in place very few rules are actually needed. In this model (I am expounding here) more acceptance and collaboration is possible because of the unifying (or at least acknowledged) element of the third. Now of course the third can be tyrannical in need of being overthrown.
When asked to offer a suggestion of a positive relationship of authority Verhaeghe responds by naming the ‘horizontal collective’ as the third, the people. Theologically this appears to be the hegelian/zizekian move of the death of God and the movement of the Spirit in the community of the believers. I think care needs to be taken though that this move does not become equated with the posture of #alllivesmatter. Overall I like Verhaeghe’s clear and simply articulation of authority and as someone in a position of some authority it is always helpful to be given a grammar, vocabulary, and accountability for it. So while I would, at least in principle, accept Verhaeghe’s articulation I would argue that we need to continue to be accountable to ‘the least of these’ (to put it biblically) as our third. I understand there is a certain presumptuousness here and hypocrisy. However, in terms of expressing the theology and work that can and should be done in the church I still think this is most responsible and faithful posture towards questions of power and authority.