Obedience, Authority and Power-Over

One of the things that first attracted me to Anabaptism was its insistence on following Jesus. Being a Christian was about more than getting your theological ducks in a row. Good theology should result in a good life.

The predominant way I learned to think and talk about that good life was as obedience. The genuineness of my confession of faith was tested by the obedience of my behavior. The rationale for that obedience was rooted in “authority.” Ultimately, God’s authority demands our submission in obedience to his will. And how do we know what that will is? His “word”–the Bible.

“MB’s seek to think and live biblically. We commit to believing, studying, and obeying the Bible as our trustworthy and final authority. (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21). Our confession of faith is a statement about what we believe the Bible has to say about living in our world today” (https://usmb.org/what-we-believe/).

Palmer Becker suggests “discipleship” is the Anabaptist definition of Christianity. “Discipleship means following Jesus in daily life… Discipleship insists that faith and obedience must be held together. Faith requires obedience, and obedience requires faith.”

As I observe Mennonite Brethren (MB) leadership react to MB churches exploring LGBTQ inclusion, I notice strategies of control being employed to protect the status quo. Silence and erase voices that disagree with or even ask questions that may challenge existing theology or practices. Sabotage church discernment processes by threatening pastoral credentials and conference membership. And if churches refuse to submit, kick them out and call it self-selected exclusion.

The pain and trauma experienced by those who have been excluded forever impacts their lives.

We claim, “Jesus is the center of our faith. Community is the center of our lives. Reconciliation is the center of our work.” Yet, we cause tremendous suffering.

This does not look like shalom to me.

This looks like a pattern of using power over others. Control. Domination. Oppression. Exploitation. These are all cut from the same cloth. When “authority” operates as that which exerts power-over, we are going to keep producing “bad fruit.”

Drew Hart, Professor in Theology at Messiah University, helped me see this “lording over” pattern in new ways when I read his book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. He writes:

“The church in America cannot conceive of what it means to live faithfully in the way of Jesus today if it continues to marginalize , silence, and forget Native Americans. In humility, and by grappling with the realities of white supremacy, the white church can repent from domination and recover its mode of life as strangers in the land. The church can turn away from its false belief that it is Christian destiny to dominate, control, and when it desires, destroy everything and everyone in its way… However, as Christians, we must not only challenge racial hierarchy (though in American that is particularly important). We must keep track of all forms of human-constructed hierarchies that exist in our communities. That is so that, as God’s people, we can live more and more into the new humanity of Christ. Considering various people groups’ experiences within white supremacy (racialized hierarchy) is vital, as is confronting patriarchy (gendered hierarchy) and plutocracy (classed hierarchy). Jesus reminds us that these ways of dominating others–which, as we shall see, often overlap and intersect–should be “not so with you” (Luke 22:26). As followers of Jesus, we are obligated to resist all types of lording over others.”

When MB leadership emphasizes authority–their own and that of the Confession of Faith and the Bible–the way they have in response to pastors and churches exploring LGBTQ inclusion, I see hierarchy hard at work trying to maintain its power over others. This is not always, maybe even not often, obvious, even to those doing hierarchy’s bidding. This is often operating under the surface, even that of our own consciousness. Unless we begin to see it, however, we will not be able to examine it or change it.

What if there are other ways of cultivating discipleship that produce a tree of life filled with good fruit under its canopy of healing for all?

In my next post, I want to talk about one of the things that prevent us from “having eyes to see” this power-over pattern at work in our communities.

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