by Pastor Dwight Plett
The theme of this weekend is Inviting Healthy Change. Today we’re going to be talking about some potential changes in our leadership structure and it looks like we’re going to be talking about whether or not there should be a change in the leadership roles open to women in the EMC.
Of course, being Mennonites, we thrive on change and we find it totally invigorating so that should be no problem. All joking aside, this is a big deal.
I do have some general thoughts that apply to every decision we face. I’ve got four possible responses to the question at hand and two very important considerations.
I want to say thank you to the people who have been working on this behind the scenes. They’ve been at it for quite a while already and I commend them for their patience and their determination to get this right.
1. We Can Say No for the Wrong Reasons
We can say no because it’s the easiest thing for people who hate change to do. “What’s so bad about the way things are? Change is hard and it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of people are going to have to make some huge adjustments and we’ll have to do our homework. We’ll have to examine scripture and try to figure out what it really means. We’ll have to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to lead us in a direction that’s unfamiliar. It’s just so much more convenient to leave well enough alone.”
Even worse, we could say no because we think women aren’t qualified, maybe even that they’re inferior. We could say no because we men don’t want to let go of power because we don’t really believe in servant leadership; we couldn’t possibly submit to women or surrender the authority to women.
Or maybe we want to say no because our theological heroes in more conservative churches and in previous generations said no to the same question. We could definitely say no for the wrong reasons.
2. We Can Say No for the Right Reasons
If we say no because we honestly believe that the Bible forbids for all time, women from being in leadership over men. If that’s what we believe then we are obliged to say no and that would be a good reason for saying no.
We could say no because our concern is to be obedient to God regardless of what the world thinks, regardless of what other more “progressive” churches think.
We could say no because after praying and fasting and seeking after God we’ve come to the conclusion that that is the answer God wants us to give.
There are good reasons for saying no. If we would decide to say no because of our conviction that the Bible and the Holy Spirit forbid us from saying yes in spite of pressure from every other direction, then I don’t think God would be displeased with us.
3. We Could Say Yes for the Wrong Reasons
We can say yes because we’re tired of bucking the trend. We don’t like the kinds of labels we get for the stand we’ve been taking and we want to fit in. We don’t like it that the world thinks we’re backward. We don’t like being left behind. We don’t care what the Bible says; we just want to get with the program and fit in for a change.
If we’re more concerned about what other people think about us than we are about being obedient, then saying yes from that place would be wrong.
4. We Could Say Yes for the Right Reasons
I can’t help but think of the early church in Acts 15 when they had to decide whether or not Gentiles could belong to the church without being circumcised. There was no precedent; they really were moving into uncharted territory.
But the Holy Spirit led them and demonstrated among them that they were moving in the right direction so they changed a thousand years’ worth of tradition in that one meeting because they were being sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
That must have been a scary thing to do. But they did it because they were fully convinced that the Holy Spirit was leading them; and that, in spite of the fact that on the surface scripture seemed to be teaching the opposite, this is what God wanted them to do.
And when the Holy Spirit opened their eyes they discovered that scripture supported them in this. Paul argues eloquently in Romans 4 that Abraham is father to the circumcised and the uncircumcised and that circumcision is a matter of the heart.
If the decision before us is in any way similar to the one faced by the church in Acts 15, and if we decide to say yes in the 21st century to women in leadership for the same reasons that they said yes to the Gentiles in the first century, then I believe we would be saying yes for the right reasons.
I guess what I’m saying is that our reasons for saying yes or no are actually more important than the decision we end up making.
And now I want to conclude with two words that are more important than anything else I’ve said.
1. My First Word is Obedience
We want to listen to God and obey his leading even if it’s not what we expected. More than trusting in common sense, we want to trust God regardless of how uncomfortable it might make us.
Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.”
There’s no way you could have predicted that one day Paul the Pharisee and Peter and James and the other devout Jewish early church leaders would one day make the decision to allow uncircumcised Gentiles to worship freely alongside ceremonially undefiled Jews. But they were trusting the Lord with all their hearts and not leaning on their own understanding. They acknowledged him and he directed their paths and they came to a very unexpected decision.
Do we have the patience and the resolve to wait on God for his leading? Remember Jehoshaphat’s prayer (2nd Chron. 20:12): “Lord, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
2. My Second Word is Unity
We need to work together. We are on the same team; we have an enemy but the other people in this room are not the enemy. The people on the other side of the argument are not the enemy. We know that Satan wants to cause division. Let’s not cooperate with his plan. We want to be unified even if we don’t agree. Love must prevail.
Before you say anything to someone else about this issue you need to say this to yourself, “I love these people and we’re all on the same team, serving the same God, wanting his will. I want God’s way, not my way.”
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
I think whichever way we go on this issue God can accomplish beautiful things in the EMC if we let him. If we patiently work our way through this process we can, by God’s grace, grow through it and learn to love each other even more than we already do.
Dwight Plett (left) is the lead minister of the Mennville EMC. He is married to Lorna. This message, shortened for publication, was presented to the EMC conference council on June 10, 2017, hosted at Mennville.