Why do we have a Conference of churches? Some say it’s because of missions; we work together to make disciples and plant churches. Some pastors, missionaries, and evangelists emphasize this. Yet, at best, it’s only partly right. We are a conference because of Jesus—a person, not a task.
Pastors Kevin Wiebe and Darren Plett spoke on unity at the recent EMC ministerial retreat. Kevin also recently reminded us that Christian unity exists because of Jesus (see his Reformation Reflection column online).
We exist as the EMC because of Jesus. We are one by the One who is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Our unity is in Christ: “just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all in and all” (Eph. 4:4-6). This is wonderful, enriching, foundational.
As we recognize our unity in Christ, we are to work together in many ways in the EMC and beyond.
What gets emphasized within the Great Commission? Going, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of our Triune God. Yes, let’s send more workers and also plant more churches in Canada!
The EMC has plateaued in membership for 17 years. Numbers matter because they represent people—and people matter. Sure, some church starts will fail. But the more we plant, the more we will succeed.
Within the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), though, what is too often reduced in significance? It is “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Packed into a few words is much.
We are to teach believers to “obey everything” Jesus has commanded. What does “obey” mean and “everything” include? More than can be said here. That’s precisely the point. Jesus’ teaching by word and example reveals our calling, our mission, is many-sided (Luke 4:17-19, Matt. 23:13-25).
We are called to faith, discipleship, evangelism, community, charity, justice, and much more. Does any of this sound un-EMC? One hopes not!
Consider again what our Constitution says: “The purpose of the Conference is to glorify God by building His Kingdom. This is done by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ at home and abroad, ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of people, establishing and nurturing local congregations of believers, building and maintaining community among member churches, coordinating the concerns and resources of the member churches for the various ministries within the Kingdom of God, [and] forming affiliations with other groups within the body of Christ in order to carry out the worldwide mandate of the church” (page 20).
This is a broad calling—as local as next door, as wide as the world, as many-sided as there are ministries in God’s Kingdom. EMC churches are to work together to the glory of God and for His Kingdom.
The EMC exists because of Jesus. We are one in Him and called to follow, to be, to work in many ways (Rom. 12:4-8). How well does your local church reflect this?
A Ministerial Retreat is one of the greatest ways to bless your church leadership. During Nov. 25–27, 2017, some EMC churches gave their leadership a break at Wilderness Edge Retreat and Conference Centre in Pinawa, Man. Scott and Debbie Dick, youth leaders from Rosenort EMC, warmly welcomed the ministerial, which set the tone for the weekend.
The Centre did a great job of trying to help us gain some weight with their delicious meals. The food was usually secondary to the great fellowship and getting to know each other. The laughter and chatter around the tables indicated that people were having a great time.
The informal Saturday evening program began with a very vibrant worship time as we sang praises to God in wonderful harmony. What a great way to start a weekend to focus on unity and harmony. To add to the fun of the weekend, we had several activities that were designed for us to get to know others we were meeting for the first time. We had a series of questions in which we were encouraged to share something about ourselves, culminating in a question, “If you received one million dollars, what would you do with it?” This question speaks to our priorities, desires, and dreams.
In another game we discovered that the men who volunteered were faster at making perogies (verenika) than the women. Ward and Janine Parkinson kept us laughing as they shared a skit on marrying off a youngest daughter. The great fellowship continued long into the night as we continued on around the common unifying theme of food (snacks).
On Sunday morning, after another excellent time of worship together, Kevin Wiebe, pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, shared from Ephesians 4:1-7 about Unity: Cultivated or Fabricated. Some unity is surface or temporary. Examples are Jacob and Esau and their descendants, and Jews and Gentiles in the Early Church. The name, Israel, means one who struggles with God and humans yet overcomes.
People in the church will always have differences of opinion and sometimes this results in conflict. Lack of conflict in a church does not always mean that there is unity. Paul exhorts believers in Ephesus to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. As a church we are to anchor ourselves to the source of unity, Jesus Christ. This is done by submitting to Jesus as Lord and Master as we become His slaves.
We are not to function as individuals, but as the body of Christ. We are to work together in one Spirit for one purpose and that is to glorify the Father who is over all. We will be in situations where we will need to appropriate the grace Christ has given to us so that we can use grace to build unity. Kevin closed with the Lord’s prayer at the Last Supper in John 17:20-23 where Jesus asks the Father that all believers will be one just as Jesus and the Father were one and thereby the world will know that Jesus came to bring love to the earth. We should not just fabricate unity, but we should cultivate it.
We split up into eight groups with about 10 people per group to discuss the applications to Kevin’s message. Listening to a good sermon is great, but grappling with the implications for your life is quite another matter.
We continued the theme of Unity and focused on Eph. 4:12-16 with Darren Plett, of Pleasant Valley EMC, in the afternoon. We need to find ways to work together for the common good. You can’t have unity by yourself; it takes many players to make a team. Darren emphasized the unity in the body is seen in the Trinity: “the relationship of three persons in perfection.” They are one; they are unified.
When we work together we are able to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. In Gen. 11:6-7 the Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” God realized that nothing they planned to do would be impossible for them if they were united. The key to accomplishing great things is in verse 7. We need to understand each other.
If we don’t have a clear goal to work together on we will all be busy in conflicting activities. Working together builds maturity, but we need to realize that we will not achieve perfect unity here on earth. The greatest challenge of the church has been that well-meaning people argue with each other because we are passionate about the details. There may be times when we have to focus on unity and not perfection.
“We need to foster a unity of the Spirit and a unity in the faith, not necessarily unity in practice,” said Darren. Our disagreements come because of the pursuit of details of doctrine and practice. We will not come to a united understanding of some doctrines but we need to focus on the source of our faith, Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on the cross.
The gifts that the Spirit gives each believer are there to build up the body of Christ. We need to have unity of purpose and goals. Evangelism is an area that we all need to use our gifts so that we bring as many into the kingdom as possible.
Most of the group finished the afternoon off by going to the curling rink and eight teams competed in three games of two ends of curling. The team of John Froese (Two Hills), Lowell Froese (Leamington), Dallas Wiebe (Guadalajara), and Phil Hamm (Leamington) won all three of their games in the short bonspiel. After supper there was a table tennis tournament that was won by Darren Plett (Pleasant Valley) with runner up Frankie Kim (Pelly).
Others watched as the Toronto Argonauts defeated the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup. The rest of the evening was spent playing pool, table games, making jigsaw puzzles, connecting with others in ministry, and even some getting into the Hot Tub. Days are never long enough when you are enjoying such sweet fellowship and connecting with other leaders.
Gathering to praise and worship the Lord was a great way to begin our Monday morning session. Layton Friesen led a panel discussion with former conference ministers David Thiessen, Don Thiessen, Ward Parkinson, and Ralph Unger. The main question that was asked of each of these ministers was to share an experience where there was not unity and what was done to bring about unity.
Ward Parkinson shared how as a youth pastor he witnessed a church split. He felt that the church did not handle change well and people did not trust well. God helped with rededication of the members but in the end, key people left and new people stepped in to accept responsibility. Key to resolution is forgiveness when there is hurt.
Ralph Unger shared how sexual abuse by a church leader traumatized a victim and even after 40 years there was still hurt. When confronted, the church leader minimized his sin and did not take seriously the problem that he caused by immorality. Those kinds of actions do not build unity nor do they build up the church.
Don Thiessen shared about how in one of his churches an individual came to the community and had very different theological views; but they were able to establish a friendship in spite of their different theological interpretations. We can have different interpretations, yet still have a friendship based on respect and love.
David Thiessen talked about how there were two camps in his church that wanted to do outreach in very different ways. There was a polarization concerning evangelism. Some felt that the church needed to go door to door and share the gospel, and others felt that we love individuals into the kingdom by social action. Things settled down, but when it came time for a pastoral review some individuals felt that David needed to explain his spiritual understandings.
David said that he had to take a day away for solitude, reflection, and write out his responses to the concerns that were raised. The review committee accepted his response. When he met with the congregation, half of the group focused on the great commission and the other half on the great commandment (love your neighbour). David then did a ten-week series on outreach which helped to bring understanding and reconciliation to the church.
The Monday morning session ended with a communion service led by conference pastor Layton Friesen. As we passed the bread and the cup, we affirmed the person next to us by saying, “The body and blood of Christ was shed for you.” This meaningful exchange was culminated by singing the last stanza of Amazing Grace (“When we have been there 10,000 years”) and “Blest be the Tie that Binds.”
We had one last chance to fellowship over food as we said our goodbyes to a very moving and encouraging weekend. The Retreat Centre did a great job of hosting and accommodating us. We are grateful for the great job the planning committee did and look forward to joining the next Ministerial Retreat in 2019.
Phil and Lydia Hamm serve as a ministerial couple within Leamington EMC. They have also served in Japan.
While we can celebrate half a millennium of existence as Anabaptists, it is sobering to think that we are also commemorating what we would now call a church split. We Anabaptists typically look fondly on the courage of the Reformers, but how should our understanding of Christian unity influence our perspective of the Reformation?
I was talking recently with another EMC pastor about the nature of unity. At first we talked about the damage that is done in churches when people sew seeds of discord and disunity. One comment made was that, “Disunity is always evil!” After those words were spoken, we began to question: Is disunity always evil?
As we continued to discuss this, the first example that came to mind was Babel, where God, in fact, caused a fracture in the unity of the people, spoiling their plans. It seemed to us that God’s ways involve uniting good and fracturing the power of evil. On the other hand, the path of darkness unifies evil and fractures the good.
We often talk about unity as an end unto itself, yet it seems that unity is only good insofar as the object of that unity is good. To be united in rebellion against God surely is not good, as happened at Babel. To be united in corruption, greed, and a hunger for power surely isn’t good, as was happening in the Church leading up to the Reformation.
So what is it that should unite us as Christians? All those around the world who are disciples of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, live in this strange reality: while we may do our best to distance ourselves from certain types of other believers, we are still somehow united with them as part of the Body of Christ. Thus the most profound thing that unites us is not a “thing” at all, but rather a “who.” It is Jesus that unites us, the head over his body.
So what do we make of the Reformation? There are several observations I think are important. First, there were problems in the Church leading up to the Reformation that Christians did and should stand against. Corruption, greed, and false teaching are not things for Christians to be united in. Second, the Reformers did sincerely try to reform the existing Church, as they were also aware of the importance of unity.
Third, while the Reformation did do a great deal of good, it also led to countless other church splits, many of them not worth the disunity and scandal that they caused. And fourth, while there is most definitely a kind of unity that was broken by the Reformation, that brokenness does not negate the mysterious way that we are still bound together with other believers through Jesus.
As we reflect on the Reformation, whether we commemorate it as the death of an era for the Church or celebrate it as the birth of new streams of faith, it is helpful for all believers to remember that we are ultimately united not through a statement or philosophy, but through the very person of Jesus. We are part of the same body. May we learn to better act like it!
Kevin Wiebe is the pastor of the New Life Christian Fellowship (Stevenson, Ont.), a member of the BCM, and assistant editor of Theodidaktos.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference