I found the task of reviewing the polity of the Mennonite Church
regarding conference-congregation relationships to be no small
challenge. As I prepared this address I became aware again of
the temptation to read contemporary perspectives and concerns
into our history. I noted that some people read our journey as
a church in terms of its abuses of authority, while others discover
confirmations of a legitimate tradition. Interpretation of the
role and function of conferences varies depending on what one
is looking for. In the Mennonite Encyclopedia Rod Sawatsky
Authority...is a problem for Mennonites, not only on the larger
theological level, but also on the operational level. Operationally,
among Mennonites, authority is sometimes identified but more
frequently is not identified; it is sometimes formulated, but
typically only implied. The discussion of Mennonite understandings
of authority...is largely a matter of identifying the implied
(Vol V, p. 45).
Leonard Gross has suggested that distinctly different traditions
of leadership and authority emerged from the Dutch Mennonites
and the Swiss/South German Mennonites from whom the conferences
represented here have their primary origin. He suggested that
this difference is symbolized by the repeated reference to Matthew
18 in the Schleitheim Confession [Swiss/South German] (centering
discipline in the congregation), and the appeal to I Corinthians
5 in the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 [Dutch] (which emphasized
the authority of church leaders).
Current integration discussions with the General Conference
Mennonite Church highlight the congregationalism in the General
Conference tradition in contrast to the MC pattern of church.
The anomaly is that the descendants of the Schleitheim Confession
are now characterized (or caricatured) as those with more tendencies
toward authoritarian leaders and the descendants of the Dutch
Mennonites as more democratic and congregational.
I speak, not as a scholar, but as one nurtured in the womb
of the church and schooled from childhood in the ambiguities
of polity. My father, whose parenting and memory I cherish, was
feared by some of my contemporaries due to his authority as bishop
and conference moderator for many years. I also speak as one
who has visited all the conferences in an attempt to listen to
Three particular points of interest should be noted at the
outset of this review. First, the history of conferences in the
Mennonite Church date from 1725 (Franconia) to 1979 (Gulf States),
if we do not take into account conferences which reorganized
in recent years due to integration with the GCMC. It is interesting
to note that six conferences have been formed since 1960. While
their experience differs from that of the older conferences,
in many cases their roots and nucleus of leaders have some origin
in older conferences in the East.
A second issue which cannot be overlooked is that several
of our larger conferences in the Midwest have strong influences
from an Amish Mennonite heritage. Specific polity differences
were blended in these conferences between greater congregational
autonomy among the Amish Mennonites and the stronger role of
conference for Mennonites.
Third, this address focuses largely on structural considerations.
It is important to affirm that our structures for authority and
church order are rooted in the confidence of Christ's presence
in the body to guide and empower the community in decision making
and living out the will of God. The scriptures provide the authoritative
word, as interpreted by the Spirit in the community of faith,
for leaders and people. This point dare not be overlooked lest
we succumb to mere human strivings devoid of the transcendent
presence of God in the working out of our polity.
Emergence of Conferences, 1527-1880
It is commonly stated that the first conference among the Anabaptists
took place at Schleitheim, Switzerland, February 24, 1527. A
group of leaders met together and drafted seven articles on which
the Anabaptists differed from the Protestant reformers. These
seven articles were developed in the local Anabaptist congregations,
according to Leonard Gross.
The statement assumes many central doctrines -- God, Bible,
justification by faith -- and focuses on matters of ethics and
order in the church. The Brotherly Union circulated widely
in Europe influencing members of the Anabaptist movement and
causing other reformers to write responses. Other conferences
occurred in Europe in the early years of the Anabaptist movement
where leaders reviewed issues of faith, strategized for mission,
attempted to develop unity among divergent parties and tried
to maintain order in the church.
The first conference in America took place at Germantown in
1725 where early Pennsylvania settlers met and adopted the Dordrecht
Confession of 1632. Apparently the group was experiencing challenges
to their beliefs and identity and needed to define a statement
of faith that could be circulated among English speaking colonists,
according to Beulah Hostetler. During this same era the leaders
of the two oldest Pennsylvania settlements began to meet to confer
on issues of common concern which eventually gave rise to the
Franconia and Lancaster Conferences. In the 19th century other
conferences emerged in Ontario, Virginia, Western Pennsylvania,
Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri-Iowa and Kansas-Nebraska.
The early conferences of Mennonites were meetings of leaders
from autonomous or semi-autonomous congregations. The communities
reflected close-knit sectarian characteristics, guided by unwritten
understandings of faith and practice with authority expressed
through leaders who were called out of the congregations. Without
external threats or internal calls for change, conferences needed
no formalized procedures or elaborate structures of authority.
One threat emerged in Franconia in the 1840s when a minister
named John Oberholtzer wished to develop a new authority structure
for congregations. Among the issues which precipitated the crisis
was Oberholtzer's refusal to wear the plain coat normally worn
by ministers, his desire for minutes of the conference sessions
to be kept in writing and his call for development of a constitution
for the conference body. Oberholtzer's vision also included ministerial
training, Sunday schools, missionary activities and publishing
materials for congregational nurture.
When Oberholtzer pressed for these innovations, a division
occurred in 1847 involving 16 ministers and deacons and one-fourth
of the Franconia membership. The presenting issues appear to
be a conflict between traditional and innovative ways of being
the church. Decades later most of Oberholtzer's ideas were common
practice in the Mennonite Church.
Was it merely pioneer thinking versus closed-minded and unchanging
leadership? Perhaps. But Beulah Hostetler in American Mennonites
and Protestant Movements, suggests the critical issue was
the nature of authority in the church. Oberholtzer claimed only
to recognize the authority of Scripture. None of the issues he
pressed for were prohibited by Scripture. But conference leaders
believed that it was the Scriptures as interpreted by the church
and expressed in certain practices which was most important to
the spiritual health of God's people. They saw Oberholtzer disregarding
the authority of the church. They feared that to keep minutes
and preparing a constitution would undercut the congregationally-based
discipline of Matthew 18, and could possibly place human patterns
This 1847 schism in Franconia probably says less about the
character of the modern General Conference Mennonite Church than
it does about a fundamental issue faced by our conferences in
the l990s. The foundational problem which our conferences still
face is not the authority of Scripture, which is generally upheld
in our church. The key issue is who interprets the Scripture.
Which understanding of the Scripture do we follow? What do we
do when congregations and members do not agree on scriptural
interpretation? And what is the role of conferences in addressing
Consolidation of Conference Authority, 1881-1962
Mennonites in North America experienced many changes in the 19th
century. Gradually John Oberholtzer's ideas seemed more appealing.
Another way of saying it is that the trend was to replace the
informal unwritten sanctions of the church with more formal written
codes. By 1881 Lancaster Conference developed a document entitled
"Rules and Discipline" which grew from 27 items and
1481 words in 1881 to 57 items and 4677 words in 1968 when the
last such statement was adopted by the conference. Leonard Gross
says most of the conferences adopted some version of a discipline
during this era, along with organizational constitutions to guide
the corporate life of the church.
Among the forces which fed this process were the decline of
a sectarian consciousness among Mennonites, the zeal for organizational
and institutional development, the fundamentalist-modernist struggles
around the turn of the century, and the thrust of modernity with
new ideas and technology which created a need for sharpening
the boundaries of the church.
Conferences took the lead in working at these matters. The
bishops promoted the noble ideal of a pure church which could
and should be maintained through clear expressions of discipline.
The definitions of faith and practice were developed by leaders
and, at least in some conferences, the rules and discipline were
presented to the congregations for their approval.
The Amish Mennonite conferences retained a strong consultative
relationship with their congregations. In the eastern conferences,
the rules and discipline were read through in their entirety
in a council meeting or preparatory meeting to the annual or
semi-annual communion service. Members were regularly expected
to declare their confession of peace with God and each other,
along with a willingness to abide by the explicit discipline
of the church. Practical matters, such as dress, entertainment,
insurance, radio/TV ownership, and Sunday observance, were addressed
in these statements of discipline. Some of us can remember this
era with its more authoritative leaders and the sincere desire
for a people nonconformed to the world and devoted to the simple
faith of Jesus Christ. Some call the early to mid-twentieth century
a doctrinal era with a more rational approach to faith.
While some members were excommunicated for failure to live
up to definitions of faith and practice in their conference,
others left voluntarily to join other denominations or to form
new congregations. In some conference settings today there are
General Conference Mennonite Church congregations which were
developed by Mennonites who wished for a more relaxed way to
live out their faith. In some communities independent congregations
were formed by dissatisfied Mennonites. Over the years some congregations
were reprimanded by the bishop for practices out of line with
the conference expectations, such as special music in the church
and Sunday school. In some instances whole congregations were
excommunicated when their deviances seemed too pronounced. More
common was a division in a congregation or withdrawal either
by those desiring a more conservative or more progressive practice
of faith. In the Mennonite Encyclopedia H.S. Bender says of Mennonite
schisms, "none was due to a major issue in doctrine, all
being due primarily to differences between progressive and conservative
attitudes in church work or strictness in discipline or to miscellaneous
and personal difficulties" (Vol III, p. 612).
A primary force shaping conferences during this era was the
formation of the Mennonite General Conference in 1898. This structure
provided a forum for the conferences to work together at common
concerns and symbolized the beginning of the Mennonite Church
as a denomination. While four conferences never formally joined
the Mennonite General Conference, the provision was made for
the bishops of these non-member conferences to be ex offcio delegates
to the General Conference.
While formally General Conference remained advisory to the
area conferences, strong voices called for uniformity among the
conferences. One expression of this was the publication in 1914
by the General Conference of a revised and expanded edition of
Daniel Kauffman's, Manual of Bible Doctrine, which gained
broad acceptance and contributed strongly toward greater uniformity
among the conferences. To challenge Kauffman's Bible Doctrine
became more and more like challenging the authority of scripture.
The Mennonite General Conference created a dress committee in
1911 to bring "all our people to the Gospel standard of
simplicity and spirituality." While the authority of the
Mennonite General Conference was formally weak, its influence
was powerful in matters of faith and practice among the conferences.
In the late 1930s Illinois Conference heard rumors that the
Mennonite General Conference was threatening their membership
due to their more progressive practices. They were reassured
in a letter from the General Conference in 1939. In 1943 the
General Problems Committee brought a report concerning the lack
of uniform adherence to accepted Mennonite practices of nonconformity
among the conferences. An action was proposed that should any
conference decide not to work in harmony with General Conference
standards they would forfeit their place in the General Conference.
This action was tabled and a special session of General Conference
called in 1944 to look at this proposal. After much time in prayer
an action was taken in 1944 to visit conferences who did not
keep the standards of the Mennonite General Conference with a
view towards reconciliation and a desire to avoid any forfeiture
of membership by conferences. Clearly the General Conference
chose not to press its authority and bent every effort toward
healing and unity. It is this conciliatory spirit which has largely
characterized both our denomination and area conferences over
the years (to the disappointment of some members).
Redefinition of Conference, 1963-1994
By the 1960s, the authority of a conferences had waned in the
Mennonite Church. Rules and discipline were quickly set aside
in favor of more flexible approaches to discipleship. I was present
at the 1965 fall session of the Franconia Conference when there
was not sufficient support to reaffirm the current discipline
or to approve a revised discipline. As a result, in one day,
a long era of conference discipline ended. In 1981, 100 years
after the development of the first such statement, the Lancaster
Conference made acceptance of the rules and discipline optional.
In the 1990s we have a generation of members and pastors for
whom conference discipline is a distant memory or unknown part
of our history.
Many factors contributed to this rapid loss of authority by
conferences and church leaders. World War II and subsequent wars
resulted in the broader exposure of Mennonites to the larger
world through CPS and other alternate service programs. Eventually
the contextualization of the gospel in overseas mission was bound
to alter the character of the North American sending churches.
Training of pastors introduced professionalism in leadership
with the desire to distinguish between faith and culture. Theron
Schlabach observes that the shift from Daniel Kauffman to Paul
Erb as editor of the Gospel Herald in 1944 symbolized the transition
in leadership from formal authority and zeal for purity to a
more educated leadership inclined toward greater flexibility
and openness to cultural variety. Some conferences began in the
1950s and 60s to welcome a more representational authority through
lay delegates to their sessions. Not to be overlooked in this
time of change was the growing individualism in North American
society and the challenges to established structures and designated
leadership in a church where the boundaries were eroding rapidly.
These changes were also reflected in denominational structure.
The General Problems Committee which had been concerned with
nonconformity, became the Church Welfare Committee in 1961, charged
to address issues of diversity and unity. A new Confession of
Faith was adopted in 1963 to provide a clear point of reference
amidst rapid social change. At the 1967 General Conference held
at Lansdale, Pa., communion was observed for the first time in
a churchwide setting, symbolizing the shift from communion as
a uniform practice of discipline toward a more open expression
of fellowship in Christ. This same General Conference agreed
to launch a reorganization which resulted in the current denominational
structure adopted in Kitchener, Ont. in 1971. Institutionalization
and organizational development in an era of unprecedented prosperity
seemed to be one way to provide direction for the church in a
time of rapid change.
The 1971 denominational reorganization assumed conferences
would not survive the rapid changes going on in the church and
built a system of regions as new structures for congregational
affiliation. The assumption was that if conferences no longer
functioned with the old authority of rules and discipline they
either had no reason to exist or at least were expendable in
favor of broader geographical groupings of congregations. We,
of course, know today how mistaken these assumptions were. Beginning
in the late 1960s and into the 1980s almost all conferences went
through their own reorganization, often mimicking the structures
of the denomination.
In spite of earlier assumptions, we have witnessed a quickening
of life in the conferences with renewed commitment to provide
services and vision for the congregations which make up the conference.
A certain pattern of staff developed in many of our conferences.
Usually a conference minister was employed first, followed by
staff for youth, a mission staff person and then a conference
executive. Some conferences also began to employ persons to work
at nurture, stewardship and peace issues. The result today is
that we have in some conferences an intermediate structure which
parallels the ministries of the denomination. In addition to
the conferences, associate groups have developed and urban councils
are formed in some larger cities as other networks of churches
with common interests. I might observe that the decline of churchwide
ministries which began in the mid-1980s, due to shifts in allocations
of funds by congregations is now being faced by the conferences
who also are needing to modify programs and discern how to posture
themselves for the twenty-first century. There seems to exist
a dynamic synergy between conferences and the denomination.
What I have described in structural terms actually reflects
a deeper theological shift that has gone on among us. To counter
the excessive authority of conferences in the first half of the
twentieth century, the 1963 Confession of Faith boldly declares,
"the primary unit of the church is the local assembly of
believers. It is in the congregation that the work of teaching
and discipling is carried on." The confession goes on to
state the scriptural legitimacy for conferences "to assist
local congregations in maintaining biblical standards of faith,
conduct, stewardship and mission." But the confession clearly
shifts the accent from the conference to the congregation (Article
VIII). Article X on the ministers of the church says almost nothing
about bishops. It emphasizes the role of pastors and concern
for the involvement of the "brotherhood."
The Bylaws of the Mennonite Church adopted in 1971 state, "the
congregation is the primary unit of Mennonite Church organization."
The conference serves as the main administrative structure for
the congregations. The shift towards the congregation is so pronounced
that in the Mennonite Encyclopedia Beulah Hostetler writes
that after the 1971 reorganization "there was a general
return to congregational autonomy with conferences being advisory"
(Vol V., p. 567). Personally I find advisory too weak
a word for the conference/congregation polity which existed prior
to the 20th century or following reorganization in 1971.
There is no question that congregations today are assuming
more responsibility for their own life and mission. In this respect
we parallel developments among all denominations in North America.
There are healthy features to this growth in congregational responsibility
and initiative. There is no way we could have navigated the dramatic
changes we experienced the last 30 years or accommodated the
growing diversity among us without allowing a high degree of
congregationalism. In every conference variety is permitted among
congregations as a way to maintain both unity while recognizing
diversity. The woman's veiling, divorce and remarriage, women
as pastoral leaders, members serving in the military are examples
of different issues where congregations are expected to choose
their own course. (The current issue testing our conference unity
and polity is homosexuality.)
To be sure some ministers and congregations were unable to
allow this diversity and withdrew from conferences in Franconia,
Lancaster, Virginia, Indiana and Oregon. Other conferences also
experienced tensions. But the unity we have experienced overall
is fairly remarkable. It should also be noted that some congregations
and members left our conferences over the years because change
was too slow and flexibility was not sufficient to accommodate
their needs. Steering the middle course in times of rapid change
was not easy. H.S. Bender made the case in a 1926 article that
generally conferences and bishops were more progressive than
many lay people (Goshen College Record Supplement). The
difficult challenge facing many conference leaders has been responding
to critics on both the left and the right within member congregations.
Every generation offers a corrective to the previous generation's
successes. While the 1963 Confession of Faith and 1971 reorganization
emphasized the congregation, the new Confession of Faith and
leadership polity which are currently being developed call us
to see church as existing both in the congregation and in conferences
and the denomination. Indeed some persons believe we have embraced
an unhealthy congregationalism and are calling us to recover
a sense of interdependence among congregations to temper the
individualism of our society.
Coupled with this redefining of church are calls to recover
the "office" of ministry with certain authority for
leaders that exceeds a functional role. Pastors and overseers
are to serve in response to the call of God and the church in
a capacity that transcends the particular person in office or
whims of a given age or situation. This recovery of the office
of minister is again a corrective to the denigration of leadership
in the 1960s and 1970s. While most of our conferences rejected
the role and title of bishop, there is today a growing recognition
of the importance of oversight ministries for congregations.
The reality is that our Mennonite Church tradition, while
flirting with congregationalism, never developed a theological
or philosophical rationale for the individual member or congregation
such as developed in the General Conference Mennonite Church.
Neither have we found the freedom to embrace the credo which
informally guides General Conference Mennonites, "in essentials
unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love." At
times we have swung towards a stronger corporate authority and
definition of church, but more recently we have moved towards
greater congregational freedom. But the central pole against
which divergence is measured has always been marked by an emphasis
on interdependence or corporate authority.
We have a congregational base with certain synodal features.
Currently our synodal character finds specific expression in
two areas: first, conferences reserve the authority to grant
credentials to ministers and to discipline ministers. Second,
conferences normally determine the confession of faith expected
of congregations, and reaffirm General Assembly statements or
issues believed to be of a significance for the common life of
the congregations. While conferences provide certain programmatic
services, beyond these two specific points conferences have very
little formal authority. Some conferences demonstrate greater
flexibility than others in tolerating differences among congregations.
As noted earlier we have a tradition of conferences disciplining
congregations who deviate too far from the expected norms. But
generally conferences are more inclined toward a conciliatory
stance and bend every effort to seek some ground for unity when
In preparing this address I found myself often gravitating toward
words like balance, tension and dynamic
in seeking to understand Mennonite Church polity. Our history
has been one of attempting to hold in balance the congregation
and conference, the individual and corporate body. Certain inherent
tensions pressed us in different directions at different times.
But the reference point for us has been the congregation and
the conference living in a dynamic relationship. While greater
weight shifted from one to the other at certain times in our
history, our theology and practice never called into question
the close wedding of the congregation and the conference. Sometimes
a rigid legalism overshadowed grace. At other times correctives
were needed for definitions of discipleship that were too shallow.
As we look toward the 21st century new challenges face us.
Much has been made of the different polities between the Mennonite
Church arid the General Conference Mennonite Church which will
need attention if we integrate our two denominations. But the
more formidable task we face is how to be a church in a secular
society where we no longer can assume the knowledge of Christianity
or the reinforcement of our faith in public education, government
policies or the media. If the church does not assume responsibility
for defining and nurturing a life of discipleship, our members
are left to both the vagaries of society and to authoritarian
religious bodies all too eager to claim adherents. The Ayatollahs
and Jerry Falwells have an allure in a context where identity
is unclear because muted structures of authority. In his 1987
Comelius H. Wedel Historical Series, Rod Sawatsky writes:
People will find authority someplace, if not in the right
place then in the wrong place, if not in the church then possibly
in the state, if not in God then likely in their egoistic selves,
if not in orthodoxy then probably in heterodoxy.
Furthermore the identity of a community must by definition
be premised on a common set of assumptions - a common authority.
If the authority is weak the identity is weak (p. 85).
Can we express an authority in our conferences and congregations
that provides a clear identity in a secular world and offers
a positive alternative to those for whom life is empty of meaning
and for those who are attracted toward competing faith claims?
Will our polity continue to affirm the presence of the living
Christ leading the church in understanding how to live out the
scriptures for our time? It seems to me that is our challenge
as we approach the 21st century.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1995