Conference Authority and Leadership
As we noted in the historical survey (Section 2, pages 9ff. ), the significance of district conferences and of the Mennonite Church General Conference (General Assembly since 1971) has grown in this century. It is not possible in this study to address all the important questions about conference (both district and general) authority and leadership. This study is limited to what the Mennonite Church Bylaws have called "mutual guidance in . . . leadership and validation of ordination" (Section 2). This section will therefore focus on conference authority with respect to leadership ministries in the local congregation and on leadership ministries in the conference(s) in relation to local congregations.
To place these areas of concern in the proper perspective, we will give some attention to what "the congregation's centrality in the life and witness of the denomination" means. This statement has been strongly affirmed as well as sometimes misused since it was adopted by the Mennonite Church. It merits attention in the present study on leadership and authority in the church.
We will look first to biblical guidelines on the relation between congregational and intercongregational leadership, then to their possible implications for the Mennonite Church at the present time. An additional resource is the 1971 statement on "Principles and Guidelines for Interchurch Relations"* by the Interchurch Relations Committee of the Mennonite Church General Conference. See especially the section on "The Way of Christian Unity" and its "Implications for the Denomination."
The New Testament does not offer a particular pattern of church order beyond the congregational level. Nevertheless, there are fundamental biblical reasons for working out visible expressions of Christian unity which extend beyond the local congregation. What are the New Testament examples and perspectives which give some indication of how this broader church unity can be expressed in relation to leadership ministries?
1. The "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15:1-35; Galatians 2:1-10). The authority of the Mosaic law was one of the most important issues for the New Testament congregations. It became a crucial question when non-Jewish persons responded to the good news and became Christians. Less than twenty years after Pentecost, apostolic leaders who represented opposing points of view gathered in Jerusalem to seek a common practice.
Several characteristics of the Jerusalem Council pattern are:
--The meeting focused on an issue which represented genuine differences
between the early Christian congregations and apostolic missions. This focus
corresponds in the intercongregational and interapostolic leadership contexts to
the " Rule of Christ"* in the interpersonal
contexts according to Matthew 18:15ff.
--The meeting focused on a significant issue about the content of the gospel message, the doctrinal implications of the message, the standards for Christian conduct, and broader Christian unity. The significance of the issue thus arose from the missionary, doctrinal, and ethical concerns in the broader network of Christian communities.
--The ways of simply disregarding the teaching of the "Judaizers" or excluding them from teaching in the Antioch congregation without seeking a broader resolution of the matter were apparently rejected.
--Those appointed by the Antioch congregation to participate in the meeting (Paul, Barnabas, and "some of the others") were persons directly involved in the issue. Their appointment by the Antioch congregation also implied a broader discernment that the position of Paul and Barnabas represented a matter worthy of extensive testing and more than local consensus.
--The "council" used procedures of discernment and decision-making patterned after a congregational model. The procedures were: address the issues openly and frankly, consider the major positions in the gathered assembly, seek a genuine decision, and solicit the larger "assembly" as well as the apostles and elders to confirm the deliberations.
--Those who participated in the council agreed upon an understanding and practice which they commended in the following years to the scattered Christian congregations. The authority of the council thus depended on the discernment which led to the convening of the meeting, the conferred and confirmed authority of those participating in the council, the meeting's consensus on the issue, the continuing apostolic recommendation of the consensus to the congregations. It apparently also depended on the broader implementation and continuing discernment in local congregations.
--The task of interpreting the consensus and commending it to the congregations was apparently given to the different groups represented at the meeting (see Acts 15:22). It did not depend entirely on Paul and Barnabas, whose position was already well known.
--In the overall direction of the early Christian congregations according to the book of Acts, the Jerusalem Council played a crucial role in pointing a direction for broader consensus on a critical issue. At the same time, it recognized acceptable differences.
It would be incorrect to equate the Jerusalem Council with present-day conference organizations. But the characteristics of this example reflect the Holy Spirit's leading in ways which should guide broader discernment, decision-making, and the exercise of leadership ministries in implementing a common stance on significant issues in the church.
2. Itinerant apostles, teachers, apostolic helpers. In the New Testament church, apostles, teachers, apostolic helpers, and others exercised leadership ministries beyond local congregations. Congregations in a given area appointed some for particular tasks, such as for gathering the collection for the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea. Itinerant apostles such as Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas, and apostolic helpers such as Timothy, Silas, and Titus, established congregations, organized leadership ministries in those congregations, provided counsel and direction in doctrinal and ethical matters, encouraged communications, mutual accountability and support between congregations, and facilitated the carrying out of common tasks. They also provided leadership in seeking to resolve controversy between differing positions and practices. On occasion they mediated situations of conflict between local members and congregational leaders.
These ministries encouraged and gave direction to the broader Christian identity and unity in common tasks, in working out a common stance on significant issues, and in facilitating broader fellowship.Those who served in these ministries were often appointed in the context of local congregations. They were also tacitly confirmed in the carrying out of their ministries by other congregations and other apostolic leaders. The exercise of these itinerant ministries manifest the characteristics of servant leadership considered normative for congregational leaders as well (see Section 3B).
The New Testament model of itinerant ministries may provide perspectives for church leadership ministries beyond local congregations:
--Those exercising such ministries are in some way accountable to a local
Christian congregation as well as to the broader Christian community.
--Itineracy itself symbolizes the mobility of servant leadership by its readiness to meet those who are served on their "turf."
--Itinerant leaders in the New Testament Church challenged local Christian communities to a vision and practice of Christian unity, faithfulness and mission that went beyond the shortcomings of isolationism and made visible the creation of a new humanity in Christ (Ephesians 2).
In the history of the Christian churches, some have emphasized the "apostolic" ministry of the New Testament as the precedent for an episcopal* type of inter-congregational organization with strongly hierarchical and centralized leadership ministries. Others have taken the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; Galatians 2) as the biblical precedent for a more synodal* type of inter-congregational organization. Others have emphasized the autonomy of the congregation and congregational leadership. Each of these emphases have had differing understandings of the relation between leadership ministries in the local congregational and in the inter-congregational contexts.
During the past one hundred years, there have been several differing emphases within the Mennonite Church. Nevertheless, the general pattern of inter-congregational conferences has generally been affirmed. In the nineteenth century, this pattern usually meant a loose affiliation of congregations in districts, primarily for the purpose of fellowship, counsel, and mutual support. Toward the end of the last century and during the first half of this century, conference bodies with stronger authority roles developed. In more recent years, conference authority has apparently declined. Church institutions and organizational structures in the Mennonite Church have become more influential. A review of leadership ministries in inter-congregational relationships at this time should seek to carefully evaluate these developments as well as from the biblical motifs outlined in Section 6A. The strengths and possible weaknesses of the emphasis on the "centrality of the congregation" should also be evaluated in light of these developments.
1. The "centrality of the congregation." The present Bylaws of the Mennonite Church rightly emphasize the "congregation's centrality in the life and witness of the denomination" (Article IV, Section 1). The way in which this emphasis is understood and implemented remains, however, a very important matter. It can reflect much of the New Testament vision for inter-congregational relations and leadership or it can be susceptible to certain dangers in North America at this time.
The strengths of this emphasis include:
--It reflects the New Testament pattern where the congregation is God's
people meeting in a particular place for "reconciliation, witness, worship,
service, discernment, mutual fellowship, and discipline" (Mennonite Church
Bylaws, Article IV, Section 1).
--The centrality of the congregation comes also from the regularity, continuity, and frequency of congregational gatherings in comparison to conference and denominational gatherings. This greater regularity, continuity, and frequency of coming together should provide the context for more binding decision-making, more sustained teaching and discernment, more direct forgiveness and admonition, and more immediate support and fellowship, than what is usually possible in inter-congregational gatherings and work.
--The centrality of the congregation also provides the model for intercongregational, conference; and denominational fellowship and mission. At all levels, there should be open conversation in decision-making, mutual acceptance of persons with varied and diverse gifts, and the exercise of servant leadership in the context of shared ministries. The Jerusalem Council, for example, represents a broader discernment and decision-making process which reflects a congregational model as adapted to an inter-congregational context (see Section 6A-1).
--The centrality of the congregation also means that conference and denominational bodies are to be servants of the congregation. They should enable congregations to do together what they cannot do or may do less well alone. Conference and denominational bodies are therefore accountable to congregations. The Jerusalem Council is also an example of how a significant issue raised in numerous congregations led to a consensus between congregations.
However, the congregation cannot exist apart from broader Christian relationships. There are also certain dangers in a congregational emphasis, which need correction:
--This emphasis may too readily discount the New Testament mandate for unity
of faith and practice between congregations. It may too readily make the working
out of this unity overly dependent on congregational provincialisms. The
examples of itinerant apostles, teachers, and helpers in the New Testament
church, as well as of the Jerusalem Council, point to the importance of broader
than individual congregational structures to find and live out the unity of
faith and practice in the body of Christ.
--The emphasis on the centrality of the congregation may sometimes be used as rationalization to justify local congregational understandings and practices without openness to have them tested by broader testing.
--This emphasis may also undermine the broader mission of the church, the resolution of important differences, and the sharing of spiritual, personal, and material resources. The New Testament examples corrected tendencies in the early church to perpetuate conflicting practices of mission, to avoid broader testing of doctrinal and practical concerns, and to disregard material and spiritual needs of sister congregations. In our context, too much emphasis on the centrality of the congregation may also need correction. Otherwise it can undermine the appropriate ways in which conference and denominational bodies can help congregations in their common tasks and mission.
--Finally, a wrong emphasis on the centrality of the congregation can be used to justify less commitment by congregational ministers to inter-congregational expressions of common faith, life, and mission.
The New Testament patterns of itinerant ministries and inter-congregational gatherings can hardly be reduced to an episcopal, or a synodal, or a narrowly congregational form of church polity. We do better not to think in terms of conference and denominational authority at the "top" and congregational authority at the "bottom"-or congregational authority at the "top" and conference or denominational authority at the "bottom." It would be more fitting to think in terms of concentric circles. The movement from the congregation to the ever-widening circles of conference and denomination reflects the centrality of the congregation in the life of the church. The conference and denominational agencies and bodies should be servants of each preceding circle of relationships. Simultaneously, the wider circles of conference and denomination can provide resources which challenge congregations to a higher quality of unity in faith and life. They can also enable them to carry out their ministry and mission more faithfully and effectively.
2. Conference confirmation of leadership ministries in the congregation. In an episcopal form of church organization, the final authority for ordination resides with the bishop. In a synodal form, final authority for the examination and ordination remains with the area synod. The implications of the New Testament appear to indicate a shared responsibility for the discernment, appointment, and/or ordination of those in leadership ministries. The primary responsibility and authority would appear to lie in the gathered congregation. The conference and/or broader inter-congregational bodies or representatives appropriately assist the congregation, by providing counsel, and by confirming the ordination of persons to leadership ministries.
a. Various procedures may be adopted in a congregation leading to the appointment and/or ordination of persons to leadership ministries. These procedures should, however, be agreed upon by the congregation. They should include sensitivity to a person's sense of call, the discernment of a person's gifts as they have already been exercised in the life of the congregation, and careful consideration of the New Testament qualifications. Congregational leaders, or those appointed for this purpose, should give sensitive and careful direction to the procedures of call, selection, and eventual ordination as agreed upon by the congregation.
It is fitting that congregations in the same area or conference develop and periodically review guidelines which may be used in the choice and appointment of persons to leadership ministries in the congregation.
It is also to be recommended that a congregation simultaneously solicit the help of persons or committees designated by conference or denominational bodies to provide counsel and assistance. This is particularly important when persons being considered for leadership ministries come from "outside" the congregation. This broader consultation is, however, also to be recommended when considering persons from "within" the congregation. This is one way of following the New Testament concern for broader Christian unity and common identity in faith and practice.
b. Conference confirmation. In view of the concerns for common faith and practice, it is fitting that the congregation's decision to extend a call and to ordain someone for a leadership ministry be confirmed by the appropriate conference persons or bodies. This may include another process of discernment (such as "examination" by a committee or group of persons so designated), sharing in a service of appointment or ordination, and in communicating the appointment to the broader church as desirable.
This confirmation may be facilitated if congregations have already agreed upon qualifications and expectations for leadership ministries, and upon similar procedures for choosing and ordaining them. If there is an initial unwillingness on the part of conference to confirm the person(s) a congregation wishes to ordain, the congregation and the conference should be ready to reexamine the matter.
c. Which congregational ministries should be confirmed by conference? In line with Section 5B, conference confirmation would be appropriate at least for all ministries of continuing congregational leadership and inter-congregational relations.
Seven Articles of
Schleitheim (Anabaptist, 1527)
Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632)
Mennonite Confession of Faith (Mennonite Church, 1963)
Biblical Understandings Concerning Women and Men (Mennonite Church, 1975)
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Mennonite Church/General Conference Mennonite Church, 1995)
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Mennonite Church. "Conference Authority and Leadership." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1981. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L42.html/L42_6.html.
APA style: Mennonite Church. (1981). Conference Authority and Leadership. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L42.html/L42_6.html.