Shackled together in perfect unity— ‘Blame it on God’

August 14, 2019 | News | Volume 23 Issue 15
Paul Schrag | Mennonite World Review
‘It takes every ounce of . . . love to cope with the success of God’s gathering,’ Tom Yoder Neufeld told delegates at this year’s MC U.S.A. conference in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Vada Snider)

God’s success is our problem. But it’s a good problem. From these thoughts of Tom Yoder Neufeld came a catch phrase of MennoCon19: “The church is a mess. Thanks be to God!”

A professor emeritus of religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., Yoder Neufeld led 495 Mennonite Church U.S.A. delegates in Bible studies on unity and diversity in Ephesians from July 3 to 5 at the Kansas City Convention Center.

The sessions featured verses like Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

“Let’s put the ceaseless struggle for unity at the core of our understanding of discipleship,” Yoder Neufeld said.

Of his theme, “Gathered into one,” he said, “This is a oneness that defies our imagination. It is nothing less than participating in the unity of God.”

Because God is a successful gatherer, God’s unity is full of diversity. “It takes every ounce of skill, patience and especially love to cope with the success of God’s gathering,” he said. “Unity is hard work. Blame it on God!”

Although “our world is torn by fear of what or who is strange or different,” he said, “let’s not point the finger too quickly at the world,” because Anabaptists also participate in a culture of suspicion, shaming or shunning those whose views or behaviours we disdain.

Children of the wind

Emphasizing the definitions of Spirit as “wind” and “breath,” he described God as bringing “unsettling, wind-driven” unity to the church. “What if we thought of the church as the children of the wind?” he asked. “One thing you can’t do with wind is control it. . . .

“The unity of the Spirit is this turbulent storm within God’s embrace. That’s what peace looks like until we all see God face to face together. If Jesus is God’s peace, then the peace we know today is the peace that is constantly being unsettled by its generosity toward enemies and strangers.”

Yoder Neufeld encouraged the delegates to “rejoice in our awkwardness” as the body of Christ. “The body of Christ will never walk elegantly, but it will walk gracefully,” he said. “That is its perfection.”

Referring to the biblical image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he asked, What building materials would we use to build a home for God? He said the walls of God’s temple are made up of things people have thrown away.

This can be a difficult idea for those in the Anabaptist tradition who want a disciplined community “without spot or wrinkle.”

“We have a hard time following Jesus out to the garbage heap to find building materials, because that would unsettle the niceness of our building,” he said, adding, “We should test whether we are a peace church by the hospitality we have toward each other.”

Chain gang of peace

Yoder Neufeld compared the church to a chain gang.

“The body of Christ is not made up of those who are fleet of foot,” he said. “It has some who want to run fast, but the problem is they are shackled to those of us who can’t run very well. They have to put others’ needs before their own.”

He suggested thinking of unity as the starting point rather than the goal. “That will help us reframe many of the struggles we have with each other,” he said.

Delegates asked if unity has limits. One cited Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness.”

“The unity of the Spirit is intended to be a transformative one,” Yoder Neufeld answered. “When we are brought into the body of Christ, we are not simply included, we are included for transformation.” 

Reprinted with permission of Mennonite World Review.

‘It takes every ounce of . . . love to cope with the success of God’s gathering,’ Tom Yoder Neufeld told delegates at this year’s MC U.S.A. conference in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Vada Snider)

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It's time to call out this false teaching for what it is. For literally years now we have been hearing about maintaining the "unity of the Spirit." That sounds marvelous, however, the problem is that it is taken horribly out of context with what Paul is saying to the Ephesians as a whole.

Our leaders claim that maintaining unity is all about tolerating diverse voices when it comes to human sexuality, yet they fail to mention that throughout Ephesians Paul is vigorously calling the church to forsake tolerance of such things: "I... implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called" (Eph. 4:1).

And what 'manner' is that? Read on a few verses and one sees. "So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind" (v.17), which has everything to do with "having become callous," thus "given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness" (v.19).

Does this not describe the current state of the denomination? Our leaders have promoted a false unity in order that we might endorse an Ephesian-style pagan culture within the church, when in actuality unity in the Holy Spirit means forsaking such things. Those same leaders also fail to mention in their endless quoting of Ephesians 4:3 that only a few verses later the same writer also says, "immorality or any impurity or greed should not even be named among you" (Eph. 5:2). Instead, Paul reminds them that such people have no inheritance in the kingdom of God (v.5) and that believers should not even be partakers with them (v.7).

Folks, a proper interpretation shows us that true unity in the Holy Spirit means having nothing to do with those who preach counterfeit grace, thus endorsing and practicing immorality in the church.

Thanks, Tom Y.N., for reminding us that New Testament unity is not a product of sameness and conformity, but that it's the flagship of a committed church—a church that lives in the muddy street of human reality. Did I get that right?

What an unfortunate use of words. Those who are shackled: are they not prisoners?

If it requires shackles to create unity, is that not the means and method of totalitarianism? I give myself to God, to my family, to the Church as a human being whose dignity is guarded by God, that I might seek the unity of New Jerusalem of my free will.

If you shackle me, then I am enslaved and yearn for freedom from you.

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