Becoming a New Branch of the Vine

Shared concerns over a number of years led to a major consultation held at Smoketown, Pennsylvania, July 10-11, 1979 in which twenty Mennonite leaders discussed, among other matters, the neglect of the evangelical dimensions of our Mennonite heritage. A six part declaration called the "Smoketown Statement" included the need for "a reaffirmation of the authority of Scripture, a reexamination of priorities with emphasis on the saving power of the Gospel, and a clear call for renewed emphasis on evangelism."

A subsequent and larger consultation, sometimes referred to as "Smoketown II", was held in Berne, Indiana in March 1981, encouraged by an informal network of persons in several of the Mennonite denominations to continue the restoration of the evangelical orthodoxy in balance within Anabaptism. It became clear that such evangelical dimensions had been held without reservation by the biblical Anabaptists but without conscious effort this balance, and the ethics which resulted from its Scriptural foundation, was being compromised in the contemporary church.

In 1992 the movement organized the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship (EAF) with a board of nine members to provide networking and articulation for the restoration of an accurate understanding of our spiritual heritage along with an encouragement of renewal especially within the two largest established conferences. Eric Kouns was engaged as Executive Secretary and began writing and editing the EAF Newsletter.

Simultaneous to these developments, the merger talks of the two larger conferences, the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church, moved ahead. By the summer of 1995 a decision was made at a joint conference in Wichita, Kansas, to pursue becoming one body. At the same time a new Confession of Faith was adopted as the basis of the proposed merger. As the content of the new Confession, named the "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective", was being developed prior to 1995, serious reservations had been raised about some of the statements being proposed. Persons involved with EAF raised their concerns and made suggestions, some of which were heeded and some modifications were made. But to many in sympathy with EAF, the final wording of the new Confession appeared to be left quite ambiguous, especially in areas that should have been clarified in view of today's postmodern culture.

The most obvious absence from the new Confession was the concept of infallibility of the written Scriptures, an omission that was consciously made but the authors of the document. A second major concern was the expressed intention of the use of the new Confession as a guideline for the church rather than a definitive or binding statement to which leadership is expected to adhere. This was expressed in an article by another of the authors of the new Confession. To evangelical Anabaptists for whom truth statements needed to be maintained, this becomes problematical. It was not expected that the new Confession be put on the level of Authority of the Scriptures, but to be of use to the church it should at least be a clear statement of what we believe the Bible to be teaching and therefore, to that extent, it becomes obligatory not merely optional.

This difference between a statement of faith that is confessional or a confession of preference and current practice is not a problem for persons who welcome diversity of truths and pluralism of beliefs. But it is a serious hindrance to those who believe Truth ultimately is absolute having its origin in God who is eternally the origin and standard of Truth and thus can be the source of Truth that is universal and unchanging. With an awareness of these differences, it added to the concerns as to what would be used as the basis of the unity in the new, merged denomination.

Equally important was what would be the ultimate basis for, and objective of the mission of the church in the world. Will the Gospel be absolute and unchanging or will it need to be modified in its content and truth statements in order to relate to a pluralistic world? For many the most controversial issue, however, was the question of membership in the church: Are there behaviors that must not be advocated by members of the church on the basis of their being forbidden in Scripture, or has modern understanding of human genetics and sexuality brought us beyond the prohibitions of Bible times? And closely related to this issue is whether "a teaching point of the church" is binding and restrictive or simply the preference of a majority at a given point of time.

Discussions, articles, letters, speeches and sermons probed and provoked responses from all quarters among Mennonite groups in the last decade of the Twentieth Century. Increasingly many evangelical Anabaptists found themselves marginalized in the decision making processes as pleas were made for demonstrations of unity rather than permit doctrinal issues to divide the Body. Sometimes the plea seemed more focused on avoiding delay in the merger process rather than avoiding division over doctrine. An appeal to trust the leadership was a means of ending the appeal for more accurate definition.

Joint conference sessions to finalize the merger took place in St. Louis in 1999. By this time the term was no longer "merger" of two existing groups into one but the "transformation" of what had been into something "new". Part of the new design was the organizational separating of the Canadian congregations from the United States congregations. The Canadian churches moved ahead and implemented the new Mennonite Church Canada which the USA counterpart delayed action for two additional years due to lack of sufficient consensus on the membership guidelines. Mennonite Church USA received final approval at the joint conference sessions in Nashville in 2001 which became effective February 1, 2002.

In the meantime, a number of persons asked if EAF could facilitate a meeting to discuss the alternatives to what was appearing to be an inevitable culmination of the merger process on the basis of the weak theological framework provided by the ambiguous new Confession of Faith and the unclear, problematic Membership Guidelines. EAF was not designed nor chartered to become a new denomination in its own right. But out of concern for the larger church body, it agreed to convene a meeting in the winter of 2000 for individuals, representing a number of groups and conferences, many of whom were not directly or personally connected to EAF. The purpose of the meeting was to consider the options for congregations and individuals in anticipation of what seemed likely to be finalized at the Nashville Conference. This meeting took place on February 12, 2000, back at Smoketown, Pennsylvania in the Mill Stream Motel. Forty-seven Mennonite Pastors and church leaders from four states attended. Participants represented twenty-four congregations from seven area conferences.

In that meeting a consensus formed that the emerging restructuring and transformation of the denominations of which they had been a part were perceived to be tolerating positions or moving in directions contrary to the original foundational purposes of these congregations. Following three hours of lively discussion, a resolution was proposed. The resolution stated: "in light of the formation of the new Mennonite Church USA and its departure from Biblical orthodoxy, we believe God is calling us to form a new affiliation of evangelical Anabaptist congregations." After a period of prayer participants voted 42-0 to approve the motion. Five persons abstained form voting. Participants then authorized the EAF Board of Directors to appoint a steering committee from among those present to consider the implications of the group's action and to recommend the next steps.

The steering committee met during the Spring of 2000 and adopted a working name of Association of Evangelical Mennonite Congregations with principles by which to operate. Eric Kouns was asked to draft a detailed Prospectus. It was agreed that ten congregations needed to be committed to the new affiliation before actual steps of organization were to be adopted.

The initial public meeting was held on September 30, 2000 in the Paradise Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On that day the first congregation committed to affiliate, a multi-cultural inner city congregation, the Second Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. Seven additional congregations made commitments to the new partnership during the ensuing months but then the growth stalled. Some churches were waiting to see what would actually transpire at the Nashville assembly in July 2001. Other waited to find out how the new affiliation was to be structured but the structure could not be specific until ten churches had signed on. In the case of several area conferences, a probationary status in relation to the new merger delayed the necessity of individual congregations making their decision. But finally in May 2002 the number ten was surpassed as the entire cluster of the previously organized AMEC congregations agreed to be part of a North American body.

June 19, 2002 marked a meeting in which a steering committee was authorized to proceed with the drafting bylaws to be circulated, reviewed by representatives of all the committed congregations and then to be acted upon at a Chartering Service September 28, 2002. The acronym was changed from AEMC to AMEC as the working name was changed to: Alliance of Mennonite Evangelical Congregations. Thus it was a joyfully solemn occasion as representatives from twelve congregations signed the Charter at the Paradise Mennonite Church.

By the end of 2002 the member congregations stood at fifteen. Interest continues to been shown in several other regions of the continent. Steps have been taken to legally incorporate as an Alliance which is designed to serve congregations throughout North America.

While the organizational structure is by necessity new, the purposes are seen as a continuation of the historic foundations of the conferences of which our congregations have been a part, being in harmony with the foundations rediscovered at the time of the Reformation and originally laid in the New Testament Church.

Compiled by Bob Gerhart

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