Church Harmony:
From our Jewish heritage to Present Experience

Also noting a widow’s account in Luke 18:2-5.

This speech was presented at the AllIndian Mennonite Women’s Retreat, October 1998. It appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, self-published in 2020

We are Mennonites. Because we are members of the same Protestant denomination does not mean that we agree on everything, far from it. Nor would total agreement be healthy. Within the word Protestant, we find the word protest. Some Christians of the sixteenth century protested or opposed what they saw and experienced among Roman Catholics. Jesus himself protested distinct details of the Jewish religion into which he was born.

People have diverse views of what really matters. I feel very strongly about justice. For two decades I have opposed injustice within the Mennonite church in the U.S. As I read the Bible with eyes of faith, I believe that throughout time many texts about women and men have not been faithfully interpreted. With conviction, I speak and write about that fact. Many other women share the task. Men and women who prefer not to change their ways, resent what we have learned and share. We do not protest just because we are Protest-ants. We do not address wrong because we want others to suffer. Nor will we forsake principles in order to protect ourselves.

Many Christians believe that change is required; growth never occurs without change. We talk with passion because of the com-passion for justice that Jesus practiced. Our goal is not first to disturb the peace. But injustice should never be seen as peaceful. The deeper meaning of peace is ‘well-being’ for all, not merely absence of conflict. To not have group conflict may mean that some wise people deny what they in fact know. They may accept what looks like peace. But any setting that does not provide well-being for the people involved reflects a false peace. So, there are burdens for those who confront what is wrong and burdens for those who remain silent. People concerned for peace always need to weigh those two types of burdens. Different results follow, and we must account for those outcomes.

We need not wring our hands with defeat when we think of church conflict. If we truly believe that more peaceful options exist, our task is to discover and practice them. In that task, we must work together. We must bridge between differences, not ignore them. Too often women avoid efforts to correct wrong. We hide behind the excuse that ‘we are not leaders.’ That approach only further harms good leadership. I’ll say more about our own authority later. I do not wish to cause more guilt for women. But I challenge us to believe that we indeed can bring greater peace to our churches.

A Jewish woman named Blu Greenberg lists four needs of women. These may surprise you.

Perhaps we should examine a few points of what we absorbed from Judaism. We might then better understand our peacemaking task.

We as Christians need to guard against being anti-Jewish. Our two faiths share a great deal of history. Christian women rejoice that Jesus expected women to be among his ministers. He praised Mary of Bethany for being his loyal student, growing in faith. He valued the Samaritan woman’s deep knowledge of religion; she was the first person to whom he revealed who he was. After resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene. He told her to “go and tell” the other disciples. He fully expected women to be among his peacemakers. However, we should not just compare Jesus’ support for women with Jewish laws that fault them. That approach denies that some Jewish customs did protect women’s rights. Also, Jewish women like Deborah, the wise woman of Tekoa, and Esther are good mentors for us. Jesus was a Jew. Therefore, as a Jew he brought needed change.

Remember Paul’s word too: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, s/he is a new creature. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us. God gave us the ministry of reconciliation; we are ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Cor. 17-20.) As Mennonite women minister through peacemaking, we witness for Christ. Each of us cares for the church—the global church, our denomination, and those with whom we most often worship. We belong with all church members in one body. Church is one of the places where we experience God’s love and share concerns.

Let’s ponder several questions. Can a local church have serious conflict without hurting its experience of worship? Would you encourage church members to ‘agree to disagree’? Do Mennonites understand ‘healthy conflict’? Are we free to differ on important issues while remaining “one in Christ”? Can groups of members that agree avoid harmful division from those who hold opposing views? Do we agree that ‘peace at any price’ is too costly? On what church-related issue might Indian Mennonites have most conflict? Why? Have you known women peacemakers in the church? Let’s briefly discuss these questions. With a woman next to you, share your ideas on one or two of those questions.

While few churches want conflict, it cannot be avoided. We tend to avoid what we fear will be unpleasant. But to avoid difference because of that fear seldom leads to harmony. Conflict often happens when people resist change or how it is carried out. That some people oppose change does not surprise us. To change requires me to reexamine myself or my views. To change our views requires grace. We may admit that what we had thought about a scripture or about church rules failed to be just—for some people. While change is needed for growth, church people differ in their vision for and response to it. During the process of change, a group may feel less united. But that does not mean that change itself is ‘wrong.’

Think about one specific change in your church that caused conflict. What did you think about it? What did you do about it? Did you discuss the problem with other women? Did a peaceful solution result? Through healthy conflict, churches mature. By ‘healthy conflict,’ I mean where mutual trust exists alongside the conflict. Other important qualities include being frank or honest; having courage to express and hear opinions in a spirit that cares for the other; expecting the process toward well-being for all to involve effort. Real issues need to be expressed directly. All must honor an agreement to be confidential. The hope is to accept differences rather than injure anyone’s core being. Decisions need to be made by all who are affected, not only by leaders or committees. Too often, women back off, asking others to think or speak for them. But to be faithful peacemakers, we need to participate.

Church members cannot avoid the pain of conflict. We do well to avoid rumors or partial information, to avoid unfair judgments or being defensive, to avoid distorting what we hear. To resolve conflicts, we need to build trust. We will try to see why our position troubles another person. We will be honest about why another’s position offends us. We will develop freedom to talk with people who disagree with us. We will pray for grace to grow in trust toward others. And we will invite those who differ with us to share their vision for unity. As we compare details, we will look for even small steps for each to take, to move toward agreement. We may also agree to disagree.

While preparing for this talk, I read articles in the journal titled Christian Century. Some of the titles in one April issue state “Sticking together,” “Talk of schism…,” “Interfaith group fights …,” “Muslim-Christian cooperation predicted.” Concern for peace and the presence of conflict abound in church circles. One writer told of effort to find a common basis for a confession of faith that Christians could all endorse. A test statement surfaced: “Jesus was born of a virgin.” That view has caused conflict for centuries; the Christian meeting being reported burst into violence. Recall Jesus’ prayer: “I pray that they might be one, so that the world may believe that [God has] sent me.”

We need not feel guilt just because we experience discord. If we cause it because we desire power over others, we betray peace. If our view is clearly wrong, we cannot expect others to thank us for causing conflict. But within any relationship, views will differ. The larger the group involved, the more complex might be methods to restore peace. The New Testament includes reports of early church conflict. Luke writes in Acts 15 and Paul in Gal. 2 about meetings needed because of church discord. The heart of the conflict, on occasion, centered in table fellowship perhaps linked with sharing the Lord’s Supper. You understand caste-oriented problems. Often poor class workers could not arrive in time to join the believers for worship and communion. When no food was left for them, conflict started.

Another problem emerged as Jews engaged with Gentile converts to Christianity. Again, you know the potential for stress when people of two faiths meet. How the missionary Paul related to the Jerusalem church that sent him also caused tension. There were at least two types of Jews—those who changed many Jewish patterns when they became Jewish Christians, and those who held onto much of their ancient religion. Two types of Christian churches developed—those more like Jews and those more like Gentiles.

Could believers claim that the church unites people, in light of their conflicts? Did early Christians feel guided by the Holy Spirit when they could not convince others of God’s Good News? Two faiths lived side-by-side: a Judaism that felt ‘chosen’ and Christians who adopted God’s broad promises to Israel. The idea of being ‘chosen’ has been misused within both faiths. Each expects privilege. That stance continues to offend people of other living faiths. It deprives everyone of inter-faith peace. The biblical term ‘chosen’ does not imply that one group is valued over others. It does not suggest that God’s love excludes or values less non-Jews or non-Christians. Rather, ‘chosen’ means being selected to tell others of God’s love for all the nations. To realize peace, we need to repent for how we might offend others through the term chosen.

Recall the text in Philippians 4 where Paul requests two women to “agree in the Lord.” Those women named Euodia and Syntyche “worked side by side with Paul (and other church workers) in the gospel.” Some have judged, ‘Isn’t that just the problem with women? They cannot get along.’ Judging in that way, they miss Paul’s main point. These women were so vital to church work. So, he urges them to settle their tension. He expects mutual forgiveness as they continue being good leaders.

A text from the sixth chapter of Acts comes to mind. It also deals with church ministry and women. The first five chapters of Acts report on early church life in Jerusalem. From chapter 6-on, accounts reflect more scattered places. Jewish traditions decreased through changes. Verse 1 states: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Conflict erupted. As any group gets larger, tensions increase. People’s ideas about God or how to live together differ and change. Two groups meet here. Hellenists were Jews who spoke Greek, while Hebrews were Jews who spoke the common Aramaic. With multiple languages spoken by people in India, you understand why issues of language might disrupt in the early church. Most Greek-speaking Hellenists had lived outside of Palestine. As they moved into Jerusalem from scattered places, they thought the local Hebrews were more resistant to adopt new ideas. At the same time, the Hebrews thought that incoming Hellenists had been too influenced by Greek ways. You sense the discord? Judgments often affect relationships.

Most interpreters suggest that the main problem was that poor, Hellenist widows did not receive due charity. Widows are rarely treated justly. Without legal protection, others take advantage of them. In societies where a woman is identified through her tie to a man, a widow loses a sense of who she herself is. Discounted, she knows injustice. You know about the rite of sati here in India. Perhaps at more risk because they had recently arrived in Jerusalem, Hellenist widows had few people to support them. Even so, the Hebrews believed that doing justice to widows expressed loyalty to the covenant. The prophet Jeremiah had also taught that, “To know God is to do justice.”

Let me explain the case in Acts 6. Ignore the option that widows were poor and not getting help. Writers believe that Hellenist widows were “neglected in the daily distribution.” That refers to being bypassed from serving the Lord’s Supper. ‘Daily distribution’ refers to Holy Communion. When believers gathered, they ate a light meal served with bread and wine to recall Christ’s death and resurrection. Coming from Greek regions where women hosted and led religious groups, those widows were being excluded from the role of priest in Jerusalem. Among more conservative Jews, they were not allowed to lead or to serve communion. That fact caused them to murmur, to prompt conflict.

Does that exclusion from priesting matter to you? It does not address poverty. It does not bring raging flood waters under control. It does not enable women to find jobs. Those conditions might face Mennonites in India. They might affect well-being or peace. I hope that you will share burdens informally. Conflicts within churches affect harmony in our world. Hopefully, we women will enable greater unity among Mennonites. You certainly worked to host the Mennonite World Conference in Kolkata in 1997. That event likely caused conflicts too. Hopefully, seeds planted here will grow as we women claim our role as peacemakers.

One more way to think about building peace relates to our sense of inner authority. From the third verse in Acts 6, all of the believers chose seven men to serve as leaders. Each person created by God has authority. I hope that you believe that fact for yourself. God invests worth in each of us, not only a few leaders. To deprive anyone of her God-given power does harm. It obstructs peace. As each Christian woman claims her own authority, each then chooses with whom to share part of it for a period of time. When you offer some of your authority to me, you value me. You expect to learn from me. Therefore, I must in turn re-invest power in you and others. I am not faithful as a leader if I retain your power for myself, or for a few whom I select. I must empower many others to themselves lead and minister. Each believer needs to select with care those with whom we share the power that God invests in us. If others fail to strengthen us, or expect us to depend on them, we act justly to take back the power that we had entrusted in them. They have misused our trust and abused peacemaking.

This concern leads back to our purpose in creation. God invested a measure of God’s dominion or power with the first woman and man. Blessed to “have dominion over the rest of created life,” people together share that gift of God’s dominion as we represent God. Having nothing to do with domination, the Hebrew word for dominion used in the Genesis 1 text means “responsible care.” How we have distorted God’s intent! How we have hindered living peaceably. Within patriarchal social order, men expect to dominate over women. In that distortion they fail to interpret God’s will and women who submit in unhealthy ways fail to claim our God-given strength. Created in God’s image, we all are free to bring about harmony in the church and world.

Motivated by such sacred vision to build peace, based in divine purpose and trust, blessings on each of you as you utilize your authority to enable Good-Will. We will conclude this meeting with an imagined account of the story in Luke about a widow with an unjust judge.

Widow & Unjust Judge Luke 18:2-5
(Maria’s persistent tale as imagined to come from Brazil)

Maria Carolina: I understand that you are the judge for this village. I am a widow; my husband died four months ago. Now that the time has come for planting, I have the double burden of caring for my family and raising enough grain to sell a little.
Judge: How often I hear the same tale.
Maria: Further, my brother-in-law took my machete and hoe. Says he has a right to what was his dead brother’s. Now that his son is old enough to help farm, tools are needed for him. While I was at the market last Thursday, the brother came and took them. My child noticed but knew he couldn’t question his elder….
Judge: I’m really not interested in all this detail.
Maria: I took the brother’s family a loaf of bread yesterday and asked for my machete and hoe. Taking the bread without thanks, the brother said that what they have is theirs. His wife, stirring food at a little stove, never turned to notice me. I left, dismayed.
Judge: That’s life, isn’t it?
Maria: Now I’ve come to you, since you are a judge with the task of calling for justice.
Judge: I can’t make it happen by myself.
Maria: I know. You’ll need to get this brother to co-operate.
Judge: Only after you try harder. Go back to him. He must be good at heart. Go on!
(Four days later)
Maria: Judge, my brother refuses. Says the machete and hoe are his and that they’re busy getting their fields ready.
Judge: So, get them back when he’s finished planting.
Marie: But I need your help now. Have you been a widow? I mean, have you ever heard cases of widows?
Judge: Ever? Widows often complain! Never generous either.
Maria: Oh, judge. Are you wishing for a bribe? I simply can’t bargain with you. I haven’t money to buy my child the medicine she needs. I can’t make any deals.
Judge: Case closed. Next party.
(Two days later)
Judge: Oh, no. Here she comes again.
Maria: Judge, here I am again.
Judge: I noticed.
Maria: I understand the winter rains will soon start. I must get my soil loosened and the seeds scattered—what seeds are left that my neighbor’s chickens didn’t peck.
Judge: (Gazing off, reflecting) Yes, the rains. Won’t they be wonderful? My household helpers have been watering my plot out in the country—using buckets to carry the water from the spring. I really have a conscience about their needing to haul all that weight. But, you know, they want work. They’ve got to make ends meet for the extended family. That one guy’s wife is pregnant again.
At least that won’t be your problem. Why don’t you just ‘count your blessings,’ knowing that you won’t have any more mouths to feed. Unless of course…. Now that’s a way you could make some money. Don’t tell me you can’t pay for all the work I might do for you. Just think, such effort on my part, just for a machete and hoe.
Marie: (Looks down, dejected, mute)
Judge: You appear perturbed. Such disrespect for authority, for the bench.
Marie: Tell me, are you a man of justice? I need to know. What do you say?
Judge: I say that you may leave. And quit pestering me. Do you know what that means? People like you disturb our peace. You make a person weary.
Marie: Oh, are you the weary one? I wonder if we might share our stories of being weary.
Judge: Not only wearisome. You, a mere widow, presume to address me, a person of status within the legal system! You persist and think you’re somebody worth my attention. But you waste my time. Now, be gone! Here sits this important shopkeeper—delayed in doing business just because….
(Clerk turns her out. Leaving, Maria calls back)
Maria: “Just because.” Do you hear your own words—just? A bench of justice. Where the just are to listen. Be assured, I will return.”
(Next day)
Maria: My children have had so little food for three days. My boy’s getting weak. He could hardly dig, even if I had my hoe and machete. But I am determined to get my tools back. That brother’s fields are all planted, so tell him to return them.
Judge: He’s not here. How can I? Bring him along.
Marie: You know he wouldn’t come with me, on my suggestion.
Judge: Then, you’re likely the one who’s at fault. Persistent. Impatient. You’re simply not submissive. And your anger interferes with justice.
Maria: (Hands thrown on what’s left of her breasts. Aside) Oh, Mary our Mother, where is mercy? Such reversal of the charges is too much. I know he wants me to give up. Alone, I would. But with you, Comforter, I will not give up. Mary, of the neglected and oppressed, renew my strength to meet those who block justice….
(Continuing) Oh, yes Judge—
Judge: Woman, you’re out of turn. While you were mumbling over there, you lost your place in line. I have time left to hear these three in the line waiting to your left.
Maria: I’m wondering, judge. Do you sleep well at night?
Judge: The question is not proper. But yes! I sleep well—night or day. When you have matters of business to bring before the bench…Until then, be gone. Scribe, next case.
(Next day)
Judge: (To himself) Here she is again! As reliable as the sun. Am I to believe she’s got enough sense of self that she’s not going to give up? I hardly know how else to intimidate her. Her inner strength threatens me. But I can’t admit that to her.
Maria: I sense that you wish I weren’t here.
Judge: For once you understand something!
Maria: I also realize that you dislike my courage. Well, I know what justice requires. So I don’t easily dismiss unfairness. While I’m here by myself, I also speak for widows as a whole. And I—
Judge: Okay. Okay. I will endure your inconvenience no more. Who is your brother? Where does he live? Get it down for the record. You’ll have your tools within two hours. Oh, and Clerk, add a footnote to this case. For some strange reason, the question, “Will God find faith on earth?” just crossed my mind.