Discerning God's Will Together
Biblical Interpretation in the Free Church Tradition

How timely it is in the hurly burly fractiousness of our times for Ervin Stutzman (and publisher Michael King) to lift up the core practice of discernment for all to consider afresh. What could be more renewing for the church than to reclaim the long held Anabaptist Mennonite ideal of “corporate discernment and action under the leading of the Holy Spirit”? I can’t imagine anything more important than to gather as two or three (at least)—in Jesus’ name. That’s where Jesus has promised to meet us.

Stutzman cites authors who observe that communal discernment has often not worked well for heirs of the Anabaptists. Yet despite many failures, we continue to hold up this glowing vision because we believe that we’re really onto something. We tenaciously believe that to seek a common mind within a shared conversation (for the purpose of a more unified witness) is not only a worthy goal—but the very heartbeat of God’s reconciling mission in the world.

Stutzman’s survey of Mennonite perspectives on discernment seems largely meant to serve communities that many of us who are aging, white, Swiss Germans grew up with. We generally learned to regard difference as a problem. Many times I’ve heard the comment about an event in these mostly homogeneous communities: “Well, it was different alright.” Stutzman’s move to normalize difference with a discussion of paradoxical truths embedded even in Scripture may seem radical for those who live in somewhat isolated communities of sameness. It rings true for communities who embrace many cultures and perspectives as the multi-splendored ways God is made known to us.

Holding together point-and-counterpoint as contrasting frames of reference helps me better see what is captured within any particular frame. That’s surely the case with Discerning God’s Will Together.

A counterpoint for me while reading this manuscript was watching the birds on a sun bathed, snow white morning. I counted at least eighteen varieties of feathered beauties negotiating space at the feeder. At times the large flickers, blue jays, and red-bellied woodpeckers chased other birds away. Most of the time, the smaller chickadees, juncos, sparrows, wrens, nuthatches, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, doves, blue birds, and finches feasted side by side with relative equanimity. There is plenty of food so no bird goes hungry, but negotiating access to the vital seed is a dynamic, fluctuating tension.

To teach his followers about trust, Jesus changed his frame of reference. He invited his worried listeners to “Look at the birds of the air. . . . ” He reminded his fearful disciples that while the market values two sparrows at just a penny, “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. . . . So do not be afraid.”

Stutzman is a master craftsman. He skillfully frames discernment as the function of responsible discipleship. He is familiar with good process so vital for bringing order out of chaos. I value this organizational approach to churchly matters. I also keep listening for the music of the Spirit. For the wild, in breaking of revelation. For humbling conviction that moves us to our knees, and heartfelt testimony that breaks open our givens. It is the dumbfounding aha! of discernment that I long for—and am thus drawn with Jesus to consider the birds.

Discernment is more than five steps for managing conflict, as important as that is. Beyond dutiful diligence, how might listening for what “the heavens are telling” awaken insight? How might discerning practices for life abundant become the heartbeat of a community of shalom—a community to which persons will flock, as did the Anabaptists and the early church, to meet Jesus?

What I found most moving about Stutzman’s overview is the acknowledgement that reconciliation lies at the heart of the Christian message and that often the path to reconciliation is paved with pain—yes, even the pain of conflict. Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary New Testament professor Mary Schertz writes that taking the cross of Jesus seriously means that suffering love is to be played out in the arena of discernment around difficult issues, as in all other areas of our common life. There can be no holier, compassionate work than to understand each other and God better by engaging in the difficult conversations that we currently find ourselves amid.

By staying in fellowship with each other through the humbling, hard, and joyous work of discernment we will come to know how awesome is the love of Christ “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Our hearts will be tugged (painfully) wider and wider open as we hold together in love what seems irreconcilable—giving thanks for a Lord in whom “all things hold together” and through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”
—Sara Wenger Shenk, Elkhart, Indiana
President, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary


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