By Dick Barrett
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. — Romans 13:8
Over the past year or so, Ohio Conference’s Leadership Team, with affirmation from both our pastors and delegates at regional gatherings, has developed a new mission statement to guide us as a conference over the next several years: The Mission of Ohio Conference is to gather, equip and send our congregations by the power of the Holy Spirit to live out God’s Greatest Commandments (Mark 12:29-31) and Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). To put it in layman’s terms, “The mission and purpose of Ohio Conference is to Gather, Equip and Send our congregations to Love God, Love Others and Make Disciples of Jesus Christ.”
As I have spent some time recently reflecting on that for which all Christians are called to do — Love God, Love Others, and Make Disciples of Jesus Christ — it seems to me that there is a progression in that triad. We need to first love God. And we can’t love God until we realize how much God loves us and what exactly he has done for us in the sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus Christ. It is only when we come to love God because He first loved us that we can truly love others. When I say “others,” I mean those people who we are closest to, our fellow sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, those who we disagree with, and even our enemies. And we can’t make disciples of Jesus until we love others in the same way He loves others.
There seems to be a strong connection between our love for others, especially for fellow Christians, and unity in the church. God commands both. In Jesus’ great priestly prayer found in John 17 he also connects love for others and unity, saying the world will know how much God loves his people when they are brought together in complete unity (John 17:23). Although Jesus prayed for unity, and as often as we sing the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” that unity is not what the world knows of the church today.
Francis Chan, in his most recent book titled Until Unity, writes, “Christians are currently the most divided faith group on earth, and there isn’t a close second … we have thousands of denominations and ministries, each believing their theology or methodology is superior. The saddest part of this is that our Savior was crucified to end our divisions, commands us to be united, and says we will impact the world when we become one.”
As a conference of Mennonite churches in Ohio and the surrounding states we face a difficult year ahead as we try to answer questions about what it means to be Mennonite today and our future affiliation with Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). The reality is that we have many congregational members and pastors who have very little affinity with who they believe they are in Christ and where they believe MC USA is at today. On the other end of the spectrum, we have some congregational members and pastors who have a strong sense of affinity with MC USA.
As conference minister, I see my most important ministry being the ministry of reconciliation. Actually, I see it as the most important ministry of all Christians (2 Corinthians 5). What does Ohio Conference need to do to stay united and reconciled to one another in Christ? First and foremost, we need to recognize how important love and unity are in the eyes of God. Loving others the way God loves us and unity do not come easily. In fact, on our own they are impossible for us to achieve. They are made possible only through the work of the Holy Spirit, which means that prayer needs to be a primary focus for us as a Conference in the year ahead.
Francis Chan makes the claim in his book Until Unity that our common mission is supposed to lead us towards unity. If that is indeed the case, then my suggestion is that in addition to prayer we focus on the three parts of our new mission statement: Loving God, Loving Others and Making Disciples of Jesus. In the words of the Apostle Paul, let us remember that as Christians there is only one debt that remains outstanding, “the continuing debt to love one another.”
With the Love of Christ,