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April 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 2 · pp. 19–21 

An Educator’s Response: Overstatements and Omissions

Response to “Mores, Morals, Morale and Hard Cases or ‘Whatever Happened to Consensus’ ” by Delbert L. Wiens 9/2 (1980): 3–17. Response by Delbert L. Wiens 9/2 (1980): 21–22.

Peter M. Hamm

Presumably the purpose of Wiens’ essay is to show the difficulty of making ethical decisions. It is, in fact, primarily an expose on how Mennonite Brethren have dealt with ethical decisions in times past when they were “walled,” “creedalistic,” and/or “cultic.” Wiens comes down especially hard on the creedalists. Although Wiens, in conclusion, points in a direction which would lead to a solution, he, in keeping with his purpose, does not really provide a solution to our current dilemma in ethical decision-making.

Like a poet-philosopher, Wiens artistically caricatures the contexts for doing ethics in times past. And it is indeed insightful. Yet, the neat portrayal of the church as “community,” “creedalists,” and “cultists” in alliterative progression from “mores,” to “morals,” and “morale,” respectively, is too stereotyped to represent Mennonite Brethren historically. Although he cautions in conclusion that these metaphors are not logical categories into which any community or individual neatly fits, he elaborates only the “human side” of reconciliation, faith, and discipleship, and overstates the case sufficiently and applies the metaphors so forthrightly to Mennonite Brethren that Wiens appears reductionistic. This is my first criticism.

Let me explain. The categories Wiens uses are helpful tools in analysing how ethics may be fashioned in different communities. Inasmuch as the metaphors help us better to see ourselves, we are thankful to Wiens for this heuristic device. Where these metaphors misrepresent Mennonite Brethren in times past, they do not help to bring clarity to the present dilemma. While I concur that ethos is larger than ethic (it always is because of the cultural accretions from which no community can fully divorce itself), I would be reluctant to explain even the “human side” of reconciliation as a mere termination of a self-imposed exile. It may have been for some religious communities, but Mennonite Brethren from the outset held to an understanding to conversion prompted not merely by a longing to return from isolation to community, but primarily by the divine working of God’s Spirit producing a genuine remorse for sin. To explain even the human side of reconciliation as a sociological phenomenon, a homecoming after a self-imposed exile, is reductionistic. {20} Again, Wiens so depicts the moral principles derived from Bible study that they become a mere “logical order to produce a theology of behavior.” To reduce Biblical principles, which can indeed transcend generations and cultures, to a casuistry in which confession and forgiveness become “an implicit celebration of the rightness of the system” is again to yield to reductionism.

Wiens identifies and questions three assumptions which explain the present impasse of Biblical casuistry in our study conferences: the principles do not contain tacit exceptions, the principles do not conflict with each other in concrete cases, and the principles can be applied directly to contemporary hard cases. Again Wiens overstates the case, for good contemporary hermeneutics does not necessarily make these assumptions. A good hermeneutics will discover such Biblical principles which are sufficiently dynamic and applicable to real life that they need not be reduced to casuistry and ethical dilemmas need not be a sign that “systematics were incomplete or incoherent.” Fortunately, most Mennonite Brethren are not such injudicious followers of tour guides or gurus with their short-range promises, and the portrayal of the morale of cultists or crusaders does not really apply to most Mennonite Brethren, however convenient the metaphor for the purpose of his argument.

My second criticism has to do with Wiens’ understanding of consensus. He appears to be trapped by the very categories he has employed to analyse decision-making in the past. As a result, he sees the 1969 Vancouver resolution on abstinence from intoxicating beverages to be endorsed by those enclosed by walls (which allow for exceptions of home-brew, etc.) and the creedalists (who are strict teetotalers). His system does not allow for a third category of those who hold the brotherhood concept so dearly that they choose to uphold the resolution, not because of legalistic casuistry, but on the grounds of brotherhood consensus. Wiens’ understanding of consensus does not allow for decision-making at this level; he has absolutized consensus to the extent that a “theological description of consensus speaks of it as a congregational process.”

Failure on the part of many to practice a brotherhood decision does not invalidate the consensus process. Why need brotherhood work only at a congregational level? Whether in a koinonia group, local church, or provincial or area conference, decisions usually are shaped by the influential leadership of a few. Can it not be argued that the collective insights of a wide range of experts is probably more reliable than those of a parochial group whose insights were largely shaped by a few influential spokesmen? To have tacit approval by a direct democracy in which all vote (although such membership meetings are non-existent) does not necessarily guarantee a workable consensus. {21}

Despite my criticisms, I actually concur with Wiens’ conclusion that we must find a synthesis (for I agree that we must carefully examine the sociological and psychological components that go into theological and ethical formulations); however, without reductionism. I agree that the solutions may not be the same for all, however difficult to enforce. And certainly the church must loose and bind, but who determines the size of the church, be it a koinonia group, a local congregation, or a whole conference? Ethical decision-making should be possible at all levels, the level depending upon the nature of the decision to be made.

Peter M. Hamm is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Ministries and Sociology at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he also serves as Registrar and Director of Admissions.

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