The Priceless Privilege (of Belonging to a Controlling Church)

Today's post comes from the book The Priceless Privilege and Other Stories, by Lucy Conley.

This one is fascinating for demonstrating the disingenuousness of conservative logic.

The basic plot of the story, which develops over several chapters is how a young girl, in a bickering, nasty conservative church manages to find her way to another conservative church where there is nothing but love, goodness, and consistent godly church discipline. Presumably she rides there on a rainbow-colored unicorn, since we're being fanciful.

So the story starts with our main character, Rosemary Witmer, feeling all sick in the guts because of all the church tension. A minister stops by the house to inform them that there is going to be a members' meeting, and they need to be there or nowhere.


This members' meeting was not a pleasant prospect. Rosemary ate supper mechanically, her thoughts going back to the time when Roy Keller had been received as a member in the Pinecliff congregation. In spite of some unanswered questions, everyone accepted him. Later, when he was appointed Sunday School teacher for the youth class, trouble began. With no explanation, and no effort to try, Roy refused to teach. Furthermore, he stopped coming to church.

Now, I have to break in here for a moment, and tell you that I find this telling of Roy's story unconvincing.

Roy may have refused to give a public accounting of his refusal to teach, but I sincerely doubt that he never had any conversation with anyone at all.

And if he did refuse to talk to anyone, it's probably because he'd been shut down so many times that he decided there wasn't really a point.

And I have to ask, "Why did Roy want to be part of this church, only to quit coming? Was there some type of social pressure going on?" Unfortunately, this question is never answered.

Rosemary recalled hearing how Menno Kropf, an active young brother in the congregation, had discussed Roy's actions with one of the ministers. "Well," Brother Alvin had replied cautiously, "I'll tell you, Menno. Our bishop understands Roy Keller and says this is just his nature. I don't like it, either, I'll admit. I'm praying about it. But what can we do? The bishop says we're better off just to ignore the whole situation. Roy seems to want attention. He'll come around by and by, I trust."


And he did. About six weeks before Communion, Roy began attending services faithfully. But sometime later, it was the same old story. "Where is Roy?" became a frequent question at Pinecliff. "He's discouraged," was the answer. Or, "He can't get around with his work," or, "He has some fence to fix today."

Now, I find this passage as well to be singularly unbelievable.

This is a conservative Mennonite church we are talking about. (This is stated explicitly later in the story, although it is not the right kind of conservative church, because it has the right rules, but lacks control.) With that said, I have serious doubts whether any conservative bishop, who has ever walked this terrestrial ball, would say that about Roy's behavior and let him go along to Communion and all that. That's just not the way business is done.

Also, it appears that someone else has bishop oversight of Pinecliff, rather than one of the local ministers being the bishop, just as a point of interest.

The atmosphere at Pinecliff that evening was charged with tension. Even Brother Alvin's calm countenance sagged wearily. As the burden was presented by the members who had called this meeting with the ministry, one of the ministers sat in stolid silence.


"Can't something be done to help Roy see his need and to correct the situation?" implored Titus Good, concluding what he had to say.

Whoa! There's a lot to unpack here.

1) Apparently members in these churches just get to call emergency members' meetings? How is this a good idea?

2) This emergency meeting was called about something that has been going on for at least six months. (I'm basing my math on the idea that Communion is every six months, and that Roy had time to quit attending church, and then start attending for six weeks, until Communion, and then be gone again for long enough that people realized it was a common practice.) So now there's an emergency meeting over something that's clearly not an emergency.

If there's someone who has experience with this method of church governance, please chime in in the comments, because I'd love to know more.

Note: I've gotten some further information about this story. Apparently it is based on a true story.

Apparently the church depicted in this story did have enough independence in its operations to allow the ministers to take sides as depicted.

The story is set during the chaotic time between when the "fellowship churches" left the conferences, and when they set up their own rigid structures of power. (Of course, they had a hierarchy that only existed through unspoken consent, nothing official.)

In that vein, the story is intended to illustrate the "value" of that "structure" and show the horrible things that transpire without it.

"I certainly appreciate the concern of all you brethren," Brother Alvin spoke in mellow tones. "Surely something must be done. The church must be kept pure."


Brother Oscar crossed his knees and then uncrossed them. He cleared his throat nervously several times.


Menno Kropf turned to him expectantly, "Brother Oscar, what do you think?"

OK. I gotta stop here again, and say, before the imminent blow-up of Brother Oscar, that the way this church does things is really weird.

Why is Menno Kropf, a lay member, calling on someone to speak? Especially someone who turns out to be a minister?

Oh, is this a secret jab at "laity rule" in the church?

But Menno is one of the good guys, which is what we will later discover.

It's very weird.

The minister's cold blue eyes flashed fire. His lips tightened in a thin line. "If you would keep your mouth shut you would probably learn something," he blurted thickly. "You are the one to be blamed for the problems here."


... {there's a narrative switch to Rosemary's reaction to this outburst, which I'll skip}...


Oscar was going on accusingly, naming a few things Menno Kropf had said, but Rosemary scarcely understood the words. She only heard his ranting voice, harsh and cold.


"I am not aware that I said these things," Menno Kropf stated in a subdued voice. "Brother Ed, do you remember that I did?"


"Yes, I do," Ed Witmer's bass voice carried a note of blunt finality. His black bushy eyebrows knit together. "I distinctly recall something of the kind, Menno."


Several other members agreed.


"I am sorry," Menno Kropf said simply. "Brethren, I do not remember saying such things, but I am sorry and I ask your forgiveness."

1989.0540.01

For some inexplicable reason, this picture feels like it belongs here. Credit

The story doesn't make it clear, but Ed Witmer is our main character's father. As you can see, he's part of the problem.

Notice that Menno apologizes for saying things that he doesn't even recall saying.

Years later, as a member of a Nationwide Fellowship Church, Menno would gratefully remember this moment and others like it, as training in the valuable survival skill of submission to gaslighting.

"Oh, yes, but the damage is already done," Oscar said flatly. He turned on the other minister and continued, "Brother Alvin, you are to blame, too. You have divided this congregation by preaching against young people's activities. You have torn the body of Christ! And when you preached from the pulpit against one brother's business practices instead of using Matthew 18, I told my wife this is heresy. Brethren, I call it heresy!" Oscar pounded his Bible with a heavy fist.


"Amen," growled another brother.

Apparently Brother Oscar doesn't know the meaning of the word "heresy." But I'll let him go on that one. Misusing scary words is a time-honored practice in these circles.

The over-acting in this paragraph is hilarious. And of course, the abusive guy who is screaming and ranting is depicted as the deranged liberal who is in favor of "young people's activities." (Shocker!)

Now, my question is this: Is the church sponsoring these activities? Are they condoned in the standards, or the general practice of the church? If so, Brother Alvin is indeed out of line in preaching against them, Oscar's theatrics notwithstanding. After all, if the church has decided that youth activities are appropriate, shouldn't Brother Alvin submit to the voice of the church?

I obviously jest here.

Conservatives never have to submit, except to those who are more conservative.

The brother growling "Amen" is funny, too. Because that's not common practice in these churches, and only serves to make the passage seem more ludicrous. And also, because, if we're gonna be realistical, he's probably the brother whose shady business practices got preached against.

(As an interesting side note: The church at Crockett formally forbade the saying of "Amen" during church services sometime in the early '80s. The author of this book (who was from Crockett,) obviously was still accustomed to hearing it. As one of my reviewers said, "What can seem crazy in retrospect, is actually just a snap shot in time of a specific congregation they were in." It makes you wonder what else is revealed about church life through this story.)

So, at this point, Brother Alvin suggests prayer, and Oscar storms out, and the meeting ends with nothing solved.

On the way home, Rosemary and her brother discuss the events.

John, at seventeen, had very little respect for the ministry or the church of which he was a member. Curtis, two years younger, took a similar attitude.

Why we are bringing 17 and 15-year-olds to a members' meeting, especially one this contentious is beyond me. You are basically asking for this kind of response. Although, to be fair, acting that way at all, whether or not in the presence of "the kids" will bring about this response.

Continual discord among the membership had turned them against the church standards.

Notice that the concern is that they have been turned against the church standards. Not God. Not Jesus Christ. Not the Body of Christ. Not the Word of God. The church standards. If that doesn't clue you in to some messed up priorities, I don't know what will. There's plenty more where this came from.

Of course, the pathetic logic that undergirds the standards has nothing to do with their rejection of them.

It's just that people fought over them. If we could just get people to quietly agree to go along with the stupid rules, everyone would be happy.

That is the subtle message of this passage.

"If they're not contending about young folks' activities, or somebody's business practices, we argue about where to part our hair or what color of socks to wear," John went on, disgust curling around his words. "Deliver me!"


"John," Rosemary protested softly. "Is that really being fair?"

Of course, we have to admit that John wasn't being fair. The church was also arguing about what color cars should be (black), how red was too red (any), and whether or not women ought to wear belts on their dresses (of course).

John began to whistle gaily, closing the subject. But for Rosemary, it was far from closed. A host of questions churned through her mind as they had been churning for many months. 

"What is wrong with Pinecliff? All these bickering people call themselves Christians, but how will they ever manage to get along with each other in heaven if they can't do it here? Is it really possible for any church on the face of the earth to be like the Bible teaches?" Rosemary doubted it with all her heart.


"Are our conservative churches all wrong? Worldly churches seem to have more peace and unity, even though they disobey the Scriptures. I want more than anything to be faithful to the Lord, but what is faithfulness?"

I love how it is stated that the "worldly churches" who, of course, wear jewelry, and not the head covering, and not cape dresses, or whatever other Menno rules she's thinking of, are "disobeying the Scriptures," but it is completely ignored that the conservative church she is part of is also disobeying Scriptures, just not the same ones. (And, of course, not the important ones. They know which ones are the important ones.)


It was all very perplexing. A dark temptation pushed its way into her thoughts, stronger than ever before. Why not leave this unhappy church altogether and seek fellowship in a liberal church? At least there might be unity there.

...

Rosemary silenced the thought, as she had done before. But it lingered tantalizingly in the back of her mind.

What a dark, evil temptation! Going liberal! Possibly even BMA!

Thankfully, our dear sister is able to withstand the siren song of sanity, and stick it out in the dark world of ConMen.

Seriously, this story is messed up, slick, twisted, and deceptive. It's to spiritual abuse what Dear Princess is to sexual abuse.

Again and again, situations are created to make it appear that the conservatives are correct, intellectually honest, reasonable, logical, and Biblical.

But there are gaps and omissions in the logic, and I believe with all my heart they are deliberate.

So we'll continue our journey in the next post, and I hope that as we work through the twisted labyrinthine logic, some of the knots in your own mind can become unravelled.


Blessings!

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