Reading History Apocalyptically Rather than Tragically

First, an apocalyptic perspective recognizes that the Spirit is often present precisely when we are most vulnerable. At one level, we know that vulnerability—particularly within the covenant of marriage or a trusting group of friends—is a path to intimacy and joy. Yet we often avoid vulnerability at all costs. Especially in times of cultural upheaval, the absolute certainty of conviction—on either side of the issue—provides a welcome sense of security. 

Yet our tradition is littered with the wreckage of well-intended groups whose moral clarity led to endless fragmentation and division; or, at the other extreme, with groups who sought to resolve conflict by retreating to the safety of spiritualism and the invisible church and simply disappeared from history altogether. If a tragic perspective on the future offers the security of predetermined outcome, an apocalyptic perspective calls us to live into the vulnerability of the unknown, trusting that the Spirit can work in ways that none of us can fully anticipate. 

Second, an apocalyptic perspective on this moment in our history reminds us that the God we worship is not coercive. The gospel invites, but it does not compel. For those of us in the free church tradition, this means that the decision to remain in fellowship with other Christians, like the decision to follow Jesus, is voluntary. The authority the church, and the basis for our unity, is anchored not in our structures or policies—important though they are. 

Rather, the church's authority ultimately rests on our testimonies of healing, the transparency of honest confession, the practices of hospitality and the daily rhythms of repentance and transformation in response to the gift of God's grace. This commitment to a noncoercive testimony does not mean that we back away from the clarity or depth of our convictions. But it does suggest that we hold those convictions with a posture of gentle intensity; that we pursue Truth with humility; that we hunger for God’s righteousness first and foremost in our own life; and that irresolvable disagreements end in a spirit of lament and confession rather than anger.

Finally, an apocalyptic perspective recognizes that throughout history, the body of Christ has taken on many different expressions. For most of the 20th century, the Menno­nite church in North America organized itself in congregations that related to the denomination through membership in a local conference or district. The denominational institutions that emerged helped congregations support the work and witness of the larger church in areas like education, mutual aid, publications, missions, service and relief projects. In recent decades, support for those institutions has waned. 

In the face of these changes, it is tempting for some of us to anxiously defend those structures or the particularity of our identity, confusing a particular model of being the church with the kingdom of God. But the opposite impulse—retreating to the local congregation, ignoring the accountability of a collective witness, rejecting all structures and boundaries—suggests an idolatry of a different sort. So we live, apocalyptically, in the dynamic tension of the Incarnation. 

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.


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