The section of our Decrees entitled “Christian Virtues” has a history of its own. There is value in understanding how our current version arrived to where it is now.
Christian Virtues first appeared as a part of an official church discipline in 1954 under the label of Christian Graces. It was in the Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Mennonite Church – Lancaster Conference with a date of approval of September 16, 1954. The church at that time felt a need to explain “why” other positions were taken. A quote about its introduction says, “The letter describes the purpose of the supplement on ‘Christian Graces’ as a statement ‘to be used on some occasions to give further encouragement so that the Discipline proper does not get too lengthy.”
In its beginning, the section was an addendum at the end of the standards booklet and entitled “Supplement” – “Christian Graces.” It had seven sections named: 1. Stewardship and Materialism 2. Benevolence 3. The Christian Home 4. Christian Worker Group Activities 5. Speech 6. Devotional Life 7. Pride.
Our Pilgrim Decrees has inherited a good bit of the original wording as it came down from this document via the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church.
Since their original writing, two of the original graces have been dropped. The Christian Home section was not included when the EPMC formulated their new Discipline, and Christian Worker Group Activities was not included in the PMC Decrees when it was put together in September 1991. Since these two have been eliminated, we will print them here for the reader’s interest.
“The Christian Home. We earnestly admonish all our brethren and sisters upon whom rests the responsibility of making the Christian home what it ought to be, to do all in their power to make their homes models in simplicity and cleanliness, in true Christian piety, in love, in uplifting influence, in devotion to the cause of Christ and the church, headquarters for godly influences, training schools for God where children are brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, where boys and girls grow up to be faithful men and women for the Lord and faithful workers in the church. (Eph 5:21-6:9; Col 3:17-25; 1Pe 3:1-7).”
“Christian worker group activities. Rejoicing in the knowledge that so large a percentage of our young people are in the church and recognizing that soon the burden of responsibility and home and church will be resting on them, we look with favor upon any and all church activities, properly safeguarded from a scriptural standpoint, which contribute to the development of their moral intellectual, social and spiritual powers. We counsel them that they stand close to God, keep their consciences bright, exercise diligence in a prayerful study of the word, and learn from the experiences of those who are older. Conference favors such regulations as will be instrumental in providing an opportunity for active service on the part of all members from the time they enter the fold of Christ. (1Ti 4:12).”
In 1968 the Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas was printed. The bishops chose to include the section entitled "Christian Graces" and printed the following sections. They were: 1. Stewardship 2. Benevolence 3. Christian Service Activities 4. Speech 5. Devotional Life and 6. Pride.
These writings always stayed in the back of the “Discipline.” Many of us had very little acquaintance with them since our focus on our church standards for church membership was on the rules and guidelines of the church, which immediately followed the 18 Articles of Faith.
At the formation of the Pilgrim Conference, Bro. Aaron insisted on a return to the title and structure of the old Mennonite conference concept. For this reason, the name Pilgrim Mennonite Conference was chosen. It was also agreed to meet as soon as possible with the Lebanon district ministry to work out what would be the standards of the new group. The meetings to discuss our “Decrees” were held on the week of September 9-15. In a letter dated September 19, 1991, the new group bishops shared with the EPMC bishop board their decision to submit to the request to organize a new group. They asked that January 1, 1992, be the date that the Pilgrim Mennonite Conference be officially recognized as a separate entity.
The meetings with the former Lebanon District ministry in the week of September 9-15 had several goals.
A desire to give a more prominent place to the Word of God as being the basis for church standards. This involved including many more Bible verses and references throughout the text.
A determination to not give room for carnality and worldliness. For this reason, the position was adopted that to eliminate any standard of the former discipline would require a 75% vote.
A choice was made to highlight the virtues that motivate the Christians more than the rules that govern us as a Mennonite body.
One of our board had been challenged on the subject of church rules and why Mennonites emphasize things the Bible says nothing about and simultaneously ignores the matters the Bible highlighted as being of utmost importance. His friend said, “You say what color stockings the sisters have to wear, but you have nothing in your rule book that highlights the first and most important commandment as confirmed by our Lord Jesus.”
In looking at the layout of the EPMC Statement of Standards, the idea appealed to the ministry to:
Place the Christian Graces immediately following the Articles of Faith and before the Standards of the church in the new “Decrees for to Keep” (a name chosen to honor the New Testament example of speaking to relevant cultural issues).
Rename the “Christian Graces” to “Christian Virtues.” Graces means “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy or clemency” while Virtues means “a commendable quality or trait.”
Eliminate the negative titles of items to avoid and instead highlight goals desired to aspire to, for instance, to change the title of “Pride” to “Humility.”
Add virtues that would help guide the church in the way of holiness that might not have been addressed in earlier church statements.
Place the two most important commands as identified by our Lord at the very forefront of the Decrees.
In the more recent past, the Pilgrim Conference ministry has chosen to add two more Virtues to the list. Now the list is: 1. Devotional Life, 2. Love and Compassion, 3. Contentment and Stewardship, 4. Humility, 5. Christian Speech, 6. Moral Purity, 7. Honesty, 8. Faith and Trust, 9. Obedience, 10. Personal Evangelism and Christian Service, 11. Respect for the Sanctity of Life, and 12. Temperance.
In subsequent issues of the Pilgrim Witness, you will find a variety of writers expound on each of these virtues individually. We encourage you to read these articles over the next year.
Most of all, it is our desire that we would abound in these virtues so as to give honor to the One who has saved us, our Lord Jesus Christ.