“Evangelism is dangerous,” Sze-Kar Wan said in conclusion of his three-day exegesis of the first three chapters of Galatians at the 2015 Mennonite Church Eastern Canada School for Ministers. “When you evangelize, you include new people in your group and you have to expect change,” he said, noting that it’s possible “the insiders might become marginalized.”
Wan came to this conclusion through careful thinking about what and why Paul wrote this letter to the Gauls living in the northern part of Asia Minor that is now part of present-day Turkey.
Focussed on “Relationships and the new people of God: Exploring ministry in a multilingual, multicultural context,” this year’s School for Ministers attracted many new Mennonite pastors as well as pastors from traditional congregations.
Workshops looked at Mennonite Central Committee’s refugee work; “Things newcomers need to know about money” with Mennonite Foundation of Canada; and the two-session “One and many: Being the multicultural church,” which gave room for pastors from traditional congregations to hear the voices of pastors from new Canadian congregations.
But it was Wan’s keynote addresses on Galatians that drew intense interest, conversation and questions. His thesis was that Paul was arguing a marginal opinion throughout his ministry. The idea that non-circumcised, non-Mosaic-law-following Gentiles could be full members in the church did not win majority approval until late in the first century.
Paul spends the first chapter of Galatians arguing for his independence and impor-tance. Then in the second chapter he makes a case for the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch having supported his view that Gentiles could become full members of this Jewish sect, focussing on the Messiah Jesus.
But Wan, supported by Tom Yoder Neufeld, his long-time friend and colleague, believes that Paul actually lost the argument in Antioch. While from our 21st-century point of view Paul looks like one of the major founders of the church, this was not true in the first century. Instead, James, the brother of Jesus, held the preeminent position, even over the Apostle Peter, and never mind the upstart Paul, Wan said.
So in chapter three of Galatians Paul continues his argument that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV). In Christ, everyone has become “the seed of Abraham,” promised to Abraham in his covenant with God.
Since this precedes circumcision or any Mosaic law, these are not necessary for anyone to be part of God’s family. The scandal of the church is that already in Paul’s lifetime Jews were being excluded in some places. Paul works with this in his Letter to the Romans in particular, arguing that it is Gentiles who have been grafted into a Jewish tree.
Wan sees James, Peter and Paul in a massive power struggle, which only dissipated after the fall of Jerusalem and Christianity became something other than a Jewish sect focussed on the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Power and its uses came up repeatedly in Wan’s presentations, leading him to once say, “No one easily gives up power.”
Hence his conclusion that “evangelism is dangerous.” It can lead to newcomers and old-timers in conflict over how the church is to go forward.
Far from suggesting that evangelism is a bad thing—Wan himself had what he termed a significant conversion experience and is a Chinese-American born in Hong Kong and now an Episcopal priest—he was showing how the early church itself struggled with what “in Christ” meant to insiders and newcomers, suggesting that the church needs to pay attention to these dynamics.
Maciel Arias from Toronto New Life Mennonite Church, left, translates for Lili Hurtarte, lay leader at Toronto New Life Mennonite Centre, while Rebecca Yoder Neufeld of First Mennonite, Kitchener, listens with Lucy Roca of the Refuge de Pais congregations in Quebec. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Former MC Canada Witness workers Julie and Phil Bender visit with Sze-Kar Wan, keynote speaker at the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Brian Bauman, MC Eastern Canada missions minister, left, and Pastor Jehu Lian of the Chin Christian Church in Kitchener, right, listen as Bernard Sejour, newly hired Ottawa Catalyst, shares during the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Louam Vanhbyvang, left, and Liang Nay prepare the Lao-themed dinner for the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Lori and Charlie Derksen, children of Kevin Derksen, one of the pastors at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, dance as Menno Valley Sound performs at the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers fun evening. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Pastors Norm Dyck of Listowel Mennonite Church, left, Tim Reimer of Danforth Mennonite Church in Toronto, and Steve Brnjas, interim pastor at Zion Mennonite Fellowship in Elmira, visit during an optional ‘coffee time’ event at the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Abate Bekele, pastor of Rehoboth Evangelical Church in Toronto, left; Fanosie Legasse, an Ethiopian who attends Bethel Mennonite Church near Elora Ont.; Tadesse Mekuria Aleme, pastor of Medahnialem Ethiopian Evangelical Church in Toronto; and Pastor Kassa Lemma of the Freedom Gospel Ethiopian Church in Toronto, visit during an optional ‘coffee time’ event at the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)
Lois Guenther Reesor, left, takes part in a discussion with Sze-Kar Wan and Tom Yoder Neufeld at a public event held during the 2015 MC Eastern Canada School for Ministers. Reesor used Wan’s material in her thesis in the master of theology program at Conrad Grebel University College, where the annual school was held. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)