Ted Grimsrud—May 9, 2012
What kind of directives do Mennonites get from their main denominational doctrinal statement concerning homosexuality? A recent news article reports that several churches in the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA will bring a resolution to their annual conference assembly that assumes clear directives. The resolution will require the conference to name the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (CofF) as stating the official position of the conference. If the resolution passes, the Conference will then expect that “those who cannot do so according to their conscience resign their positions of leadership and influence in the Western District Conference.”
Chances are that the resolution will not pass. However, I doubt that few if any people considering this resolution will question assumptions being made about the content of the CofF that underlie the resolution.
The context of the resolution makes it clear that its central concern is with the issue of homosexuality. The resolution, reflecting a common assumption throughout MC USA, clearly understands the CofF to provide a clear basis for a negative view of intimate same-sex relationships (the specific issue that triggered this resolution was a conference pastor officiating at a same-sex wedding). This assumption that the CofF provides clear opposition to same-sex marriage is problematic, to say the least (as is, of course, the notion that the CofF should be used as a basis for drawing clear in-or-out lines based on beliefs).
It’s not surprising that people would assume that the CofF provides a clear basis for rejecting an inclusive stance concerning homosexuality given that official denominational statements cite it as doing so. However, a careful reading of the CofF itself actually repudiates such an assumption.
The “Teaching Position” of the Mennonite Church USA
The term “teaching position” came into prominence with the publication of the “Membership Guidelines for the Formation of the Mennonite Church USA” in 2001. Section III of the Membership Guidelines focused on “issues related to homosexuality and membership,” and articulated several “teaching positions”—affirming the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) and especially its statement, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life” (Article 19); affirming the Saskatoon (1986) and Purdue Statements (1987) that describe “homosexual, extramarital, and premarital sexual activity as sin;” and affirming the call from those two statements “for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views” (I will focus only the CofF aspect of this discussion in this post, drawing heavily on a longer article that addresses the other aspects as well).
These Membership Guidelines are treated as authoritative directives—certainly being the main basis for affirming that the Mennonite Church USA has an official “teaching position” on homosexuality. And, clearly, when many Mennonites use the term ‘teaching position,’ they are thinking of the assertion that “homosexual activity is sin.” They also seem to assume that this is a clear and settled conclusion. However, given that the discussion among Mennonites is scarcely over, we would do well to think more carefully about this “teaching position.”
The Confession of Faith on marriage
The first source that is cited in the Membership Guidelines is the 1995 CofF. That the CofF would be cited as the basis for the “teaching position” on homosexuality is interesting. This citation, without explanation, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear and direct teaching concerning homosexuality. However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention homosexuality.
Article 19 addresses “Family, Singleness, and Marriage.” The first sentence in the third paragraph of this article, the sentence quoted in the Membership Guidelines, reads thus: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” At the end of this sentence, a footnote reference is given to two biblical texts. The first text is Mark 10:9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” This verse is part of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (which here in Mark is totally rejected) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin” [Mark 10:11-12]). Note that the CofF cites Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching, which allows for no exceptions to the forbidding of divorce and characterizing of remarriage as sin; it does not cite the slightly more relaxed account in Matthew 19:9 that does allow for a divorce exception in the case of the infidelity of the partner.
The second text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” Note that the CofF ends the citation at verse 11 and hence does not include the “exception” of an unbeliever leaving a believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:15).
Based on this footnote, then, it seems clear that the thrust of the CofF sentence that begins Article 19 is on the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage (that is, emphasizing the “for life” conclusion to the first sentence). So, not only does Article 19 not speak directly of homosexuality, the one place that may be seen indirectly to allude to “homosexual practice” (the definition of marriage as “one man, one woman, for life) clearly has in mind a different issue—divorce and remarriage.
That divorce and remarriage are in mind in the first sentence of Article 19 is made even clearer by the commentary on this Article. The commentary (which is also part of the CofF as officially adopted by the Mennonite Church USA) speaks to the divorce issue and says nothing about homosexuality. “Today’s church needs to uphold the permanency of marriage and help couples in conflict move toward reconciliation. At the same time, the church, as a reconciling and forgiving community, offers healing and new beginnings. The church is to bring strength and healing to individuals and families” (emphasis added).
Pastoral concern in the CofF
While we need to note that the commentary and scripture citations make it clear that the sentence from Article 19 of the CofF that is quoted in the Membership Guidelines is being misused when it is construed as a basis for an official “teaching position” concerning homosexuality, we should also notice another point the CofF makes.
The commentary softens the strictness of the CofF article and the two New Testament texts cited. “At the same time,” the church is a place of welcome and forgiveness. This comment does not spell out a more nuanced approach to divorce and remarriage, but it does seem to open the door for such. One could easily draw from this commentary a basis for accepting divorced and remarried people as full members of Mennonite congregations (which, of course, is in fact increasingly the practice). The point, it would appear, is that the CofF makes a strong statement about the importance of Christian marriage, but implicitly allows for exceptions in the case of divorce and remarriage—exceptions that are not seen, in many contexts, to negate the theological affirmation of the marriage covenant as a life-long commitment. More important, we could say, than absolute fidelity to the ideal is that the church “brings strength and healing to individuals and families”—including even people who are divorced and remarried.
Could such an approach also be applied to people in same-sex covenanted partnerships? The CofF could be read in a way that would imply an affirmative answer to this question—if indeed the churches’ priorities should be on bringing “strength and healing.” Of course, such a reading and application would stand in tension with the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF.
How the CofF was meant to work
Another question we should ask about the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF arises when we look at the introduction to the CofF, remembering that the introduction was also affirmed by both the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church in 1995 when the CofF was officially approved by the denominations. In the introduction, we read of six ways the CofF “serves the church.” That is, the CofF itself gives instruction concerning the role it is meant to serve in the Mennonite churches.
This is what it says: “How do Mennonite confessions of faith serve the church? First, they provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible. Second, confessions of faith provide guidance for belief and practice. In this connection, a written statement should support but not replace the lived witness of faith. Third, confessions build a foundation for unity within and among churches. Fourth, confessions offer an outline for instructing new church members and for sharing information with inquirers. Fifth, confessions give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times. And sixth, confessions help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths.”
What’s missing? Anything hinting that the CofF is meant to be used as an authoritative basis for a boundary marking “teaching position”—not to mention that the CofF should not be used as the basis for such a “teaching position” on a topic it doesn’t even address.
Affirming the CofF
Personally, as someone who takes a strongly inclusive stand on the “homosexuality issue,” I find little objectionable with Article 19 in the CofF. I wish the careful gentleness implied in the commentary section were more forceful, but the message remains clear. We affirm the sanctity and permanence of marriage, but recognize that the one man, one woman for life ideal does not always work out. Being that the church is for healing, not condemnation, we seek to find ways to be supportive “to individuals and families” who may live outside that ideal.
There is no reason, based on what the CofF actually says, to read it as expressing rejection of same-sex marriage—certainly less reason than reading it as expressing rejection of remarriage after divorce.
Given the actual content of the CofF, there is no reason for a person affirming full inclusion of homosexual believers in Mennonite congregations and even affirming same-sex marriage (even officiating in same-sex marriages!) to feel like they could not affirm the CofF.