Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2015
Once, when I was in high school, I was on a school bus returning from a basketball game on a rainy winter night. Roads were narrow and windy in the Coast Range of southwest Oregon. On this part of the road there was one spot where it was possible to pass. As we got to that spot, a car flashed by horn blaring. We recognized the people in the car as recent graduates from our school and we were all celebrating because of having won our game. Then we watched in horror as the car speeding by started to spin out of control. The scene remains vivid in my memory, these 40+ years later. It was like that car froze in space for the longest time before hurtling off the road.
As it turned out, the speeding car only ended up in the ditch. No one was hurt and the car wasn’t seriously damaged. I can only hope that the outcome of what seems like a similar scenario for Mennonite Church USA will be as benign. One watches with a sense of horror as the car seems to be spinning out of control, with a landing no one can predict.
I keep writing about this denomination of which I’m part (see my list of links to posts at the end of this one). Maybe partly it is in hope of helping to affect the upcoming “landing”—though I realize that I am about as powerless to effect where MC USA goes as I was way back when to effect what happened with my friends’ car. But there was something I wrote a few weeks ago that triggered a response that has caused me to think. How do we navigate our tensions, speaking honestly but also respectfully?
Being too negative in discussing one’s opponents?
In my May 12, 2015, post, “The ‘end’ of Mennonite Church USA,” I tried to use language as descriptively as possible in laying out what seems to me to be the situation we are facing. One comment on Facebook gave me pause, though (as this comment was not by someone I know and as it is now lost in the cyber mists and as I am not actually wanting to engage them personally, I will not name the person). As I understood the commenter, I was too pejorative in my representation of what’s going on. This evaluation has made me reflect—is it possible to talk accurately about the actual situation, even in a descriptive way, and still remain utterly non-offensive? Should that even be a goal?
The Facebook comment characterized what I did as accusing those who have been opposed to the welcome of LGBTQ Mennonites of having a spirit of aggression, even violence. Now, I did try pretty hard not to explicitly use that kind of language. To illustrate the point in the Facebook comment, my post was quoted: “On the one hand, you have people who simply want to be part of the church themselves, and have been almost completely peaceable in relation to others in the church. And on the other hand, you have those who want to keep people out, to make them feel like second-class Christians (or worse), and who single the sexual minorities out as the problem.”
I will admit that this quote shows that I am critical of the restrictive dynamic. But it’s also clear, I think, that I offer a description and not an evaluative accusation of “aggression” or “violence.” I thought it was important to try to be as descriptive as possible. But that leads to a big question. How do you describe something that is discriminatory accurately without seeming to accuse those who are being discriminatory of being discriminatory? Or is should that be a goal?
Maybe this is a kind of test. Can the restrictive side’s actions be accurately described without those on that side feeling they are being attacked? Notably, the Facebook comment did not critique my description (of course, it was a short comment), only that by making that description I seem to take a polarizing rather than conciliator approach. The commenter suggests that rather than saying that the restrictive approach is, “we want to keep you out,” I should have said something more that would value their intentions and not be too confrontive. However, I think that such an approach would be to mis-describe the situation. Hence, the dilemma. I believe being respectful is important. But I also believe seeking the truth is important. Both need to be goals, in my opinion. Maybe because I think a lot of writing and talk has tended to tilt toward “being respectful” more than “seeking the truth,” I feel the need to work harder at describing the situation more accurately (recognizing, of course, that my sense of what is “accurate” is shaped by my own biases).
Not really an “impasse”
One part of MC USA going forward, I think, is finding a way more accurately to describe what has and is happening around these issues. A key element of this description is to realize that terms such as “impasse” (this is the term favored by Harold Miller in his Mennonite World Review essay, “Friendly conservative suggestions to progressives”) are not particularly accurate. Michael King is sharing some thoughtful and perceptive thoughts at his Kingsview blog called “Blogging Toward Kansas City.” I read him, though, as being careful to spread the responsibility for the current distress evenly across the spectrum.
My sense is that were we to seek accurately to name the situation, and not make sure to be “even-handed” and accepting of the more pleasant myth that this is a situation equally caused by all the stakeholders, we would be led to characterize it in different terms than “impasse.” We are facing a struggle over defining the identity of MC USA. But it is an interesting kind of struggle. To the extent we can, in a general sense, identify two “sides”—recognizing that many people are not identifying with either “side”—what we have had is a dynamic where the two sides are saying very different kinds of things.
One “side” has said, we want to define MC USA with those of you on the other side (LGBTQ Mennonites and their allies) not being part of it, at least not as full participants on all levels. The other “side” has said simply we are part of this community and want to remain part of it and we fully accept that you who are more restrictive in your views are part of it as well. The threat causing the fellowship to “fragment” (Harold Miller’s term) has always been only from one side. The pro-inclusion people have always wanted to contribute to the community’s life and strengthen its sense of wholeness. The pro-restrictive people have been the only ones threatening to “fragment”—by working to exclude LGBTQ Mennos and those who advocate for inclusion, by threatening to leave if restrictive policies are not implemented, and by actually leaving and taking along with them as many as possible.
We maybe should even go so far as to acknowledge that the core issue in this “conflict” is the issue of exclusion not sexuality (or, perhaps a milder term that I try often to use is “restrictive”—as in restricting the participation of LGBTQ Mennos in the church as well as restricting the participation of supporters of inclusion). One key moment in the story of exclusion came back in 1983 at the Mennonite Church’s Bethlehem, PA, General Assembly. The newly formed Brethren and Mennonite Council for Gay and Lesbian Concerns had been granted display space at the convention. Then, after the convention began, denominational leaders personally informed the BMC folks that the permission had been rescinded and the BMC booth was physically dismantled. Since then, BMC has been excluded from General Assemblies.
In the years since, over and over again, various congregations, conferences, and parts of the larger Mennonite denominations have practiced exclusion. For most of this period, not only have LGBTQ Mennonites themselves faced exclusionary dynamics, but also those who have advocated for the churches being non-exclusive (the examples are manifold—see Roberta Showalter Kreider’s important book, The Cost of Truth: Faith Stories of Brethren and Mennonite Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been; see also this well-researched account of the fate of one Mennonite pastor, Kathleen Temple [my wife], who lost her ordination in Virginia Conference due to her advocacy for inclusion).
The erosion of the exclusionary dynamic
More recently, though, the excluding dynamic has become less successful. This change is partly because of the gradual self-removal of many restrictive congregations from MC USA. For example, in Virginia Conference, even with the defrocking of Kathleen Temple and the expulsion of Broad Street Mennonite Church from the conference due to its being non-exclusionary, numerous congregations have left the conference. Now, a large Virginia Conference congregation, Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, has taken a public non-exclusionary stance and remains in good standing in the conference.
More famously, Mountain States Mennonite Conference has licensed a married lesbian pastor. Other conferences (for example, Central District Conference and Western District Conference) have shown great tolerance toward inclusive congregations. At least three MC USA congregations have openly LGTBQ pastors. The college where I teach, Eastern Mennonite University, owned by MC USA, has gone through a widely publicized process of discernment that has not concluded yet but has led to the likely permanent discontinuing of discriminatory hiring practices.
None of these developments can be described (at least not accurately described in my view) as “fragmenting” the fellowship. They have all been undertaken in the context of affirmation of the church fellowship and wanting to make MC USA a more welcoming place. The problem arises because those who support a continuation of the excluding dynamic are resisting the evolution of the MC USA community toward a more welcoming community.
Those who tend toward exclusionary practices seem to have three choices in face of this evolution. (1) They could accept the new environment, perhaps not happily but recognizing the need for people in a healthy spiritual community to be able to live with diversity. (2) They could strive to retain and perhaps strengthen the former exclusionary practices. It would appear that the MC USA Executive Board’s decision to present a resolution to reinforce the exclusionary message from the 2001 Membership Guidelines from the creation of MC USA reflects this option. (3) They could leave. It appears that the formation of a new ecclesial entity, the Evana Network (for “evangelical Anabaptists”), has the purpose of being a landing place for congregations that leave MC USA.
The second of these three options surely is inherently unstable and temporary. The evolution of MC USA from more exclusionary to more inclusive seems irreversible. The main issue is how large a part of the current denomination will remain as that evolution continues.
Years ago when I was being considered for ordination in the old Pacific Coast Conference, I was put in a very uncomfortable position. Several conference pastors intensely opposed my ordination, largely because I was considered too non-exclusionary (though that was long before I became a public advocate for inclusion). One pastor in particular, who served on the Conference credentialing committee, presented this as a either/or issue. Either we refuse Ted’s ordination or I leave. The process was held up for nearly three years as a result.
In the midst of that time, I had people say in my presence how difficult this was for them. They felt they had to choose between “Al” or Ted—and they liked both of us. I wanted to protest. It’s not like that. I am not attacking “Al.” I am not saying he has to leave. I’m not saying him or me. The conflict is totally coming from his side. All I’m saying is that I want to be part of the Conference too, and I’m not willing to leave in order to appease his antipathy.
It feels pretty much the same now. The “conflict” or “impasse” is not about two irresistible forces butting heads, striving for control of the denomination. It’s one group trying to sustain their control by excluding the other. And the other “fights back” simply by refusing to go away. My expectation is that some day, MC USA will no longer be animated by exclusionary dynamics. The question is how will we get there—and who will remain. The sooner that day arrives, I suspect, the sooner MC USA will be able to devote its best energies to witnessing to Jesus’s gospel of healing love.
Ted Grimsrud’s blog posts about Mennonite Church USA
The logic of the Mennonite Church USA “teaching position” on “homosexuality”—July 2010
Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part one)—February 28, 2014
Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part two)—February 28, 2014
How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy—March 23, 2014
Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?—July 1, 2014
Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations—April 21, 2015
The “end” of Mennonite Church USA—May 12, 2015
67 thoughts on “Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict””
Thank you Ted.
There is no question in my mind that some day MCUSA or it’s future appellation, “will no longer be animated by exclusionary dynamics”.
However, the “debates” and endless “discernment” of our current “process” needs to be called what it is: violence toward those who are on the receiving end of this obsession with exclusion.
This is not being negative. This is truth-telling.
As a Mennonite mother of a gay son, I speak from experience. Exclusion hurts, it does spiritual,emotional and even physical violence, and it does not bear marks of the Holy Spirit.
Maybe one way to look at it, Audrey, a kind of optimistic way, is to say that the current dynamics with “the ‘debates’ and endless ‘discernment’ of our current ‘process'” is gradually serving to bring clarity to MC USA. If it is true that we are indeed moving to some future place where the community is “no longer animated by exclusionary dynamics,” then we (or whoever is around then) might look back at our current moment as a time of progress.
Even looking at it this way, there is way too much collateral damage being done. But hopefully a critical mass committed to being a genuinely welcoming church will persevere.
This current “conflict” is not about exclusion versus inclusion _per se_, unless it is about scriptural prohibitions of particular sexual relationships being excluded or included. I realize you have gone to great lengths, and shown exceptional talent for theological and hermeneutical “disambiguation.” You are undoubtedly far more intellectually adept than most of us, but for many of those of us who are more simple minded it seems evident that the Apostles believed that it was necessary for the sake of the purity of the body of Christ to exclude those who were unwilling to submit to the will of God expressed through scripture if they were unwilling to repent and submit to the will of God. There isn’t some simple rubric that determines which groups or movements within the Mennonite Church are more inclusive or exclusive than others, unless it is a debate between those who argue with the most subtle of creatures “did God really say to you…?” and those who say “not my will but thine be done.”
In all of your writings related to this matter I have never felt you were negative. Honest? Accurate? Challenging? YES!! And that is what is needed.
As you note there has been a “lot of writing and talk has tended to tilt toward “being respectful” more than “seeking the truth,””
At some point it may be necessary for congregations to affiliate with conferences that are reflective of their “beliefs and practices” as opposed to their geographical location. I see that as the next important step.
Thanks for the encouragement, Chuck.
It does seem as if the “beliefs and practices” over “geography” scenario may be happening. My congregation, Shalom Mennonite in Harrisonburg, VA, joined Central District several years ago even though the closest CDC congregations to us are several hundred miles away.
Interestingly, though, it appears that the new Evana Network possibility is arising as an alternative option from some—don’t switch MC USA conferences but rather leave MC USA and join this new Network that seems to be promising a way to be “Mennonite” without the messiness of theological diversity. And it will likely be based on “beliefs and practices” rather than geography.
Does Proverbs 6:16-19 and Romans 16 apply? Those verses seem to speak most directly to those who are causing the discord, not those who are leaving.
Identifying who those are “who are causing the discord” seems to be one of the key issues. What I imply in my post is that the “discord” has and continues mainly to be caused by those who want to exclude. What seems important to note is that LGBTQ Mennonites and their friends are already in the Mennonite churches. The “discord” arises when attempts are made to push them out.
That assumes that the only discord that matters is that between humans or groups of people, not discord between God and people. Asserting the right to live in contra-scriptural sexual relationships is inherently discordant!
In order to understand you a bit better, let’s assume you are a delegate to the K.C. Annual Conference. How would you vote on the Forbearance issue?
Impasse is actually borrowed from Michael King’s blog. I see I did use it pretty often!
I sense that you want constructive communication rather than to use words that can be taken as negative or pejorative by those you are writing against. Then I would call you to present another’s actions as *they* see them (ie, in the best light possible!), showing that one has more than a surface understanding (how they appear from your vantage point).
For instance, you describe conservatives as “working to exclude LGBTQ Mennos and those who advocate for inclusion” and “threatening to leave if restrictive policies are not implemented.” Wow, I would despise us, too! Who sides with exclusionary and restrictive practices?! Your words are indeed one valid perspective — accurate from 20 feet, standing on the other side of the room.
But it might be more helpful (it would at least help people to comment less about negativity) for you to describe persons like me not as “working to exclude” but as “working to help our church take Scripture seriously (which they currently understand as standing against all forms of same-gender sex).” And describe us not as “threatening to leave” but as ones “feeling uncertain that they still belong in MC USA if its delegates appear to us to no longer trust Scripture as ‘the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life’ (Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective)”.
Then the issue is no longer “should we exclude or should we include?” But “to what does the spirit and trajectory of the Bible call us?” You and I started that discussion in Jan but I guess never finished it. https://thinkingpacifism.net/2015/01/20/teaching-on-same-sex-marriage-and-the-bible/#comment-162230
I really would like to see, as I wrote in the MWR blog, “the creation of wiki-type articles (collaborative, succinct, easily visible) in which all the church can see how those holding the inclusivist stance seriously engage the real concerns of the other side.”
Audrey, I just now read your comment. I empathize with your anguish (and recognize your name from an MWR comment). But please understand that the conservative stance is inescapably violent only when one assumes your viewpoint.
You hope for blogs “in which all the church can see how those holding the inclusivist stance seriously engage the real concerns of the other side.”
And some of us feel that those who “hold the exclusivist stance” need to seriously engage the real concerns of the other side. Two-way street!!
And to assume the “exclusive” group “owns the scriptures” is not fair at all. An equal case has been made for basing the “inclusive” stance on other scriptures than you point to. I contend both stances believe they views are scripture based. Now what? Your interpretation is correct and mine is wrong?
Thanks for engaging my thoughts, Harold. I always appreciate your careful thinking and gentle tone.
(1) Actually, what motivated my post was not that I was bothered to be accused of being “negative or pejorative.” More so, I was curious about the tension between trying to be descriptive about what’s happened (which is what I was trying to do in my previous post) and trying to avoid giving offense. My conclusion was that “avoiding giving offense” is less important here than seeking accurately to describe the situation. So, even though I am not wanting to be seen as “negative or pejorative,” I am willing to be so labeled.
Hence, it is not really my goal to describe you or your position in a way you would like or even accept. And I’m certainly not meaning to make a judgment about your motives or the convictions that drive the actions. What I am trying to do is simply describe the actions, themselves. The kinds of actions I have in mind as exclusionary (from my personal experience) are: (1) our congregation in Eugene back in the 1980s telling “Eric” and “Mark” (two gay men in a romantic relationship) that they cannot become members of our congregation; (2) leaders in Pacific Coast Conference telling me in the 1980s that my congregation’s request that I be ordained should be denied; (3) Virginia Mennonite Conference kicking Broad Street Mennonite Church out because they allowed a lesbian couple to have a union ceremony in their building; (4) Virginia Mennonite Conference taking away my wife Kathleen’s ordination because of her inclusive theology; and (5) EMU firing a long-time employee because she was in a romantic relationship with another woman.
Now, you don’t actually challenge my description of the situation with MC USA. Perhaps you would in a longer response. But you seem to say instead, in effect, is that the problem with my description is not that it is inaccurate so much as that it doesn’t feel good to you for me to use it. But the problem you mention is that I should say instead that you are “working to help our church take Scripture seriously.” I could say what you want me to say about you (and others of like mind), but that wouldn’t change my description of the situation. I’m trying to separate the actions from the motives and convictions that underlie them and focus only on the actions. No matter how much they are motivated by a desire to follow the Bible, they are still exclusionary.
(2) My question for you is this: Why won’t you admit that the actions are exclusionary? You could admit that and then go on and explain why, according to the Bible or whatever other bases, it is justified to be exclusionary. It seems like then we could have a useful discussion—testing the bases for being exclusionary (or not). You do kind of say why you wouldn’t want to do this, though: “Wow, I would despise us, too! Who sides with exclusionary and restrictive practices?” But when you deny that you are doing what you are doing, communication about it becomes difficult.
I wonder if your position would be stronger (or at least more discussable) if your would accept that it is violent (or, at least coercive). Then you could affirm that this coercion is justifiable. You seem to agree that being exclusionary probably is coercive, which is why you don’t want me to describe you as such. But then you don’t seem to have a way of talking about the actions you actually may take or support that are exclusionary (because you don’t want to seem coercive). But if you would accept that being coercive may at times be justifiable (and make the case for why restricting access of LGBTQ Mennonites to full acceptance meets the criteria for the use of coercion), then it seems like some helpful conversations might be possible.
(3) It bothers me that after all these years of you and me interacting about these issues (perhaps close to twenty by now), you would still imply that my position is one that does not “trust Scripture as ‘the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life’.”
I know that you have read many of my efforts to show why the Bible should be read as being pro-inclusion (see my PeaceTheology page on “Homosexuality”). You may not agree with my interpretations (as you have occasionally articulated), but it seems pretty disrespectful for you to act as if my views aren’t biblically-based and that I haven’t done my homework in making that case.
When you make such statements, it makes me question how seriously you yourself are taking the Bible. Not that you can’t still disagree with me and be taking the Bible seriously, but it would seem to me that one who takes the Bible seriously should want to understand the Bible better (which would include engaging various points of view), not simply dismiss those interpretations one doesn’t like.
Thanks for engaging me in good tone too, Ted. (Though you’re still using that negative language!) So glad we could talk in your office last summer and see that we clearly value and even enjoy each other — even though we think each other’s views are wrong!
I agree with you that there is no question about “exclusionary” being technically accurate as a description of the conservative stance. In my last comment, after observing that everyone instinctively despises practices that are “exclusionary and restrictive,” I wrote that those “words are indeed one valid perspective — accurate from 20 feet, standing on the other side of the room.”
But there is so much more going on than that one perspective. Linda talks about our hope being that persons in our congregations will repent and be transformed (noting that we disagree on what needs to be repented from). I talk about wanting to be faithful to Scripture. (Sorry I’m not taking the time to express those things more fully.) And those things get at our motivation (our motivation is not some joy in excluding).
So it feels like you are deliberately choosing to be pejorative when you ignore all the other possible perspectives and insist on using the one that is negative. (You indeed should use that perspective to let us know how our stance impacts you; but when you solely and repeatedly use it…)
Perhaps this parallel might help get across what I’m struggling to get across. Michael King, in today’s edition of his Blogging Toward Kansas City, wrote: “People are no longer anti-abortion but pro-life, because who wants to be against life? People are no longer pro-abortion but pro-choice, because who doesn’t want freedom to choose?” Wouldn’t you agree that a pro-choice person who persists in referring to an opponent as “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life” is deliberately being pejorative, deliberately wanting to put a negative spin on their opponents? That’s not the approach a peace-maker takes.
What words should be used? We conservatives should have a clear choice to suggest. Obviously we are not very media-savvy! Thanks for bringing in Stanley Grenz’s “welcoming and not affirming” label.
Your final comment is puzzling to me. You question how seriously I am taking the Bible, saying that I “should want to understand the Bible better (which would include engaging various points of view), not simply dismiss those interpretations one doesn’t like.” Perhaps I said something that gave that impression. Definitely communication broke down somewhere. As I suggested in a MWR blog on Wed, I’m very interested in helping with the creation of wiki-type articles (collaborative, succinct, easily visible) in which all the church can see how both those holding the inclusivist stance and those holding the church’s historic stance show that they take Scripture seriously. And as far as you and I, twice on your blog here we have taken up a discussion of what the Bible says on same-sex. Rather than me not engaging your point of view, my memory is that both times it ended with me saying something and you not responding. The link that I gave in my last comment was the second of those discussions.
Harold, I appreciate your granting my point about the use of the word “exclusionary” being accurate to describe “the conservative stance.” To be precise, I am not saying this is the entirety of that stance, just that it shows how to differentiate the “conservative stance” from the “progressive stance” in relation to taking actions in relation to the participation of LGBTQ Mennonites in our churches (though, as I said in my long response to Darrin Snyder Belousek below, the term I prefer is “restrictive”—which I mean to use primarily in the context of trying to differentiate between what I call the “restrictive” and “inclusive” views; as I also say, it was my fault for using “exclusionary” so much in my original post).
Part of the reason why I make this point is that I doubt whether there are any of the other things that you might say about the “conservative stance” that many “inclusive” Mennonites wouldn’t also agree with. So, if we are going to actually have a good conversation, we have to be clear about what the differences that matter actually are.
I agree that if I were trying to reduce all your core Christian convictions to you being “exclusionary” that would be “deliberately … pejorative.” But that’s not what I’m doing (if I write as if I am, I apologize). I’m just saying in describing the “conflict” we should try harder than we have been to note the actual point of conflict.
Let me restate my “final comments”—I am bothered when on the one hand, you do on occasion engage my ideas directly and seem to recognize that I do take the Bible seriously and maybe even “trust Scripture as ‘the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life’” when I write about these issues—but then on the other hand keep making general statements about those on the inclusive side not taking the Bible seriously and not following the Confession of Faith’s statement on Scripture. It seem then that either you forget that I do “trust Scripture” or that I am part of the inclusive Mennonite folks.
Here’s some of what I just said in a MWR comment that responds to the last paragraph, Ted, in your June 21, 2015 at 8:46 pm comment:
Whenever I say that we need Bible study which shows the progressives honoring Scripture, many persons are bothered and even angered: “Harold has already seen many instances of progressives taking the Bible seriously and trusting it. So why is he saying he stills need to see it?”
I’m sorry! I’m just telling you my gut sense: my congregation and others like it need more reassurance here.
Maybe this will help explain it. We see progressives going to the Bible, yes. But as soon as they find some possible readings that are in line with our culture’s stance on same-sex, they are willing to stop their Bible study. They’ve gotten what they need: scriptural sanction for the view they want to hold. But my plea is, please don’t stop yet! Because we have lots of “real concerns” about those readings (that’s what my web article, Listening and Responding to Voices of Inclusion, is all about). For progressives to not engage those concerns makes us wonder if their position rests on something other than Scripture. Because if they truly felt that Scripture is decisive (has veto-power rather than just one vote among many), then they would want to rigorously examine all the scriptural facets. I’m sure that many progressives are trying to do that. Which puts them in a good position to more quickly show how our “real concerns” (in my web article, for instance) can be answered! And then I can in good conscience tell my congregation that “progressives honor Scripture.”
Again, I’m sorry to need all this convincing, that I can’t just quickly say that “progressives honor Scripture.” But surely it’s okay to move slowly and to ask for extra thorough convincing when one is considering overturning a couple milleniums of tradition. We are called “conservatives” after all!
In order to understand you a bit better, let’s assume you are a delegate to the K.C. Annual Conference. How would you vote on the Forbearance issue?
Chuck asks how I would vote on the Forbearance resolution.
I will vote for it if it is clearly not a new polity but is viewed as the Executive Board suggests. They say that the Forbearance resolution and the Membership Guidelines resolution “are best considered together” — they form one polity — because the Guidelines resolution is “a statement about polity, and the Forbearance resolution is a statement about how we treat one another in the administration of the polity.” —from their Report to the Delegate Assembly).
I will not vote for it if it means what its authors say it means (in their June 7 response letter to Ervin Stutzman). They seem to see it as a mandate to free congregations and area conferences to work out their own practices without specific accountability to the formational documents of MC USA.
As you acknowledge, Ted, our church has already moved significantly in recent years toward the acceptance of congregational diversity in membership practices vis-a-vis gay and lesbian individuals/couples. That movement undermines your analysis, which focuses on the so-called refusal of the traditionalists to remain in fellowship with anyone who disagrees with them.
The context for the current crisis was the Mountain States decision to license a married lesbian pastor. That constituted a breach of trust and signaled to the rest of the church that one of the denominational stakeholders no longer supported the teaching position of the church.
I understand that as an advocate for change, you want to frame the crisis in a way that supports change. What is lost in your way of framing the conflict is historical context. The breach of trust and loss of stakeholder support for the Confession of Faith drop out of the picture entirely, as if those major shifts are irrelevant.
All we are left with, then, is a fight between the open-hearted and the hard-hearted. Gosh, who knew the peace-loving Mennonite Church would self-destruct over something like that?
You seem like kind of a stubborn, guy Berry—I guess you may think the same thing about me given our on-going impasse on these same points.
(1) One could just as easily say that the current presenting issue is that MC USA leadership, in allowing people to imagine challenging Mountain States’ decision, is who is acting in bad faith since they are violating the MC USA polity that places decision-making power concerning pastoral credentials in the hands of area conferences.
(2) If you think that the current “crisis” stems from Mountain States’ action, you are the one losing the “historical context”—a context of discrimination and hostility going back at least thirty years when MC leaders dismantled the BMC booth at the Bethlehem General Assembly after authorizing their presence.
One question, what kind of open disobedience to your understanding of God’s word would you be willing to “exclude” from fellowship? When do you think, if ever, is it appropriate to employ the ban? Is there any case of open sin that you feel justifies exclusion? How about a married man openly cheating on his wife? Would you continue to “include” him and not approach him with guidance to the error of his ways? Would you permit him not only membership in fellowship but also ordain him has pastor to teach your children that his act of willful disobedience does not disqualify him from leadership?
Ted, you may be right about me, but what’s much more relevant to this discussion is how stubborn facts can be. Actions have consequences, and the amelioration of those consequences cannot be achieved until we talk about and take responsibility for the actions.
Isn’t this restorative justice 101?
Linda, I can easily imagine behaviors or beliefs that I would be “exclusionary” with regard to—certainly your example of the open adulterer in church leadership would be one. And I can easily imagine saying that I support “excluding” such a person from church leadership.
I wouldn’t want to avoid naming my exclusionary response for what it is, because I would believe that in this case the coercive exclusionary approach is appropriate. My point in relation to what you have been saying is that if you think it is justifiable to be exclusionary in relation to LGBTQ Mennonites, you shouldn’t avoid saying so.
In order to understand you a bit better, let’s assume you are a delegate to the K.C. Annual Conference. How would you vote on the Forbearance issue?
Chuck, I’ve asked the two delegates from my congregation to vote yes on both the forbearance resolution and the Membership Guideline resolution. If both are strongly affirmed, it would create a space for the leaders of the district conferences to forge a new consensus. There is plenty of middle ground on which to build such a consensus if the commitment exists to keep the denomination together. The delegates can help elicit that commitment by sending a resounding message to district conference leaders: do not exercise your autonomy in ways that split our church!
Procedurally, a new consensus would take the form of CLC endorsement of a new interpretation of the Membership Guideline on sexuality (i.e., this is the way we district conferences all will apply the Guideline in our respective contexts). As I imagine it, this new interpretation would affirm congregational relationships with gay and lesbian persons/couples, affirm the authority of the Confession of Faith to guide congregations in those relationships, and affirm the commitment of each district conference to credential only those candidates who agree to function in a manner consistent with the teaching of the Confession.
This trust-building space of time would lead within the next 4-6 years to delegate endorsement of a new Membership Guideline on sexuality.
My impression of your discussion here is that you do not recognize that those you disagree with you are not hoping to exclude anybody but rather are calling for those in covenanted fellowship to repent and sin no more. It appears to me that the “inclusionists” have bought the view held by most in the socially liberal world that homosexuality is an identity and not what us “exclusionists” see as part of our human fallen nature that we should strive to repent from. We are not starting at the same place. We believe that we are all born with sinful inclinations that we can repent from, violence, greed, pride, etc. We don’t identify ourselves as being a violent person as God created us so we must act out violently. Or say that God created me as a prideful person so I must be arrogant and celebrate it. Until that starting point can be resolved, all the talking in the world is for naught. And yes, we are insulted by being called restrictive or exclusionist. Because God calls us all to come to Him and repent from our former selves, be transformed and follow Jesus. We just disagree on what needs to be repented from.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Linda. I am sorry to have used a term that you feel insulted by. However, I don’t understand why you feel that way. Though you say that you “are not hoping to exclude anybody,” you go on to give your rationale for being exclusionary. Why don’t you agree, “Yes, I am being exclusionary (or restrictive), because that is what I believe the teaching of the Bible calls me to be”?
No, I’m not calling for exclusion. I’m calling for repentance. Didn’t I just say that? The problem lies with not agreeing on what needs repentance. How can we raise our children in a church that asks or even teaches that we should willfully resist God’s call to repent from what Scripture says is sin? How do we forebear that? In all truth, I have already left my MCUSA congregation. My views were in the minority in my congregation and I didn’t feel comfortable raising small children in a church that favors a false teaching (in my understanding of Scripture). It is not a person of group of people that is being excluded, God calls us all. It is the act of willful disobedience to God’s word that does not belong in the fellowship. Honestly, I don’t understand why anyone would join a church when they knew going into membership what the Confession of Faith says, and that they would be accountable to the other members who do uphold that Confession. Yet it is we who hold to that Confession that are eventually forced out because we are “exclusionary.”
(I couldn’t find any reply button for Linda Rosenblum’s June 20 at 9pm comment. So I’ll reply here.)
Linda, don’t leave MC USA! You are a conservative voice that is consistently thoughtful and not strident. We need you, your congregation needs you. May the Lord give you wisdom for your children.
From some internet sleuthing, you may live in Kansas (a church bulletin of the other year has someone of your name playing guitar). So will you be at our KC assembly? If you are there Wed, come to the seminar right before supper that is a conversation between me and Keith Graber Miller.
What are you and Keith going to discuss, Harold?
Here’s Hannah Heinzekehr’s draft of its description:
Listening Well: A dialogue on same-sex relationships
Keith Graber Miller, Harold Miller and Sharon Waltner (moderator)
How do we have open and honest conversations about our differing beliefs on sexuality and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals? Keith and Harold hold different perspectives and beliefs on same-sex relationships and will model one form of dialogue. During this seminar, they will each share a simple, succinct statement about how they understand the biblical witness on same-sex relationships. After listening to each other’s statements, they will have a chance to respond to one another and also to receive and respond to feedback and questions from the audience.
Harold- It is disturbing to find out what one’s digital footprint actually is. Yes, you seem to have sniffed me out. No, I wasn’t planning on attending the KC conference. I’m no longer attending a MCUSA church and hadn’t given it much thought beyond that. I do live in Kansas and was an Eastern-style MC in a GC dcongregation. Besides not having a single PA Dutch speaker in the congregation, the cultural and theological chasm was just to large for me to be really comfortable there after nearly ten years as a member. I naively thought that one could just go to any Mennonite church in the country and expect to have a similar experience to the one you had growing up. Diversity is one thing but there is something to be said for community and unity as well. My home church in Ohio is one of the “ring leaders” for the new Evana network and has completely left MCUSA as well so you can see where I am coming from. I have been attending a MB congregation and feel more connected and spiritually fed there. My kids enjoy the new church as well.
So you have a line that you draw in the sand as well. We just draw lines for different things and at different places. Where the “exclusionary” tag rubs me is that it seems to me to imply that we are excluding large groups of people just because they exist and not because of their behaviors and/or non-Biblical beliefs/teaching. I don’t think that anyone who doesn’t engage in sexual immorality should be excluded. If a person has homosexual tendencies, that isn’t a deal breaker as long as they recognize that it is sin to act out on those tendencies. It is when folks try to justify sin with Scripture or arguments about justice that this whole discussion falls apart. I’m sorry that you feel that those of us who leave or threaten to leave are causing violence against the “inclusionists.” Speaking for myself, I could not raise my kids in a church that favors a false teaching. I don’t come from a background of political activism and I feel like our denomination has been overrun by activists.
As a delegate to the upcoming convention I have been thinking and thinking about this, wondering how we can speak Peace to one another. I have come up with a question for those who wish to exclude: What, exactly, are you afraid of? I can name my fear: I am afraid that the Mennonite Church that I love will wither away from irrelevance. My grandchildren…and there are 8 of them…would have no interest in attending any kind of church that chooses to exclude others since they really don’t understand the problem. And maybe our relevance has already waned. I hear people from many denominations speak about peace; the city and county governments are now doing restorative justice; separation of church and state is real in our country. That leaves only the issue of baptism on confession of faith…and, really, that’s not much of an issue to challenge the world with. If we can live together peacefully in spite of our differences we can continue the work of MCC, Meda, Everence, issues of immigration and all of the other things we have to share. This issue should not take up our time and energy when wars are being waged and people are going hungry. I have long ago determined that when I die I would rather God say to me, “Connie, you just included too many people in your love” rather than to say, “Connie, you excluded too many of My children in your love.”
Thanks for seeking to lay out the terms and sides of the marriage debate as you see them. The undefined pair of terms that is key to your description (and evaluation) of the respective sides is inclusion/exclusion.
How does one define those terms such that both sides of the debate can honestly recognize themselves in those terms and thus so as not to simply beg the question and consign one side to being in the wrong from the start? That, it seems to me, is essential if there is to be any chance at sincere engagement with one another and substantive dialogue on the question of same-sex marriage.
So, could you clarify what you mean by those terms in a way that someone on the traditionalist side would recognize and could affirm? In particular: Could you explicitly define ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ in such a way that (a) is to your satisfaction but (b) does not specify affirming same-sex marriage (or any proxy thereof) as a necessary condition of ‘inclusion’ and, correspondingly, (c) doe snot specify not affirming same-sex marriage (or any proxy thereof) as a sufficient condition of ‘exclusion’? If you cannot offer and affirm such an explicit definition, then it seems to me that your implicit definition of terms in effect names your side of the debate “inclusion” and consequently judges the other side of the debate to be in the wrong (on the unstated and undefended presupposition that any and every form of “exclusion” must be wrong) before any dialogue can begin. That is, absent such an explicit definition of terms that is “inclusive” of both sides of the debate, your implicit definition of terms is effectively “exclusive” of the side with which you disagree.
What might such a definition of terms that meets the criteria (a)-(c) look like? Here’s a proposal: Define inclusion/exclusion in terms of the doctrine of justification. To wit: On the premise that all–Jew and Gentile, White and Black, Free and Slave, Rich and Poor, Male and Female, Straight and Gay (or however else one might want to partition humanity)–are sinners in need of salvation by God’s grace offered through Christ, the wide welcome that defines the church is that all sinners are welcome in the church on the same terms: In Christ by grace through faith. These, and these alone, are the marks that make the church the church as the body of Christ. Period. (That’s my shorthand version of Paul’s doctrine.) Thus, being a Jew doesn’t count one in the church and being a Gentile doesn’t count one out of the church…being Straight doesn’t count one in the church and being Gay doesn’t count one out of the church. None of those distinctions matters to who is “in Christ”–the only thing that matters is “by grace through faith.” Any attempt to qualify or specify how it is that one is “in Christ” by adding any criteria to “by grace through faith” effectively restricts the welcome of the church by excluding some from the grace of God through Christ and thus turns the church into something less/other than the body of Christ. So, let “in Christ by grace through faith” define ‘inclusion’–and, correspondingly, let any qualifying addition that would restrict the wide welcome of all sinners “by grace through faith” define ‘exclusion.’
Could you affirm such a definition of inclusion/exclusion as the preliminary terms of the debate? If not, why not? And, if not, could you offer an alternative definition of inclusion/exclusion that would meet the criteria (a)-(c)?
Thanks, Darrin, for entering the discussion. I appreciate your challenge for greater clarity concerning the use of terms such as “exclusion” and “inclusion.” I agree that these terms should be used in ways so that people on all sides can agree with what they mean—even if they disagree on how to apply them. I’m not sure I understand your suggestions very well, though.
I should say, first, though, that I think I may have made a mistake by using the word “exclusion” so much. In much of my other writing (see my PeaceTheology page on “Homosexuality”), I have tried to use the word “restrictive” as the contrast with “inclusive.” I would say that what those who follow the “restrictive” path do is take exclusionary actions on some level. My choice to use “restrictive” was an attempt to better find language everyone would agree was accurately descriptive. However, as witnessed in the above comments by Harold Miller and Linda Rosenblum (and also in my experience of writing my Reasoning Together book with Mark Thiessen Nation), the term “restrictive” is still one that those I want to describe with it don’t like—so perhaps there is no effective difference between “restrictive” and “exclusionary.”
My intent is to use these terms simply to characterize in ways all would agree the general “sides” in the conversation. So, it doesn’t make sense to try to define these terms in isolation from the issue of how Mennonites respond to the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters in MC USA. The issue, it seems to me, is whether we in MC USA will be either “restrictive” or “inclusive” in relation to LGTBQ Mennonites.
My idea is that we could all agree that in this context “restrictive” means that MC USA should restrict the participation of LGTBQ Mennos (or, we could say, limit the affirmation of such people, in the words of Stanley Grenz’s book, to be “welcoming and not affirming”—the examples I gave above in my response to Harold Miller from my own experience of restrictiveness are denying membership, denying ordination, removing congregations, or terminating employment). Using this term is not meant to be a way to “judge the other side … to be in the wrong.” It’s meant to be descriptive of the kinds of actions some people have supported. They should not see a term that simply describes such actions as prejudicial, since they believe such actions are appropriate. If “restrictive” doesn’t work, I invite an alternative term that still is descriptive of this approach.
“Inclusive” is meant to refer to the view that there should not be such restrictions based on sexual identity. It is not meant to describe a view that rejects any kind of restrictions on participation, but simply that those restrictions should not be based on sexual identity. The point is to help us characterize the two different approaches to the one issue of the participation of LGTBQ Mennonites in the churches. The use of the terms shouldn’t be determined by who we think is right or wrong—rather, they are meant to help us simply describe the key difference so then we can discuss what the issues are that divide us.
So, I don’t accept the way you seem to be setting up the discussion. To follow what I understand to be your proposal would not help at all in identifying the differences—especially if you assume that “inclusion” has to be good and “exclusion” (or restrictiveness) has to be bad. People I would perceive to be on the “restrictive” side should be positive about whatever term that could be arrived at (if it’s not “restrictiveness” or “exclusionary”) that neutrally describes their willingness to take actions to be “welcoming and not affirming.” And we need such a term if we are to actually understand our situation (much less hope to have a constructive conversation about it).
I am a bit confused by your suggestion about “justification by faith.” You may not agree, but it seems to me that this works for you similarly to how “hospitality” works for me in my main chapter in Reasoning Together. That is, it gives the basis for assuming an inclusive stance. I like that, but I don’t see how it addresses what you suggest earlier about the need for good definitions (nor what I am suggesting about how definitions of “restrictive” and “inclusive” should work). It seems like you may be even more guilty than I am of the problem you attribute to me based on my use of “inclusion” and “exclusion.” But maybe I misread you.
Thanks, Ted, for your engaging response–it is clarifying and helpful.
What I intend by appealing to the doctrine of justification is to find a ecclesiological basis for defining the “inclusion” or “welcome” that is characteristic of the church as the church. The point is to find an understanding of “inclusion” or “welcome” that is, in a sense, “native” or “indigenous” the church, reflective of its essential constitution as the body of Christ. That, it seems to me, is crucial for dialogue within the church on the marriage question, for two reasons: first, it aims to find a common starting place that all Christians could affirm; second, it seeks to guard against importation of either specious or vacuous notions of “inclusion” or “welcome” that circulate in the cultural politics of our time and place but have no rooting in the church. That is, we ought not define “inclusion” or “welcome” just to fit with the popular trends of cultural politics but rather to fit who we are to be as the church, to express our properly Christian identity as those who have been made “one in Christ” through baptism “into Christ” and who thereby have become “children of God through faith” by the grace of God in Christ (Gal 3:26-28). That, after all, was the very basis on which the Apostle Paul rebuked the Apostle Peter for refusing to eat with Gentile believers in Antioch under pressure from the “circumcision” party in Jerusalem, even after Peter had recognized that God accepts all persons, Gentiles as well as Jews, on the same terms (Acts 10), even after the Jerusalem council affirmed the reception of Gentiles into the church without circumcision–that is, as Gentiles (Acts 15). Thus, the notion of “inclusion” or “welcome” I am proposing here cuts ice with regard to ecclesial practice.
Let me haggle with you on terminology a bit more. Yes, I see in your contribution to Continuing the Dialogue (I’m set to begin reading Reasoning Together this week) that you contrast “restrictive” and “inclusive” as the two sides of the debate. And I take from your comments above that you sincerely desire that these terms accurately describe, but not necessarily prejudge, the disagreement. Precisely on this point, however, I would question whether the restrictive/inclusive distinction is actually descriptively accurate. Rather, it seems to me, framing the debate as restrictive v. inclusive is a false dichotomy. Let me explain.
Historically, the church has said “no” not only to same-sex marital union but also to a range of sexual unions:
(b) polygamous (and, more generally, polyamorous)
(c) “open” or “free range”
The restrictive stance of the church’s tradition thus goes beyond same-sex marriage: each “no” is a further restriction around marriage. The church has traditionally expected each husband to have only one wife (“yes” to monogamy, “no” to polygamy), expected spouses to be sexually exclusive to one another (“yes” to fidelity, “no” to adultery, even the consensual varieties of adultery in “open” or “free range” marriages), and barred sexual union between close relatives (“no” to parent-child or brother-sister marriages, etc.).
[It is true that the Protestant wing of the church has recently relaxed its restriction of monogamy by allowing diachronic or sequential polygamy via liberalized acceptance of divorce and remarriage. Whether one sees that as a serious problem (as I do) or not, I suggest leaving that aside for the moment because it is not germane to the point of logic I am making here.]
Now, unless I am completely out of touch with the debate, I don’t hear you or anyone one else arguing that the church should begin blessing polyamourous, “open” or incestuous marriages (but, seriously, correct me if I am mistaken about that–there may be certain voices I’ve not yet heard). So, assuming that those who advocate that the church bless same-sex unions are not also advocating that the church bless polyamorous, “open” or incestuous marriages, isn’t the “inclusive” side of the debate also “restrictive”? Aren’t we actually dealing here with degrees of restriction around marriage? The “restrictive” side draws the restriction around opposite-sex, monogamous, exclusive unions between non-relatives, while the “inclusive” side draws the restriction around monogamous, exclusive unions between non-relatives.
This point does matter–there are voices in our culture that are seriously arguing for the acceptance of each such marital union on an equal basis with traditional marriages. I expect that once the SCOTUS rules in favor of states having to legally recognize same-sex marriages on the basis of equal protection of the laws, traditional Mormons (and others) will begin to press the case for their marriages to be legally recognized by the same legal logic (if the law ought not discriminate based on the gender composition of marriage partners, then likewise the law ought not discriminate based on the number of marriage partners). Polyamourous arrangements are gaining cultural acceptance (now with TV shows and magazine articles to promote them). “Open” or “free range” arrangements in marriages have already gained cultural acceptance. And there are even those advocating for lifting legal restrictions on incestuous marriages (an argument that’s hard to refuse: if the law ought not discriminate based on the gender-similarity of marriage partners, then likewise the law ought not discriminate based on the genetic-similarity of marriage partners). Thus, the church’s “no” (restriction) to each of these marital unions/arrangements does distinguish the church from the culture in significant ways: the “yes” (inclusion) of the church conflicts with the “yes” (inclusion) of the culture.
So, on the assumption that you would draw the line on marriage within the church between (a) and (b)-(d), saying “yes” to (a) but “no” to (b)-(d), don’t you actually hold a “restrictive” view of marriage, differing in degree but not in kind from the “restrictive” view of those you see as standing on the opposing side of the debate?
The implication of this is important, I think. It shows that we cannot draw any conclusions in this dialogue based simply on the category “inclusion”–even the “inclusion” of the “inclusive” side is “restrictive.” We have to give “inclusion” some theological-ethical content before it can do any logical work in the church’s dialogue other than serve as a rhetorical proxy for one’s preferred conclusion.
So, to present the marriage debate within the church as “restrictive” v. “inclusive” is descriptively inaccurate, a false dichotomy that fails to accurately describe the difference that makes for the disagreement.
In fact, within the church we are ALL “restrictive” on marriage (to one degree or another).
What you say about “justification by faith” seems fine to me. As I said, I think it works for you similarly to how the biblical notion of “hospitality” works for me. Either could work well, I suppose (or maybe they could be used together), to ground the practice of inclusion theologically. I’m very committed to such a grounding (if you read Reasoning Together I would be interested in whether you think I do this). However, I’m sure I’m not as concerned as you are with “fitting popular trends of cultural politics” as you are. “All truth is God’s truth.”
I think you misunderstand my “inclusive/restrictive” distinction. I am specifically referring only to the question of limiting (or not) the participation of LGBTQ Christians in the church—not to a general stance. In Reasoning Together I argue for something similar to what you describe, a sense that the “inclusive” side could be “restrictive” in the ways you cite (the key point that the “restrictiveness” not be based on sexual identity).
Your “haggling” about my terms seems to lead to a place where we remain unable to name the key difference that seems to be at issue in MC USA (concerning limitations [or not] to participation based on sexual identity). So while I agree with many of your points, I still think my terms (or something like them) are necessary (when used in the specific sense I describe) for us to make progress in moving forward.
Thanks, Ted, for your response.
I think we have agreed to this much so far: both the traditionalist and the progressive views of marriage (within the church) are restrictive, each drawing the line of restriction at a different place.
The nub seems to be regarding your claim that the traditionalist view is restrictive and exclusive while the progressive view is restrictive but inclusive.
This raises the question: exclusive/inclusive with regard to what?
Here, again, if I follow what you’ve said, you agree that the traditionalist view of marriage is inclusive with regard to church membership: a traditionalist view does not (necessarily) exclude anyone from belonging to the church. But you do claim that the traditionalist view of marriage does exclude some persons from participation in the church.
How so? At what point exactly does the exclusion from participation happen due to the traditionalist view of marriage?
As I understand it, the traditional definition of marital union (opposite-sex, mono-spousal, sexually-exclusive, etc.) does not exclude anyone from baptism, membership, communion, office, ordination, etc. Moreover, the traditional definition of marriage (as I understand it) is strictly neutral with regard to all categorical distinctions: it does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, class, etc., nor even sexual orientation. The traditional definition of marriage (as I understand it) thus does not categorically exclude anyone from entering into marriage. According to the traditional definition (as I understand it), therefore, marriage is open to all age-appropriate persons in the church without categorical distinction based on individual discernment and mutual consent.
Now, assuming that your claim is correct that the traditionalist view of marriage is restrictive and exclusive (in contrast to the restrictive and inclusive progressive view), then evidently either (a) I lack a proper understanding of the traditional definition of marriage or (b) I still don’t understand what exactly you mean by exclusion/inclusion (or, possibly, both).
So, I would appreciate it if you would explicitly explain where my understanding has gone awry or fallen short.
I’m happy, Darrin, to explain “where [your] understanding has gone awry” 🙂
One of the big problems is your equating “traditionalist” and “restrictive” in your comment. The way you define the “traditionalist” view of marriage is very close to what I believe. I do not critique the “traditionalist” view (I’m pretty sure I never use that term).
That is, contrary to what you attribute to me, I do not “claim … that the traditionalist view of marriage is restrictive.” In fact, my arguments in other writings (including Reasoning Together) is that one could have a very “conservative” view of marriage and of the Bible and still recognize that the church should not discriminate against LGBTQ people based on their sexual identity.
All I am trying to say with my “restrictive/inclusive” distinction is that these seem like the most helpful terms to distinguish between those who, say, would be happy to welcome LGTBQ Christians as church members, church leaders, and bless their marriages on the same terms they would welcome heterosexual Christians (the “inclusive” stance) and those who would discriminate in one or more of these areas based on sexual identity (the “restrictive” stance).
Thus, there can be (and are) “inclusive” people with very “traditionalist” views of marriage in every area except that they believe two people of the same sex may also be legitimately married.
I really appreciate your knowledge, skills, ability to share your understanding of the Scriptures, and then to be to articulate them in your writings. I thoroughly enjoy reading your writings and thereby being challenged to broaden my reading on religious and church issues. Thanks!
Thanks, Ted, for this clarification.
Yes, “traditionalist” is my term of choice for a certain definition of marriage that accords with Christian tradition. It denotes the view that a marital union (properly speaking) has certain essential characteristics (opposite-sex, mono-spousal, sexually exclusive, permanent fidelity, etc.).
If I’ve understood you correctly, “traditionalist” and “restrictive” are not the same in meaning, as you intend them. But then, if I follow your line of thinking, you go on to say at the end that a “traditionalist” view of marriage could be compatible with “inclusion” (i.e., saying “yes” to blessing same-sex unions as marriages).
This leaves me confused: if a “traditionalist” view of marriage (in my terms), which is “restrictive” in your terms, can also be “inclusive” (in your terms), then what I see happening beneath the restrictive/inclusive distinction is an equivocation on the meaning of marriage–that is, in shifting from a “traditionalist” view that is “restrictive” to a “traditionalist” view that is “inclusive” there is a shift in the definition of marriage.
If the traditionalist view defines marriage as an opposite-sex pairing (i.e., sexual differentiation is an essential characteristic of marital union), how can that be inclusive of same-sex unions without altering the underlying definition of marriage? If someone says marriage can include same-sex unions, a different (non-traditionalist) definition of marriage is implied. The “except that…” is not just a minor matter of making a small addition to a previous definition by tacking on same-sex unions to opposite-sex unions, but is actually a subtraction. It implies a definition of marriage in which sexual differentiation is not essentially constitutive of marital union and thus eliminates part of the traditionalist definition (as I’m stating it), thus changing the definition.
This, as I see it, is not quibbling over words. To state the disagreement as restriction v. inclusion (as you intend those terms) seems to me to beg the question: What is it that we’re being “restrictive” or “inclusive” about? Marriage, we all say. But, then, What is marriage? Do we all actually agree about what that is? I don’t think we do all agree on what marriage is. By posing a contrast between a “restrictive” view of marriage (which says “no” to same-sex unions) and an “inclusive” view of marriage (which says “yes” to same-sex unions), you are really posing a contrast between two definitions of marriage the difference between which cannot be reduced to the addition of “same-sex” to “opposite-sex” because that addition entails the subtraction of something (viz., sexual differentiation) that the traditionalist definition maintains is essentially constitutive of marital union.
To put the point clearly: To ask the church to bless same-sex unions as marriages the same as opposite-sex unions is to ask the church to alter the definition of marriage that has been maintained by theological tradition and operative in ecclesiastical practice. It will not do to pretend that we can simply tack on same-sex unions to opposite-sex unions and call them both marriages without effecting a substantive change in how the church has traditionally understood marriage. Thus, to present the disagreement as “restrictive” v. “inclusive” does not seem to me to get us to the heart of the matter but may instead deflect direct dialogue from the underlying source of disagreement: differing definitions of marriage.
One further comment: You seem to equate “restriction” (saying “no” to blessing same-sex unions as marriages) with discrimination (categorical exclusion based on sexual orientation/identity) and, correspondingly, equate “inclusion” (saying “yes” to blessing same-sex unions as marriages) with non-discrimination (no categorical exclusion based on sexual orientation/identity). Assuming I’ve got your terminological correlations correct (and my apologies If I haven’t), I would dispute this equation.
I still maintain that the traditionalist definition of marriage (opposite-sex, mono-spousal, sexually exclusive, etc.) does not discriminate (categorically exclude) based on sexual orientation/identity. The traditionalist definition (as I’ve stated it) is “restrictive” (in your terms) because it restricts marriage to opposite-sex unions, but it is not discriminatory because it permits anyone in the church of any sexual orientation/identity to enter into marriage with the church’s blessing based on individual discernment and mutual consent.
Darrin, this is starting to get frustrating because I am realizing that I don’t know what you are arguing about. My focus in my blog post and in my comments is on “restrictiveness” in relation to participation in the church. It is finally sinking in to me that you want to focus on something different—defining marriage.
If you are insisting on theological grounds that by definition Christian marriage is only between and man and a woman, then we really do disagree. When I say my understanding of marriage is close to the “traditionalist” view that you describe, that likely is because in your description of it you say it does not discriminate based on sexual orientation. But I guess now you mean that someone who is attracted to people of the same sex can still get married—so long as it’s to someone of the opposite sex?
Is that what you mean with your concluding paragraph?
“I still maintain that the traditionalist definition of marriage (opposite-sex, mono-spousal, sexually exclusive, etc.) does not discriminate (categorically exclude) based on sexual orientation/identity. The traditionalist definition (as I’ve stated it) is ‘restrictive’ (in your terms) because it restricts marriage to opposite-sex unions, but it is not discriminatory because it permits anyone in the church of any sexual orientation/identity to enter into marriage with the church’s blessing based on individual discernment and mutual consent.”
If so, it seems like you are simply playing word games. Your view of marriage “restricts marriage to opposite-sex unions, but it is not discriminatory…” Say what? It seems to me that your view is precisely discriminatory. Why aren’t you willing to admit that?
Not sure how or where this response will end up, but it is an attempt to respond to Ted’s last response to Darrin.
Is it not the case that accusing Darrin of “playing word games,” is rather inherently pejorative? Maybe even an attack on his character? Are you not posturing along the trajectory of the proverbial skillet calling the kettle black? His saying his view “restricts marriage to opposite-sex unions, but it is not discriminatory…” may be a bit challenging to comprehend, but isn’t that what we are committed to doing here, understanding one another’s perspectives? His statement seems to me to be an attempt to put those who hold views like his beyond the accusation of being “DISCRIMINATORY.” “Say what? It seems to me that your view is precisely discriminatory.” I’m sure we are all trying to discern the truth and have to discriminate between what we think is right and wrong according to scripture. Painting the traditionalists as the bad guys is good politics but bad dialogue, and completely out of touch with the multi-millennium long Church tradition. I discern a biblical mandate that you have tried to argue around–unsuccessfully in my view–and am inclined to dicernate against those who follow your path. I am not being DISCRIMINATORY but rather discernatory. Coining a word a can be good for the game, right? There have been some very closely argued concerns addressed here, but I find yours more political than closely argued. Using terminology that inherently casts others in a negative light is one aspect of that–castigating others as DISCRIMINATORY can be something of a moralizing approach we may do best to avoid, however powerful it may make us feel. Losing an exegetical, theological, and historical argument–as I think you have–may leave one with little else to do.
Please pardon my intrusion, Ted and Darrin, into your academic dialogue!
It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I hear Darrin suggesting that it highly unlikely that most Mennonites will redefine marriage. The definition of that word is fixed in Scripture and will not change.
Two implications follow: (1) the strategy for inclusion of gay and lesbian couples should focus on some other articulation of the blessing of the church; and (2) in the spirit of not burning our bridges behind us, we should avoid characterizing in pejorative terms those we hope will join this strategy of inclusion. Using words such as haters, bigots, practitioners of discrimination, advocates of exclusion, etc to describe those who hold to a biblical definition of marriage will serve no one’s long-term interests.
The public debate included similar dynamics 25-30 years ago. A few states passed laws to recognize civil unions, but most did not. So now, the meaning of “marriage” in civil law is being redefined and the church’s choice is more wrenching than might have been.
I have not insisted on theological grounds that the church must define marriage in traditionalist terms (opposite-sex, mono-spousal, sexually exclusive, etc.). One might attempt an argument to that effect, but I have not done so here. I have simply stated three things:
(1) Traditionally, the church has maintained that sexual differentiation is essential to marital union (i.e., marriage is defined as the sexual union of male and female, etc.). That is, marriage (traditionally defined) is restricted to opposite-sex parings. (I think this statement simply reflects historical fact.)
(2) Were the church to now say that same-sex unions can be marriages in the same sense as opposite-sex unions, the church would effectively redefine marriage. To add same-sex unions to opposite-sex unions under the same description “marriage” would be to subtract from the traditionalist definition of marriage (at least) that sexual differentiation is essential to marital union. (I think this statement follows logically from the first statement.)
(3) The traditionalist definition of marriage does not necessarily exclude anyone from entering into marriage on the categorical basis of sexual orientation. While the traditionalist definition restricts “what” marriage is to opposite-sex unions, that definition does not categorically restrict “who” may marry to persons having an opposite-sexual orientation. Persons of any sexual orientation within the church are free to discern individually whether or not to enter into marriage traditionally defined. (I think this statement is entirely logically compatible with the first statement.)
I think all three of these statements, as such, are true. What any one might think about them is another matter, of course.
I don’t think that I am “simply playing word games” with you, Ted. I am instead pressing you to carefully–and neutrally–define the terms by which you have chosen to frame the current debate over marriage. Those terms are: restriction, inclusion, and discrimination.
You have argued (unless I’ve misunderstood yet again) that the traditionalist view of marriage (“no” to same-sex unions) is “restrictive” and the progressive view of marriage (“yes” to same-sex unions) is “inclusive.” I am arguing that the “restriction” of the traditionalist view and the “inclusion” of the progressive view refer to different things, such that to contrast them the way you do commits a logical error–with the result that the heart of the traditionalist-progressive debate (viz., whether the church should redefine marriage) gets obscured.
The traditionalist view is “restrictive” regarding only “what” marriage is but, the same as the progressive view, is “inclusive” regarding “who” may marry–both the traditionalist view and the progressive view allow persons of any sexual orientation to marry. (I will add here: Some traditionalists do say that “who” may marry in the church is categorically restricted to heterosexual persons and that celibacy is mandated for non-heterosexual persons in the church–I would strenuously dispute that.)
Where the traditionalist view and progressive view contrast as “restrictive” v. “inclusive” is not with regard to “who” may marry but rather with regard to “what” marriage is: the traditionalist view restricts the “what” of marriage to opposite-sex unions, while the progressive view includes same-sex unions in the “what” of marriage (i.e., the progressive view subtracts sexual differentiation as an essential feature of marital union from the traditionalist definition).
If you now want to allege that the traditionalist view of marriage is guilty of “discrimination” then you need to define that term in a neutral way. Otherwise, it (like “exclusion”) is susceptible of being wielded as a verbal cudgel with which to rhetorically whack the other side.
“Discrimination” as it relates to justice/injustice or fairness/unfairness (as I understand it) entails a categorical exclusion of persons. For example: Were black persons as a category necessarily excluded from “who” could be a member of the church (i.e., were black persons excluded from church membership simply because they belong to the category “black persons”), that would be discrimination. Were women as a category necessarily excluded from ministry in the church (i.e., were women excluded from church ministry simply because they belong to the category “women”), then that would be discrimination. Likewise, were persons of non-heterosexual orientation necessarily excluded from “who” could marry in the church (i.e., were gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons were necessarily excluded from church marriage simply because they belong to the category “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual”), then that would be discrimination. (Again, some traditionalist do take that view. But, as stated above, I would strenuously object: Regardless of how the church defines marriage, marriage should be open to all persons within the church–no categorical exclusions.)
You might be puzzled or outraged (or both) at my statement that the traditionalist view of marriage is “inclusive” with regard to “who” may marry and thus is not discriminatory (i.e., it does not necessarily exclude persons from marriage on the basis of categorical identity). But I think what I’ve stated is true. If you wish to continue alleging that the traditionalist view of marriage is “discriminatory” then you need to carefully–and neutrally–define that term and then, on the basis of that definition, demonstrate logically that the traditionalist definition of marriage is necessarily discriminatory (italicized assertions will not do). And you cannot simply define “discrimination” such that “non-discrimination” requires “yes” to same-sex unions and thereby beg the question of whether the church should redefine marriage.
You might charge that the “inclusion” of the traditionalist definition of marriage is an empty inclusion: in effect, in practice, you might allege, the traditionalist definition means that persons of non-heterosexual orientation cannot marry within the church. But the traditionalist inclusion is not, in fact, an empty inclusion (unless, again, one insists on defining “inclusion” as requiring “yes” to same-sex unions and thus begs the question of whether the church should redefine marriage). Some persons of non-heterosexual orientation do discern a calling to enter into traditionalist (opposite-sex) marriage within the church–and I think the church should bless their marriages. These marriages are sometimes called “mixed-orientation” marriages. (I adopt that term from the writers at the Spiritual Friendship blog–whether it is the best terminology I don’t know.)
Not every person of non-heterosexual orientation will discern a call to marriage, of course–no more than every person of heterosexual orientation will discern a call to marriage. Such persons, regardless of sexual orientation, should not marry. And for persons of non-heterosexual orientation who do discern a call to marriage with a particular opposite-sex partner, such marriages will present potential challenges to the prospective spouses, who must approach discernment in way that is open about sexual orientation and honest about the challenges “mixed orientation” may present to their relationship. By their own testimony, such “mixed-orientation” opposite-sex couples can discern a calling to marriage–and go on to have happy, fruitful, child-bearing, sexually satisfying relationships even amidst the ongoing challenges and the unchanging orientation of the non-heterosexual spouse. (I recommend reading the personal stories of such couples–links provided below.)
Blessing “mixed orientation” marriages within a traditionalist view would require the church to openly welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual persons as full members without restriction and allow such persons to openly identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual within the church (i.e., welcome gay persons as gay without requiring them to become straight just as the early church welcomed Gentile persons as Gentile without require them to become Jewish). Only a church that openly acknowledges a diversity of sexual orientation, fully welcomes persons of every sexual orientation, and honors the sexual orientations of individual persons can honestly bless “mixed-orientation” marriages within a traditionalist view.
So, to conclude, to present the current debate as “restriction” v. “inclusion” does not adequately describe the actual debate, which is not about “who” may marry but rather about “what” marriage is–a question on which the traditionalist view and the progressive view do substantively disagree regarding whether sexual differentiation is an essential feature of marital union.
Josh and Lolly’s story
Mike and Anna’s story
Nate and Sara’s story
Ted, you state so well the dilemma that a lot of us face. How does one share one’s convictions in a neutral way with persons who sense neutrality as meaning “you can only be neutral if you agree with me.”
This is seen by those who believe that every time we talk, the conservatives are the only ones who are expected to adjust. I want to insist on several things: 1. I am not asking you to adjust. I do not want to tell anyone else (or any congregation) what they must believe. I only ask “can you allow me to be an honest follower of Jesus in my own path of faith.” 2. I have been adjusting and granting you space for your position for 25 years–(and I honestly believe that the space you require that I grant you does not reflect good scientific knowledge, nor good, careful biblical interpretation, nor fidelity to the teachings and spirit of Jesus.) Yet when I simply share that belief in an open way, I am accused of attacking and condemning.
Can you please grant me what I have been giving you for 25 years–the freedom to hold your beliefs, even tho that freedom strikes at the core of me, my beliefs, and members of my family. You see, this is more than an objective theological belief–this is personal, and I cannot make it un-personal because I hurt when brothers and sisters in my faith community deny someone I love the freedom to be a full person who is loved by God.
With you Ted, I do not want to offend, but how do I then express how deeply offended I am by what people in the exclusionary circle do to me and to others about whom I care deeply ? I have been willing to include them even when that act of inclusion on my part has led to an exclusionary response on their part.
Blessings on you Ted…please continue to be an incarnational presence of the person of Jesus in our own day. Hope to see you at KC…
Thanks, Don. I’m afraid I won’t be at KC (I’m glad you will be!). I hope our paths cross again soon, though.
Ted — I must clarify what I hope was obvious…my conversation is with a “person” who holds to a view that homosexual persons need to be converted in order to be accepted. The “you” is not you, it is those persons who have difficulty accepting a position that I see as being eminently biblical and Jesus centered.
Hope that makes it read better.
Ted, my fine colleague, many thanks for engaging my “Journeying Toward Kansas City” blog and for the many ways you keep faithfully contributing to discernment at such a critical juncture in the life of Mennonite Church USA. Your thoughts on my “being careful to spread the responsibility for the current distress evenly across the spectrum” strike me as fair.
I’d want also to underscore, this, however: it does matter how the discernment turns out. Real people and real lives are at stake, as you and I and the many respondents to your post wrestle things out.
I think the difference in our emphases is summarized in an introductory comment I made as editor of the 2007 Cascadia book Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (to which you and your respondent Harold Miller contributed): I stressed that the goal in that particular tome was not advocacy for a given position but for—
“ a process of discernment that engages respectfully the variety of positions, including positions in some opposition to each other. There is a strong point of view—let the church do better than we have to trust that God speaks through all, not just a slice or a majority. But if that is the goal, then let as many of that ‘all,’ holding as many different positions as possible, do the speaking,” (p. 20). Hence how you and Harold both ended up included in the book’s version of “all”!
Now for that discernment to be genuine in its inclusion of “all,” then it seems to me a prerequisite—and this is part of what I see you working toward, Ted, is Mennonite Church USA polity that invites all to the feast at the Lord’s table. We may be wrestling with these matters for another generation (one reason Part 2 of my Kansas City blog post focuses on the reality that we were at another explosive discernment juncture all the way back 28 years ago). But the discernment can only be genuine if persons who identify as LGBTQ are part of the circle of discernment, not outside it.
When I focus, as I did in my Part 3 post http://www.cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo/?p=243 on “not knowing the truth before we find it,” I’m seeing humility in the face of seeing now only as if through a mirror, dimly, as being an essential prerequisite for every one of us if we want to do more than parrot what we already know or believe. This contributes to the “evenness” you see in my writing. I do believe all of us, regardless of our position, are accountable to keep taking in more of God’s truth by attending respectively to the treasures of insight likely to be present even in views we find repellent.
I also believe that a prerequisite for that mutual enlarging of our insights to be genuine is, again, for all to be at the table. So it really does matter whether at Kansas City 2015, however messy or complicated or ambiguous the outcome may be, we do or don’t make real-world space for all, truly ALL.
Thanks, Michael. You noticed, I hope, that I wrote “Michael King is sharing some thoughtful and perceptive thoughts….” Of course, I guess this somewhat clumsy phrase could be read as implying that some of your thoughts were not “thoughtful and perceptive,” but that’s not what I meant (though I don’t assume that all “thoughts” are by definition “thoughtful”).
The key to what you say here (and I think you have stood for this for a long time, on occasions courageously) is that the discernment must include “all” stakeholders. If that commitment were truly held and followed by MC USA leadership I would be pretty optimistic about the (long term) future of our community.
Ted, I did take grateful note of “thoughtful and perceptive”—though I’d want to be the first to emphasize that not all my comments are in fact thoughtful and perceptive!
I see much to appreciate in your latest comments and believe that, amid some of our usual variations in emphasis and perspective (which have actually been rich soil for this friendship going back to 1992 in Oregon, as I was glad you recently drew my memory toward) we’re pulling in overlapping directions.
To put my own hopes in starkly personal and simple terms, in my circle of innermost loved ones, including family and dear friends, are those who as soon as same-sex marriage became legal in their respective states married long-time partners. Others in that same circle are against this and have been troubled that, for instance, our mutual employer Eastern Mennonite University opened a hiring policy review and listening process. I wish for all of these dear ones to be welcome at Christ’s banquet table. I wish for the table to groan with such amazingly nurturing and varied foods that all can eat with joy.
Or I could put it this way: I wish for Harold & Co (I highlight Harold simply because he’s one of your respondents with whom I’m been in long-time conversation), for EVANA-ites, for my divided loved ones to experience MC USA as inviting them to that wobbly version of the table which is the best we know how to offer each other on earth.
I recognize that it’s right about at this point that things get complicated and trigger what I see as one of your key concerns, Ted: Such brothers and sisters already have a table setting. A question they’re wrestling with is whether, if they view this as violating faithfulness to Scripture, they can still experience nurture at the table if others fully join them.
This is a riddle I simply don’t know how to solve, which is why later this week in my final pre-Kansas City post in “Journeying Toward Kansas City,” on conscience, I do basically say God, I don’t know how this can be done or if it can be done, give us a Pentecost miracle.
Amid that dream from which I may have to awake, I do join you in believing “that the discernment must include ‘all’ stakeholders,” not least LGBTQ, and that if something along these lines did emerge from Kansas City, that would be case for hope. Certainly that’s how I’m praying.
That’s also why I’ve been trying—feebly enough and I’m sure increasingly ad nauseum but going repetitive one more time because Kansas City seems to hold potential to be a climactic event—for a generation now to visualize how in fact we DO include ALL.
It’s why I appreciate that Ervin Stutzman, keynoter at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training in 2014 on discernment was willing to speak publicly and vulnerably and collaboratively of his own views, to which I responded.
In my comments (full text available at http://www.cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo/EMS-SLT2014-MichaelAKingResponse to ErvinStatement01-22-14SingleSpace.pdf) that day after Ervin shared, I highlighted that God can speak to the church both through those who name, study, and articulate its teachings and through “faithful dissenters.”
This is why we should be slow to sever relations with each other. This is why, picking up on an image Ervin shared that day, I indicated this: “I pray that in your statement and my response we’re dreaming toward something like a healthy marriage. Here partners sometimes think the other is dead wrong. Yet they commit themselves to grow in understanding and love across a lifetime.”
And that’s why I (and I hope a few others of us) dream “toward that far-off country of Hebrews 11, God’s country. Here we name each other, even when tempted to declare each other enemies, mutual followers of Jesus, beloved children of God. Here we yearn toward what is so often still beyond the far horizon: making visible the power of the cross to reconcile us across our rifts and wrap us in the peace of Christ.”
Journeying on with you and each of us yearning toward that better country, Ted. Thanks for the ways you work so faithfully at catalyzing discernment for our times.
Thanks, Michael. I look forward to a report on what happens at KC—perhaps in the context of collecting on your long-outstanding “debt.”
I admire your efforts to establish a table where all may partake. If some choose not to join you, I hope you don’t feel responsible for those choices.
The hnmiller June 22 4:10 pm post did not have a Reply option, so I am replying here:
Of course we are studying and honoring the scriptures. However, our discernment has led us to a different understanding of scriptural messages than HAMiller’s understandings.
Harold (I am assuming you subscribe to all the comments here and will see this),
That quote from your comment from your MWR discussion actually underscores the concern I am raising. You make those generalizations about “progressives” (that I assume would include me) as if you haven’t seen my efforts over these past 20 years to do precisely what you seem to be asking for—that is, respond to each of the core biblical texts and show why they do not support the restrictive position. Here’s one example of my biblical argument.
I have also written a 7,700 word critique of Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice that goes into great detail in addressing his biblical arguments.
Of course, you are free not to agree with my analyses, but I feel like my work contradicts your generalizations about “progressives” and the Bible. It makes me skeptical about how sincere you are in requesting efforts to “convince” you of “progressives'” commitment to the Bible. If you haven’t noticed up until now that I have been presenting a case that does center itself on the Bible, it is difficult for me to imagine that if I or someone else tried to respond to your request now you would actually be open to telling your congregation that “progressives honor scripture.”
Living as we do in an imperial society hell-bent on using deception and violence to control the world’s resources in a warming world for the benefit of the political elite, I would expect to find scholars and leaders of the stature who comment here to occasionally ask, “How can we help our district conference leaders hold their congregations within this spiritual community of discernment, mission and witness we call MCUSA?”
But I don’t hear that. Occasionally district conferences get mentioned, but usually in a negative way. It’s like they are superfluous to the more important matters at hand.
We have 21 churches in this denomination. Let’s start talking about why it’s important to help them be successful at what they do. And yes, let’s also continue talking about why it’s important for missional congregations within those churches to have the flexibility to be in relationship with gay and lesbian individuals and couples.
But let the framing, the positioning, the posturing cease.
Ted, I was wondering if you’ve seen Rich Preheim’s piece, “Confessing without Forcing” http://bit.ly/1LoTlYt, as well as Lamar Freed’s comment about how “the rules” have at times been twisted in order to discipline and exclude inclusive churches. Do you see this as an accurate assessment?
What Preheim writes here fits with sentiments that I’ve heard from some General Conference folks — that the COF was not intended as a mechanism for denominational-wide discipline (actually, I recall Ervin saying something along those lines in my polity class at EMS) and that there is a sense that (old) MCers has run over the more congregational GC in MCUSA. If these dynamics are in play here, what impact do you think they have in the current debate?
Thanks for the heads up on Rich’s article, Jeremy. I had read it and thought it was good and articulates well how I see the history, too. Lamar’s memory also seems right and illustrates one of the main kinds of examples I had in mind in what I wrote above about examples of the exclusionary dynamic that I think is more central to our situation than disagreements about sexuality per se.
It was clearly stated from the start (and stated explicitly at the 1995 Wichita General Assembly when the CofF was approved) that the CofF was not meant as a boundary enforcing set of rules. The intro to the CofF lists the uses for which it was intended, and such boundary enforcement was not one of them.
At the same time, I don’t want to let the GC leaders totally off the hook. They were the ones that initiated the merger and in their eagerness to make it happen pretty much ignored the dynamics on the MC side that have led to our current mess.
I think MC USA is inevitably headed in a more congregational direction. The question is how many will still be around when that happens. I am choosing to be optimistic, not about the numbers that will be left but about the clarity that those who are still around might have about how the community might operate in healthier ways.
I’m also working at remaining optimistic in the face of what will in a lot of ways be rather painful. My congregation experience a sort of microcosm of the current situation a year-and-a-half ago when we lost a number of people in response to our conference leadership’s decision to licence Theda Good. One of the things I learned in that experience is that church splits are a lot like divorce. While the resolutions at Kansas City are an attempt to keep the family together, I suspect there will be divorce regardless of what delegates pass or don’t pass.
I think that in some ways, the current mess represents the failure of nuanced polity. One element of the Confession of Faith is that it was a political compromise document — it does contain careful, intentionally ambiguous language — intended to bring two groups together when a sizable part of the constituency wasn’t sure they wanted to get together in the first place. I wasn’t part of the discussion when MCUSA is formed, but it’s increasingly clear to me that when delegates approved the COF and the Membership Guidelines they didn’t necessarily agree with what these documents meant or what kind of role they were supposed to play in the life of the denomination. I think we’re paying for that right now.
I would also say — taking the long view — that we are acting today pretty much the way that Mennonites in North America have tended to act historically when faced with theological disagreement and differences. Earlier this year, I read Nate Yoder’s history on the Conservative Mennonite Conference, and his accounts regarding church splits and controversies resonate with me. I think there are some parallels in the “accountability” and “renewal” language coming out of Evana and the Anabaptist Renewal Circles with language used by the Biblical Mennonite Alliance when it split with the CMC in 90’s. I don’t mean to overstate things, but I do believe that there are at least some similar impulses that both groups share.
And yet I do think there is hope here. I think there have been some incredibly unhealthy and dysfunctional dynamics like you describe here. If the carefully nuanced polity and political maneuvering fails to prevent a denominational split or a mass withdrawal, then perhaps there is room among those of us still remaining for new dynamics. Perhaps there is new life among the ruins (so to speak). Perhaps there will be space for new ways of relating with one another.
What I’m trying to say, is that I think regardless of what happens, there will still be a Mennonite Church after Kansas City. What’s scary and painful is that we don’t know what it looks like (probably smaller and poorer, but there are worse things).
We seem to be in the midst of a massive upheaval here in North America. It’s not just Mennonites, of course. My hope is that in the midst of this difficulty, we can also hear God’s voice calling us to something new, hopefully more faithful, than current expressions of church.
You left us hanging, Jeremy, by referring to a bigger picture without providing any specifics. What is this “massive upheaval” you see occurring, what will a faithful witness look like in such a context, and how do the ideas articulated here in this space in recent days help us become those witnesses?
I don’t want to bunny trail too far from the topic at hand, but if I was going to sum “massive upheaval” up, I would say that I think the Anglo-Protestant church culture that dominated American culture in the past is coming undone. I think one way of interpreting today’s Supreme Court decision for same-sex marriage is that culture no longer privileges “traditional” Christian understandings of marriage, but rather draws from other criteria. I think the fighting over LGBTQ inclusion is a proxy fight over the massive upheaval of Christianity moving from the center of society to its margins.
As a pastor, I often a great deal of anxiety over this upheaval, often crouched in the fear of persecution. What if the government forces pastors to officiate at same-sex weddings? What if the government makes Christianity illegal and sends Christians to concentration camps? What if ISIS invades America and chops off our heads? In response to today’s rulings, one of my congregants posted on Facebook a drawing of Uncle Sam praying with the words, “Dear God, I bow my head and ask, if it be Thy will, please save this land from those who seek to destroy it.” That’s not, in my view. a particularly Mennonite prayer, but it is an accurate reflection of the Evangelical-Mennonite theological hybrid present in many of our congregations.
A number of months ago, I heard journalist Glenn Fleishman observe that when society becomes more “inclusive,” those who previously dominated the center of society feel displaced and marginalized. Flesihman was speaking specifically, about Gamergate, but I think there is a similar dynamic here when it comes to the role that Christianity has in Western society.
There’s a lot of change that’s happening as many of our congregations become unsustainable due to declining attendance and financial support. There is going to be a lot of grief and a lot of adjustment as we enter a reality where most people in society are either ambivalent or hostile to Christianity and no longer gives us the benefit of the doubt.
What does faithful witness look like in this context? I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody really knows. I think we will have to discover what faithful witness means as current trends continue and deepen.The good news is that I think people are asking the right kinds of questions and I think that’s an important part of getting to where we need to go.
Truly a remarkable amount of dialogue on this “Describing the Mennonite Church USA ‘conflict'” blog entry, Ted!
Our part of the dialogue has been good — except for our last exchange. I talked about many persons being “bothered and even angered” when I call for Bible study reassuring me about progressives honoring Scripture. And tried to put into words why I call for such study. Your response to me, Ted, basically was that you are bothered and angered. And that you are “skeptical about how sincere” I am when making that call for Bible study.
I do apologize for not specifically noting that I have read what you have written over the years (perhaps not thoroughly enough, but I think I have), and should have affirmed your commitment to examine what the Bible says. It would have been helpful if I had.
Now I will try once more to explain my sense of what conservatives (meaning those who affirm MC USA’s current teaching position on same-sex) need from progressives (those who act at variance with our formational documents by blessing same-sex covenants and credentialing persons in them). This is my instinct of what will increase the number of conservative congregations who feel they belong to MC USA.
Please hear my heart here; take me in good faith; I am trying to write this to help, not to insult or offend, not to lay all the responsibility on you. (I have a list for conservatives when writing to them!)
We conservatives need to see that progressives like you, Ted, honor and trust Scripture. Specifically, we need you (plural) to do more than point to a scriptural trajectory toward valuing the marginalized and vulnerable. You, Ted, noted the need for this in a blog of your dialogue with Mark Thiessen Nation: “Jesus’ message of welcome is not based on ignoring the call to faithful living. If some behavior is intrinsically unlawful, intrinsically harmful to persons and communities, then Jesus would have us expect that that behavior be changed for people to be full participants in the community.” (David Gushee also makes this point in my quote of him in my MWR blog last week.)
And we need you (plural) to do more than present a couple exegetical arguments that support your stance on same-sex partnerships. One can find exegetical arguments for almost anything; it’s never enough for us to find some arguments we like and then stop our study. Ones who want to be guided by Scripture as much as possible try to weigh all the exegetical arguments.
So here’s the bottom line of what we (conservatives) need. We need to see some of you (progressives), out of love and trust in Scripture, rigorously and eagerly examining and weighing all the exegetical arguments that lead us to support our church’s historic stance. That’s it. In a simple nutshell.
My sense is that no one (not you, not Gushee, not Vines, not Rempel, not Ramer, not Shelly…) has yet answered the real concerns that we have about progressive readings of Scripture. I admit that surely I have not read everything you all have written, and that surely I have not caught everything I’ve read. But I can say, before God, that I have thoroughly, and even hungrily, read the writings for full LGBT inclusion in the church, wanting to see your biblical arguments, genuinely open to beginning to sympathize with you. It hasn’t happened yet. That is why I put together the web article I’ve mentioned, Listening and responding to voices of inclusion, listing place after place where the progressive interpretations that I have read seem to miss too much. One of my goals in writing it was to be vulnerable, to make it easy for persons such as you to point out what I’m missing.
In January you wrote to me in a comment on your blog: “I will look at your web article and try to think of more to say in response to what you write there (and here).” And I rejoiced. But then after a couple exchanges, you stopped. Perhaps that wasn’t the best time and place for this conversation to happen. But my instinct is that it does need to happen some time and some place for our church to have a chance to go beyond this issue.
What do I see as the possible outcomes of you (progressives) rigorously and eagerly examining and weighing the exegetical arguments that lead us (conservatives) to take our stance?
1) It might become increasingly obvious to all of us that conservatives have a stronger exegetical case (as rwwilson147 said in his comment early today). A few progressives might leave MC USA, but most might move toward more acceptance of MC USA’s teaching position.
2) It might become increasingly obvious to all of us that neither the progressive nor the conservative case is decisively strong. Then progressives will be able to bless same-sex covenants and credential persons in those covenants without conservatives seeing those acts as undermining the authority of Scripture. (In the conservative mindset, what is essential is not that all in the church agree on same-sex but that all in the church love Scripture and take it seriously.)
3) It might become increasingly obvious to all of us that progressives have a stronger exegetical case. Most conservatives might accept MC USA crafting a new teaching position, but a few might leave MC USA.
Is that fuller explanation helpful, Ted? I will value your feedback and questions and suggestions. If I didn’t care for you and the church, I would have given up the other day when you questioned my sincerity and not written this.
For what it’s worth, Harold, I too have wondered if you are sincere. Too many Christian scholars have grappled with the biblical texts for you to continue framing your request as you do. Perhaps the problem—and it is real—should be described differently than you have.
As a church, we are caught up in the dynamics of an advocacy campaign for LGBTQ inclusion that has attracted strong support within the church. The statements issued by participants in that campaign sound like advocacy, not serious reflection about biblical teaching. The actions taken by supporters of that campaign—to license a lesbian pastor, to call a gay man as pastor—obviously reflect a new teaching on sexuality. But to date, no one (to my knowledge) has found it important to articulate this new teaching in a way that acknowledges the obvious value Scripture places on marriage between men and women.
We also are experiencing the conceptual pitfalls of an advocacy approach. The significant support of the campaign has been fueled by sympathy for the 3-5 percent of individuals who almost certainly have little-to-no capacity to function within heterosexual norms. Advocates of change describe the sexual orientation of these individuals as created by God, and many people seem to find that formulation convincing. Yet the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the campaign (read Karl Shelly’s defense of his position, or the Just Church document) impact the sexual identity and choices of the majority of us in the church (and the generations to come), not just the tiny group who have been locked out of the church’s marriage blessing. This is profoundly unsettling.
So I wonder, Harold, if you are accurately articulating what you are seeking from progressives. Note that I speak as a long-time advocate, not one who dislikes advocacy campaigns in general.
Thanks, Berry, for your thoughtful and good-hearted comment this morning. As always!
First, you write about the “individuals who almost certainly have little-to-no capacity to function within heterosexual norms.”
Read Darrin’s comments on this blog about “mixed-orientation” marriages and his links to stories of them, like Josh and Lolly’s story. Yes, it may be rare, but may be more possible than one would think.
Now a response to the heart of your comment. You write:
“For what it’s worth, Harold, I too have wondered if you are sincere. Too many Christian scholars have grappled with the biblical texts for you to continue framing your request as you do. Perhaps the problem—and it is real—should be described differently than you have.”
“So I wonder, Harold, if you are accurately articulating what you are seeking from progressives.”
You “have wondered” if I am “sincere.” Also you “wonder” if I am “accurately articulating” what I am seeking from progressives. I much prefer the second! It suggests the possibility that I might be good-hearted-but-bumbling as I try at express my instincts about the matter.
Did the question of my sincerity mainly arise from reading my attempts last week at articulating my instinct?
I hope that my attempt last night helped at least a little. What do I do with the honest questions that arise in my mind when I can list “place after place where the progressive interpretations that I have read seem to miss too much”? Am I wrong in wondering if they are prematurely stopping their study after finding “a couple exegetical arguments” that support their stance on same-sex partnerships?
I’m not by myself in raising this. In fact, most scholars who are proponents of same-sex marriage and who have a low view of Scripture (i.e., they wouldn’t join our Confession of Faith in saying that the Bible is “fully reliable and trustworthy”) agree with me on this.
Here are highly respected and acclaimed scholars, all proponents of same-sex marriage:
Louis Crompton, a gay man and pioneer in queer studies, wrote:
Bernadette Brooten, a lesbian who has written the most acclaimed book on lesbianism in the early Christian world, wrote:
William Loader, a New Testament scholar who has written eight important books on sexuality during the New Testament period, writes:
Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, writes:
Perhaps I still haven’t accurately articulated my instinct that we conservatives still need to see progressives, in their love for Scripture, show that they seriously address the strongest questions that are raised against their view. But at least I have shown that I’m in prestigious (and progressive!) company when I wonder if Ted (and Gushee, and Vines…) have yet sufficiently grappled with the biblical texts.
Harold, I imagine we all agree that this conversation you and Ted started isn’t so much about personal motives (thus, I shouldn’t have commented at all about your sincerity), but about why you do not perceive progressive readings of Scripture related to monogamous, same-gender covenanted relationships to evidence love for and accountability to Scripture.
Since you’ve confirmed that your focus is scholarly work, I’ll leave you to carry on with the scholars.
My lay opinion, though, is that your nagging discomfort may have as much (or even more) to do with what progressive scholars do NOT say as with what they do say. After all, no scholar of any persuasion has a strong case that Scripture speaks explicitly to monogamous, same-gender covenanted relationships Scholars make inferences about that and some are willing to speculate, but they do not have textual confirmation. Thus, as progressive scholars tell us, there really is something for the church to discern here.
What progressive scholars do NOT affirm (because it creates an inequality) is the strong and clear witness of Scripture to male-female marriage as the wisdom and justice of God.
Unfortunately I think the major concern in these debates is much less about sincerity and way more about intellectual honesty.