What’s wrong with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”?

Ted Grimsrud—December 3, 2015

Last summer, delegates to the General Assembly of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) voted to reaffirm the “Membership Guidelines” that had been created as part of the founding of the new denomination in 2001 as a merger of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC).

I have written several posts about the tensions around this vote by the delegates and the broader distress that plagues MC USA. I posted the first of what was meant to be a three-part series on the Guidelines a few days after the delegates’ vote (July 17, 2015—“MC USA’s ‘Membership Guidelines’: A History”) and meant to follow it up in fairly short order with a theological critique of the Guidelines and some reflections on how the Guidelines stand in tension with the Mennonite peace tradition. Parts two and three of the series never got written.

Now, with the news of the departure from MC USA of the denomination’s largest conference, Lancaster, I have been stimulated to write some more. So, I recently posted “Mennonite Church USA’s moral crisis” (October 27). Here I will share some thoughts on theological problems with the Guidelines, and I hope to produce a post before long on the Guidelines and our Mennonite peace tradition.

My main point with this post is to suggest that the Guidelines do not provide a clear theological rationale for their discrimination against LGBTQ Mennonites. Hence, they themselves become another example of Christian disrespect, even emotional violence, toward a vulnerable population. [Most of the documents cited below may be viewed on Loren Johns’s website.]

The content of the 2001 Guidelines

My 7/15/15 post on the Guidelines summarizes their political impact and how the 2001 Guidelines were reaffirmed without much change in content this past summer. The reaffirmation formalized changes made by MC USA’s executive board in 2013 (though these changes were not pointed out to the delegates) that removed elements of the 2001 Guidelines that showed how the Guidelines were originally presented as temporary and contingent. As a consequence, it became possible for the 2015 resolution to present the Guidelines not as a temporary expedient meant to deal with a certain complication in the merger but instead as “the guiding document for questions regarding church membership and same sex relationships/marriages.”

Because of the more permanent nature of the Guidelines, it becomes even more important to be attentive to their content. So, here I will focus on what those Guidelines actually said (what follows draws heavily on a longer article I published in 2013 in Brethren Life and Thought).

The Guidelines coined the term “teaching position” for its summary of the perspective on the new denomination and specified three central formal elements of the MC USA “position”:

(1) The first point was to affirm the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith article 19, on “Marriage,” as central to the Guidelines’ understanding of the Mennonite position—quoting the oft-cited sentence that defines marriage as “one man, one woman, for life.” This Confession had been created and adopted in preparation for the prospective merger.

(2) The second point was to affirm the statements on human sexuality that were approved by delegates to the 1986 General Conference Mennonite Church general assembly in Saskatoon and to the 1987 Mennonite Church general assembly at Purdue University (henceforth, “S/P statements”). Again with a quote: the Guidelines name “homosexual … sexual activity as sin.”

(3) The third point was to affirm the call made in the S/P statements for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.

Both in terms of the original purpose of the Membership Guidelines and in terms of the on-going use of the Guidelines (and the main meaning of the Guidelines in the recent resolution), the second of these three points is prioritized. The Guidelines provided a way officially to commit MC USA to the conviction that “homosexual sexual activity is sin.” Continue reading “What’s wrong with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”?”

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MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history

Ted Grimsrud—July 15, 2015

Mennonite Church USA had its biennial general assembly in Kansas City the week of the Fourth of July. Most of the attention before and afterwards seems to have been paid to the discussion of whether the denomination should strengthen the role of the 2001 Membership Guidelines that were part of the founding agreement the merger that created MC USA from the former General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. These Guidelines were formulated in order to single out the alleged “sin” of LGBTQ Mennonites and to forbid pastoral participation in same-sex weddings.

This is the first of three posts that will respond to the passing of the resolution that re-affirmed the Membership Guidelines. Here I will give some historical background to the Guidelines and describe what they say. The second post will offer a theological critique of the content of the Guidelines, and the third post will reflect on the relationship between the Guidelines and the Mennonite peace position.

Reaffirming the Membership Guidelines

While it is likely that for most who attended this year’s convention, the experience was about much more than the official business that was done, Kansas City ’15 maybe will nonetheless be linked with the decision about the Membership Guidelines in the same way that Saskatoon ’86 and Purdue ’87 continue to be remembered for the statements on sexuality that were approved then by delegates—and whose reverberations continue.

I actually hope that this will not be the case, that the delegate approval of the MC USA Executive Board’s resolution that enlarged the role of the Membership Guidelines will prove to be the last gasp of a failed attempt to underwrite a restrictive approach to the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters in MC USA. As it is, the presence of the Membership Guidelines as an official part in MC USA’s structure signals a tragic failure of Mennonite pacifism, or, as it has traditionally been called, the Mennonite “peace position.”

This blog post is a continuation of a series of reflections that have allowed me an opportunity to think out loud about the current struggle over whether MC USA will be welcoming and compassionate. I wasn’t at the Kansas City assembly, and I don’t write as one particularly well informed about the inside dynamics of MC USA politics. My sense of what happened at Kansas City is mainly filtered through the laments expressed on social media by those who hoped the Membership Guidelines would not pass. What I mainly have to offer, I think, is a historically-informed analysis of some of the underlying theological and ethical issues—more than insight into what actually happened on the ground in Kansas City. Continue reading “MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history”

Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2015

I hope to have quite a bit more to say about the Book of Revelation and about Mennonite Church USA in the days to come, but since I don’t know when those opportunities will arise, I wanted to share a brief reflection from this morning’s work on Revelation.

“Wrath” in Revelation

A major theme in Revelation is “wrath.” The term is used throughout the book (far more than anywhere else in the New Testament). Often, our English translations perhaps misleadingly add the word “God” as in “God’s wrath” rather than simply “wrath.”

This addition is not unwarranted; generally it is clear from the context that there is a close association between God and “wrath.” But I think it is important to recognize that the absence of the direct connection also likely indicates something significant—perhaps that we should recognize that “wrath” is not the same thing as a direct act by an angry God (I also have in mind to write a blog post soon that reflects in much more detail on the notion of God as an “angry God).

In many of it uses in Revelation, “wrath” seems to indicate more a sense of the outworking in history of negative consequences of human actions and beliefs—kind of an indirect expression of God’s negative response to human injustice. “The wrath” reflects not so much God’s direct intervention as a sense that God’s creation carries within it the dynamics of cause and effect where at some point injustice does lead to brokenness; you live by the sword, you likely will die by the sword.

An added dimension

What I was struck with today, as I was looking closely at the third series of terrible plagues in Revelation, described in chapters 15 and 16, is the thought that maybe a significant element of the experience of “wrath” depends upon the perspective on the agents on the human side of the God/human relationship. That is, an element of the meaning of “wrath” is that we perceive something as “wrathful” or not depending on our way of seeing the world.

Maybe—and at this point this is just a question, I haven’t really looked more closely at the text in light of this thought—what some people experience as God’s love in Revelation is experienced by others as God’s wrath. What is attractive about this thought to me is that then we don’t have to struggle with the deeply problematic idea that God acts sometimes in loving ways and sometimes in punitive ways, that God is divided within Godself between love and punitive justice, that God’s intention for humanity is partly salvific and partly punitive. Continue reading “Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA”