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.”
So, we actually have three “teaching positions” mentioned in the Guidelines: the affirmation of the Mennonite Confession of Faith’s statement on marriage, the affirmation of the Saskatoon/Purdue statement’s description of “homosexual sexual activity” as sin, and the affirmation of the call for the church “to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.” However, popular usage of the term “teaching position” usually only has in mind the assertion that “homosexual activity is sin”
A notable element of the Guidelines is that they provide few bases for their harsh treatment of LGBTQ Mennonites. The Guidelines coin the term “teaching position” and assert that one of these “teaching positions” is that “homosexual sexual activity is sin,” but they add no new content to that position, merely citing two earlier documents, the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF) and the Saskatoon/Purdue (S/P) statements. So we need to turn to the CofF and S/P statements for the content of this teaching position.
Confession of Faith
The first source cited is the 1995 CofF. This citation, with no explanatory elaboration, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear and direct teaching concerning “homosexuality.” However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention “homosexuality.”
Let’s look at the content of the Confession of Faith. Article 19 addresses “Family, Singleness, and Marriage.” The first sentence in the third paragraph of this article, the sentence quoted in the Guidelines, reads thus: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” At the end of this sentence, a footnote reference is given to two biblical texts. The first text is Mark 10:9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” This verse is part of Jesus’s teaching on divorce (which in Mark is totally rejected) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin” [Mark 10:11-12]). Note that the CofF cites Mark’s version of Jesus’s teaching, which allows for no exceptions in forbidding divorce and characterizing remarriage as sin; it does not cite the slightly more relaxed account in Matthew 19:9 that does allow for a divorce exception in the case of the infidelity of the partner.
The second text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” Note that the CofF ends the citation at verse 11 and hence does not include the “exception” of an unbeliever leaving a believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:15).
This footnote clarifies that the point of the CofF sentence that begins Article 19 is the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage (that is, pointing to the “for life” conclusion to the first sentence). So, not only does Article 19 not speak directly of homosexuality, the one place that may be seen indirectly to allude to “homosexual practice” (the definition of marriage as “one man, one woman, for life) has in mind a different issue—divorce and remarriage.
That divorce and remarriage are in mind in the first sentence of Article 19 is made clearer by the commentary on this Article. The commentary speaks to the divorce issue and says nothing about homosexuality. “Today’s church needs to uphold the permanency of marriage and help couples in conflict move toward reconciliation. At the same time, the church, as a reconciling and forgiving community, offers healing and new beginnings. The church is to bring strength and healing to individuals and families” (emphasis added).
The commentary and scripture citations make it clear that the sentence from Article 19 of the CofF quoted in the Membership Guidelines is being misused when it is construed as a basis for an official “teaching position” that “homosexual sexual activity is sin.”
At the same time, the commentary softens the strictness of the CofF article and the two New Testament texts cited. The church is a place of welcome and forgiveness. This comment does not spell out a more nuanced approach to divorce and remarriage, but it does open the door for such, implying a basis for accepting divorced and remarried people as full members of Mennonite congregations (which is in fact increasingly the practice). So, the CofF makes a strong statement about the importance of Christian marriage, but implicitly allows for exceptions in the case of divorce and remarriage—exceptions that are not seen, in many contexts, to negate the theological affirmation of the marriage covenant as a life-long commitment. More important, we could say, than absolute fidelity to the ideal is that the church “brings strength and healing to individuals and families”—including even people who are divorced and remarried.
Could such an approach also be applied to people in same-sex marriage? The CofF could be read in a way that would imply an affirmative answer to this question—since the churches’ priorities should be on bringing “strength and healing.”
The Saskatoon and Purdue Statements
The lack of material relevant to the conclusion that “homosexual sexual activity is sin” in the CofF means that, for the content of this “teaching position” we are reliant on the S/P statements. What do they say?
First of all, they affirm sexuality as “a good and beautiful gift of God.” Thus, they imply that sexual intimacy is a good thing, a valuable element of our humanness. The S/P statements do go on to limit access to this good thing, but they do so with the benefit of doubt that there must be some other wrong that would clearly make this good thing unavailable for faithful Christians. Sex is good, we should embrace it; only if there is some other wrong involved does this good thing become wrong.
The S/P statements then list cases of the presence of wrongs that are wrong enough to make the good of sexual intimacy immoral: wife-battering, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, and homosexual sex. The statements do not explain why these are wrong, presumably assuming that the rationale is self-evident. We would have a pretty easy time identifying the wrong in wife-battering, premarital sex, and extramarital sex. But what about “homosexual genital activity” as a single category? What is wrong with this “activity”?
Basically, all the S/P statements offer is a simple statement: “We understand the Bible to teach that genital intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in a marriage covenant and that violation even within the relationship (i.e., wife battering) is a sin. It is our understanding that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual genital activity. We further understand the Bible to teach the sanctity of the marriage covenant and that any violation of this covenant is sin.” (This is the wording of the Purdue Statement, slightly changed from the earlier Saskatoon statement).
Boiled down, the P/S statement says, the Bible teaches that all homosexual genital activity is sinful. This is pretty cryptic. No texts are cited to illustrate this teaching. No clear definition of “homosexual genital activity” is given. No clarity is offered concerning other elements of the physical and emotional elements of intimate partnerships.
This statement seems to reflect general assumptions that the Bible clearly is “against homosexuality.” What is not often discussed is what this “against homosexuality” refers to. That this is a complicated discussion should be recognized first off from the fact that the term “homosexuality” is itself never used in the Bible, nor does it remotely approach any term used in scripture. The word itself is recent, and is a joining together of Greek and Latin roots. Neither biblical Hebrew nor biblical Greek has any words like this.
The places in the Bible that are generally understood to speak about “homosexuality” all make reference to specific actions, not a broad category of people (such as today’s “homosexuals”). In Genesis 18–19, the story refers to men of the city wanting to “know” their male visitors (i.e., presumably have sex with them). In Leviticus 18 and 20, the commands prohibit men “laying with other men as with women.” In Romans 1, Paul writes of men consumed with lust for other men. And in 1 Corinthians 6 (echoed in 1 Timothy 1), included in a list of vices, Paul mentions “men laying” (presumably with other men assuming Paul has Leviticus in mind, though Paul’s apparently original word for “men laying” does not specify who the men are laying with).
So, we cannot simply find a proof text where the Bible refers explicitly to “homosexuality.” Rather, we have these several references to problematic things some men do. These are three common understandings of what the “Bible is against homosexuality” conclusion might mean:
- Some believe that the “Bible is against homosexuality” assumption has to do with a general condemnation of the entire spectrum of what we today would have in mind when we use the term “homosexuality,” including the same-sex affectional orientation, sexual intimacy between same-sex partners in the context of marriage-like relationships, and sexual acts that are also understood to be sinful when engaged in by heterosexual people.
- Others believe that the “Bible is against homosexuality” assumption points toward the sinfulness of all types of same-sex sexual intimacy but not the affectional orientation. The Mennonite “teaching position” presents itself as biblically based and suggests that it is not the orientation but the “practice” that is proscribed by the Bible.
- And others believe that “the Bible is against homosexuality” assumption should be linked with the specific kinds of activity referred to in the direct texts. So, the Bible is against inhospitable gang rape that is used to deny hospitality to visitors (Genesis 18–19). The Bible is against sexual acts that are non-procreative when the community’s survival is at stake (Leviticus 18, 20). The Bible is against lustful, promiscuous sex that reflects idolatrous practices (Romans 1). The Bible is against unjust sexual practices that are economically driven (1 Corinthians 6). As it turns out, these are practices that are sinful for both heterosexual and same-sex couples.
When we acknowledge these three quite distinct understandings of the assumption that “the Bible is against homosexuality,” we will recognize that that simple statement does not provide much help for the churches in their discernment concerning the acceptability of same-sex marriage in the churches.
In the S/P statements, we also have a clause that calls the churches to “confess our fear and repent of our absence of love toward those with a different sexual orientation.” This clause leads to several questions. As it stands, it is pretty cryptic. What would such a confession entail? Would the expectation be that the repentance would lead to any efforts at overcoming the problems caused by the “absence of love”? What might those problems be? Might the use of the S/P statements themselves as the main bases for the “teaching position” that is used in the Guidelines to single out LGBTQ Mennonites as distinctively problematic itself be an expression of “absence of love”?
Another question emerges with the acknowledgement of “a different sexual orientation” here. As has commonly been expressed as the intent of the S/P statements, the statement as a whole combines two thoughts: (1) some people are fundamentally affectionally attracted to people of their same sex, and (2) such people are forbidden by the churches to enter into same-sex marriages. These two points stand in tension with one another. The tension heightens when we add to the mix the earlier part of the S/P statements that make a strong affirmation of the goodness of sexuality (with the implication I have noted that the logic of the statement seems to be that only some clear moral wrong would override the acceptance of the goodness of sexual expression for Christians).
The path not taken
The Guidelines take sides in the three-decade-long struggle over how Mennonite churches should respond to issues related to the treatment of LGBTQ Christians in their midst. The Guidelines simply accept the assertion that “homosexual sexual activity is sin” without nuance or qualification. However, neither the Guidelines themselves nor any of the documents they cite give anything beyond a very cryptic rationale for this assertion.
The S/P statements do not refer to specific biblical teaching nor do they refer to any teaching documents that would explain what the Bible teaches except, a bit ironically, the “working document for study and dialogue” commissioned by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, published in 1985 as Human Sexuality in the Christian Life. This citation is ironic because that book, a careful, thoughtful, 166-page treatment of a wide variety of themes (only 16 pages are devoted to homosexuality) does not support the simplistic conclusion of the S/P statements. The Human Sexuality book reflects the genuine differences in the churches on homosexuality and draws no clear conclusions on what “the Bible teaches.”
Human Sexuality, a study document prepared by a committee made up of a wide diversity of Mennonites, asserts after its survey of the “direct texts” of the Bible: “The passages reviewed above focus rather narrowly on specific homosexual acts and by themselves do not help us move toward redemptive actions.” The section on homosexuality concludes with a comment that points in the opposite direction than that taken by the P/S statements: “If the church should err, let it be on the side of caring for and loving a group of people who are much persecuted in our society.” [Human Sexuality pp. 113, 118]
Maynard Shelly, a member of the committee that produced Human Sexuality, wrote later in dismay about how political machinations undermined the careful, consensus-building work of the committee and resulted in a highly problematic “official” statement. Shelly wrote about the work of this committee: “We prepared reports for the church not only on homosexuality but also on the broad range of related issues from marriage and singleness to intimacy and abuse. We drew on the teachings of the Bible from Genesis to Jesus. Though we reflected differing points of view, we agreed on a statement that opened a small door for gays and lesbians to feel they belonged to our Christian family. That was our best judgment after six years of prayer and study. But the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church General Boards rewrote out statements for Saskatoon ’86 and Purdue ’87. They closed the door to fellowship with our homosexual children. Politics won out over prophecy.” [Maynard Shelly, “Compassion for Today’s Lepers,” Mennonite Weekly Review, 18 April 1996.]
The GCs and MCs undertook one other sustained organized effort to gather together a representative group of congregational representatives to pay sustained attention to discernment concerning homosexuality among Mennonites. The “Joint Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns” was formed by the two General Boards in 1990 and completed its work in 1992. The Listening Committee understood its mandate to follow from the P/S statements expressing commitment to ongoing “loving dialogue” and focused its energies on soliciting input from various church members, especially those attending the denominations’ three General Assemblies that occurred during the course of the committee’s life.
The Listening Committee’s final report included a strong recommendation that in light of the on-going questions and disagreements they had heard from church members concerning biblical and theological understandings of the issues related to homosexuality, that the denominations “intensify … efforts to help congregations study homosexuality to discern how homosexuals can relate to the church’s life and ministry.” [quoted in Melanie Zuercher and Ed Stoltfzfus, “The Story of the Listening Committee,” in To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality, edited by C. Norman Kraus (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2001), 84.]
Both General Boards rejected this recommendation and decided not formally to release the Listening Committee’s final report. The copies that were made available upon individual request did not include the committee’s concluding sections of recommendations. (The entire report, with recommendations, was published in Kraus, ed., To Continue, 303-322; it is available on-line at:http://www.ambs.edu/LJohns/ChurchDocs.htm.)
The “teaching position” as affirmed in the Guidelines lacks the nuances of the Human Sexuality study. It depends solely on the S/P statements and ignores the one official study document the ancestor denominations of MC USA commissioned. Instead of the careful, if brief, recognition of the complex content of the Bible on sexuality issues presented in Human Sexuality, the “teaching position” relies simply on the S/P statement that “the Bible teaches … homosexual genital activity is sin” without any elaboration.
So, the role the Bible actually plays in the “teaching position” is more as a source of authority for the global condemnation of “homosexual sexual activity.” It is the Bible’s authority that matters, not careful consideration of its content in all its complexity. And the authority of the Bible here is impossible to reason with since the S/P statements provide no content from the Bible itself.
Kansas City 2015 and the failure of theology
The Guidelines sailed ahead with little evidence of the Executive Board or MC USA Convention delegates being concerned with their theological or biblical grounding—or lack thereof. And with no evidence of awareness of the theological work that had been done under denominational auspices several decades ago.
As a consequence, once again the denomination’s direction was set by fear, power politics, threats, and anxiety. And once again, the real victims were the vulnerable who were scapegoated and told once again that they are expendable.