Problems with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”

Ted Grimsrud—December 6, 2015

[This is an abridged version of an earlier post (December 3)—see the longer post for links and references.]

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 merger of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC). I believe 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.

The content of the 2001 Guidelines

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) Affirm the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith article 19, on “Marriage,” as central to the Guidelines’ position—quoting the oft-cited sentence that defines marriage as “one man, one woman, for life.”

(2) Affirm the statements on human sexuality from the 1986 GC assembly in Saskatoon and to the 1987 MC assembly at Purdue University (“S/P statements”) summarized to name “homosexual … sexual activity as sin.”

(3) Affirm the call made in the S/P statements for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.

Though the Guidelines repeat, “homosexual sexual activity is sin,” they add no new content, 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. However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention “homosexuality.” Article 19 addresses “Family, Singleness, and Marriage.” The first sentence in the third paragraph of this article, quoted in the Guidelines: “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 refers to two biblical texts. The first is Mark 10:9, part of Jesus’s teaching on divorce (in Mark totally rejected) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin” [Mark 10:11-12]). The second text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 where Paul forbids divorce. The CofF ends the citation at verse 11 and hence does not include the “exception” of an unbeliever leaving a believing spouse (7:15).

Not only does Article 19 not speak directly of homosexuality, the one place that may indirectly 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 when the commentary on this Article speaks to the divorce issue and says nothing about homosexuality.

The sentence from Article 19 of the CofF quoted in the Membership Guidelines is misused when it is construed as a basis for an official “teaching position” that “homosexual sexual activity is sin.”

The CofF implicitly allows for exceptions in the case of divorce and remarriage—exceptions that seen, in many contexts, to negate the affirmation of marriage 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.” Sexual intimacy is a good thing, a valuable element of our humanness. 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.

Boiled down, the S/P statements say 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. Since there are various distinct understandings of the assumption that “the Bible is against homosexuality,” that simple statement does not provide much help for the churches in their discernment concerning the acceptability of same-sex marriage in the churches.

The S/P statements acknowledge that people have “different sexual orientations.” The S/P statements as a whole combine 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.

The path not taken

The S/P statements do not refer to specific biblical teaching and refer to only one teaching document that would explain what the Bible teaches, the denominationally-commissioned “working document for study and dialogue,” Human Sexuality in the Christian Life (1985). Ironically, that report does not support the certainty of the S/P statements.

Human Sexuality 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.” It concludes with a comment that points in the opposite direction than that taken by the S/P 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.”

Maynard Shelly, a member of the Human Sexuality committee, wrote later how politics undermined its careful work: “We prepared reports for the church not only on homosexuality but also on the broad range of related issues…. 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.”

A “Joint Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns” was formed by the two General Boards in 1990 and completed its work in 1992. It focused its energies on soliciting input from various church members. Its final report recommended 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.” Both General Boards rejected this recommendation and decided not formally to release the Listening Committee’s final report.

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.

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.

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