Moral Discernment and Same-Sex Marriage: Why Welcome is the Best Policy

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2016

The rapidly expanding acceptance of same-sex marriage in United States society—and in many churches—has dramatically changed the dynamics of discernment for all American Christians. No longer is this an issue that church leaders could keep a distance from—thinking in fairly abstract terms about the “other” outside the church. So, often the discussions that did happen in the past concerning church policies did not necessarily involve the sense of agony that accompanies considering people with whom one has a close connection. It’s one thing to keep “outsiders” out; it’s something else when congregations are dealing with actual members.

The practical implications of the anti-same sex marriage view

In our new moment, the issues are more emotionally complicated. Though in his article, “Marriage, practice, biblical interpretation and discernment” (The Mennonite, January 2016), philosopher/theologian Darrin Belousek remains safely focused on a textual argument regarding an ancient text, the implications of his perspective are far from distant and abstract.

What should our churches do with actual members who are married (in the eyes of the state, and, in their view, in the eyes of God)? Or what about pastors who due to a sense of vocational responsibility are willing to marry members in same-sex relationships? Or, if the churches are practicing welcoming evangelism, how might they respond to a married same-sex couple who are looking for a church home?

Belousek’s argument would seem necessarily to lead to what many would will see to be a hurtful and arbitrary response—where a couple who may embody authentic marital love and commitment would be turned away or required to deny their life-giving intimate relationship. Ironically, many of the same churches who would discriminate against same-sex couples regardless of how exemplary their partnerships might be would not hesitate to welcome without qualification potential heterosexual members who are in their second or third marriages following divorces.

Belousek gives us no practical reasons for such a hurtful response. A couple of decades ago, a church leader with a restrictive view told me that gays simply haven’t shown that they could live lives of fidelity and commitment. Today, we may point to many couples who have done precisely this. By their embrace of the new possibility of same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay Christians have shown that they too view marriage as a life-giving institution. What practical reason is there to slam the door in their faces?

What is achieved by Belousek’s argument? His stance reinforces the continuation of the churches’ scapegoating harshness toward LGBTQ folks. He sets the churches up for the appearance of hypocrisy and arbitrariness. And he places the Bible squarely on the side of the forces of repression and narrowness.

What does the Bible actually say?

However, we also need to ask if his is the best way to read the Bible. Is there a way to learn things from the Bible that are compatible with our experiences of the life-givingness of same-sex-marriages?

Isn’t the core biblical message about marriage a vision for mutuality, nurture, and community—attributes readily visible in many same-sex marriages? Didn’t Jesus insist that the commands are meant to serve human beings and our wellbeing, not human beings serve the commands? Even when Jesus repeats the male/female description of marriage from Genesis one, his point is to critique how men discriminated against and exploited women—not to reiterate gender essentialism. It’s hard to imagine him approving the use of that statement for a present day discriminatory agenda.

As well, the texts that Belousek briefly alludes to as support for his statement that “the biblical attitude concerning same-sex practices … is unequivocally negative” (page 45) are much more ambiguous than he allows for. If read carefully, the cited texts all allude to practices that were also wrong for heterosexuals (e.g., coerced sex, promiscuity, adultery, economically exploitative sex). This ambiguity plus the sense that the Bible simply is not concerned with same-sex marriage may actually help us take a healthier view of the Bible as a resource for our moral discernment on these issues—challenging us to look at the big story of God’s healing love and not at isolated proof texts. [I have written several pieces developing the points in this paragraph—they may be seen at my Peace Theology website.]

In the end, we should ask: What damage will be done to the churches in adapting the best of our morality of marriage to include same-sex marriage (fidelity, mutuality, shared pleasure, the nurturing of children)? The evidence in congregations that have been welcoming overwhelmingly indicates that instead of damage, such acceptance of same-sex marriage brings a blessing. Sadly, on the other hand, we already know quite well the kinds of damage to the church’s soul of its long and on-going history of discrimination.

36 thoughts on “Moral Discernment and Same-Sex Marriage: Why Welcome is the Best Policy

  1. You say that Darrin “places the Bible squarely on the side of the forces of repression and narrowness.”

    But here’s my faith: if our Spirit-inspired Bible does teach against same-sex sex, then choosing to act on that attraction is going against the Creator’s intent which can only diminish one’s life and long-term joy. It takes a while to tell from experience whether a life pattern is harmful or helpful; it may be thirty years before clarity emerges. But eventually, since the Bible is “the fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for life (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective), our conclusions from experience will line up with guidance from the texts and trajectories of the Bible.

    You do move to look at what the Bible says. It speaks well of you, Ted, that you consistently do that.

    You note the biblical texts that Darrin cites on same-sex practices, and you assert that “If read carefully, the cited texts all allude to practices that were also wrong for heterosexuals (e.g., coerced sex, promiscuity, adultery, economic exploitative sex).”

    You indeed have tried to show that many times. And I’ve intently read what you have written. But to me, your arguments have never been able to remove the bare fact that the natural reading of the Romans 1 points in another direction:
    – The mention of lesbianism shows that Paul had in view more than exploitive relations like pederasty.
    – The language of mutual desire (“for one another”) shows that Paul was referring to relations of attraction and affection rather than domination or prostitution.

    Again, thanks for you love of Scripture.

    Harold Miller

    1. Harold, I couldn’t agree with you more. Every time I read an apologetic interpretation of Scripture concerning homosexuality, I find the arguments nothing more than a stretch to justify someone’s own opinions. Your two examples of a plain reading of Scripture demonstrate that point precisely. Thanks for some clarity to the discussion.

    2. I appreciate your thoughts, Harold. I have a few thoughts in response:

      (1) It seems to me significant that you make this statement about your “faith.” “If our Spirit-inspired Bible does teach against same-sex sex, then choosing to act on that attraction is going against the Creator’s intent which can only diminish one’s life and long-term joy.” I hope you can see that this “faith” could be accused of making you unable to consider evidence from actual relationships that might contradict it. I do personally know several same-sex couples who have been together for more than “thirty years” who still experience joy and live faithful lives.

      If we take the evidence of actual human lives into account when we read the Bible, we have little choice but to let the conversation be two-way—where we don’t assume ahead of time what experience will show us and don’t assume that we know exactly what God’s perspective is based on our reading of the Bible. The Bible can and should impact how we view experience, but experience also can and should impact how we read the Bible.

      And note that this “two-way conversation” does not have to be seen as a method of denying biblical authority; it could be rather a method of questioning our own human interpretations. As fallen and fallible human beings, we simply are not capable of reading the Bible in the totally accurate way that would allow us to speak with certainty about “God’s perspective” on something.

      (2) To illustrate, you state as a “fact” that “the natural reading of Romans” includes seeing there a “mention of lesbianism.” Terms like “fact” and “natural” seem to claim a certainty for what is in reality much more of your own interpretation—shaped, I would say, by the bias your bring with you when you approach the text (of course I recognize that you are not alone in this interpretation).

      The text itself seems hopelessly ambiguous concerning what Paul actually has in mind in his reference to “their women” (Romans 1:26). Paul is illustrating “their” (the “they” here seems to refer to those caught up in a spiral of idolatry leading to injustice and alienation) “degrading passions” that illustrate this spiral of brokenness.

      His first illustration is that these women “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural.” What’s ambiguous is what the “unnatural intercourse” Paul has in mind actually is. Does he mean wild, orgiastic, promiscuous sex or does he mean female/female sex? Is the illustration one of women who engage in promiscuous sex (unnatural in relation to the norm of monogamy) or women who engage in sex with other women (unnatural in relation to the norm of heterosexuality)?

      I don’t think the text itself answers this question. So we could have heterosexual women illustrating promiscuity or we could have homosexual women.

      Sure, Paul goes on to make an unambiguous reference to men having sex with men. And these two examples are linked by an “in the same way”—but that link only emphasizes the ambiguity. What does Paul have in mind with his “shameless”? Is it that the men would have sex with men or that they were “consumed with passion”?

      Personally, I think it makes more sense to see that Paul’s example here is mostly about promiscuity and that he’s not at all referring to “lesbianism.” The problem he has in mind is not “pederasty” but the unjust, exploitative, alienating sex of the Roman elite—which fits much better the sense of “consumed with passion” than does a 30+ year monogamous same-sex marriage.

      My point here, though, is about the ambiguity—this is not a “fact” and yours is not the only “natural reading.”

      As well, for you to read Romans 1:26-27 as alluding to “attraction and affection rather than domination or prostitution” seems like an unnatural reading. Paul’s whole point here is that these relationships were part of the idolatrous spiral of injustice and violence that culminates in the brokenness described in 1:29-31 (e.g., injustice, malice, murder, heartlessness, ruthlessness). What these idolators are toward “one another” is “consumed with passion,” not “affectionate.” He has in mind inherently hurtful relational dynamics (“God gave them up…” [1:24] seems to refer to the form the “due penalty” [1:28] takes).

      (3) One of my main points in my response to Belousek’s article is that he doesn’t give us any evidence how the churches embracing same-sex marriage would be hurtful to church and society. All he has is his own idea of what the Bible seems to teach about marriage. I’d challenge you in the same way. We’ve got enough evidence now to see how such an embrace can be life-giving for churches and for same-sex Christian couples. What counter-evidence is there?

      That is, do you have more than your “faith” in the inherent “diminishment” of people’s lives in such relationships? Do you have evidence to challenge my perception that your “faith” in this area is little more than your prejudice against such relationships that flies in the face of the actual experiences of many people?

      1. Ted, you are responding as if I said “it is a fact that Romans 1 [mentions lesbianism].” You make it seem that I am claiming total certainty, a “fact.” But I rather said “it is a fact that the natural reading of Romans 1 [mentions lesbianism].” This is me talking about percentages or probability as to the meaning intended by the author and inferred by the original audience.

        You rightly point out the uncertainties over whether Romans 1 is mentioning lesbianism. But if we set aside everything that has any uncertainty, we set aside almost every text — except those we pay lawyers draw up. The common sense approach to ambiguity is to weigh possible meanings (by looking at word choice, context, etc.) and then go with the strongest, most natural reading. That’s what I did. And prestigious, heavy-weight, pro-inclusion authors like Loader and Brooten agree with me. As do those who write commentaries on Romans.

        You also, Ted, repeat one of your main responses to Darrin’s article: that he only gives us the biblical teaching against same-sex marriage; that he “doesn’t give us any evidence how the churches embracing same-sex marriage would be hurtful to church and society. … We’ve got enough evidence now to see how such an embrace can be life-giving for churches and for same-sex Christian couples. What counter-evidence is there?” In your main post you say that today we can point to many same-sex couples who have “shown that they [can] live lives of fidelity and commitment.”

        Yes, we can point to such couples. However, the pattern for male couples in Western society is an open marriage, one that is “monogamish” rather than one that is sexually exclusive. Does it trouble you, Ted, that no Anabaptist gay community and no leader in that community has lifted up monogamy (sexual exclusivity) when they talk about what is essential to the integrity of a life-long covenanted relationship? Male couples who collect stats on long-term fellow male couples say that 2/3rds of them agree to occasional outside sexual liaisons. (Google “unexpected pattern brings clarity” for my article trying to sift through the data.) So the Anabaptist gay community’s silence on monogamy is deafening. I have talked with Anabaptist gay men in long-term relationships who are clearly committed to monogamy. But each says that is not where gay Anabaptist community is at. I know that you, Ted, do not view “open” partnerships as healthy and life-giving. So how much does that pattern trouble you?

      2. Harold, I will grant that I may have distorted your precise wording a bit. However, I’m not sure what the actual difference is between “it is a fact that Romans 1 [mentions lesbianism]” and “it is a fact that the natural reading of Romans 1 [mentions lesbianism]”—or that whatever difference in meaning there may be diminishes my point.

        I read what you wrote as making a strong point about the clear teaching of Romans 1. If you had written in your initial response that this was about “percentages or probability” and had acknowledged “uncertainties over whether Romans 1 is mentioning lesbianism” I likely wouldn’t have cited this as an example of how you seem to equate your fallible interpretation with God’s clear will concerning human sexuality.

        My initial point, though, was about how your “faith … [that] our Spirit-inspired Bible does teach against same-sex sex” seems to provide your rationale for assuming that same-sex intimate relationships … diminish life”—this in the face of evidence from actual lives that such relationship may actually be the occasion for joy and wholeness.

        I’d be interested in your response to what I actually wrote about Romans 1. Perhaps Loader, Brooten, and “those who write commentaries” are right and I am wrong, but for you simply to cite them and not interact with my argument certainly does not persuade me that that is the case.

        When you grant that “we can point to … couples” who “lives of fidelity and commitment,” you basically concede my argument, it seems to me. We can easily find people on any issue who argue against positions our churches are trying to embody. We certainly should respond to those arguments, but as far as church life is concerned it seems we best focus on helping those in our midst who want to to live faithfully to our positions. So, maybe there are many (I’ll take your word for this for the sake of this conversation) who don’t “lift up monogamy (sexual exclusivity).” My argument here is for churches affirming the marriages of those who do.

        It seems like the logic of your position is that we should refuse to make a distinction between same-sex couples who affirm our basic teaching about monogamy in marriage and those who may not—and thus refuse to accept either. Certainly I am troubled by people who do not affirm monogamy (be they heterosexual or non-heterosexual).

        I think I am more troubled, though, by my sense that you are not willing to offer the church’s blessing to couples who in fact do affirm monogamy. I fear that on this point, too, I perceive evidence that it is your prejudice against such relationships that governs your response—not a careful consideration of people’s actual lives.

      3. Ted, I appreciate you saying that it would have been helpful if I had worded my initial response clearer (saying that “a natural reading” is always only a matter “percentages or probability” and does not mean certainty). Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

        You go on to say that a main reason you are “troubled” by my comments is your sense that “prejudice” governs me when I am “not willing to offer the church’s blessing to [same-sex] couples who in fact do affirm monogamy.” You feel that our church should “focus on helping those in our midst who want to to live faithfully to our positions.”

        But the fact is that they are not living faithfully to MC USA’s position on the matter. Saying that non-monogamy shows that something is wrong in a relationship doesn’t mean that monogamy automatically makes the relationship right. (An analogy: driving without a license means your driving is wrong. But it doesn’t mean that driving with a license automatically means your driving is right. There are other laws that need to be observed too.)

        Nonetheless, you do raise a point that has a lot of traction: when we see same-sex couples with “lives of fidelity and commitment” who give evidence that “such relationships may actually be the occasion for joy and wholeness,” it makes us less willing to think that our Spirit-inspired Bible would teach against same-sex sex.

        Here is my response. When a group of people decide whether a behavior should be encouraged or discouraged, they don’t just look at whether some individual instances of the behavior are helpful or harmful. They look at the overall patterns. (For instance, we don’t look for those who can smoke like a chimney well into their 90’s and decide about smoking based on those examples. If even a small percentage get cancer, we say the behavior is wrong.) I suspect that God looks at overall patterns too.

        I see negative patterns which I describe in that article I mentioned earlier. But I trust the Bible more than I trust life patterns I discern — sifting through all the data and determining cause and effect is hard.

      4. Thanks for this, Harold. Just one quick thought. Your very last sentence gets to the heart of things, I think. In my view, you are not “trusting the Bible.” All you can possibly do is trust your interpretation of the Bible. That’s all any of us can do.

        I was using that one example from Romans 1 to suggest that your interpretation is questionable. I actually tend to think ultimately that you are trusting your assumptions about the Bible more than carefully arrived at interpretations. I think that, in part, because I have invested a lot of energy into understanding the Bible and I think your interpretation of the other passages is at least as problematic as with Romans 1. You could (and I expect do) say the same about me, of course.

        It seems like it should be possible to discuss these different interpretations in light of some shared general convictions about how to read the Bible and actually make some progress. But it doesn’t seem to happen….

  2. Belousek’s article closes with these questions: “How do the marriage and inclusionary arcs together bear on our situation with respect to membership inclusion, marriage practice and sexual minorities? How might the church act faithfully along both arcs?”

    Unless Belousek is being disingenuous in that quote, he would not agree with your assessment, Ted, that his approach would “NECESSARILY lead to what many would see to be a hurtful and arbitrary response—where a couple who may embody authentic marital love and commitment would be turned away or required to deny their life-giving intimate relationship” (emphasis added).

    I know this is a wrenching discussion with potentially devastating impacts on people and relationships. Yet how does pretending there is no middle ground serve to end that threat, alleviate that pain? It only serves tactical interests in winning a debate.

    Belousek tells us (again) what is pointless to deny: it is the witness of Scripture that male-female marriage is the wisdom of God. So let us gladly affirm that and then gladly welcome into membership covenanted gay and lesbian couples who join us in our desire to follow the way of Jesus. Our congregations are fully capable of doing two things at once; in fact, we do it all the time.

    1. You make a good point, Berry, in challenging my use of the term “necessarily.” That was a leap, perhaps unwarranted. I will take it back if I learn that Belousek indeed agrees that Mennonite churches should “gladly welcome into membership covenanted gay and lesbian couples who join us in our desire to follow the way of Jesus.”

      My assumption, perhaps uncharitable, is that Belousek would not agree with your statement. Why else would he write such an article—and not add something like your final paragraph?

      I also agree with you about the importance of finding “middle ground.” To tell you the truth, though, I think the entire pro-inclusion movement within the Mennonite Church USA (and its previous incarnations) has been committed (at least in practice) to a “middle ground” approach—there has been little or no advocacy for MC USA being less than inclusive toward those with restrictive views, and there has been little or no discussion of forcing restrictive congregations to accept LGBTQ members or leaders.

      The responsibility for the failure to find “middle ground” in my opinion lies almost exclusively with those with restrictive views. If I come across as “pretending there is no middle ground” (which is not what I believe—my own argument is not a “middle ground” argument but I can [as I have for the 30+ years I’ve been a Mennonite] live with the churches taking a “middle ground” approach), it is because of my recognition that many of those with restrictive views are not interested in or capable of a careful conversation that tries to make ways to include various points of view.

  3. I am encouraged by your reply, Ted. Thank you.

    Not to turn negative, but I am aware that some (many?) in the pro-inclusion movement regard the middle ground I describe to be a form of violence against gay and lesbian persons.

    1. You likely are correct about how your “middle ground” might be perceived, Berry. My thought is that true “middle ground” would not involve taking such a position as you mention (that, “it is the witness of scripture that male-female marriage is the wisdom of God”). Rather, it would involve accepting that you can believe that and I can disagree but we can still share fellowship.

      Maybe you would have to live with people who think your views are a form of violence and others would have to live with you having those views. That’s probably the only way MC USA will be able to have a future.

      The key for any “middle ground” that would work is that it allow differences to be present.

      1. “Allow differences to be present:” yes, I’m with you there, Ted. That’s thoroughly New Testament. Yet I cannot imagine a broader Mennonite communion that does not have a teaching position encouraging male-female marriage as the wisdom of God. There’s too much support for such in the Bible, too much experience of many generations behind it, too much call for it today among people who expect any church worth its salt to have something to say about this to children, youth and young adults.

        So let’s get on with it. As part of that, I hope church leaders such as Harold publicly get behind a “middle ground” similar to what I have described, and that teachers such as yourself publicly explain how it is not “violence” for a faith community to offer to the world in candor and humility the wisdom it has received.

      2. Berry said (several comments ago), “let us gladly” do two things that seem in tension with each other: “Belousek tells us (again) what is pointless to deny: it is the witness of Scripture that male-female marriage is the wisdom of God. So let us gladly affirm that and then gladly welcome into membership covenanted gay and lesbian couples who join us in our desire to follow the way of Jesus.”

        I think Berry may be right — if he’s saying what I think he is.

        Ted responded: “My assumption, perhaps uncharitable, is that Belousek would not agree with your statement [about gladly welcoming same-sex couples who are Jesus-followers].”

        If Berry is saying what I think he is, then Ted is wrong. A quite high percentage of those holding the historic stance of the church would be apt to affirm Berry’s ‘middle ground.’

        [This ‘middle ground’ is different than Ted’s ‘middle ground.’ Ted calls us to abandon trying for a shared discernment on the wisdom of God; his proposed ‘middle ground’ is us accepting that we “can disagree but we can still share fellowship.” But agreeing to disagree is inadequate here. As the writer of the “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” statement clarified later: the guidelines in the statement “were primarily adopted to help parties in conflict, not as instructions for groups pursuing God’s will in matters of church practice or theology.”]

        I’m guessing Berry is suggesting some form of what Holben calls Pastoral Accommodation. (Holben’s categories described in his book What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints are 1. Condemnation, 2. Promise of Healing, 3. Call to Costly Discipleship [official stance of MC USA], 4. Pastoral Accommodation, 5. Affirmation, 6. Liberation.) This stance of Pastoral Accommodation says that the church does not commend or idealize lifelong, monogamous same-sex partnerships, but that it can accommodate them as a lesser evil. (For instance, what about a recently converted lesbian couple who have children by adoption or in vitro fertilization? Would the church really call them to separate?) This might be analogous to Moses allowing divorce: divorce falls short of God’s intent and design, but it might be needed due to the hardness of the human heart.

        I find a lot of openness to Pastoral Accommodation among fellow theologically-conservative pastors (ie, those who lean toward a stance like Promise of Healing or Call to Costly Discipleship).

        But I would guess that there will not be a lot of openness among Ted’s fellow progressives (ie, those who lean toward Affirmation or Liberation). I think Berry is right when he said to Ted that many progressives “regard the middle ground I describe to be a form of violence against gay and lesbian persons.” They are not open to saying that gay and lesbian relationships are contrary to the wisdom of God and cannot be affirmed as a positive good but only seen as something we accommodate. They are not open to a stance which places an additional bar in the way of a Theda Good or a Mark Rupp becoming a pastor (the less a person’s life is an example of the wisdom of God, the less apt we are to call them as our pastor).

        I would be interested in Berry’s description of his ‘middle way’ (ie, its similarity/dissimilarity to Pastoral Accommodation). And in Darrin’s response to it.

        [And, Ted, I would be interested in your response to my above parenthesis saying that “agreeing to disagree” is inadequate here.]


      3. I’d say, Harold, that it is not “middle ground” if it does not involve “agreeing to disagree”—at least in the sense that our ability to coexist in a common denomination does not require agreement on all these issues. If we don’t agree to allow disagreement, then it just becomes a passive-aggressive way to trying to purify the group.

        I’d also say that I am most definitely not calling “us to abandon trying for a shared discernment on the wisdom of God” (why do you think I keep writing this stuff?). The only way forward I see though is that we both agree to disagree for the time being and try for a shared discernment on the wisdom of God (I suppose that is what the “Forbearance Resolution” is looking for).

        Do I understand you to be implying here, Harold, that you would be ready “gladly to welcome into fellowship covenanted gay and lesbian couples … “? If so, I’ll admit to a bit of surprise.

      4. I keep thinking I’ll let this lay–time is scarce. But, Ted, you (and Berry) keep helping push me to think more thoroughly on these things. You are good for me.

        You say, “Do I understand you to be implying here, Harold, that you would be ready gladly to welcome into fellowship covenanted gay and lesbian couples?”

        I think so. It flows out of the bit of Pastoral Accommodation that’s part of my stance. (I also have a bit of Promise of Healing, and a lot of Call to Costly Discipleship, to again use Holben’s categories.) I as pastor would “gladly welcome” that lesbian couple with children that I referred to earlier — they are choosing to follow Christ! I would also be filled with grief at the tangled situation they are in, one that I and my congregation would believe is keeping them from fully entering into the wisdom of God.

        Perhaps this analogy will help you understand me (analogies always break down but can also give a helpful window into something). Imagine a polygamous man choosing to join an E. African Mennonite congregation in the 1950s. They rejoice — he is choosing to follow Jesus. And they do not insist that he pick just one of his wives and put away the others (something they may have done in the 1930’s and 40s) because that would consign the others and their children to poverty and worse. They gladly receive him, for this man is turning from the kingdom of darkness to Christ’s new creation, though the gladness is mixed with sorrow that he and his wives will not experience the full goodness of the wisdom of God in their married life.

        Perhaps I can also help push you to think more on something. (Though maybe you have already thoroughly considered it!)

        You wrote: “The only way forward I see though is that we both agree to disagree for the time being and try for a shared discernment on the wisdom of God.”

        But how doable is “agreeing to disagree” when we are 1) in a group that is one body (like a congregation, conference, or denomination) and 2) dealing with a matter of conscience and 3) having to make a decision, to vote? I think that the writer of the “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” statement was right when he or she recently added the note that its “guidelines were primarily adopted to help parties in conflict, not as instructions for groups pursuing God’s will in matters of church practice or theology. For such purposes, it is recommended that groups seek additional guidance in processes of Biblical/Communal Discernment.”

        a brother,
        Harold Miller

      5. Harold, you wrote: “how doable is ‘agreeing to disagree’ when we are 1) in a group that is one body (like a congregation, conference, or denomination) and 2) dealing with a matter of conscience and 3) having to make a decision, to vote?”

        This may get back to a discussion from quite some time ago—the sense many Mennonites (especially from the “Old” Mennonite tradition) have that the “one body” in some sense requires a strong sense of unanimity, where people feel a level of responsibility for what others in the body think and do. There are strengths from that strong level of unity and identification with others in the group. But it makes it awfully hard to live with diversity.

        I think for years many of us on the “inclusive” side have been practicing this kind of “agreeing to disagree” (at least in part) by staying in the Mennonite church even as vote after vote went against us.

        I think the old G.C. polity helped make it easier to “”agree to disagree.” Conferences couldn’t kick congregations out, so many people were forced to be in conferences with those they disagreed with, even on pretty profound levels. But they don’t seem to have felt that same kind of need for group unanimity.

        I do find your saying your could “welcome” people in same-sex relationships (albeit in a qualified way) encouraging.

  4. Hello Ted, I’m not going to comment on the subject of your post. But you might want to reread it and do some editing. It looks like you may have decided to change tenses a few times but then either failed to include an “and/or” or failed to delete one of the tenses.

  5. Harold, in reply to your Jan. 11 @12:19:

    Holben’s six types serves as a useful shorthand and yes, when I read his book last year, “pastoral accommodation” came closest to describing the “middle way” I support. It affirms without embarrassment the teaching of Scripture and welcomes gay and lesbian persons into fellowship. It regards both the affirmation and the welcome as acts of faithfulness to the Way of Jesus.

    Best I recall, however, it doesn’t GLADLY welcome gay and lesbian couples into fellowship (I could be wrong in that regard; I don’t have a copy of Holben’s text in front of me).

    Working on the book I wrote with John K. Stoner (If Not Empire, What?) and listening to my pastor preach this past year out of Acts have brought into focus for me the excitement and positive energy that flowed through the early church as they welcomed the most unlikely people into their assemblies. That’s a quality easily lost in an analytical typology like Holben’s.

    For the early church, the excitement and energy flowed out of recognition that the desire of people “far away” to “come near” was cause for celebration. It was another sign of the arrival of “that day” predicted by the prophets, when the nations would stream to the mountain of YHWH to learn his ways and walk in his paths (Isaiah 2:2-3).

    Obviously, this leaves a lot of difficult things to be “worked out with fear and trembling” and some aspects of that “working out” can’t be defined or predicted with precision. We see evidence of this difficulty in the New Testament epistles and we can add similar stories of our own from our respective congregational settings. We all have been shaped and formed by the powers of this world, and though we are already “new creations” in Christ, we still have much the same form and shape as before.

    But if embraced, an enthusiastic middle way would end our absurd debates over whether or not Mennonites are being authoritarian, hateful or violent when we teach male-female marriage as the wisdom of God. It would free congregations to respond with compassion and gladness when gay and lesbian couples say, “We want to follow the Way of Jesus in company with you.” And then, at long last in this regard, we would begin to learn the Way of our Lord, which is always contextual and always enfleshed.

    1. Berry, I’m a little slow in keeping up with this discussion, but I just want to say how much I appreciate your post. I know we’ve disagreed on some fine points of polity in the past, but I find a lot to agree with here.

      This has been the position I’ve wanted MC USA to adopt since the beginning. Back in 2000, it seemed impossible to expect anything better. If Harold would have acknowledged Pastoral Accommodation as acceptable in 1999 rather than (or along with) proposing his divisive motion at St. Louis, who knows how the past 16 years would have played out.

      But sadly, since the denominational church has basically rejected a Pastoral Accommodation-like approach (at least until the Forbearance resolution), I feel that its intransigence helped create Pink Menno and the even more strident voices (we’re probably thinking of the same person(s)) who cry “violence, violence” at deeply-held theological positions. – Shalom, Dave

      1. Dave, I too wish we would have led with “a Pastoral Accommodation-like approach”16 years ago at the beginning of MC USA. Thanks for saying “along with,” allowing the possibility that I was acknowledging it already in 1999. I remember in the days right after St Louis ’99 telling two of my brother-in-laws a story of accommodation; one had voted for the infamous resolution and one against it, and they were relieved when I said that the story illustrated my approach.

        Would love to talk more about that resolution. It was proposed to help the MCs pass the Membership Guidelines already in 1999 when the document had no Section III (Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership). There’s a “what if” for us — what if we had a Membership Guidelines with no Section III?!

      2. Thanks for your gracious response, Harold. Although I felt (especially at the time) that the resolution you proposed was “divisive,” it feels strong to write it that way now. I do respect your long-term, persistent willingness to engage with people with whom you disagree, and don’t wish to disparage you or your motives.

        If the resolution had been paired with an “accommodation”-like approach, I do wonder whether it would have been received differently. At the time, with quite a few congregations being disciplined and ousted, it was hard to see any official word from the top offering accommodation.

        But I also am intrigued by your clarification that it preceded Section III of the MG. I had not remembered that. Given that, I guess I would have been happy to accept your motion if it meant no Section III. Ah well. We can leave that possibility to the Menno historical SciFi writers who imagine that alternative future…

      3. And thanks for your graciousness, Dave. By the way, I fully agree with your sense that the motion came across as “divisive.” It was not initiated as something divisive. (It was initiated to help us adopt the Membership Guidelines already in 1999, sensing that the MCs wouldn’t adopt them without reassurance on sexuality.) But during the last minutes before it was voted on, it became divisive. Once the resolution to adopt the Guidelines was defeated, I should have withdrawn the motion. There was no longer a “unifying” reason for it. But I didn’t, because I knew how much it would help (if it had passed!) conservative congregations stay with the new denomination. I didn’t see how divisive that was, didn’t see that that was me only caring about one side. I still mourn and shudder at what I did. And still wish the leaders (GCs) of the session would have chosen differently; the Resolutions Committee gave them the resolution when they first arrived, but they chose not to use it to help the Guidelines resolution pass (ie, they didn’t have us vote on it before the Guidelines and didn’t even tell the delegate body about it while we were discussing the Guidelines, even though the Resolutions Committee tried to have that happen).
        Harold Miller

  6. Ted, my blog The Common Life at is attempting to produce a sort of Biblical Theology of God and Violence, if you will, starting with the Old Testament in an honest and balanced way. Your site has been an inspiration and a blessing while working through these complicated issues. Thank you.

  7. I’m coming to the discussion late because it is running a couple of months later in the Canadian press. What I cannot understand is why anyone is taking Darrin Belousek seriously and why his material was published in the first place. As a student of logic who was worked long and hard on the question of biblical interpretation for ethics (See my series in The Canadian Mennonite in 2014), Darrin makes no sense. 2 points:

    1. There is no such thing as a biblical-ethical “arc” on any issue. Any arc exists first in the mind of the perceiver and then in the prooftexting that results. It does not matter if the issue is marriage or slavery or dispensationalism or the prosperity gospel, it’s exactly the same cherry picking of favourite texts and ignoring of those many other perspectives also perceived in scripture if one predetermines another arc. The arc determines what is acceptable material in advance of the argument. That is not acceptable for a reasonable argument. It is circular reasoning at its core.

    2. Darrin requires as a precondition that we all agree with a unified definition of marriage and that this definition is the same as the one used by the biblical authors. Neither condition holds. The concept of marriage has been in transition for hundreds of years and is very divergently understood (or respected) in North America at this moment. The biblical views of marriage are hard to discern and have little in common with marriage in our cultural context. This is the logical fallacy of argument from common belief.

    However, I think Darrin very helpfully pushes the discussion in new directions by way of response. The Canadian Mennonite will be publishing my response to the issue of marriage in faith as a feature in one of its April issues.

    1. Good to hear from you, Bruce. I’ll look for your upcoming article.

      One thought about why both the Mennonite and the Canadian Mennonite would publish Darren’s article (which, as I understand it, was submitted at his initiative—not requested by either magazine). I think both magazines now are tilting toward the progressive side of the denominations on this (and other) issues. So they have a special interest in publishing materials that reflect the “other point of view.”

      For years, it is has been hard for such publications to find people on the right who are willing to write such articles. So I could imagine the editors jumping at the chance to publish Darren’s piece—even if, as you point out, it is illogical (among other problems).

      1. Ted, be careful, Bruce is pulling you leg. He’s making fun of someone (I don’t know who) who took a logic class in college and now is convinced that the catchy little rules he learned there enable him to demolish every commentary, every literary review, every attempt to work with a text and highlight some aspects over others. So your “big story of God’s healing love” (and other attempts to describe the message of biblical writings) can be waved off as based in logical fallacies.

      2. Berry: Ted and I go back quite a few years. My care for logic comes from teaching undergraduate critical thinking for longer years than that. I have no problems with an occasional fallacy. My problem is with an argument that has no merit once the fallacies are addressed. An argument can be both logically fallacious and true (e.g. the big story of God’s healing love). In Darrin’s case, the truth of the case rests in its logic. Therefore it is important to address the logic.

        In my experience it is a common form of Old Mennonite scholarly maneuvering to avoid the necessity of honesty about the way the text fails to provide the answers currently needed in the church. The appearance of logic allows a methodology that is dishonest about the limits of the text.

        That many hermeneutic approaches are logically fallacious is a serious problem, one I address in my own work. Check The Canadian Mennonite series I wrote back in the Winter of 2014. There are other approaches of significant depth possible. They aren’t easy to do and do not allow for quick and easy answers to pressing social problems. However, I do think they are both reflective of what God calls us to do and what the church at its best has always done.

        What I would like to see happen is people become more honest about the personal social perspective they take to the text in advance of their interpretive maneuvering. Darrin seeks to prop up a relatively recent set of traditions regarding marriage. He should identify those traditions clearly and explain why he thinks they are important, quite outside of any text. At that point there would be no need to address the text regarding subjects where the material is scarce (sexuality) or essentially absent (marriage) because in his case it would be obvious his intent was mere proof-texting.

      3. So you’re not joking, eh?

        You’re really upset about how seriously those Old Mennonite scholars take the Bible? And that’s why what Belousek says about marriage is bogus?

        No doubt you’ve noticed that Belousek’s Bible study identifies two relevant threads running through Scripture, one having to do with marriage and the other with the call to inclusion of marginal persons within the community of faith.

        Tell us the basis for rejecting what he says about inclusion, please.

      4. I have no sense of humour.

        My frustration is that it isn’t taking the Bible seriously. It’s about refusing to take the Bible seriously by pretending to take it seriously. There are no threads. Each presumed thread is a social-psychological apriori applied to the text by a reader. I have no doubt the scholars involved believe they are taking the Bible seriously (no doubt because one of them is a much revered teacher of mine) and they feel they are taking the Bible seriously, and they are expending a great deal of effort in their work. But truly taking the Bible seriously means allowing it to be the ambiguous multi-hued/layered argument of communities with each other in space and time and before God that it is. It means absorbing the text, ruminating on it, pondering its full richness. I advocate praying over each word, once it is fully understood in its Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic original. (Excellent spiritual discipline.) But at the end, it means making our own way to the best of our current understanding into contemporary issues without a “word” from the text. The text should provide us a rich theo-ethical imagination. It can provide us no theo-ethical answers to our issues.

        So with regard to inclusion, the Bible provides a rich theo-ethical imagination for both exclusion and inclusion. We need to make our own way as seems right in our congregations in their worship before God. It took me 6 years of work (mostly examining social issues of sexuality and gender, but also a couple of years of Bible study) to make the congregation I attend partially inclusive, and once we welcomed our first openly GLBTI persons the barriers dropped as we experienced their many gifts and deep commitments. Thus did we respect the Bible and hear God in our world.

    2. Hi Bruce,

      You write: “There is no such thing as a biblical-ethical ‘arc’ on any issue. Any arc exists first in the mind of the perceiver and then in the prooftexting that results.” I fully agree with you that it’s easy to cherry pick our favorite texts, and to predetermine what we’re going to perceive as we read Scripture. You are much more erudite and scholarly than me, but do you actually think that your most telling argument against Darrin’s piece is a denial of any arc or trajectory or movement in Scripture?

      Surely we all acknowledge that the NT church was more freeing and less restricting than Greco-Roman society on women’s public roles and on slavery. And that the NT church also moved on those areas and on war compared to the OT people of God. Doesn’t that mean we are acknowledging at least some movement or arc? And that we are seeing what is there and not just what we want to see?


      1. Harold: I fear that I tread with hob-nailed boots on a liberal favourite, the liberalizing arc of Jesus and the early church versus the OT. In our willingness to embrace that theme we are little more than watered-down Marcionites. My argument against Darrin is intellectually bullet-proof, but feels so wrong that I don’t expect anyone to pay much attention to it. You cannot privilege the church over the OT, but everyone does. Everyone wants an arc of salvation that includes their favourite key NT themes and no one knows what to do with scripture unless it carries their key themes. Or so it seems. There are other ways of reading scripture for ethics that are more profound and truer to the practice of the church in history. But they aren’t as simple and they don’t yield black and white answers. One of my favourite books of the Bible is Leviticus. Jesus, I was told, quoted it more than any other scripture. So I tried to understand why and fell in love with it. It is the heart of scripture and Jesus is indeed a prophet of its interpretation. That’s where we need to go for inspiration. (And I have no doubt that if Jesus were hanging around today quoting Leviticus, he would be completely in favour of ignoring the passages that prohibit same sex activity–he was, after all, a radical liberal in his interpretation of Leviticus, exactly in keeping with the Pharisees according to the school of Hillel.)

        The question of the church versus the Greco-Roman world is much trickier. I have no doubt, based on my teachers plus more recent reading of Rodney Stark, that the very first Church was profoundly more respectful of women than the Greco-Roman world. But that didn’t last. To call what was clearly written out of scripture the authoritative arc is a case of seeing what you want to see. June becomes Junias in the canon, and that is the authoritative word of scripture, and women are to be forgotten and then repressed. That is the claim of the Bible as we have it and that is the final word of the biblical church. We are, with the NRSV, and subsequent revisions, doing exactly what the conservatives claim, rewriting authoritative scripture to serve our own biases.

        But I argue we are completely right in doing so. Scripture is not revealed once, but revealed over and over again. We live out of it. We also live against it. Both are the real trajectories of the true Church of God. What counts is that we continue to live in dialogue with it. We must pass on the stories, the teachings, the proverbs, and the laws, no less because we break them than because we obey them.

        I realize I’m running against everything you were taught in seminary, probably by the same teachers who taught me. But for all their good intentions they were wrong. The church must be socially brave, charismatically open, and ethically humble. Like it or not, that’s what’s going to happen. And every day we should be reading our Bibles for wisdom (all of our Bibles).

  8. If I put aside Hiebert’s silly response to Belousek and Hiebert’s apparent conviction that a cloud of witnesses reading and interpreting Scripture over 100 generations counts for nothing against his own point of view, I am interested in his remaining points.

    John K. Stoner and I wrote a survey of the Bible called “If Not Empire, What?” We brought an anti-imperial perspective to our work, found very divergent viewpoints in Scripture (all buttressed by “God said”) and also a prophetic critique (“thread”) starting in Exodus and carried forward by Hosea, Micah, Second Isaiah and others that Jesus adopted as his own and Paul implemented in urban, pagan settings. And yes, we found retrenchment occurring in the later writings of the Second Testament, a renewed emphasis on “we are good citizens of the empire and you can trust us, dear emperor.”

    Because Stoner and I privilege interpreters who see in Jesus the key that unlocks the scroll, we concluded that this particular “thread” speaks with authority to us today living in the heart of the beast. We claim this insight is revealed by the Spirit of God via Scripture and through the discernment of people gathered in common pursuit of the truth.

    Obviously, American and Canadian Christians have been reading the Bible for decades without finding there what Stoner and I see. So does that confirm there is no “thread” of anti-imperial teaching there?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s