The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part I—Reflections on a thirty-year journey

Ted Grimsrud—August 21, 2017

I have recently been challenged in several contexts to continue to think about various issues related to how Christian churches, in particular Mennonite churches, have struggled with their ability to show welcome to sexual minorities. These challenges have gotten me to reflect on my experiences in trying to play a constructive role in work among Mennonites to discern how best to proceed. And, I realize that those experiences have in general been pretty negative.

However, through these reflections I have come to some new understandings of the events of the past thirty years. So, as a way to process those understandings I decided to write a series of four blog posts. The first will tell the story of my part in this journey. With the second post, I will share some new thoughts I have had about what it means, what particular problems I now see have arisen with the attempts at conversation and discernment. Then, as kind of an appendix, I will respond to some of the writings of one of my adversaries in these encounters, focusing on two New Testament texts that have often been the center of our attention (Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

I title this series “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion,” though I could just as well call it “My failure to contribute constructively to the Mennonite conversation about LGBTQ inclusion.” I will focus especially on the inadequacy of the ideals I had in my early years as a Mennonite that the Mennonite way, when faced with serious disagreements in the church, was to go the Bible together to listen to the Spirit’s guidance that we may expect through communal discernment.

Church membership?

In the late summer of 1987, my wife Kathleen, our young son Johan, and I made a move. We traveled up the West Coast 500 miles from Berkeley, California, where we had been going to graduate school, to Eugene, Oregon, for me to begin my ministry as the pastor of Eugene Mennonite Church. It was at that point, now exactly thirty years ago, that I began my adventure as an advocate for a more welcome, inclusive Mennonite Church.

We knew when we headed to Eugene that the congregation had welcomed as worshipers two men in a committed relationship with each other. I was looking forward to helping the group work through some of the biblical and theological issues related to its discernment processes. As it turned out, not long after our arrival, the two men (Eric and Mark) asked to become formal members of the church. As it also turned out, people in the congregation were not overly interested in my offer of leading in Bible study. They had had a fairly detailed study a few months before our arrival, and they concluded that the differences in interpretation seemed irresolvable.

A large majority of the congregation was happy to welcome Eric and Mark as full members—except for concern about getting in trouble with the Pacific Coast Conference of which we were part. This obviously was a realistic concern. In those days, several small congregations around the United States in our denomination were in trouble with their conferences for this kind of reason. So, we concluded our discernment process (with Eric and Mark’s full involvement) by affirming that we welcomed the two as “full participants.” However, out of a desire to avoid a sharp conflict with our conference we would not designate them as official members.

I was disappointed with the outcome, and in time I have felt ever worse about it. But, Eric and Mark did understand the spirit of welcome the congregation offered, they were glad none of the process happened without them “in the room,” and they respected the congregation’s desire to stay out of trouble (I should say that a still sizeable majority wanted to move ahead with the membership, but the number of those opposed seem large enough to warrant the compromise at which we arrived).

I still hoped that someday we could all return to the Bible and theology and develop a strong understanding of why we should overtly be a welcoming congregation. I worked at that with my sermons over the next seven years, and the congregation continued to practice welcome. But during that time, we never did any overt biblical work together.

Ordination?

I was soon thrown into turmoil with the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), though. After my second year pastoring, the congregation formally requested my ordination. The request was processed by the PCC Leadership Committee, made up of the Conference Minister and three other pastors. Most of us expected this to be a routine process, as our congregation’s decision regarding Eric and Mark had been appreciatively noted by some important PCC leaders, and I had not done anything else that would seem to put the request in jeopardy.

However, during my interview, the committee asked about my response to the statement recently adopted by our denomination on sexuality (“The Purdue Statement on Human Sexuality”). I expected the question and responded by saying that I appreciated the statement in general and that I expected to use it in my congregation. But I did note that I was not sure I could agree with the sentence in the statement that asserted, “homosexual sexual intercourse is sin.” I didn’t explicitly say that I disagreed, just that I could not say I did agree. For one member of the committee, this was a major red flag, and he refused to support my ordination.

This was my first of many encounters with a strange phenomenon. I responded by saying that I think, based on the Bible, that the Purdue Statement claimed too much certainty. And I gave some of my evidence. My biblically based defense was met with skepticism. So much skepticism that I couldn’t get my adversary even to look at the texts with me. He simply insisted, flatly and with vehemence, that I was rejecting the Bible by not sharing his certainty.

At that point, I had a deep-seated hope, even expectation, that the way to work through these sexuality and church hospitality issues would be to focus on careful Bible study. I had been taught at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and elsewhere that this was the Mennonite way. Go to the Bible, study it together, and defer to what you come to understand the Bible to say. I truly thought that if we worked hard enough at the Bible study and discussion, we in the Mennonite world could make good progress at working through these issues.

Then, the first test case was a failure. There simply wasn’t interest in such a process of group discernment on the part of the one committee member. He refused to budge. After a two-year impasse that involved consulting with denominational leaders, the three other members of the committee decided to override the one person’s veto and proceed with my ordination. There was no meeting of minds; it simply came down to power. My adversary soon thereafter resigned his pastorate and left the PCC—as did two entire congregations (obviously there was a lot of history and many other issues around these departures beyond my ordination; I was the final straw).

A frustrated hope and moving on

I did continue to hope and expect that Bible study and conversation would be the way to move forward redemptively. But I found few opportunities. The denominational statements that had all been negative about same-sex relationships did also promise on-going conversation. But such conversations were scary. How could you have a discussion about the differences when those who would merely voice the different point of view could get into big trouble?

Though I was ordained by the PCC, I never felt very comfortable in the conference after my ordeal. I began to think seriously about leaving when I served as a member of a committee with the task of creating continuing education opportunities for PCC pastors. Though I had a PhD and was quite interested in such work, I was told that it would not be imaginable that I could teach in such a program because my reputation around the Conference was so negative.

Before long, we pursued other ministry opportunities and ended up moving to South Dakota. Kathleen and I served two years as co-pastors in a large Mennonite congregation there. She followed a more uneventful path to her ordination—we basically let our advocacy for inclusion lie dormant for a while.

Higher education?

I had told our congregation when I was interviewed that I hoped to take an academic position should the opportunity arise. It did, after only two years. So we moved on to Eastern Mennonite University in 1996. I was excited to move into Mennonite higher education—expecting that at a college surely meaningful conversation around the Bible would be common. What I found, though, was a lot of caution—what a colleague a few years later called “a climate of fear.” If there were Bible-centered conversations going on, I never knew about them.

Early in my second year on campus, the campus newspaper quoted me saying that I thought the didn’t say much about “homosexuality”—meaning the Bible does not obviously condemn it. I shortly thereafter received a visit from a mid-level administrator who warned me against such comments. They could be seen as controversial with the college’s constituency, he said. It was clear to me by then that open conversation was not welcome on campus—and certainly would not be welcome in other public venues.

I wasn’t comfortable with that situation. I still believed the issues were not going to go away. The best way through the growing tensions was not to avoid the issues but to find ways to converse, especially about the Bible and theology. So, I figured that I might have a role in pushing such conversations even if they weren’t being encouraged by my institution.

The Welcome Letter

At some point, I found myself in conversation with a soon-to-retire EMU social work prof, Titus Bender, who was well known as a social justice advocate. He told me about a new group that had just been formed, mainly of parents of LGBTQ children, with the purpose of trying to push the conversation. They thought a good way to do that would be to publish an open letter in the Mennonite Weekly Review. This letter hopefully would be signed by hundreds of Mennonites and show how widespread desire for a more welcoming stance was.

Titus invited me to go with him to a meeting of this group, which called itself the Welcome Committee. With a bit of trepidation, I went along and ended up being a member of the committee, though with a muted public role. We published the letter February 17, 2000, and around 1,000 Mennonites from throughout North America signed it. The letter showed that many Mennonites believed their churches should be more welcoming and have more conversations.

In the lead up to the publication, a few dozen of us at EMU met several times to discern together whether to sign. We talked about rumors that we may risk our jobs to do so. I was encouraged not to sign it since Bible and Religion Department faculty were seen as especially vulnerable. In the end, seventeen people in our group signed. Shortly before the deadline, I decided to sign, thinking that doing so might help a bit to encourage more conversation.

I did not realize that I would be the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference to sign the Letter. The Conference’s response, though, was not an invitation to an open conversation where I could talk about why I signed the Letter. Rather, the Conference leaders initiated a process to take away my ordination. I challenged their action, and they agreed to back away. As it turned out, we did engage in a lengthy conversation—not about my ideas or the biblical and theological issues, but simply about my ministerial credentials. At one point, EMU encouraged me to resign my ordination with the stipulation that if the Conference took it away I likely would lose my job. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed among the Conference leaders and eventually my status as an ordained minister was retained.

More efforts at conversation

In the meantime, I decided I needed to write out at some length my thinking about the biblical and theological issues. I hoped that doing so might be useful for future conversations. I made it known that I had written this, and two Conference overseers asked to read it. I told them I’d give it to them if they promised to have a conversation with me about my paper after they read it. They said yes, I gave them the paper, but in neither case did a conversation result.

I tried very hard in the paper to write it “on their turf,” as it were. I focused on the texts the other side regularly cites as being about same-sex relationships and approaching the Bible straightforwardly, in a way compatible with a conservative method of interpretation. In time, I published it informally as part of a Welcome booklet and then updated it to be my core chapter in the book I wrote with my EMU colleague, Mark Thiessen Nation, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality.

However, the book actually proved to be another disappointment. One big hope I had was that Mark and I would have a detailed dialogue about the biblical materials, and I would be able to test the arguments that I had developed concerning the “prohibition texts.” However, that didn’t happen—mainly what I got from Mark was, “Ted just echoes what has already been written—and refuted.” He did not actually respond to the particular arguments I advanced.

Well, I was quite aware of various arguments by other pro-inclusion people. While I don’t think they necessarily had been refuted, I nonetheless had developed a distinctive approach. I did not necessarily expect to persuade strong restrictivists to change their position (as far as I know that has only happened once in these past thirty years). But I wanted to learn from Mark’s direct critique; even more, I still believed in the possibilities of Mennonites meeting around the Bible.

I do give Mark credit for pursuing some conversations. Largely due to his initiative, the two of us spoke several times on campus—debating our divergent views. One of these events was in chapel (ca. 2006) before around 500 people. Likely that was the first time an EMU faculty member (and a member of the Bible and Religion Department, at that) had spoken explicitly in favor of same-sex marriage in such a venue. Our quite lengthy book came from those events.

At the least with our book, I hoped for acknowledgement that I was presenting a legitimate perspective that reflected a conservative approach to the Bible. One outcome I hoped for was a sense that we were all Mennonites together, even as we disagreed on how to interpret and apply these texts. At this point, a bit more than ten years ago, many of us on the inclusive side thought mainly of being able to stay within the Mennonite family and to contributing safely to the discernment of the broader church. Sadly, the conversation I looked for—and took significant risks to try to participate in—never really happened.

A changed environment

Now in 2017, dramatic shifts in the broader North American culture are being reflected in the Mennonite world as well. We have moved to a place where inclusivists can be open and assertive as they express their views and work openly for change in MC USA and its related institutions. At EMU—and the other MC USA-related colleges—it seems to be utterly safe to advocate for inclusion. And it’s even relatively safe to be an out LGBTQ faculty or staff member.

However, these changes happened without the kind of conversation I had hoped for. We have great strides being taken for inclusion (one I was a close observer of was the decision by EMU overtly not to discriminate in its hiring processes against LGBTQ employees, including professors), but not as a result of a theological consensus grounded in the Bible. Rather, conservatives have tended simply to withdraw once they sense they will be outvoted. It seems like they still believe that conversation is not possible and that those on the inclusive side have rejected the Bible in seeking their changes.

[In part two of this post, I will reflect on some of what I think I have learned from this journey. I will especially focus on the difficulty I have had in actually having the kinds of conversations around the Bible about points of difference that I believed thirty years ago would be common among Mennonites.]

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12 thoughts on “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part I—Reflections on a thirty-year journey

  1. We just finished reading “Naked Anabaptist” in our Sunday School class, Ted. The key distinctive about our Mennonite forebears was their disagreement with the prevailing view that the church leaders told the congregation what the Bible said and meant. Instead, the Anabaptists believed they should read the Bible together to discern its meaning, and were willing to die rather than renounce that belief (among other beliefs). How said that we current Mennos appear to have lost that belief in reading and studying the Bible together and discerning its meaning.

  2. If one accept that God’s nature is immutable and God very clearly indicated homosexual acts sinful,requiring stoning, how can one come to the position that homosexuality should be accepted in the Church?

    1. That’s a big question, Frank. I’ve written a lot that speaks to it—see under “Homosexuality” in the list of topics at the very top of this page.

      Just a quick comment here. I actually would not use the word “immutable” of God’s nature. I’d say, God’s love never changes and God’s will for healing creation, but the character of love requires God to be responsive and adaptive.

      But even if God is “immutable,” it does not follow that “God clearly indicated homosexual acts [are] sinful.” I don’t think every word in the Bible comes straight from God—the Bible was written by human beings in human language, translated by human beings, and is interpreted by human beings. The handful of texts that are used to support antipathy towards “homosexuality” are all difficult to translate and interpret. So, even if the Bible itself is God’s word, it is still written in human language and as such the words in the Bible are limited in their ability to convey God’s thoughts. And, of course, our translations and interpretations are human.

      As I have written, for me there was a direct connection between my pacifism and the emergence of my theology of welcome toward LGBTQ people.

      1. Ted, I accept 2nd Timothy 3:16. That does not mean that God doesn’t love the sinner. It was just this love that Christ went to the cross. The Word states that once we have repented we have become a new creation. Repentance is a conscious act of turning 180 degrees from our sinful ways with the rebirth in Christ.. Consider 1st Corinthians 6:9-10.

      2. I actually agree with what you say here, Frank. I’m curious, though, what you would say it means for you to “accept 2 Timothy 3:16.” I think that is an important and inspiring verse, and I can’t see how anything I have ever written about LGBTQ welcome is in tension with it.

  3. The change is incredible and for me has been healing. I can now participate in the church thst has been home to my family for generations, and is most closly aligned with how I live my life. However, I must still point out that those on the side of exclusion have yet to engage any lgbtq person in any meaningful dialogue. It is hard to be told you are outside the kingdom of God by those who have no understanding of my life and no desire to engage me in any sort of dialogue. I spent seven years worshipping with the Jewish people who had no problem accepting me or including me…i loved that time, and wish we could learn from their understanding of God.

    1. I agree with you about the restrictive people’s continued unwillingness to talk with lgbtq people. And one consequence is the ongoing hurt that many feel when even when they find a welcoming congregation in that they still have to be treated very disrespectfully both people in the broader denomination.

      I’m happy to hear about your time with Jewish people. I continue to be amazed so many from that tradition remain on the forefront of humane activism and thinking—and even for the “atheists” among those folks I think their perspective has a lot to do with their understanding of “God.”

  4. “Adversary” feels like a strong word. You’re engaging in a search for truth, right? Not some sort of combat.
    I’ve only had time to glance at this one, and now see the second one has arrived. And I’ll be away for a while. I pray that the 3rd and 4th will reflect the graciousness that your students and friends experience and that I experienced as we personally sat down together.

    1. Harold, I did put some thought into the use of “adversary.” I don’t mean it in a “strong” sense but mainly in a descriptive sense as in “my adversaries” are those who have disagreed with me, often over an extended period of time.

      When I think about it just now, though, I am struck with how many of these “adversaries” have taken “strong” action or expressed “strong” opposition toward me—from yelling in my face and trying to veto my ordination to using their influence to prevent me getting a job I desperately wanted to trying to intimidate me to keep my mouth shut regarding my beliefs to seeking actively to get me fired and take away my ordination to successfully taking away my wife’s ordination and running her out of the ministry to stating directly before 100 or so people right after I made a presentation of the Bible that my work was “shoddy” and “smoke and mirrors” to writing in a public forum that I was avoiding engaging the strongest arguments from the Bible.

      I too hope that my third and fourth posts are respectful and fair. It may be hard to convey a sense of “graciousness.”

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