Ted Grimsrud—August 22, 2017
[This is the second of a four-part series of posts. The first part sketched a thirty-year history of my involvement in trying to be part of Bible-centered conversations about LGBTQ inclusion with other Mennonites. I discussed how surprisingly (to me, at least) difficult it has been to find conversation partners—especially with those on the restrictive side who would actually interact with my interpretive arguments. In this post I will suggest some possible explanations for that difficulty.]
A long time conversation partner
There has been one Mennonite on the restrictive side who has been willing to respond to my thoughts many times over the years, Mennonite pastor Harold Miller (I recently uncovered an interchange we had from as far back as 1997). While I appreciate Harold’s perseverance and general congeniality, I also doubt that these interchanges have actually been cases of the Mennonite practice of examining the Bible together.
One reason I think this is that Harold himself has continually stated in public forums that progressives avoid engagement on the key texts. Quite recently he repeated that assertion in a conversation about his blog post on the Mennonite World Review site, “My denomination continues to swing left” (July 19, 2017). He wrote: “We worry that those making inclusivist arguments are mainly echoing our culture. We who are conservatives don’t see them carefully grappling with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance against same-sex relations.” When he was challenged in the comments about this characterization of those making “inclusivist arguments,” he doubled down:
“I have witnessed great love of Scripture among inclusivist pastors and much “scriptural engagement.” I have eagerly read their biblical arguments for full LGBTQ inclusion in the church, genuinely open to beginning to sympathize with those holding our culture’s rather than our church’s stance…. But as I read them, I don’t see them interacting with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance.”
I found these comments troubling. I would be an inclusivist (or “progressive”) who has indeed published dozens of pages “interacting with the strongest biblical arguments” used by restrictivists—including a co-authored, 317-page book published by the Mennonite Church’s own publisher that featured such interaction. Not to mention a large number of blog posts that have done likewise, many on which Harold himself commented.
So I wrote in a comment that I found Harold’s assertion that we on the inclusive side avoided “the strongest biblical arguments” disrespectful. And he still wouldn’t back down: “I wish I didn’t feel the need to see you engage those arguments, that I could just quickly say ‘The differences are because of honest disagreements, not a willful failure to engage the argument.’ But I’m not there yet.” In other words, Harold seems to say, I do believe that you are willfully failing to engage the “strongest biblical arguments.”
A sense of confusion
This comment left me confused. What did Harold think I have been doing over those hundreds of pages? So, I had to stop and think. Certainly my intent these last thirty years has been to do precisely what Harold seems to want. Directly engage what people like him would see as the “strongest biblical arguments” for the restrictivist position. Over and over I have focused on the so-called “prohibition texts,” even when I don’t actually believe they should be so central to the discussion.
I understand that I have not persuaded such people to change their views, but I don’t understand their failure even to acknowledge that I have been engaging those arguments. As well, I believe I have a distinctive approach to those texts that deserves to be interacted with as a contribution to the communal Mennonite gathering around the Bible for discernment.
My initial thought was that perhaps I actually had not directly enough or overtly enough engaged Harold’s own “strongest arguments.” So I set out to write a post that would do that (see my next two posts on Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 for that engagement). But as I thought more, I realized that though I had not responded directly to Harold’s own writings, I had over and over pursued this discussion on the restrictivists’ turf. I have focused a great deal of energy on the handful of biblical verses that make up the main biblical argument for the restrictive approach. And I have pursued those themes by following a quite conservative reading strategy that treats the texts in a straightforward manner and does not try to dismiss them as the mistakes of the biblical writers.
I have tried to argue by following a method of interpretation that even those with the most exalted view of biblical revelation would find congenial—hoping to engage a conversation simply on the meaning of the texts that we have before us. And yet, throughout this thirty-year journey, I have never found a conversation partner willing to respond to my biblical arguments by discussing the points I make. And now, twenty years after our first interchange, Harold continues to assert that I have actually not “engaged the strongest biblical arguments.”
Is something else going on?
So I started to wonder, maybe there is actually something else going on than just whether or not I have been engaging “the strongest biblical arguments.” So I thought back on this entire thirty-year journey that I detailed in my previous post. These reflections helped me identify some new kinds of questions. I share these new thoughts tentatively. I present them as questions or wonderings, not statements of fact or even solid hypotheses.
I go back to my ordination ordeal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What shocked me more than anything then was that I expected going into the process with the Pacific Coast Conference leadership committee that we would spend a lot of time talking about how we interpreted the Bible. However, as I now remember our meetings, we never got around to that.
The one member who opposed my ordination mainly simply expressed intense hostile emotion that I would even question what he understood to be the only true message of the Bible—that “homosexuality, in all expressions of it, is blatantly sinful and must be rejected.” He literally yelled at me, and I sat shocked that the other committee members let him do that. His thought seemed to be, since that message is an absolute teaching of the Bible, not to be sure of it was to reject biblical authority. This has been an oft-repeated message I have been given, down to the present.
So, after developing my biblical argument with a conservative approach to the Bible that does not mean to question its authority and that seeks to read the text as we have it and to follow what it says, I am left with some questions. Why would my opponents affirm biblical authority but still be unwilling to examine the content of the Bible with me? No matter how high that view of biblical inspiration and even inerrancy might be, how could they imagine that their interpretations of what the Bible says could not be questioned? And, why on this particular set of issues would there be such intense emotion at the heart of things?
My theory: It’s about fearfulness
I have struggled to understand what has happened. Why didn’t my sincere efforts to follow the Mennonite ideal of gathering around the Bible to discern together in face of disagreements lead to genuine conversation? Here is a theory I want to test: My biblical arguments touch on some deep-seated fears held by those who have disagreed with those arguments. And those fears have made the possibility of an open conversation about those arguments next to impossible. I am sure that many other factors might have been involved as well, including my own failures to communicate well. But I do wonder about this one element.
Most of the Christians I have encountered who hold restrictive views on LGBTQ inclusion profess a very high view of biblical authority. They do so I suspect, in part because they feel a need for certainty, for security in their convictions. Maybe they get a sense of security from a belief in an all-powerful God who has communicated to human beings through an inspired Holy Scripture. And for Scripture to be worthy of such a role it must be utterly trustworthy.
Probably a less conscious step is to recognize that for the Bible to be effective as such an authority, it must be interpreted and applied. To retain a sense of certainty, the authority of those interpretations and applications are likely to be treated as if they share the authority of the Bible itself. We can’t have an operationally authoritative Bible without authoritative interpretation. It follows, then, that questions about the trustworthiness of received interpretations of the Bible may well be seen to be questioning the trustworthiness of the Bible itself.
Such a view of the Bible may well be fear-driven to a significant degree. We may fear losing the certainty, sense of security, and stability that the chain of authority offers. Such fears quite likely will be heightened during times of change and instability in the wider world. Certainly, our contemporary times are times of change and instability. I agree that it is appropriate to feel fear about where things in our culture are going and about the future of values we hold dear.
So it stands to reason that fears about an undermining of biblical authority would be present today. Accompanying those fears necessarily will be fears that follow from the questioning of received interpretations that have been equated with the Bible’s truth.
Then, when we are dealing about the issue at hand, we may add another kind of fearfulness—associated with sexuality—and find ourselves in a difficult situation. Fears about biblical authority and about sexual identity and about the continuation of traditional sexual arrangements are surely all part of our post-modern cultural moment. The fears about sexuality deepen the fears about the Bible. We see in our culture a greater openness about sex in general, an instability in the institution of marriage with rising divorce rates and unmarried couples co-habiting, and rapid changes in general attitudes about sex, marriage, same-sex relations, and other related issues. In addition, for some, the sexuality fears may be exacerbated by personal fears regarding uncertainty about one’s own sexual identity.
So, the issue of LGBTQ inclusion in our churches arises in a difficult time, a kind of perfect storm of fearfulness and change. In such a context, my idealism about Mennonites meeting together to discuss the Bible and discern the way forward now looks pretty naïve. It is not very surprising that my ideals proved so unfounded. What happens when our fears are strong? One likelihood is that we will be prone to avoid or deny aspects of life that threaten to expose those fears to the light of day. That would be too scary.
So, then I connect these points and wonder. Perhaps it has been the case that my various adversaries, going back to the PCC leadership committee thirty years ago, have not willfully refused to recognize my efforts to converse over the Bible as genuine efforts to “engage the strongest arguments.” Maybe, more so, due to how fear affects our perceptions, they simply, honestly, have not been able to see what I have done.
Does the fear dynamic render it extremely difficult actually to converse about the content of the Bible? It could be that for some, the authority of the Bible protects them from their fears of insecurity and uncertainty. That authority may be inextricably linked with certain interpretations concerning the inherent sinfulness of “homosexuality.” For someone to question those interpretations then trips the fear sensor and triggers an immediate rejection of even considering the question as legitimate, possibly on a subconscious level. That the question of the received interpretation might actually come from a commitment to the truthfulness of the text is not even a possibility to be considered. When trying to speak of this dynamic, the fearful person is likely to understand the issue as a challenge to biblical authority, not just to certain human interpretations of the Bible.
The role of human interpretation?
When the fearfulness runs strong, one might place (even subconsciously) an emphasis on authority over content. In such a case, one is likely not to keep in mind that everything we say about what the Bible teaches is a human interpretation. And that all human interpretations are shaped by our experiences. Recognizing the inevitable role of human interpretation in our use of the Bible makes it more difficult to rest on an unshakeable security in the Bible’s truthfulness as a practical reality—which is frightening.
I want to emphasize, though, that to recognize the human element in all biblical interpretation need not lead us to place experience above the Bible. It may simply mean that we are aware of how we all use the Bible (whether we realize it or not). However, the fearfulness dynamic might lead someone to deny the role of experience—with the consequence that one would then be further protected from having one’s interpretations challenged and recognized as human interpretations.
For example, I would say that my sense of the experience of faithful Christians who live fruitful lives while married to partners of their same sex shapes my interpretation of the Bible. It is not that such experiences would in themselves cause me to reject, say, Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Corinthians 6:9 as mistaken in what they teach. I am not saying that my experience simply negates the Bible. Rather, I am saying that because of my experience, I will ask hard questions of the text, initiating what is called a “hermeneutical circle.” In this “circle” there is a circular interplay of my questions, the text, other human perspectives, knowledge from other sources, and other factors all contributing to an on-going process of discernment and growth in understanding. [See the next two posts for details on my way of reading Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6.]
I suggest that restrictivists with their high view of biblical authority still nonetheless study the Bible by partaking in a hermeneutic circle. They also have experience-based concerns that they bring to the text, even if they are not self-consciously aware of them (such as the experience of growing up in an environment where same-sex love was considered “unnatural” and “disgusting”). The problem with the fearfulness is that it can distort the dynamics of the hermeneutical circle. Perhaps fear leads to denying the role one’s own experience plays in how one sees the Bible. As well, there may be a denial of a place for other people’s questions if those questions trip the fears (admittedly, some “progressives” also short-circuit the circle by not allowing the text to speak in its own voice). Then those questions won’t stimulate growth toward a deeper understanding.
The impact of fearfulness
My suspicion, then, is that questions that shaped my approach to the texts usually cited by restrictivists may have been too fear inducing to be recognized as legitimate questions—and confused as skepticism about the authority of the Bible rather than as doubt about the human interpretations. Because of that lack of recognition, the actual interpretive work I have done has not been considered as a contribution to the conversation. My adversaries saw my offering a different interpretation of Romans 1, no matter how grounded in a conservative approach to the Bible I might have been, not as an element in a valid conversation around the text (the Mennonite ideal) but instead simply as a rejection of the authority of Romans 1:26-27. For them, the authority of Romans 1:26-27 seems to have been linked inextricably with only one interpretation of that passage.
I wonder, then, if the fearfulness dynamic I seem to have experienced might be one part of an explanation of what has happened in the broader Mennonite Church USA world in the past thirty years. I well remember the Purdue Statement of 1987 that both offered a flat statement that same-sex sexual intimacy, no matter in what context, is sin (period), and a promise for on-going conversation. The sense then was that perhaps the kind of conversation I believed in would be possible.
However, then a few years later, the denomination’s Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy issued a “clarification” statement that stated: “The words ‘remaining in loving dialogue’ found in [the 1987 Purdue Statement] should not be construed to mean that the homosexual issue is unresolved or that the position of the church is in question.” This statement did not have the official denominational authority of the Purdue Statement itself, and it was disregarded by many of us who continued to challenge the way “the homosexual issue” was seen to be “resolved.” But it did have a dampening effect, especially in Mennonite colleges, seminaries, regional conferences, and congregations.
Open conversation has remained difficult. In the meantime, growing numbers of MC USA conferences, congregations, and individuals have decided to leave the denomination, asserting that MC USA has denied the authority of the Bible. It is hard to see how things could have worked out differently and the departures prevented. But it certainly did not help, in my opinion, that the denominational leaders (nor the leaders of colleges, seminaries, and other MC USA related institutions) did not encourage the kind of conversations that even the Purdue Statement promised.
Another consequence of the inability to have open conversations around the Bible may be seen in many of the recent moves to be more inclusive. These have been, it seems, largely due to the growth of what we could call humanistic sensibilities rather than as the outworking of overt biblically oriented theological discernment and conversation. I see these “humanistic sensibilities” as good things, and the growth in inclusive policies also as good things. But the lack of biblical/theological work leads both to weaker, more superficially grounded understandings of inclusion and to confirming the perception of those who oppose the moves that the moves correlate with a loss of the acceptance of the Bible’s authority.
For example, the Mennonite institution where I worked until my 2016 retirement, Eastern Mennonite University, recently instituted a policy of non-discrimination in its hiring. A person openly in a same-sex marriage may now be hired, even as a professor. The process to institute this policy was public and involved a great deal of input from EMU people and stakeholders from the outside. However, the process never involved overt Bible study or theological discussion. To the extent that the University gave a rationale, it was couched mainly in the language of human rights and pragmatism (e.g., the recruitment of future faculty, staff, and students). Perhaps avoiding the Bible was the best way to move forward with what I am certain is an appropriate policy, but the process may only have exacerbated the polarizing dynamics in the MC USA world.
I don’t have an answer to these problematic dynamics. I do believe now that my efforts to work at my idealized Mennonite “conversation around the Bible” on LGBTQ inclusion were largely fruitless. It took this entire thirty years for me to come to a sense of clarity about why. When fearfulness is at the center of such a struggle, it is hard to know how a win/win kind of way forward can be created.
A couple of years ago, in a blog post “Will Mennonite Church USA survive: Reflections on three decades of struggle,” I suggested that the future of MC USA is the Central District Conference (the conference of which I am part). My idea was that CDC has found a good way to move forward with at least some diversity of perspective but a common desire to be church together. CDC members seem to share a desire to focus their energies on the shared work of witnessing to the gospel of peace in our warring, unjust society.
I wrote that MC USA as a whole hopefully would embrace a CDC kind of vision where diversity and common vision are held in a creative tension that allows people to share their vocation together. Or, less desirably, more and more parts of MC USA will hive off, leaving only CDC and a few other like-minded conferences left. The latter possibility of a much-diminished denomination seems far less than ideal—though the trends may well point in that direction. And, if it comes to that, at least we will hopefully draw energy from the opportunity to live out of a shared vision of embodying the way of Jesus.
[After these two posts of description and analysis, I offer a two-part “Appendix”(“The Mennonite Failure… Appendix: Romans 1:26-27” and “The Mennonite Failure… Appendix: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11”) that will directly address the charge that I (and other “progressives”) have not directly engaged the best biblical arguments for what I call the restrictive position. I will proceed by doing a close reading of two essays by Harold Miller, my interlocutor for the past twenty years.
[Since Harold is the one who directed this charge toward Mennonite progressives in general and me in particular, I think it is fair to proceed as if his essays reflect the “best arguments.” So, in critiquing his essays on two New Testament texts, Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, I am once again doing my best to engage those arguments.]