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.]
38 thoughts on “The Mennonite failure to find common ground on LGBTQ inclusion: Part II—Learning from the journey”
Ted, I don’t know that you will ever be able to attain your goal. The issue I see is not fear. The issue is that you are operating in one paradigm and those you label as restrictive are operating in another paradigm. If I accept the Bible as the word of God and you accept it as a book of ideas, not necessarily representing all as truth, we have no basis for this biblical discussion. We are talking 2 different languages. I consider Biblical interpretation to look at the obvious, not interpret something different from the obvious. If the Bible says X, I don’t expect an interpretation of Y. Until such a time arises that we operate from the same language, we cannot hold a meaningful discussion.
This is such a spot on comment I may not feel the need to engage further.
Well, I do feel this is needed:
So, is your sub-heading “My theory: It’s about fearfulness” anything other than a heads up that you take the view so common in our altogether North American culture that anyone who holds a traditional Christian view of human sexuality is a “homophobe”?
To confirm that your theory is valid you go on to generally and globally assail the character of your interlocutors. I think that any objective reader of the development of your thesis is likely to conclude that you are engaging in an essentially _ad hominem_ kind of argument (though you present it as describing a whole class of people rather than an individual).
As you noted, “the recent moves to be more inclusive…have been,,, 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 think that qualifies as an understatement. I also think there is validity in what you characterize as the “perception of those who oppose the moves that the moves correlate with a loss of the acceptance of the Bible’s authority” is true both as a perception and as an “on the ground” or in the “church” reality.
You return to the dynamic of “fear” as the explanation for the inevitable consequences of abandoning a two (or three and half if the OT is included) millennia long tradition regarding human sexuality, without acknowledging that rejecting the expressed will of God is above all things a very fearful action. I know you have done as good a job as anyone could imagine of reinterpreting what has been obvious to every recognized teacher in the Church for two millenia. But reinterpretation isn’t necessarily real interpretation if it diverges from the obvious, which is in this case is more a matter of not acknowledging history than it is matter of textual interpretation.
Reinterpreting reality is something we all do every day, no doubt about that. But ignoring history while fancifully restructuring the meaning of words seems to have been a task to which you felt called. Your “interpretive arguments” seem to me to be asserting things that only you (and perhaps a few contemporary others) among countless Christian theologians in the last 2000 years have been able to discern. (My wife has argued that I do something like this too so I’m sympathetic; we all have critics 8>).
You complain that in regard to the particular texts that Harold Miller identified as not having been engaged by progressives you have been engaged but not recognized as doing so. That no (or few?) progressives other than you (or no evidently Mennonite ones?) have engaged these texts may reflect the fact that most if not all progressives don’t care much about what the New Testament texts actually say about human sexuality because they think they know more than the authors of those texts did. Trying to support what those who really don’t care what the New Testament says by reinterpreting (or more to the point redefining!) what the texts say is a pretty futile strategy. Sorry about that, but sometimes reality sucks.
Yes, I know that most all inclusivists think they are following the bible in some general sense; but they don’t actually care whether they are following all the specifics of what it says. Hence, your hyper granular redefinition of the meaning of words used in the New Testament aren’t of much interest to them, just as they are virtually irrelevant in the historical scheme of things. In the end I’m inclined to think that pursuing a complex intellectualized version of “you are all just homophobes,” or more to the point “did God really say that,” isn’t a very persuasive line of reasoning.
Oh, BTW, I appreciate your keeping your blog posts open to comment. The “progressive” inclusivist Mennonite congregation I have been attending has censored and prohibited my engagement on these issues of biblical interpretation on their message site.
Ted, thanks for these fascinating posts (I’ve just read parts 1 and 2). Being from the UK, I know little about the Mennonite Church, or indeed about the US church landscape in general – but the issues around LGBTQ inclusion are, of course, common to us all.
I think your theory around biblical interpretation and authority being infected with culturally instilled fears has a lot of merit.
I look forward to parts 3 and 4. That said, I do wonder whether in some cases it might be a bit of a waste of time to try to find biblical arguments in support of something that was either unknown in biblical times, or that might even have been opposed by biblical writers. I think there may sometimes be a case for saying “The biblical writers probably would have opposed this, but I don’t think we should take that stance, and here’s why…”. Just thinking aloud here.
Lastly, on a somewhat related topic, I was wondering whether you’ve come across the phenomenon of Christian married couples openly embracing polyamory (aka “open marriage”). I recently wrote a blog post about it and am trying to order my thoughts on the subject in the wake of the ensuing discussion.
I appreciate your line of reasoning in your comment. Particularly when you say: ‘I think there may sometimes be a case for saying “The biblical writers probably would have opposed this, but I don’t think we should take that stance, and here’s why…”.’ This would be a more honest approach to the issue, OSISTM. More to the point, you say: “in some cases it might be a bit of a waste of time to try to find biblical arguments in support of something that was either unknown in biblical times, or that might even have been opposed by biblical writers.” In this case you suggest that what we are dealing with today was possible “unknown” or “might even have been opposed by biblical writers,” whereas the only reasonable argument for Christian acceptance of same gender sexual relations is something like you suggest, that they didn’t know what they were talking about (ie., “unknown” to them and hence we know more than they did) and it is precisely because it is virtually unassailably the case that biblical writers were in fact opposed to same gender sex that that is the only possible argument for acceptance of same gender sexual relationships.
Thanks for your reply to my comment.
You wrote: “…it is precisely because it is virtually unassailably the case that biblical writers were in fact opposed to same gender sex that that is the only possible argument for acceptance of same gender sexual relationships.”
I don’t think that assertion stands up to serious scrutiny. Even if it could be proved beyond doubt that the biblical writers were uniformly and unassailably against same-gender sex (which I don’t think it can, since arguments from silence are weak), the context to which they were speaking was very different from ours. Specifically, there was simply no such thing as a loving, monogamous, faithful same-gender sexual relationship. Same-gender sex was characterised by power dynamics (an inferior being penetrated by a superior) and/or religious dynamics (temple prostitution).
As always, context is important.
Hi Rob. I realize I didn’t respond to your 8/23 comment yet. Thanks for it. I just have a second now, but I wanted to say something.
I think my main interest in the Bible now in this debate is to refute the idea that it clearly supports what I call the “restrictive” view. I don’t think it directly teaches that same-sex marriage is a good thing. Indirectly, one could construct a biblically-oriented positive view, though.
I really don’t know about Christian support for polyamory. I hope to read your blog post and the discussion soon. I’m very curious about what you have to say. At first blush, it seems kind of creepy to me….
Thanks for replying, Ted. I appreciate you clarifying that the case you’re making is that the Bible does not clearly and unambiguously support the restrictive view. I think that’s entirely valid.
As to polyamory, yes, it seems kind of creepy to me too. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past week is the idea of “moral absolutes” – and, more specifically, the fact that so many Christians now seem to think the very idea of fixed moral standards should be anathema to those who claim to have encountered the grace of God. This troubles me, and I wonder how many babies are being thrown out with the bathwater.
I’m not sure I want to push the babies/bathwater metaphor any further….
I think the issue of moral truths is huge. Our task, I would say, is finding ways to understand and embody truth, but to do it in a way that is not coercive or legalistic. It helps to think that the moral universe is relational, centered in a God who is love.
Moral truth is then about love, about wholeness in relationships, not about rules or boundary maintenance or about fearfulness that everything (including our sense of security) is spinning out of control.
I don’t think the term “moral absolutes” works all that well, but it can be useful if we think of the “absolute” being love—maybe parallel to thinking of “kingdom” being a useful metaphor if we think of Jesus (the loving, suffering servant) as “king.”
So, then one question becomes how to think of fidelity in marriage. I’d say fidelity is an “absolute” because it seems like in practice a necessary element of a truly loving, committed intimate relationship—not because some external authority has issued a rule that must be enforced under threat of punishment.
It’s ironic in the discussion of “moral absolutes” that same-sex marriage is often linked with actions that are violations of fidelity (like polyamory) when the whole point of gays and lesbians getting married seems to be that they want (like opposite-sex couples who marry) to have a public confession of their commitment to fidelity (“till death do us part”).
I still haven’t read your post, though. Hopefully tonight or tomorrow.
Thanks, Ted. Once again, your comments are helpful. I agree that our task should be “finding ways to understand and embody truth, but to do it in a way that is not coercive or legalistic”. I think this is something Christians have very often failed at.
However, the fact remains that I’m surprised by the apparent wholesale rejection by some progressive Christians of anything that looks like a moral standard. Apparently one can these days be judged unenlightened by fellow Christians for being opposed to something like polyamory.
If fidelity in the “marriages” of same or trans gender persons (yeah, the scare quotes are there for a reason), then why is it that none of the inclusivist, yes “we will perform same gender marriages” Mennonite congregations engage in monitoring and discipleship discipline with same gender relationships of LGBTQ+ persons who are members of their congregations? At Menno USA Con in Kansas City I asked every presenting pastor I encountered whether they were practicing discipline regarding sexual relationships and every one of them said NO. I concluded that there was actually no commitment to restricting sexual relations to “monogamous” unions in those congregations. This does actually correspond to the sexual ethos of the LGBTQ+ movement in general, which is that there should be or rather that there are no restrictions on sexual behaviors at all for those in the movement. The goal is actually complete and absolute freedom in every sexual relationship (with the possible exception of relations with pre-pubescent persons), and the rejection of every religiously based constraint on those behaviors.
Well said. And thanks for making those inquiries in KC.
Ted says in relation to biblical restrictions on sexual relationships (I don’t expect him to respond to this comment, unfortunately) “I’d say fidelity is an “absolute” because it seems like in practice a necessary element of a truly loving, committed intimate relationship—not because some external authority has issued a rule that must be enforced under threat of punishment” So do you consider God to be something other than an external authority, or that he hasn’t said fidelity is what he desires, or is what he says irrelevant in relation to what “seems like ,,, necessary”? What seems to us often seems to conflict with what God has said, or so the whole narrative of scriptural relations with God seems to have been saying for thousands of years. What am I missing here?
Oh, I genuinely share your concern about “progressive Christians” and moral standards, Rob. For most of my teaching career, and more so as time passed, I bumped up against this with my students. It was amazing to me how difficult it was for most of the more progressive ones actually to say clearly and directly that something is wrong.
It’s a big problem, I think. Once more, recognizing that the moral universe is “love all the way down” (not resting on a bedrock of retributive justice—or not being founded on an economy of exchange) seems like the way through the problem.
As Walter Wink begins his Engaging the Powers: The big issue is how do we resist evil without adding to the evil or becoming evil ourselves. The opening premise here is that there is evil in the world. Then, that we must resist it. Then, we talk about how. Another way of saying it, how do we embrace and seek to implement moral standards in a way that is fully consistent with the path of love? I think we are only beginning to figure that one out.
Maybe one of the ways we may have to “take up the cross” at times is to accept being labeled “unenlightened”. 🙂
Ted’s account of our history of the church (and related institutions) making decisions about same sex relationships without the benefit of thorough Bible study is important. It is confirmed by my much less engaged experience (primarily a couple of congregations). And it should lead to further analysis and much soul-searching on the part of Mennonite leaders, pastors and academics.
Identifying “fear” as a major factor is an important step, but it is still far from a useful conclusion. Fear is an appropriate response when we perceive our path to be leading us toward an abyss. Thus, there is little point in debating whether or not we fear, nor whether or not fear is a psychological deficiency. Instead, the honesty that enables us to name “fear” as a factor should lead us deeper into an articulation of what is at stake.
My latest post (http://www.bible-and-empire.net/2017/08/me-against-world.html) attempts to do that (though not about sexuality per se). Instead, it identifies the liberal worldview–especially its naming of the individual as the highest authority and its use of power analysis to deconstruct social authorities–as the abyss.
To bring the focus back to sexuality, the current campaign within the Mennonite church and in secular society to deconstruct the link between divine creation and binary gender roles is another example (for me) of the abyss.
As for the case in point, I expect Ted’s commitment to reconciling “humanistic sensibilites” with scripture has signalled to his more conservative colleagues that studying scripture “together” with Ted is not going to be as rigorous and thorough as advertised. I regret the choice those colleagues made. I wish they had engaged with Ted and broadened the agenda to include the substance of what drove each “side” to fear.
Great post! I need to go back to read part 1, so will comment only briefly now. Your analysis seems solid and lines up with my observations and understanding of the interplay of emotions and beliefs, and them worked out in social and institutional settings.
And the reply comment about the main issue being different paradigms adds clarity as well… the two general explanations are interwoven, as I think you recognize…. You can’t say everything, even in a long article! On the paradigm issue, I highly recommend a book that is nicely short while specific and detailed enough to suit a theologically educated audience like readers here: “Two Great Truths” by David Ray Griffin. Just 114 packed pages. If a person knows of Griffin and is unfavorable, I urge reading the book anyway.
Yes, we have only 2 peminent paradigm options (pertinent to authority, etc.) but I’m here to say one CAN, as Process people like Griffin suggest, utilize aspects of both and essentially “invent” additional ones. Communicating that to others is tough but critical that we keep working on it!
Thanks, Howard. I’ll check the Griffin book.
Correction: last paragraph – 2 “prominent” paradigms
This may deserve a more thoughtful response, but for now, i offer this summary disagreement. I am a former inclusivist with what you might refer to as a “low” view of the Scriptural texts, finding my sources of truth in God and his Son moreso than in any human attempt to narrate or divine or describe, and thus I don’t base my opposition to the normalization of same sex marriage primarily on Scripture, but rather on God’s natural design. Nature, if you will. (And I can now see all the inclusivists chomping at the bit to righteously advise me of zoological anomalies, forgetting that these are indeed considered anomalies.). My position is not, to the best of my knowledge of self, based on fear, and I find the repeated resort to this explanation (not new to you, Ted) both tedious and insulting. I also believe that inclusivists think too highly of their intellects and insufficiently highly of the righteous ones who went before them, while I would in no way inevitably deify or defer to tradition. There may indeed be those who base their positions on fear, but hopefully you can see at least that this is not a comprehensive explanation and therefore not a satisfying one, unless one takes solace in a kind of fearless superiority without regard to facts on the ground (there are whole religions that do this, of course). Finally, I am not familiar with your own exegesis but I am familiar with other dishonest Mennonite attempts to manipulate the biblical texts to justify normalization. And I see the road where that leads, and has already led my beloved church, and it is cause for mourning.
I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts, Bruce. Just to be clear, though, my points about “fearfulness” are made in relation to the unwillingness of my interlocutors to even engage my biblical arguments—not about a general analysis of what I call the “restrictive” view. If you have a “low view of Scriptural texts,” I can’t see how what I wrote would apply to you.
My impression was that you were drawing a more general conclusion or making a broader suggestion about Christians who were not inclusive (in the sense of being willing to normalize same sex marriage); i.e. that they must be operating out of fear relating to a “high” view of Scripture. The hypothesis doesn’t account for people like me, and I don’t think I’m the only one out there whose views can be said to shaped as much by the design of God as they are by sacred text, and therefore I’m saying that there is no necessary correlation at all between a so-called restrictive view (btw would you call someone opposed to polygamy or polyamory restrictive?) and a fear nexus.
Have you also considered the possibility that unresolved childhood sexual trauma and/or crossing of boundaries whether regarded as traumatic or not — i.e. the fallout of spiritual rebellion against restriction — account for a significant amount of adult same-sex attraction/orientation and that the more redemptive posture of the church might be one of less permissiveness and more accountability and clear teaching? More restriction results in more lovingkindness, in other words? You may not find this in academic journals, but recall my points about the self-conceit of modern Mennonite intellectuals who — unlike our wiser forefathers — tend to discount anecdotal evidence and give more weight to academic studies which cannot bear that weight, i.e. cannot possibly be sufficiently probing or evocative of that kind of experience (often closely guarded) but yet which may purport to be.
And not incidentally, as to your newly-minted argument based on “creepiness,” will you also allow that argument to be used by resisters of the same sex marriage trend, tongue only half in cheek?
Ted, you believe that you bring a “distinctive approach to those [restrictive] texts that deserves to be interacted with as a contribution to the communal Mennonite gathering around the Bible for discernment.”
You go on to say “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.
RWW: Straightforward? Conservative? Really? Is it not the case that you think that those texts are mostly human and in need of adjustment in order to be understood and applied today?
You also say “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.
RWW: This is, I would respectfully submit, a bit disingenuous. When one like yourself considers the biblical revelation as so human that one feels free to redefine the words it contains in ways that no teacher or scholar has for 2000 years it beggars the mind to think that you might be engaging “a conversation simply on the meaning of the texts that we have before us.” You have been redefining the texts before us for thirty years, so that might be more than a little difficult for you to recognize as fact. But that is what you should do if you wish to continue a straightforward conversation with those who consider those texts to be the revelation of the will of God for His people.
Since a discussion about these issues is requested, I will present an alternative response to the progressive position. First to use the labels of progressive vs restrictive is bias to begin with. Other terminology might be revisionist vs conservative. I accept the scripture as “God breathed” as described in 2nd Timothy 3:16. The impression that the scripture is biased by humanity is an interesting concept that I do not accept. Moses spent 80 days with God on Mt Sinai during which time God dictated to Moses as the scribe the Torah. Leviticus Chapter 20 states the Lord spoke to Moses..vs 13 speaks specifically about homosexuality and declares the death penalty. Either God in fact told Moses what Moses claims or Moses is a liar. Jesus states in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew Chapter 5 that He came not to destroy or abolish the law but to fulfil it.Verse 19 states whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of God. When Jesus spoke of commandments, He did not weaken them but made them even more strict, for example, in speaking of adultery he went on to say that committing the act was not just the problem but whoever lusted after a women was guilty of treason.
The idea that not being inclusive is not loving is wrong. To warn someone of the consequences of sin is the loving thing to do. In 2nd Corinthians indicates that Christians are to be ambassadors for Christ reconciling men to God. Why reconciliation? Because we are sinners in need of the salvation provided by Jesus through His action as our Passover lamb.
Peter in 2nd Peter declares we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made know the power and coming of Jesus. In the second chapter he speaks of hell and God’s judgement.. God is a God of love, however He is a God of wrath against ungodliness. God declare to us to be holy as he is holy. Isaiah 55 :6-9 states “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon Him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way; and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon .For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD, For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”.
We can accept the scriptures or not, but we are responsible for our actions.
Thanks for taking the time to share your reflections, Frank.
The main question I have of what you write is in response your dismissal of the idea that “the scripture is biased by humanity.” Now, I am not sure I would want to use the word “biased”—one would need to explain what one means. But the question is how you understand the obvious human role in every step of the production and interpretation of the Bible.
Our language itself is limited and symbolic. Surely you would agree that human language cannot perfectly capture the mind of God. For one thing, each language is different. More importantly, words are inherently limiting, especially when we think of God. So anything in written language is already shaped by the particularities of that language—even the original languages of the Bible.
Then, we also have the Bible itself, embedded in the particular cultures that produced the various books—over at least a thousand years and many miles. And the Bible’s various books clearly show evidence of these different cultural contexts.
But then, to move even deeper into the human realm, we have the choices as to which books would make up the Bible. The humanness of those choices may be seen in the fact that different traditions actually ended up with some different books.
And, what about translations? These were undertaken by human beings, taking what is finite and culturally particular to begin with (the original texts—though to complicate things more, no Bible translator has ever had access to the actual original texts), and then trying to translate those words into a different culturally particular language (and note the differences even between different English translations produced at roughly the same time not to mention the differences in those produced at different times—and note also that most modern translations are revised after a generation or so to account to how language evolves).
And, finally, we get to the most profoundly human element of all—our interpretations of the Bible. The Bible is only useful to human beings as it is interpreted by human beings.
So, in light of all this, what do you mean when you say that the scripture is not “biased by humanity”?
I would just add, though, that what I see to be a strong human element in the creation and use of the Bible does not make me question the truthfulness of the Bible, once we adjust to its humanness. In fact, as I have been saying, my position on LGBTQ is, I think, the result of my convictions about what the Bible teaches.
Fascinating turn of phrase this: “what I see to be a strong human element in the creation and use of the Bible does not make me question the truthfulness of the Bible, once we adjust to its humanness.” So, the Bible is truthful in so far as it conforms to our all too human re-conceptional adjustments of what it says? All too easy to adjust it in whatever direction one would like to go since we are all human, eh? Truth in the eye of the beholder suggests truthful is way too much like the truthiness of our contemporary culture.
Ted, thank you for your response. I apologize for the lack of clarity in saying the scripture is not biased by humanity. What I mean by that is that the writers of the scriptures presented God’s words without the interjection of their own beliefs, with the exceptions of where they (the writers) interject that something stated is their opinion, as Paul did concerning marriage.
Admittedly there are words that have no direct translation into English, for example ratsach, with the direct interpretation means to dash to pieces. Some interpret this as murder, kill, put to death.It is then that we look to the context and scriptures to compare and make an interpretation.
As to the canon of the scriptures, it is almost universally accepted that the tanakh or old testament is accepted as God’s word. The new testament canon , as you are most likely aware was developed due to heresies being taught. Documents that were written by the apostles or accepted by the apostles were considered appropriate for inclusion, as well as documents that were universally accepted by the 1st century church. We thus have those individuals who were taught directly by Jesus and their acceptance of documents that were consistent with the teachings of Christ. I have no problem with that. To make an historical example, lets say someone wrote a book and stated that the United States never won a battle in Vietnam. Well, do you think that that statement would be accepted as true or would people who lived through that time contest that statement. So it is with the new testament, if false statement or doctrine would be taught, they would be excluded as happened with documents that were not accepted in the new testament canon.
I fear once we start editing the bible that we are in great danger of coming up with whatever doctrine tickles our fancy.
Now I presented a specific scripture from Leviticus where Moses stated The LORD spoke to Moses and said…… and provided information concerning homosexual acts being punished by death.
speaking bluntly, please tell me if Moses lied or did he write what God told him to write? I look forward to your response
In response to your first comment, Frank, I’d question whether it is or ever has been possible for a human being to write anything that is not shaped in some sense by “their own beliefs.” We always have to choose what words to use, and that choice itself can’t helped but be shaped by our own sense of what the words mean as well as the extent of our vocabulary.
And, I’d add, that I don’t think any words in the Bible have a “direct translation into English.” That’s just common sense about the dynamic, fluid, evolving, culturally-embedded nature of language. As some (quite conservative, as it turns out) biblical translators have said, what they look for is “dynamic equivalence” when they translate, not “direct translations.”
These points are just common sense about how language works. I think it actually undermines the case for affirming the inspiration and truthfulness of the Bible to think otherwise. A friend of mine in college insisted that if he found a single mistake in the Bible he would have to give up his faith. But that set up a false absolute that actually in time undermined his faith. Last I heard, he had rejected Christianity.
You act as if there are only two alternatives—either we see the Bible as made up of “God’s words without the interjection of [the writers’] beliefs” or we are “coming up with whatever doctrine tickles our fancy.” I truly think neither of those options is compatible with a living faith and a vital relationship with the Bible as our core source of theological truth.
All that said, I really don’t think the issues I just spoke to are central to the discussions I have had about the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion. What I have been interested in is simply understanding what the texts mean.
It would not change my interpretation of Leviticus 20:13 if I did think that Moses directly wrote what God told him to write. Seeing the words in that verse as directly inspired by God does not help us understand what it actually means. We still have to do the work of interpretation—which is difficult work, especially in a case like this when all we have is a bare command with no illustrations or further explanations. And, of course, it is human work, subject to human frailties.
Actually, you already “interject your beliefs” in how you present the verse. You say “homosexual acts.” The text does not speak of “homosexual acts” in general nor of all “homosexual” people. It speaks only of men lying with men. Our task of interpretation is to figure out what the text means when it speaks of that specific act, not “homosexual acts” in general—at least not until we have figured out what the immediate point of the verse is.
How do you understand the “put to death”? Should we enforce it now? And should it be enforced equally in relation to all the prohibited acts in 20:10-16? In the broader section of Leviticus we have other cryptic prohibitions that most American Christians do not seem to follow—eating no pork or shell fish, no tattoos, never wearing clothes made of mixed fabrics. There are some sexual prohibitions, too, that often are not followed—no sex during menstruation, no masturbation.
Does it not take human interpretation to understand how to apply these prohibitions? To say we no longer execute a person who curses one’s father or mother (20:9—and, unlike, the prohibition of male/male sex, this prohibition is repeated elsewhere in addition to Leviticus) is not to say that that prohibition was not part of God’s revealed word; it’s to say, I would suggest, that we need to recognize that the Bible was written in particular times and places and reflects the issues of its original contexts—and that we have to do a lot of interpretive work to understand how to apply the words to our own time and place.
One last thought, how directly do you apply all the details of the OT law codes? Don’t you think that Jesus should guide us when he challenged the Pharisees in their literalism about the laws? And that it is crucial to recognize, as Jesus taught, that the law in for humans not humans for the law?
Ted I think you are dealing with the same problem that postconservative evangelicals like Roger E. Olson are facing when questioning conservative evangelical tenants of faith. When the Bible is declared to be inerrant, it becomes very easy for the interpretations held by inerrantists to likewise become inerrant. Any questioning of those beliefs becomes tantamount to criticizing the Bible.
I’m inclined to think that what Ted is engaged in is not at all parallel, let alone “the same problem,” Roger Olson deals with in relation to inerrantists, and even less so dealing with “conservative evangelical tenants of faith.” Olson is in fact pretty much a conservative evangelical, and definitely wouldn’t consider acceptance or rejection of same gender sex as a “tenant of faith.” And as a historian he wouldn’t question as Ted does what the words and texts of the New Testament have been understood to mean for 2000 years (you can ask him and I’d be happy to apologize for this critique if he disagrees). I don’t think he would agree that this debate is a result of inerrantists insistence on the inerrance of their own views.
Your comment (on your first post in this series) explaining why you use the word “adversary” is helpful. It does seem an appropriate word for those who yell in your face, or use their influence to prevent you from getting a job you desperately want, or actively seek to get you fired.
But it doesn’t seem like the right word for one who “intently, even hungrily, read your writings” to see if you would show him some weakness in his collection of biblical arguments he views as strong. Or for when I remind you that when I mentioned some of those arguments on your blog in Mar 2014, in Jan 2015, and July 2016, you didn’t respond to them. Someone like that doesn’t sound like an adversary but more like (if I knew you better) a faithful friend (Pro. 27:6).
I dare to use friend language because, reading this second post, I was struck by how much you and I have been on the same quest. We have both been fruitlessly calling for a “Mennonite ‘conversation around the Bible’ on LGBTQ inclusion,” you from one end of the spectrum and I from the other. I called for it again and again as an Executive Board member (1999-2005) and then with increasing urgency as the moratorium on articles in church periodicals on the issue stretched on and on from 1999 until a few years ago.
I can see why our leaders hesitate to have such conversations. There’s fear that it will polarize the church. But do we as a church (we who say we’re committed to trusting the themes of Scripture) really want our polity on same-sex marriage to change—or continue—without deliberate Bible study?
You and I are on the same page when you say that “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.” And we’re kindred spirits when you express regret that EMU’s process to change its hiring policy “never involved overt Bible study or theological discussion.”
At least you and I are willing to do some of the needed “biblical/theological work.” I pray that you’ll learn something from my pieces on Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 as you read them and respond to them. But in your retirement you have more time available than me to put into this. Plus you are more widely read and learned. So perhaps I’ll be the one who will learn the most!
Good points, Harold. I agree on the common ground we have shared and do share about the need for much more biblical work, and I do (and did at the time) appreciate your advocacy for that work during those years around the turn of the century when you had a bigger voice in MC USA’s deliberations. And I do appreciate your willingness to extend yourself and make yourself vulnerable by making your writings public and by continuing to engage people.
I certainly do not think of you as an enemy. I would use the term “friendly acquaintance” right now—and am willing also to use the term “collaborator” in relation to our shared advocacy for more biblical work. I accept and appreciate your use of the term “friend.” I see no barriers to that becoming a term I would also use, all it would take is more personal proximity. So, I will edit my use of the term “adversary” when I directly refer to you.
It may be a bit unfair for me to focus on your writings in the two posts to come (the next one will be up later today). Partly, I do so because of their accessibility. And partly because, however “hungrily” you have read my writings, I still find it unsettling that you would say I have not engaged the best biblical arguments. So I will try again.
Ted since you didn’t leave a place for me to reply, I hijacked another place to do so. I would say you proved my thesis that we are operating from 2 different paradigms. I don’t believe that God made His Bible so difficult that we cann’t understand it. I am reminded of the scripture that says” Your word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Do you really not understand what a man lying with a man means?
As a crucifist I have not stoned anyone. Neither do I intend on doing so. There was a time that God judged and executed people as in the days of Noah. He also put to death those who rose up against Moses. Today we live in a time of grace, thats not to say that we won’t give account of our deeds. Jesus said The law and the prophets were based on (hung on) the 2 great commandments.
There is coming another time when we all shall be judged. The torah was given so we might know what sin is. We are therefore without excuse. Shalom
Two thousand years after Jesus and 200+ years after the Enlightenment, and we’re still only beginning to figure it out. I guess those to watch out for are the ones who think they *have* figured it all out…
Rob, perhaps you could explain to me why it is that progressives, liberals, or whatever group you may call yourselves seek to attack the individual who disagrees with you rather than the issues? I have seen this on college and university campuses where supposedly various viewpoints should be esteemed, yet there is an effort to attack people and prevent opposing viewpoints to be discuss on their merit alone. I didn’t realize that this was to be a cheering section for anyone, but a forum for discussion.
Frank, a couple of quick points in response. First, I don’t call myself part of a group nor think of myself as part of one; labels like the ones you list may have their uses, but I personally shy away from them so as to avoid being tarred with the brush of suppositions. And second, if you care to look again, you’ll see that I didn’t attack any individual. My only reference was to “the ones who think they have figured it all out” – which is a very general reference and was not made with any particular individual or group of individuals in mind.