Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict”

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2015

Once, when I was in high school, I was on a school bus returning from a basketball game on a rainy winter night. Roads were narrow and windy in the Coast Range of southwest Oregon. On this part of the road there was one spot where it was possible to pass. As we got to that spot, a car flashed by horn blaring. We recognized the people in the car as recent graduates from our school and we were all celebrating because of having won our game. Then we watched in horror as the car speeding by started to spin out of control. The scene remains vivid in my memory, these 40+ years later. It was like that car froze in space for the longest time before hurtling off the road.

As it turned out, the speeding car only ended up in the ditch. No one was hurt and the car wasn’t seriously damaged. I can only hope that the outcome of what seems like a similar scenario for Mennonite Church USA will be as benign. One watches with a sense of horror as the car seems to be spinning out of control, with a landing no one can predict.

I keep writing about this denomination of which I’m part (see my list of links to posts at the end of this one). Maybe partly it is in hope of helping to affect the upcoming “landing”—though I realize that I am about as powerless to effect where MC USA goes as I was way back when to effect what happened with my friends’ car. But there was something I wrote a few weeks ago that triggered a response that has caused me to think. How do we navigate our tensions, speaking honestly but also respectfully?

Being too negative in discussing one’s opponents?

In my May 12, 2015, post, “The ‘end’ of Mennonite Church USA,” I tried to use language as descriptively as possible in laying out what seems to me to be the situation we are facing. One comment on Facebook gave me pause, though (as this comment was not by someone I know and as it is now lost in the cyber mists and as I am not actually wanting to engage them personally, I will not name the person). As I understood the commenter, I was too pejorative in my representation of what’s going on. This evaluation has made me reflect—is it possible to talk accurately about the actual situation, even in a descriptive way, and still remain utterly non-offensive? Should that even be a goal? Continue reading “Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict””

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Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2015

This past Sunday, January 18, I had another chance to talk about same-sex marriage in a Mennonite congregation. I was invited to speak at Oak Grove Mennonite Church, near Smithville, Ohio. My assignment was to give a talk to a large Sunday School class, preach the morning sermon, and respond to questions in an early afternoon session. It was a good experience for me and, I hope, for the congregation.

One interesting aspect of the visit was how this congregation is really in the middle of the road (or maybe, several roads). Within the congregation, it appears that the more common view would be inclined to what I call the “restrictive” side of things—believing that full acceptance of, say, same-sex marriage, is not appropriate. There seem to be many, though, who likely would tend more to the “inclusive” side and be open to accepting same-sex marriage. However, the point of the visit was not for them to reveal their views to me, but for me to share mine with them.

I put my presentations together so that the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” would speak in more general terms about the centrality of hospitality in the Bible, concluding with a focus on Jesus’s teaching. The sermon does not address same-sex marriage directly, but sets the stage for the lecture by establishing a benefit of the doubt in the Bible toward a welcoming stance in general, especially toward vulnerable people. Then, the lecture (“The Bible and same-sex marriage”) would focus more directly on marriage and make an argument for why Christians should embrace same-sex marriage and apply to it the same kind of moral framework as they do to opposite-sex marriage.

I have posted the two presentation on my Peace Theology website (here are links to the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” and to the lecture, “The Bible and same-sex marriage”). To follow the argument I tried to make, one should read the sermon first and then the lecture.

Reflections on the experience

The discussion that followed, the presentations and personal conversations helped me to see how I could have perhaps reshaped what I did and made the argument more clear. I also continue to wonder about the overall utility of such discussions—as well on the character of the argument I try to make and the appropriateness of me doing such presentations. Continue reading “Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible”

Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2015

 A recent book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Baker, 2014) by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, makes the case that Christians should reject same-sex marriage. The main reason for this rejection is that God has an ironclad “design” that allows only for male/female marriage. This “design” is revealed in scripture and in the nature of human intimate relationships, most importantly in the possibility for procreation that only male/female partners have.

How persuasive is this book’s argument?

Some good points

One of the main strengths of the book is that it strives for and largely achieves an irenic tone. While it is hard to imagine the main argument of the book being persuasive to someone who doesn’t start out agreeing with it (which to me is not necessarily a flaw; I don’t think the authors are necessarily trying to convert same-sex supporters), those who don’t agree with the book’s argument might, nonetheless, well find the book readable and interesting. If someone who accepts same-sex marriage wants to understand the arguments against it, this book would be a good choice. And certainly those who don’t like same-sex marriage will find in this book strong bases for their opposition.

McDowell and Stonestreet (henceforth, M&S) recognize that evangelical Christianity faces a public relations problem with its opposition to same-sex marriage. So they want to counter the impression that “anti-homosexual” is an accurate description of present day evangelical Christians while nonetheless making the case for opposing same-sex marriage. This is a delicate balance to try to achieve, and they are not particularly successful in doing so. But in their effort, they do mute the typical negative rhetoric a great deal.

As well, they (fleetingly) make a number of concessions that earlier evangelicals on the restrictive side (most notably Robert Gagnon in his widely circulated book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice—tellingly not referenced in Same-Sex Marriage) were loathe to. For example, they write: “Many Christians insensitively repeat over and over that [homosexuality is a choice], but to many of the men and women we have talked with who struggle with same-sex attraction, it isn’t. They look at their lives and say, ‘I would have never have chosen this. I can’t choose not to feel this way. I’ve tried to feel straight, but nothing has changed.’ We believe them.” (p. 118). M&S don’t actually wrestle much with the implications of this concession, but it is progress that they have made it.

The basic argument the book makes against the acceptance of same-sex marriage seems pretty straightforward. The basic rationale for M&S opposing same-sex marriage is clear and hence can be wrestled with.

The core argument

This is what M&S present as the heart of their concern: Christians—and everyone else—should reject the notion that people of the same sex can enter into a marriage relationship. Churches should not bless such marriages, and the state should not recognize them as legal unions (there are a couple of hints that M&S would not oppose “civil unions” as long as they are not called marriages; it’s too bad they don’t address that issue more thoroughly). Continue reading “Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?”

Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind

Ted Grimsrud—December 19, 2014

Back in 2003, David Gushee co-wrote (with Glen Stassen) what became a standard text book on Christian ethics—Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Published by InterVarsity Press, this book especially has been widely read in evangelical circles. I liked the book a lot and wrote a quite positive review (Conrad Grebel Review, Spring 2004, 108-10). I didn’t like the book’s discussion of “homosexuality” (it affirmed the “restrictive” view—somewhat in tension with the generally liberative tone of the book as a whole), but all I said in the review was that it was “rather superficial”).

Several years after the book’s publication, I had a conversation with Glen Stassen and mentioned how much I appreciated the book. Glen told me that they were working on a revision. He said Gushee had written the section on “homosexuality” in the first edition and Glen was hoping to be more involved in rewriting that part—and moving it, he implied, in a more “inclusive” direction. I don’t know how close to finishing the revision the writers came before Stassen’s recent death. But based on a new book by Gushee, Changing Our Mind (Read The Spirit Books, 2014), even if a revised version of Kingdom Ethics was to continue to use only Gushee’s views on “homosexuality,” the content would be quite different than the first edition.

The long subtitle of Changing Our Mind makes it clear that Gushee has shifted his views in a major way: “A call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.” With refreshing directness, Gushee describes how his views on this issue have done an about face. He now affirms same-sex marriage and expresses regret about the hurt his earlier writing caused: “I end by apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask for your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here” (p. 126).

Gushee dates his own “change of mind” to just the last couple of years, though obviously this change is the culmination of a much longer process. So this short book is kind of a preliminary expression of his new thinking. It is actually made up of a series of opinion pieces (blog posts) published online by Baptist News Global from July to October 2014. So the book has the advantage of being lively, current, accessible, direct, and winsome. What it’s not, though, is a detailed, scholarly, in-depth analysis of the many issues.

I find a lot to appreciate in Gushee’s book. I welcome its publication. In fact, I am delighted that a prominent evangelical leader would take such a clear public stand. The raises several questions for me though. The first is about evangelicalism—Will Gushee remain an “evangelical leader”? Will he want to? Is a book like this going to be part of a significant shift within evangelicalism and a movement within that arena toward more openness? Or is it more going to lead to a shift with the boundary lines of who counts as an evangelical—with Gushee now located outside the evangelical circle?

It is clear that Gushee here still wants to take an “evangelical” approach to sexual ethics in general—the only change, he would say, is that he now wants to include same-sex marriage on the “morally acceptable” side of the clear line he still affirms between appropriate and inappropriate sex. But I wonder about this approach. I also wonder about Gushee’s strong effort to remain irenic and reasonable throughout. While admirable in many ways, might such a thoroughly irenic approach leave some of the key issues unaddressed? Let me elaborate on these questions.

Continue reading “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind

God and the (celibate) gay Christian

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2014

We are in the middle of an extraordinary moment in the United States with regard to the acceptance of same-sex intimate relationships. Most states now have legalized same-sex marriage, a reality undreamt of just a few years ago. There is still a lot of resistance to such acceptance, mostly under the name of “Christian values.” It’s still uncertain how the marriage issue will ultimately play out, though the momentum toward acceptance seems irreversible.

The ferment on these issues is seen quite vividly among American evangelical Christians (see my reflections on two books that show that even among evangelicals, there is movement toward acceptance: Does Jesus Really Love Me? and God and the Gay Christian).

Wesley Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality takes a quite different stance than the two books just mentioned. I wonder if the impressive popularity of Hill’s book (it’s still one of Amazon’s best selling books in its “Gay and Lesbian” category even though it was published in 2010) reflects a bit of desperation among those evangelicals opposed to gay marriage. They may be thinking, we need some kind of effective counter to the tide toward acceptance. What better counter than a thoughtful, first-person account from a self-acknowledged gay Christian who recognizes that he has a fundamental and seemingly irreversible attraction toward other men but still affirms the standard account view that leaves him with no option but to embrace a celibate lifestyle?

The changing terrain

It used to be common for evangelical Christianity to offer gays full healing from what was categorized a fundamental disorder. A person with sufficient faith, and perhaps some help from a praying community, Christian therapist, and/or spiritual healer could have their same-sex attraction taken away and live a “normal heterosexual lifestyle.” Numerous ministries, the best known of which probably was Exodus International, promised to help this “reparative therapy” process.

As it turned out, such “reorientation” was never as easy or permanent or widespread as claimed by its supporters. In time, even many of those who believed “homosexual practice” is always wrong came to accept that for some same-sex attracted folks, change was not a realistic option. Exodus International is now defunct and one of its former leaders has issued a public apology for the trauma the organization visited upon many of those who turned to it for “healing” their “disorder.” Continue reading “God and the (celibate) gay Christian”

God and the (conservative) gay Christian

Ted Grimsrud—November 2, 2014

I imagine that for those who most oppose the growing openness to same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the churches, including in leadership roles, one of the most challenging arguments would be one that argues on the basis of the Bible for such inclusive practices. It seems easier (maybe for both sides when the debate gets polarized) simply to assume that the debate is whether Christians should follow the Bible or not.

I suspect that it is because Matthew Vines’s recent book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Relationships, is so conservative theologically that it is receiving such sharp opposition from many evangelical supporters of a restrictive approach to these issues. Writers who grant that the Bible is opposed to “homosexual practice” but then want to move the churches in a more inclusive direction based on other criteria (the experience of grace in the lives of LGBTQ Christians, for example) are easier to dismiss.

Muddying the waters

When the debate concerning inclusiveness vs. restrictiveness can be reduced to a debate about Christian orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy, it’s going to be an easier path for those on the side of maintaining the status quo. Vines’s book, though, muddies the waters.

This is a book that situates itself square in the midst of the evangelical churches, claiming to argue from a conservative, orthodox, and traditional biblical reading strategy for the acceptance of “same-sex relationships.” Hence, it is getting much more negative attention than earlier books that argued with more liberal, non-orthodox, and contemporary reading strategies. Continue reading “God and the (conservative) gay Christian”

Jesus’s love and gay Christians: Jeff Chu’s journey

Ted Grimsrud—October 6, 2014

We Christians continue to struggle to embody Jesus’s way of peace in relation to sexual minorities. Surely a necessary part of this struggle is the need to humanize the people this affects. That is, especially, to humanize those we disagree with and those who we may agree with but still perceive as strangers.

Jeff Chu, a professional journalist and gay Christian, has written a fascinating book that helps with this task of humanization. The greatest contribution of the book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (Harper, 2013), surely is how it helps us see actual people as they struggle and advocate. Chu manages to present people across the spectrum in sympathetic ways and helps these people tell their stories.

Chu writes well and obviously is a solid journalist. He does not come across as a deep thinker and does not seem to be especially interested in the intellectual elements of our wrestling. That lack proves to be a problem, as I will discuss below. But for a look into the hearts of those on the front lines of the current ferment among many types of American Christians this book is worthwhile—and I recommend it for that reason.

Poignant vignettes

Several times in the book Chu is especially successful in helping the reader see into the soul of the struggle. For me, one of most moving of the stories he tells is that of Kevin Olson, a gay Christian in Minnesota who feels the call to remain celibate even as he accepts the irreversibility of his affectional orientation. Now, while we obviously are at Chu’s mercy in how he tells Olson’s story, I do sense a profound respect on Chu’s part for Olson’s commitments. Nonetheless, the picture that Chu paints seems to me to be quite sad. Continue reading “Jesus’s love and gay Christians: Jeff Chu’s journey”

Is there a “third way” regarding same-sex marriage and the churches?

Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2014

There seems to be something inherently attractive in the midst of intense controversies about the hope to find ways for people to “just get along.” So when we have all the stresses that we have had concerning Christianity and the inclusion (or not) of those in intimate same-sex relationships, it’s not surprising that the idea of a “third way” that could lead to resolution and keep as many people as possible in fellowship would be pretty attractive.

However, as a person who is not always uncomfortable with taking a partisan position (including on this issue) and who has become used to being the recipient of others’ anger due to that position, I have not found the notion of a “third way” particularly attractive. I often think of the statement from Texan humorist and political activist Jim Hightower: “The only things in the middle of the road in Texas are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

What does “third way” refer to?

Based on my experience over the past thirty years, I find it difficult to envision a genuine “third way” that would result in Christians all getting along with each other concerning inclusion. The issues at stake simply have not lent themselves to compromise, “agreeing to disagree,” or “agreeing and disagreeing in love.” This is too bad, of course, even scandalous. It’s certainly a black mark on Christianity. But, still, it does seem that in practice we do have mostly an either/or issue—especially when we focus on the marriage question.

In the past several years in the United States, probably just about everyone has been shocked with the sea change that has occurred regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage and the broader acceptance of sexual diversity. The momentum is such that it is hard to imagine that the movement toward inclusion will ever be reversed. It does seem possible that the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a ruling that would slow the momentum some, at least for awhile. However, such a slowing most likely would only be temporary. Continue reading “Is there a “third way” regarding same-sex marriage and the churches?”

Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?

Ted Grimsrud—July 1, 2014

It’s difficult for me not to be discouraged by the report from Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board released today concerning MC USA’s Mountain States Conference and the licensing for ministry of my friend Theda Good, a married lesbian pastor. As is typical for such reports (produced by several hands in times of stress and intense disagreement), this one is full of ambiguities and even internal contradictions, not to mention convoluted and passive-aggressive sentences that may taken to support various interpretations.

Still, the main thrust of the report seems to be to rebuke Mountain States for its action. One point that is clear is the insistence that conferences are being told that they should not take actions that are at variance with denominational positions. A big question is whether this insistence has any teeth. It seems to be a historical fact that over and over again Mennonite conferences have indeed taken actions that are at variance with denominational positions—just in relation to ordination of pastors we might think of the ordination of non-pacifist pastors, the ordination of divorced and remarried pastors, and, maybe most relevant to our current situation, the ordination of women.

The language in this current statement, when scrutinized, seems more to be language of “this is what we (the Executive Board) want” than of “you must do this or you will pay.” Perhaps such language reflects a desire by the report writers to be as gentle as possible—or, maybe more likely, the implicit recognition that the Executive Board doesn’t really have a lot of leverage against a dissenting conference. The historical examples indicate that usually conferences have gotten away with whatever variances they have chosen. At the same time, we must recognize that our current environment seems utterly unique. Already many other unprecedented actions have been taken to censer, exclude, and punish those at variance with the stated positions of the denomination concerning homosexuality. Continue reading “Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?”

Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2014

I wrote in an earlier post that I have been disappointed that most conversations that I am aware of about how churches and church-related institutions should respond to LGBTQ folks in their midsts don’t seem to be very theological. Those on the “restrictive” side assert over and over again that the basic issue is the Bible and authentic Christian faith on the one side (theirs) and humanism, relativism, and liberalism on the other. And, it seems, many on the “inclusive” side don’t mind this framing of things.

As I express in that earlier post, I am not happy with that framing, and I try to show there that, for example, my workplace, Eastern Mennonite University, should adopt inclusive hiring practices because of our theological convictions and because we affirm the importance of the Bible. Of course, my sentiment is not gaining widespread affirmation.

Concern for the health of Christian faith

Certainly, the main reason for my convictions and the main motivation for trying to articulate them is my concern for the pain that discrimination causes for people who are hurt by it. It is because of the Bible’s call for love, for compassion, for respect, for hospitality, that churches and church related institutions should take an inclusive approach. We should be welcoming because of the damage a non-welcoming approach does to vulnerable people.

Just lately, though, I have been wondering that perhaps it should also be for the sake helping churches and church-related institutions themselves not to be damaged by problems that arise with following the restrictive path. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking a bit about whether assertions for the necessity for taking a restrictive approach actually might undermine Christian faith itself. Part of what has triggered these reflections just now are several short statements of opposition to movements within churches and church-related institutions that have formerly been restrictive toward becoming more inclusive. Continue reading “Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments”