Should one issue define us?
There have always been differences among Mennonites over how to interpret church documents. Recently, there have been calls for Mennonite Church USA to impose churchwide uniformity on the interpretation of these documents, particularly as they relate to pastoral credentialing issues and same-sex marriage ceremonies. We believe such a move would not only repudiate the direction set in the “Purposeful Plan” at the Pittsburgh convention this summer but would be a recipe for increased conflict, distraction and polarization.
There are strong differences in the church related to same-sex relationships. Those advocating full inclusion of LGBT people are not going away, at least not voluntarily. Imposing greater uniformity or stronger rules is not going to change that.
If the majority believes the differences that exist on this issue are so intolerable, so antithetical to what it means to be an Anabaptist follower of Christ, that this issue defines the core of our faith, then let’s be honest about that and move toward dividing into two denominations. Otherwise we must stop setting this issue up as the defining one.
While there is no hard data, we believe a majority in MC USA probably still support the teaching positions that speak against all same-sex sexual activity — though at the Columbus convention in 2009 delegates voted to “acknowledge” rather than “affirm” these positions. It also is likely that this majority is getting smaller each year and that in the not-too-distant future that position will no longer be the majority.
So what can the church say that provides some way beyond perpetual rancor? We believe that in this conflicted time the church would do well to say something like the following:
“The majority in the church currently understands, based on careful biblical discernment and prayerful openness to God’s Spirit, that same-sex marital relationships are sin. It follows, therefore, that the current teaching position of MC USA is that homosexual sexual activity is sin.
“However, it has become clear that a significant and growing minority in the church, after careful biblical discernment and prayerful openness to God’s Spirit, have come to a different conclusion, and their conscience compels them to act in accordance with their understanding. Faced with a division of this sort, the church must discern whether the issue at stake is core to its identity as Anabaptist followers of Christ.
“If it is, the church cannot afford the resultant distraction and in-fighting over its core convictions as it seeks to be a missional church. It will need to take seriously the possibility of parting ways with those who can tolerate differences in understanding and practice on this issue, and to explore dividing with as much grace as possible.
“However, if the church’s position on same-sex marriage is not core to its identity as Anabaptist followers of Christ — even though many still feel strongly about it — then we as a church must recognize that there will be some variation of interpretation and practice in the church, as there is on other non-core issues.”
Written by Su Flickinger, Hyattsville, Md.; Sheri Hostetler, San Francisco; Cynthia Lapp, Hyattsville; Weldon Nisly, Seattle; Megan Ramer, Chicago; and Karl Shelly, Goshen, Ind. Hostetler, Lapp, Nisly, Ramer and Shelly are Mennonite pastors.
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