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Nov. 11, 2013 issue

MC USA district airs contrasting viewpoints during homosexuality symposium

By Paul Schrag Mennonite World Review

NEWTON, Kan. — Contrasting views on same-sex marriage in the church highlighted a symposium on homosexuality Oct. 25-26.

Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, which has seen eight congregations withdraw after a Kansas pastor officiated at the covenant ceremony of a lesbian couple, sponsored the event.

“The Church and Homo­sex­ual­­ity: A Conversation That Can Hold Us Together” drew 130 people to Faith Mennonite Church.

The main presenters were Keith Graber Miller, a professor of Bible, religion and philosophy at Goshen (Ind.) College, and David Boshart, executive conference minister of MC USA’s Central Plains Conference. Both are ordained pastors.

Boshart advocated welcoming gay and lesbian people in the church while not supporting same-sex marriage as a ministry of the church.

Graber Miller argued that same-sex relationships can be loving, pure, just and fruitful and that the church should bless and honor them.

God makes marriage

Boshart said a “Christo-centric case can be made for why sexual intimacy between people of the same gender should not be affirmed as marriage.”

The Western District’s Human Sexuality Discernment Task Force, which organized the event, had asked him to give the rationale for the denomination’s position.

“We do not find scriptural affirmation for sexual intimacy between two people of the same gender from a plain reading of the text,” Boshart said. Graber Miller later said he agreed with this.

For guidance on same-sex relationships, Boshart said, we should look to Jesus, who understood marriage as a unique relationship between a man and a woman.

“Because God makes marriage, we cannot simply choose to apply ‘marriage’ to whatever other socially constructed relationships we want,” he said.

If the church wanted to allow pastors to perform same-sex marriages, he said, more biblical discernment would be needed.

The church’s worship practices are not human-centered but “always bear witness to what God is doing among us,” he said. “Out of what biblical spiritual discernment can our public witness affirm that God is joining two people of the same gender into one flesh?”

Jesus practiced radical hospitality but not radical inclusion, Boshart said, and the church should do the same.

“Jesus was always welcoming but not unconditionally affirming,” he said. “Making this distinction helps us avoid dividing into the camps of justice (including) or purity (excluding).”

Given the denomination’s current documents, Boshart said, a pastor should not officiate at a same-sex marriage or covenant ceremony even if the congregation desires it.

“On the other hand, no pastor should be penalized for engaging in rigorous moral debate on any subject within his or her credentialing body,” he said. He hopes this debate will happen.

He called for the church to “walk in patient forbearance with members of the LGBTQ community in our midst. The faithful church will trust that the Spirit of Jesus is at work in their lives.”

The church needs to value Scripture above experience, Boshart said. It needs to resist the trend of trusting experience more and the Bible less. In the denomination’s Confession of Faith, he said, members have agreed that the Bible should be “the tester and corrector of all other sources of knowing.”

Loving relationships

Graber Miller said there is no evidence that the biblical writers knew of genuine same-sex orientation. He said they condemned abusive acts but did not address loving relationships.

“Seven passages, including about 50 verses in the Old and New Testaments combined, deal with this issue, and in every case the context suggests idolatry, violent rape, lust, unnatural behaviors or exploitation,” he said.

“I believe the biblical passages dealing with same-sex sexuality are addressing something other than the loving, community-affirmed, covenant same-sex relationships we know today.”

The church has long acknowledged the reality of same-sex orientation, he said.

“Would it not be good to channel those orientations into loving, God-blessed commitments marked by monogamy and fidelity, supported and held accountable by bodies of believers?” he asked. “That would allow for sustainable, life-giving commitments in a way that hiddenness, denial and denunciation do not.”

Graber Miller called for MC USA and its conferences to allow congregations to dissent from the denomination’s stance on homosexual practice — an issue that he said is not at the core of Christian faith nor central to the Anabaptist tradition.

“I’m asking that conferences allow those congregations and their leaders who painstakingly and faithfully come to views divergent from what is considered the norm — divergences rooted in communal congregational discernment of Scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit — to be allowed to coexist alongside those with other views,” he said.

The church has focused too much on homosexuality, distracting itself from more pressing sexual concerns, Graber Miller said.

“Very little of our contemporary sexual peril, only a smidgen of the current vulgarization of sexuality in our culture, has to do with homosexuality,” he said. “I’m not at all convinced that traditional Christian marriage, and even the sacred authority of the biblical text, are unduly endangered by gay and lesbian people loving each other and committing themselves to each other.”

Notes in harmony?

Four people gave responses to Boshart and Graber Miller: a theologian, a pastor, a lesbian and a woman who has renounced same-sex attraction and is married to a man.

During a time of dialogue, Boshart said the withdrawal of congregations from MC USA — departures in which homosexuality “seems to be the symptomatic issue” — had changed the denomination’s culture by decreasing its diversity.

“I can have a lot of consternation toward churches that leave the denomination over these kinds of issues,” he said. “But all of us participate in that brokenness when churches leave.”

Graber Miller said the church needed to “hang onto the grace of uncertainty… . In music — and I’m suggesting in the life of the church as well — harmony comes from singing different notes rather than everyone singing the same note.”

Nick Detweiler-Stoddard, pastor of Salem Mennonite Church at Freeman, S.D, observed that not all notes go together to create harmony.

Participants said they appreciated the event. A pastor said his congregation needed to have a conversation like this “even if it costs me my job.”

“I was surprised and thankful for the very respectful conversation,” said Jennie Wintermote of Halstead. “I have a lot of friends who grew up in church but aren’t in church now and talk about how closed-minded it is. I was sad there weren’t more younger people here.”

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