Opinion: Welcoming, not affirming

Church must offer redemption, not embrace diverse sexual lifestyles

Apr 28, 2014 by and

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How should Mennonite churches respond to noncelibate gay or lesbian people? Pressure to accept them without reservation into the fellowship is strong.

My decade and a half with a ministry to people dealing with same-sex issues persuades me to believe the church should embrace a posture of “welcoming but not affirming.”

This is based on what the Bible teaches about the Creator’s design. The story of creation connects maleness and femaleness — differentiated sexuality — to the story of Adam and Eve. These two were to bring into this world the children who would populate the earth. They were to share a bond providing not only sexual intimacy but also the potential for new life and the well-being of society.

The biblical writers could not contemplate any other possibility than two “others” becoming “one flesh.” Only two “others” can bring new life into being. The marriage of two such people assumes a societal function — preparing the next generation for its place in the world. A child ideally will grow up with the presence of two such “others.”

When Jesus was asked about divorce, he is quoted in Mark 10 as saying, “At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. . . . What God has joined together, let man not separate.”

When his disciples asked for more explanation, Jesus answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

No one sets forth the Bible’s teaching more clearly than does Jesus here: Everything that concerns our sexuality needs to be judged in relation to its effect upon the union of a woman and a man. So divorce is an assault on marriage, as are lustful thoughts, violence, unfaithfulness, adultery and homosexual behavior. Each in one way or another represents a challenge to the marriage of a man and a woman, and so is outside the limits for followers of Christ.

To create any equivalence between a homosexual relationship and a heterosexual marriage does an injustice to the institution of marriage. The homosexual relationship is essentially inward, while the heterosexual relationship — though affected by sin — is turned outward and forward and is intended not merely to serve the partner and the possible offspring but society as well. At weddings of heterosexual couples one catches the note of the role they will play in preparing their offspring for their place in the world. The premise is that they serve a social good.

Legal protections are appropriate for those who chose a homosexual way of life. Christians ought to support some of the provisions made by governments and courts in the spirit expressed by Jesus when he said Moses provided for divorce because he recognized what we as men and women are like. But that’s not the same as saying Christians ought to accept their practice within the faithful church.

The church’s message to people dealing with homosexuality ought to be that Jesus Christ is the redeemer and helper who came to heal and release those suffering from the bondage of their condition.

While no one should offer easy answers to why people enter a homosexual life, there is plenty of evidence that very few, if any, are simply born that way. Today’s culture, childhood interests, relationships to parents while growing up and sexual encounters during years of developing sexual identity all play a role.

The church needs to keep on saying that even when we feel inclined to a certain behavior, if Scripture teaches that this is outside the will of God, then we cannot name it as good and permissible.

Someone who is heterosexual and wants to indulge in affairs or spend time in fantasizing has no more permission to do so than someone who wants to live as a noncelibate homosexual. We would have to say to them that we cannot give permission to live thus and still remain in fellowship with the church.

Our response could be expressed in the words of Jesus when he says he came to “proclaim release to the captives . . . to let the oppressed go free.”

The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 names a list of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” and includes in the list “male prostitutes and sodomites” (along with those living sinful lifestyles of greed or drunkenness) and concludes: “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

These are words of inclusion, and they are as true today as when Paul wrote them.

We will demonstrate the presence of Christ in our midst by offering the promise of redemption, healing and transformation, not by embracing diverse sexual lifestyles. Christ came to restore the creation to himself, and a church that is faithful to its Lord and Savior must convey that message.

Harold Jantz, of Winnipeg, Man., is a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald and founding editor of ChristianWeek, a Canadian national evangelical newspaper. He is also the retired chair of Living Waters Canada — Central Region, which offers counseling and support to people dealing with sexuality and identity issues, and of the House of Hesed, a care facility that provides a home and support for persons living with HIV/AIDS.

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  • Thanks for you thoughts, Harold. As a Mennonite who is queer, I have some different ones. Feel free to check them out. It’s a specific response to your piece, using your format to highlight some differences.

    Much love,


  • lynnamiller

    In the defense of honesty when referring to the scriptures, I must ask Mr Jantz if “No one sets forth the Bible’s teaching more clearly than does Jesus here”, as he puts it when referring to sexuality, how is it that we do not think the same about Jesus’ command about slaves obeying their masters? Why is that we have moved on from the clear biblical approval of slavery while same-gender identity is still on the no-no list?

    • berryfriesen

      Because Jesus didn’t say that?

      • James Regier

        Jesus also didn’t say anything about same-sex relationships in the above cited passages, or anywhere else. Which may be the point.

  • Jantz quotes Paul as saying that prostitutes and sodomites won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Yet Jesus clearly had a different vision about that, when he said that sex workers and IRS agents will be at the front of the line for getting into the kingdom (ahead of Mennonite bishops and preachers even). (Matthew 21:31; C. Kraybill Translation) So, who you gonna believe? As for me and my house, we’ll take Jesus over Paul any day.

    • berryfriesen

      Sure, me too. But its a contrived choice. Jesus had no Gentile disciples and according to the Synoptics, he spoke to only four Gentiles (a centurion who may have been a convert to Judaism, a Canaanite woman, the Gadarene demoniac, Pilate) during his entire public ministry. He never had a conversation with a Gentile about joining the community Jesus was part of. As an adult, he never experienced an urban milieu until the last week of his life.

      And Paul? Constantly in cities, constantly in conversation with Gentiles, constantly talking about how to expand the dissenting Jewish community to include people who didn’t have the slightest idea what life in such a community entailed and whose former way of living – if continued – would have meant they never were included.

      So it’s not at all surprising that our conversations about what sort of community we want to be sound at times much more like Paul’s conversations than Jesus’.

      • Berry, I really don’t understand how this is responsive to my point, or to the article. So what if Paul had experience in Gentile cities and Jesus did not. Jesus had a vision of the kingdom which was radically inclusive, where even people who did not fit societal norms with regard to sexual activity were welcome. Paul wanted to exclude the very people that Jesus said will be included. Are you trying to make an argument that Jesus never had opportunity to interact with prostitutes and persons with same-sex attractions, just because the bulk of his ministry was spent in rural Palestine? Why do you want to give the words of Paul more authority than the words of Jesus? Isn’t that backwards?

        • berryfriesen

          Charlie, I agree with what you say about Jesus, but you are flat wrong about Paul. He wanted to include “the very people that Jesus said will be included.”

          It would have been as easy as falling off a log to exclude every Gentile of every disposition and persuasion (except those who went through the traditional Jewish initiation, which some did). If that’s what Paul had stood for, then we wouldn’t remember his name and be arguing about him now. But Paul knew Jesus stood for inclusion and so he chose that same path. He kept insisting that synagogues include all the people that you now say he was trying to exclude. That’s why he was so reviled by many Jews and some of them nearly killed Paul.

          I can’t believe you don’t already know this, Charlie.

          Anyway, Mennonites (like the Jews) have a long history of standing outside of empire’s favored attitudes and behaviors and following a different set of assumptions about how the world works and what a dissenting community looks like. I know, that sentence makes Mennonites seem more courageous than we actually are, but there is a bit of truth there. And so like Paul, we are in the position of throwing wide the doors of our community to anyone and everyone who wants to leave empire and its death-wish behind and follow a different set of assumptions about how the world works and how we will relate to one another.

          And yes, those assumptions have substance because the community has substance. It stands for something and against other things, and its damn serious because the empire is serious and its death-wish is ravenous.

          • Berry, let me be as plain and simple about my point as possible: I believe that Jesus included everybody in the kingdom of God, including persons who have same-sex attractions. Paul, on the other hand, wanted to exclude persons with same-sex attractions. Jesus = inclusive. Paul = NOT inclusive. Just because Paul was out there in the Gentile world recruiting Gentiles into the Jesus movement does not mean that he was more inclusive than Jesus. Jesus included Gentiles too. Paul was more inclusive than James, the brother of Jesus, who took over as head of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem. But James was no Jesus, when it came to having a universalist vision of the kingdom. My suggestion is that we stop looking to Paul as an authority on sexuality or on the kingdom (or any other key issue), as he was clearly a fallible human being with fallible ideas and opinions. The words of Paul do not equal the words of God. Nor do the words of Paul equal the words of Jesus. The words of Paul should be viewed as informative (as in, they inform us about what Paul thought), but they are not authoritative.

          • berryfriesen

            Charlie, when you use the phrase “Jesus movement” you seem to mean some other reality in another place, what some people call “heaven”. When I use it, I mean a grassroots mobilization to change worldviews, behaviors and how this world works.

            Take community food security as an example. It is a decentralized movement made up of farmers, green grocers, restaurant owners and chefs, homemakers, policy advocates, urban gardeners and anti-hunger activists working to build strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food to all people at all times. It opposes corporate control of land and food and our existing dependence of food production on the use of fossil fuels. And it draws on thousands of years of wisdom related to food, how it is grown and cared for, and how people should eat.

            So, if Jesus called everyone to join the community food security movement, and Paul barnstormed fast-food addicts, anxious homemakers, lovers of processed food, over-weight folks, corn farmers and grain traders for new members to the movement, then shouldn’t we expect Paul to be getting into discussions all the time with people about what community food security is and isn’t? And refereeing disputes in local food security chapters about who is sincere in changing the food system and who is pretending to be sincere while actually serving corporate interests by disrupting the effectiveness of the local chapter? And when Paul did get into such discussions and disputes, would you say (as you said above) that Paul is trying to exclude the people Jesus had meant to include?

            They both were building a movement to change the world but they worked at different stages in the process and so their points of engagement were different.

            And no, Jesus didn’t want everybody in his movement. Remember the rich guy whose concern was eternal life? Jesus told him to take a hike.

    • Elaine Fehr

      Charlie, Jesus wasn’t referring to unrepentant non-believers in Matt 21:31. Read verse 32 to get a more complete picture of what Jesus was saying.

  • Beverly Lapp

    Harold, I understand your theological position. Mine is not the same. Even though we don’t agree, I’d like stay in Christian fellowship with you as part of the broader Anabaptist family. Since I think the theological arguments have been articulated at great length, at this point I’m interested in answers to very specific questions.
    1. It seems clear from your argument that there is not room in your church for divorced individuals to be members. Do I understand this correctly?
    2. You mention that “legal protections are appropriate” — could you specify what you mean by this? Do you support governments recognizing same-sex marriage and the legal protections this brings to GLBT individuals, knowing that your church will always have the freedom to not sanction gay marriage or include gay individuals as members?
    3. My Mennonite congregation is inclusive of GLBT individuals, which includes supporting them in committed relationships. Do you think our congregations, each with positions and practices grounded in much theological and congregational work, can stay in fellowship together? Or more to the point, if we were in the same conference, would you allow us to stay?

  • Julia Horst

    Ah…. “the promise of redemption, healing and transformation”. What a breath of fresh air! Amen and amen Mr. Jantz

  • Berry, you and I both speak American English. But most of the time I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • berryfriesen

      Charlie, of all the people who comment here, you would have been first on my list of people sure to grasp the difference between pie-in-the-sky religion and faith-based social movements. I don’t know what else to say.

  • Dave Reimer

    Harold, That is the best response I have seen to this issue. I have read so many pieces and almost all shoot from the hip with a situational response from one side or a proof-text from the other side. You have helpfully stepped back and seen the biblical context. We need to consider God’s purpose in creation itself. That is how Jesus dealt with these issues (Matt 19) and how Paul dealt with these issues (Rom 1). Life exists today because God’s plan works. The church will always have to deal with the challenges presented by deviations from the plan. We have to be welcoming, but we don’t help anyone by affirming or by considering all things equal. That will never make the dissonance go away.

  • Julia David Alleman

    Paul would have horrified Philemon by writing slavery is wrong. Jesus would have had the same effect on his listeners by affirming same gender relationships of a committed and permanent nature. Jesus affirmed commitment and permanence in mature relationships in in Mt. 19. How could Paul’s approach in Philemon suggest a parallel between man-woman relationships and those of people who seek same-gender relationships? What problems are created by considering that humans were created for relationships (in addition to procreation), just as the Trinity involves relationships-the image of God?

    • berryfriesen

      Thought-provoking comment; thank you.

      As I understand Paul, he viewed slavery as a manifestation of empire’s power-seeking ways and homosexuality as a manifestation of empire’s deceit and self-glorification. In both cases, Paul’s analysis was primarily structural/ political, nor narrowly moral, and the solution he pointed to was the new way of Jesus. Even if we accept Paul (which I generally do), his approach doesn’t answer all of our questions about same-sex couples in the church. But it reframes those questions.

      Anyway, most people on this forum seem to regard talk of empire within a conversation about sexuality to be off-topic, even though it always was the background and sometimes the foreground for what Paul said. And Jesus too, for that matter.

  • Jerry Weaver

    Jantz claims that “there is plenty of evidence that very few, if any, are simply born that way”, but he offers no evidence in support of this patently false claim. Since Jantz’s whole argument rests on this false supposition, his argument fails.

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