I’m weary of blessing same-faith divorces

Jun 4, 2014 by

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You are God’s building. Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation. . . . Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have — Jesus Christ. . . . Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. — 1 Corinthians 3

Since becoming a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference nearly 50 years ago, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been through the grief of church divorces, where God’s “people temple” (see above) is structurally damaged.

At our quarterly Harrisonburg District delegate meeting we were again asked to approve a motion granting a release to a local congregation breaking ties with us — separating themselves from our district, from the Virginia Conference and from Mennonite Church USA.

Heartsick, I abstained. I just wasn’t prepared to vote either yes or no. How could I, with many of the members of this congregation being my friends, and all of them brothers and sisters in my faith family?

A part of me understands where these family members are coming from. Like others before them, they see leaving as a necessary part of being faithful to the Bible, believing the mother church is on a wrong course. I went through similar distress when Virginia Conference agreed to accept as members, in some cases, people who were already a part of the military. To me this meant violating the clear teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church, as well as being contrary to our church’s Confession of Faith.

The current issue, of course, is over same-sex marriage, even though currently we have no openly gay couples as members of any of our congregations. But at least one church has stated it would be open to receive such, and Eastern Mennonite University here in Harrisonburg, a part of MC USA, is currently debating the question.

Statistically, only about 3-5 percent of our members (estimated percentage of people who are gay or lesbian) would ever even think of choosing such a partnership.

Nevertheless, these are the kinds of questions the church must take seriously. But must we walk away from each other as soon as we even talk about controversial issues — like accepting divorced persons who have “married another,” or blessing members choosing to “fare sumptuously every day” while billions are in want, or baptizing people who believe killing as a part of military service is OK?

Or should we stay with each other, meanwhile encouraging congregations, as they feel led, to discipline individual members who refuse counsel or correction from the church, but not separate ourselves from whole congregations or districts? And meanwhile, shouldn’t we at least allow for time to discern and pray with each other, to confront and engage each other, and love and weep with each other as members of fellow congregations or districts? Even no-fault divorces of married couples in Virginia require a year of waiting before formally severing ties.

Our Swiss Anabaptist forebears didn’t seek to see the church divided, but appealed to their entire church in Zurich to follow Jesus’ call to voluntary discipleship and a renunciation of violence. They were forced out, were persecuted, tortured and exiled for preaching a baptism of the willing rather than having everyone forced into membership in the state church.

I know there is much about today’s churches and congregations that is broken. We are a mix of flawed, imperfect people, to say the least, as have been members of churches ever since their first century founding.

But dare we just ignore Jesus’ fervent prayer for unity, “that we might all be one”? Are we assuming there is more than one Lord, faith or baptism? Are we not to become one beloved bride of Christ rather than resembling a fragmented harem? Do we believe that in our Father’s house there are separate rooms reserved for each of our kind, or that only those who agree with us can even find a home there?

Or can we affirm there is “a wideness in God’s mercy” that is beyond our imagination?

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation.


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  • Gary Hill

    Harvey, I feel the same sorrow. The Lord is One, I know His Body is too. Movements have been in the church since it began, we must cling to the Anchor of our faith until the calm which our Lord brings to every storm finds us safe and sound.

    • Harvey Yoder

      Thanks for your comments. The church has rejected Christ’s teaching on unity in John 17 and Paul’s in his Corinithian letter and elsewhere.

  • Elaine Fehr

    We live in trying times. Even twenty years ago, I could not have imagined that our churches would face the kind of issues that we see today. However, at the same time, Paul had deep concerns for the people in the body of believers in his day as well as he expressed it in 2 Cor 12:21 – “…when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.”.
    So, we also today, mourn when we love the people in our churches who do not want to repent of the things mentioned in that passage. Because Paul saw the dangers that lurked in those things, he wrote clear instruction on how to handle situations where people refused to repent in 1 Cor. 5. Those instructions don’t bode well with those who want unity at all costs, but can we see the wisdom of the principle in that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”?
    In answer to your last question, I think it’s dangerous to look the mercy of God as something beyond our imagination. In looking to scripture, God makes it clear that His mercy is extended to all who REPENT and BELIEVE in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting only Him for our salvation.

  • Elaine Fehr

    We live in trying times. Even twenty years ago, I could not have imagined that our churches would face the kind of issues that we see today. However, at the same time, Paul had deep concerns for the people in the body of believers in his day as well as he expressed it in 2 Cor 12:21 – “…when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.”.

    So, we also today, mourn when we love the people in our churches who do not want to repent of the things mentioned in that passage. Because Paul saw the dangers that lurked in those things, he wrote clear instruction on how to handle situations where people refused to repent in 1 Cor. 5. Those instructions don’t bode well with those who want unity at all costs, but can we see the wisdom of the principle in that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”?

    Mr. Yoder, in answer to your last question – ‘Or can we affirm there is “a wideness in God’s mercy” that is beyond our imagination?” “, my hope is that you are not referring to a belief held by some that in the salvific sense, God’s mercy includes the non-repentant. I’d appreciate a clarification on that as the Bible is clear that He gives salvation only to those who REPENT and BELIEVE in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting only Him for our salvation.

  • Lisa_Schirch

    Thank you for this article Harvey. I’m dismayed that families have disowned and shunned their children who were born with a same-sex sexuality and that churches are so ready to push away anyone they think of as sinning. Even if we disagree on what is or isn’t sin, isn’t it also sinful to judge? Where does Jesus ask us to push away those we disagree with? Where is the Biblical basis for excommunication and shunning? These are Anabaptists sins. Shunning reflects Anabaptist vanity and self-righteousness – not humility – for shunning is a desire to be so pure that we refuse to get our souls messy by listening to those we disagree with. Do we also disagree about Jesus’ call to love those we disagree with? Do these congregations seeking to leave the Virginia conference really believe that they are without sin? Where will all this congregational “divorce” as you call it ever end? We all interpret the Bible with our own eyes and experiences. No two people or congregations will read the same things in the Bible. So are we destined to tear apart the whole community to pursue a life where we never have to listen to or understand others who think differently than we do?

  • Lisa_Schirch

    But where are the people in the conservative church repenting of their self-righteousness, of their taking over the role of judgement from God, of looking at the speck of dust in their neighbor’s eye instead of the log in their own? Where are the conservative Mennonites standing up against sexual abuse within families in their churches? Where are they calling for repentance from the wealthy and the gluttony all around us and in our churches? How can any church think that they are without sin – that their members repent of the sins inherent in living in a Walmart society where we buy cheap coffee and clothes made by slave labor abroad and corrupt businesses that force their employees onto public welfare? How can any church judge the rest of us in the Mennonite church as unworthy of talking to? I welcome a church big enough for everyone. For all followers of Jesus. I don’t see any Biblical basis in shunning, in excommunicating, in the pervasive desire to push away people in the church. For me, these social practices are secular, not Biblical.

    • Elaine Fehr

      We need a revival. And revival always begins with repentance. Also needed are ministers who are willing to preach God’s word, line by line and verse by verse. Then the hard uncomfortable truths that many of us don’t want to hear and acknowledge would not be avoided.

    • xmenno

      Lisa, Jesus said marriage is between a man and a woman and in God’s sight they are one flesh. Can you say that same sex relationships are also one flesh in God’s sight? Yes or no? Dale Welty

    • Linda Rosenblum

      Nobody is saying that the church should not repent of those other sins. ALL sin requires repentance. The issue at hand is those in the church who refuse to believe that homosexual behavior is a sin that requires repentance. And yes, we are all guilty of some sin or another which we must humbly go to God for forgiveness, and pride and self-righteousness is among those sins at the top. However, I don’t see anyone saying that those really aren’t sins because God made me with an inclination toward pride and self-righteousness. I grow weary of those supporting homosexuality in the church using other sins or examples of slavery in the past as excuses for not addressing the main issue. The Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin. Pointing back and saying that we have other sins doesn’t make homosexuality a good.

      • Bruce Leichty

        Hear, hear, Linda.

  • Elaine Fehr

    Mr. Yoder, could you please help me understand your position. Do you see the resistance of accepting homosexual relationships in the church as a rejection of the unity desired by Christ in John 17?

    • Harvey Yoder

      I’m not addressing the issue of whether congregations should support people in homosexual
      relationships, but simply stating that we have rejected Christ’s prayer
      and appeal for unity around so many issues that we often later regret.
      The church belongs to Christ, not us. We need to take whatever time it
      takes to engage each other and confront each other within his body and
      as his bride, not walk away from each other and cut ourselves off from
      those with whom we disagree. The Christian church, in spite of enduring various groups within it who held very questionable positions at times, essentially stayed together as one body until 1054. Now there are tens of thousands of different denominations and sects within Christendom. Does that represent faithfulness to Jesus?

      • Elaine Fehr

        Thank you for your response. I too am bothered by the underlying reasons for there being so many denominations, but take comfort in that true believers are the sheep of Christ who hear His voice and follow Him. There is unity with Him but it is challenged when wolves in sheep’s clothing who want to remain the unrepentant want to join and be accepted into the flock. Then there is disharmony and discord because some recognize the dangers this presents, but others do not. So there is disagreement.

        Unity is not keeping sheep and wolves together in one group. Sure, there may be an appearance of unity because of physical togetherness, but true unity is possible only when people are of one spirit and of one mind. Just to clarify, I’m not talking of petty differences like what colour should the sanctuary be painted, but rather of issues like, for instance, the push for acceptance of deliberate rebellion against God’s laws which includes sexually immoral lifestyles (fornication, gay relationships, adultery, etc., etc.).

        It would do us all well if each church would take Paul’s words in Philippians 1:27 seriously: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;”

        • Lisa Schirch

          But who are the wolves and who are the sheep? The GLBTQ people in my church are most certainly not wolves. But the people who take it upon themselves to push them out of the church, to sit in the seat of judgment of others…? well, I refuse to call them names. But I think they are more similar to the pharisees than to Jesus.

          • Elaine Fehr

            So, who are the wolves? I’m glad you asked, Lisa. We can identify them by their fruits. Some of the identifiers are listed in Isaiah 5:9 – they call evil good and good evil, they put darkness for light, and light for darkness, they put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.

            These wolves do not believe everything that 1 Corinthians 6:9 says – “Do you not know that the
            unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither
            fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”

            These wolves lead the sheep down the wrong path by either ignoring those words and failing to warn the flock, as Jesus did, by saying…”unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3) Or they blatantly proclaim that some of those behaviours are acceptable in the eyes of God. They’ve exchanged the truth for a lie. Unfortunately I’ve run out of time this morning, but would be happy to discuss this further if you wish.

          • Lisa_Schirch

            Hi Elaine – There has been a lot of theological discussion on that passage of Corinithians from Paul’s letters. Walter Wink and others contest the interpretation that you are using here. If we are going to look at everything Paul said, then Christians should stop eating shellfish and pork. I don’t like picking and choosing bible passages. I think it is more important to look at the New Testament as a whole and to listen to what Jesus says. Jesus warns people against judging others. Jesus welcomes outcasts. I think the church is abandoning the law of love and follows secular homophobia in naming a small group of outcasts as wolves. The secular world will not know we are christians by our homophobia, our hatred of people who are different from ourselves or our our eternal judgement of others and labeling people sheep or wolves. I find this really destructive and harmful to everything Jesus stood for. The secular world will know we are christians by our love.

          • Elaine Fehr

            At my workplace, we have a gay couple who are married. I work closest with one of them and I find him to be a very amicable person who exhibits a great personality. But he is spiritually lost and I can’t tell you how it saddens me to know that and that he’s chosen that path. Jesus loved him so much that He died for him too. But this fellow needs to repent and receive Christ as his Lord and Saviour just like the rest of us or he will suffer the eternal fires of hell like anyone else who wants to go his own way. I don’t want that for him in the least! Who loves this person more – the one who encourages him to continue down the wrong path or the one who warns him and prays for him to repent just as Jesus commands?

            Finally for this early morning post, I just want to say that Walter Wink’s words won’t win me over the word of God, which includes the writings of Paul.

          • Linda Rosenblum

            So was Christ being loving when he told the woman at the well to “go and sin no more” or was he being judgmental and unlovely? Or what about when he drove the tax collectors from the temple? — Linda Rosenblum

  • Harvey Yoder

    Thanks you for your thoughtful response, and I do agree that repentance is required (God may make exceptions for sheer ignorance, as in “they know not what they do) but good Christian people may still have honest differences of opinion as to what is or is not a sin. For example, should divorced people remarry or remain celibate? According to Jesus, that is a serious issue that the 95% of us who are heterosexual haven’t been clear or consistent about.

  • Lisa_Schirch

    Harvey, I wanted to address the statistic you give in your article on the percentage of people in the church who are attracted to the same sex. The research on this is difficult. The number you cite is the frequently cited number of people who “self-identify” as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. But in other research, it becomes clear that many people do not self-identify as having a same sex sexuality because of fear of persecution, shunning, hateful behavior. And we know that many people in the church who do reveal their same sex sexuality suffer depression and commit suicide at a higher rate because of the church’s negative reaction to them.

    If communities did not punish people with a same-sex sexuality, many more people might self-identify as something other than heterosexual. The Smithsonian published research last year that shows that the actual percentage of the population that has experienced same sex attraction at some point in their life is much higher, as cited in my article here in MWR. I did not link to the research in my article, so I am going to post it here, as a number of people have emailed me asking for the research citation: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-percent-of-the-population-is-gay-more-than-you-think-5012467/?no-ist

    • Leon Moyer

      Lisa_Schirch: To continue your line of thought, many people do not engage in child sex, animal sex, or other perversions because of fear of persecution, shunning, or hateful behavior (maybe you include incarceration or the death penalty as such?), and they might commit sucide at higher rates than the general population. So do you also advocate that “communities not punish” those people who would like to engage in pedophila, bestiality, etc.?
      The believer is one who keeps the commandments of Jesus (John 14:15) which include condemning those who divorce and remarry with a previous spouse alive, because Jesus said it constituted adultery, which is a sin. Luke 16:18. To condemn those who live in sin is to show love toward them, in that they might repent of their sin once they know of it. Lev. 19;17.

      • Lisa_Schirch

        Leon, These things are not the same. The married men and the married women in our churches have no victims in their relationship. They both love each other. Women love other women. Men love other men. This victimless relationships have no comparison to abusive, violence. It is fine for you to denounce violence and sexual abuse. DO so for all the men in the Mennonite church who abuse their wives and their children. Most sexual abuse is committed by heterosexuals.

        • Linda Rosenblum

          In the same way, do not point to other sins as a way of justifying the perspective you support e.g. heterosexual violence or slavery.

  • Wilbur H Entz

    Ephesians 4:5 (NIV)
    one Lord, one faith, one baptism;