Two values tested

Central authority, local freedom clash in MC USA

Jul 21, 2014 by

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Within one week this summer, two competing visions of Mennonite Church USA’s future — one with stronger central authority, the other with more local freedom — emerged.

First, national leaders extended their power into new territory. The denomination’s Executive Board said the national conference would not recognize the licensing of Theda Good, a Colorado pastor in a committed same-sex relationship.

One week later, a congregation asked an area conference to assert local freedom. Rainbow Mennonite Church of Kansas City, Kan., presented for discussion but not action a resolution to Western District Conference that promises not to punish any pastor who officiates at a same-sex covenant ceremony.

These two developments push against the edges of competing values: central authority and local freedom. How much power can leaders claim? How much autonomy is everyone’s right?

The church needs both central authority and local freedom. The challenge is finding the right balance. The best path for MC USA today would be to preserve the local freedom that already exists and not expand central authority.

The Executive Board’s refusal to recognize a pastor’s ministry credential tests the limits of the board’s power. Area conferences alone have the right to license and ordain pastors. Such credentials “are respected by all Mennonite congregations and conferences and churchwide organizations,” according to MC USA’s 1996 ministerial polity book.

Good’s licensing deserves the same respect as any other. Respect does not require blessing or agreement. It does not obligate any other conference to accept a transfer of her credential in the future. But it does recognize the integrity of Mountain States’ people and their work. The credentialing process, conference leaders say, was “bathed in prayer from many folks in many places seeking the heart of God.”

In the spirit of Matthew 18, which requires believers to resolve their conflicts face to face, decisions about a pastor’s fitness for ministry should remain local. People who have observed the pastor’s gifts and established a relationship over time should make the decision. A distant national board should not pass judgment.

Nor should it single out one variance as intolerable while accepting others. Good’s relationship with her life partner is at variance with the MC USA Confession of Faith’s declaration that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” But a pastor who is divorced and remarried is just as much at odds with this statement.

There are many variants. Two conferences have chosen not to discipline pastors who officiated at same-sex ceremonies. These pastors are in violation of the Membership Guidelines, but the Executive Board has not declared their credentials invalid. There are conferences and congregations at variance with the Confession of Faith on women in ministry. There are pastors with a weak commitment to the Mennonite core value of nonresistance.

Variation is a fact of life in the church. And it is accepted in all these cases but one. The Executive Board should lead a conversation about how the church can deal respectfully with differences rather than rebuking one.

A Central District Conference resolution offers good counsel: “The answers we seek are best found in dialogue and mutual discernment rather than denunciation.”

For everyone in MC USA — those calling for more authority and those desiring more freedom — here are two words from the Lord: patience and persistence. At the Western District assembly in Waxahachie, Texas, several pastors spoke of Scripture as the story of God’s patient and persistent love for human­kind. The same love for the church and for each other can hold MC USA together even now.


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  • Harold Miller

    Paul, you do not acknowledge in your editorial the strength of other conferences’ concerns about Mountain States’ action (up to and including conference leaders wondering if they will be successful at keeping their conference in the denomination). Executive Board is taking steps that extend their power into new territory (as you word it) not because they desire to wield more authority but because they desire to keep the denomination together. To give an accurate full picture (something you usually do well at), please don’t just give the questions about EB’s actions, but also acknowledge why they did what they did. As you say, “love for the church and for each other” is needed to “hold MC USA together.”

    I was also surprised that you allowed a glaring overstatement to find its way into the editorial (you are usually quite careful in how you say things). You said that a pastor who is divorced and remarried is “just as much at odds” with the COF as a pastor in a same-sex partnership. Really?! Do both call the church to affirm and bless the at-variance action? Even more, do both want the church to change the COF statement? Clearly they don’t. The same can be said about those who are at variance on women in ministry or weak on nonresistance.

    Bless you as you help lead our church through these very difficult and painful times.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      Harold, I think you give the wrong impression of the COF here. If we read it by itself and not through the lenses of the later Membership Guidelines, we will see that indeed Article 19 does speak directly against divorce and remarriage and only inferentially against same sex marriage. The definition of marriage is “one man, one woman for life” and it is interpreted by several biblical references—and each of these references has to do with forbidding divorce.

      The reason you can present the contrary impression here is that the church has ignored the prohibition against divorce and remarriage in Article 19 (which may not be a bad idea), and some (starting with those who wrote the Membership Guidelines) twisted the actual content of Article 19 to make it an anti-same-sex marriage rule (which has been a terribly bad idea).

      • Harold Miller

        Hi Ted! You are right that the Confession of Faith’s statement that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life” is written in the context of divorce and not homosexuality.

        Nonetheless, there is still reason to disagree when you say that the Membership Guidelines “twist the actual content of Article 19” when they use that statement in their “homosexuality and membership” section. At the Virginia Mennonite Conference consultation on the Confession of Faith for credentialed pastors in November 2013, Owen Burkholder shared with the group that the 1995 COF was the first one to specify “one man, one woman.” He, as one who helped write that Confession, went on to explain the change. In previous confessions it was not needed because everyone assumed that marriage was “one man, one woman.” In other words, the language was put into the 1995 Confession because of the homosexuality issue. And so can you see why some say that the Membership Guidelines are warranted in applying the statement to homosexuality?

        • Ted Grimsrud

          I find it believable that the “one man, one woman” language was put in because of “homosexuality.” However, it’s also the case that (1) the committee chose not to cite any verses related to “homosexuality” or to say anything about “homosexuality” in the commentary, which indicates to me that by far the central point was divorce/remarriage; (2) the acceptance of divorced and remarried pastors is much more at variance with the COF than the acceptance of a lesbian pastor (indicating that Paul Schrag might have, if anything, been understating things in his editorial); and (3) the COF itself in its introduction specifically presents itself as a “snapshot” of where Mennonites were in 1995, not as a timeless source of rules.

          • Harold Miller

            No simple, easy answers! Jeremy and Berry bring in conference dynamics that make things even more complex.

            Here’s how muddled things are (responding to Ted’s first two points):

            – Yes, Article 19 does not specify “homosexuality,” so a Ted is warranted in using that as an argument for MC USA not using the Article regarding same-sex partnerships. Yet the “man, woman” language was put into the Article because of “homosexuality,” so a Harold can think MC USA can use the Article for that issue.

            – Every divorced and remarried pastor has indeed violated the explicit teaching of Article 19, so a Ted and a Paul are warranted in seeing that pastor as much more at variance with the COF than a lesbian pastor who only violated an implicit teaching. Yet every divorced and remarried pastor that I know agrees with Article 19 — views his/her divorce as wrong and sinful; will do everything they can to help others not divorce; and would never work to get the COF’s stance on divorce changed. So a Harold is warranted in claiming that a divorced pastor is not violating the COF as much as the lesbian pastor: the divorced one violated the COF’s (explicit) teaching in the past but is not in the present; the lesbian one is presently violating the COF’s (implicit) teaching and also is working to change that teaching.

            Would that the Spirit of God would give the Teds and Harolds (and Pauls and Jeremys and Berrys) the capacity to grasp what the other is trying to say. Only then do we have hope of weighing the various views. Would that we fully open ourselves when the Spirit tries to give it to us!

          • Herbert Reed

            Well, of course a divorced pastor does not want others to divorce as it represents a broken relationship and pastors are about healing relationships, not breaking them. But that is not the issue is it? The issue was and is remarriage of the divorced person while the ex-spouse is still alive. MCUSA has chosen to accept remarriage for divorced persons, including pastors in some cases. Previously (in some parts of the old MC at least) the prevailing polity was that divorced persons were to remain unmarried and celibate as long as the ex-spouse was living. This is why some on the welcoming side see the requirement that LGBTQ individuals remain unmarried and celibate as hypocritical on the part of MCUSA. It is the difference between regretting the tragedy of the divorce while allowing the individuals to move on and forbidding marriage in the first place for committed LGBTQ individuals. This seems to be a fundamental injustice to me.

          • Bruce Leichty

            You can tell where a culture’s priorities are by what is newly defined as “fundamental injustice.” The question I have for all these purveyors of new wisdom on sexual morays is whether they won’t go march in Salt Lake City and protest against the outlawing of polygamy, too. Pretty fundamental injustice for those LDS true believers practicing their faith and “big love.”

        • Jeremy Yoder

          The conversation between Harold and Ted reminds me why I feel that our
          foundational documents are not serving us well. It’s my understanding
          that both the COF and the Membership Guidelines are political compromise
          documents passed in order for the merger to happen. In the past,
          liberals and conservatives were pretty much left to interpret and infer
          Article 19 as they wanted to. With MSMC’s actions, we are finally forced to
          have a discussion that we don’t really agree on what MCUSA’s
          foundational documents mean for our life together as a denomination.

          My conclusion is that those who claimed MSMC broke MCUSA’s consensus on LGBTQ inclusion weren’t paying attention to all that disagreement
          bubbling under the surface for the past twenty years. People assumed
          that there was consensus, when there wasn’t any and now feel angry and
          hurt when they realize that not everyone in MCUSA understood these
          documents the same way. In this respect, the conversation we are having now is more honest than the assumption that there was consensus.

          As both Ted and Harold demonstrate, I don’t think there is a consensus on
          what Article 19 means and I think that MCUSA’s contradictory approach to
          its own denominational statements isn’t helping. As Ted points out,
          Article 19 explicitly addresses divorce and remarriage, but none of the
          conferences in MCUSA (to my knowledge) are disciplining congregations
          with divorced and remarried members, reviewing credentials of ministers
          who perform marriages where at least one of the couple is divorced or
          refusing to credential divorced and remarried clergy. As Harold points
          out, Article 19 implicitly forbids same sex marriage and yet it becomes the line between faithfulness and apostasy and we’re threatening to destroy ourselves
          over it.

          One can infer from Article 19 that the COF prohibits both LGBTQ and divorced and remarried clergy. But we don’t do that. Why? Probably because divorce and remarriage is not the current hot button social issue and same sex marriage is. Since divorce and remarriage is part of the status quo (even conservatives in Ohio and Virginia do it), we make allowances for it regardless of what the COF or the Bible says. It appears that the only “variances” that really matter and call for discipline are those that resonate with the political and social controversies of the day.

          I think the political strategy to bring (old) MC and GC through the COF and Membership Guidelines has failed. We (as a denomination) do not all understand the authority of foundational documents the same way and there is profound disagreement on the level theological uniformity required to fellowship with one another. In some ways, this is the old GC/MC fight on conference vs. congregational authority again.

          I think all these conversations and debates ultimately come down to the
          question of whether we can abide one another and stay in fellowship with
          one another even though there is profound disagreement on this issue.
          Unless there is a church split or Southern Baptist style expulsion, I don’t think consensus is possible — though perhaps we can go back to the illusion of “consensus” until the next time some controversial issue threatens to split the church.

          As a pastor in MSMC, I see this question playing out. We tend to treat
          conferences as monolithic, but that’s not true either. We’re divided in MSMC over leadership’s decision to license Theda and asking whether we can abide each other. I certainly hope so. I hope that MCUSA can do as well.

          • Ted Grimsrud

            Perceptive comments, Jeremy. Thanks!

          • Berry Friesen

            Jeremy, here is another take on the entire matter.

            Conference leaders and many pastors have been fully aware of the different readings, lack of consensus, and possibility this all would come to a crisis someday. But they hoped and prayed that with patience perseverance and the help of the Spirit, we would grow together into a maturity that we couldn’t even imagine, a maturity that would enable us to reframe these differences in a far more hopeful way.

            Isn’t that exactly what has happened to many of us vis-à-vis our families of origin? We sat across the dinner table from one another and silently wondered if we should say the words that would bring everything to a head. In most cases, we didn’t say them, and now years later, we remain in relationship and are able to talk with each other about those differences.
            Had we discussed them back then in the WAY we would have talked about them then, the rupture would have been nearly irreparable.

            So rather than frame our current situation in grand terms – suggesting that the coalition known as MC USA was perhaps doomed from the start because of political compromises, refusal to discuss core differences, etc. – let us frame it as a courageous act of faith among people who were fully aware of their differences, but who managed to remain in service together until one area conference acted out of a spirit of impatience and faithlessness and broke its word.

            And let us pray MSMC will step back from the path it is on and renew its covenant with the other conferences.

  • Laura Weaver

    Paul Schrag, thanks for your excellent editorial!

    Evansville IN

  • James Regier

    It strikes me that there is a little more to the picture than a power grab by the Executive Board. What we have here is a real catch 22. On the one hand, I ultimately disagree with the Board’s decision not to recognize Theda Good’s credentials–and vehemently object to those who would deny her credentials because of her orientation or because of her faithful relationship borne of that orientation.

    On the other hand, there was no decision that the Executive Board could have made–except perhaps abstention–that would NOT have resulted in its authority expanding into uncharted territories. Her ordination most certainly is at variance with the presently used Confession of Faith and some significant national conference bylaws, and nobody questions this. If the Executive Board were to decide these factors were irrelevant to the credentialing process, then they would be setting precedent that these decisions are made by the Executive Board behind closed doors and not by the delegate assembly, as has traditionally been the case.

    So before one even gets to the question of church unity vs. dissolution, or right side of history vs. antiquated, one comes up to this very difficult question of polity, where there is no clear answer. Of course, one might wonder if or even argue that an issue such as this, which has clearly reached to the level of basic human dignity for many, might indeed warrant and justify such a break in protocol as outlined in the second scenario.

    The sad part in all of this is that this statement does tend to show the very constricting limits of “welcoming” and “affirming”, ultimately revealing them to be mere words of anesthesia as opposed to healing.

    And the reasoning for such a decision becomes so much bureaucratic language to attempt to persuade away real human suffering. To mask the very personal nature of this impersonal decision.

  • Berry Friesen

    Paul, you’ve got it wrong with your talk about “central authority.” MC USA is a coalition and the authority lies with the members of the coalition. The executive board (EB) exercises the authority it has been given by the district conferences.

    Here is what the district conferences have said; it is what the EB was duty bound to follow in its clarification of our current circumstances.

    “Where area conferences with their congregations are committed to the
    vision, mission, and teaching positions of the denomination, they have the
    freedom to seek God’s wisdom and discernment as to how to apply these principles
    in a life-giving way in the many chaotic, broken and/or sinful situations which
    present themselves to the church. This should be done in consultation with the
    broader church, in a spirit of mutual accountability.” (Paragraph II.2. of the
    Membership Guidelines)

    Area conference representatives added further detail to this when they agreed in December 2012 that the Membership Guidelines implicitly forbid the credentialing of pastors who were partners in
    same-gender marriages or sexual unions. I don’t know this for a fact, but I
    imagine the conference representatives didn’t find it necessary to conduct a
    long debate about this. After all, the Membership Guidelines already clearly
    said that it is not permissible for pastors to perform same-sex covenant
    ceremonies. So credentialing a person in such a covenant would be a gross
    inconsistency.

    In light of that December 2012 consensus, and with the benefit of the
    consultation the EB had with the Constituency Leaders’ Council over the past
    several months, the EB clarified that Mountain States Mennonite Conference had
    “failed to honor their relational covenant” with other area conferences by
    licensing Theda Good. It urged Mountain States “to renew their commitment to the
    foundational documents” of MC USA.

    In my view, it is helpful for our denominational leadership group to voice its understanding on this contested matter in a clear and forthright manner. It does not have the authority to
    penalize Mountain States and voiced no desire to do so. But the EB’s clarity
    enables the area conferences to move forward to the heart of the matter: do they
    still hold to the commitments they made when they joined the denomination? If
    not, do they still want to join together in the coalition known as MC USA?

    Certainly unilateral actions that break prior agreements (such as the licensing action of Mountain State Conference) will need to be dealt with. Otherwise, I expect the coalition will break apart.

    So no, although we have major tensions within our denomination that are in tension with each other, the matter before the EB was narrower: one coalition member breaking faith with the others, and the EB serving the church by clarifying what happened.

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