Western District weighs congregational freedom

Survey reflects diversity, unity

Nov 17, 2014 by and

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MOUNDRIDGE, Kan. — Congregational freedom is a tradition in Western District Conference. Now the conference needs to decide how that tradition applies when issues of same-sex relationships test the denomination’s unity.

More than 140 people from 29 churches met Nov. 15 at Eden Mennonite Church to discuss that question and to consider the findings of a survey on same-sex unions and church governance.

The survey — the first of its kind by a Mennonite Church USA area conference — revealed sharp divisions on the authority of church statements and the practice of church discipline.

Yet the responses also showed “we see ourselves as a conference that can deal with diversity,” said Jim Schrag of Newton, who chairs the conference’s discernment task force.

About 1,700 people responded to the survey, which was not scientific and should be considered only a “general indicator” of opinions, Schrag said.

Among the findings:

  • Fifty percent agree with the MC USA Confession of Faith statement that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life”; 40 percent disagree.
  • Fifty-four percent oppose disciplining pastors who perform same-sex covenants; 38 percent support it.
  • Fifty-eight percent believe the church’s “teachings” should only be “advisory” for congregations.
  • Sixty-five percent say unity does not depend on uniformity; 62 percent believe unity can be preserved if congregations are allowed to choose different practices on same-sex relationships.
  • Eighty-four percent agree the district benefits from relationships with other conferences.

“The survey shows strong support for congregations to make their own decisions regarding belief and practice,” said conference moderator Richard Gehring of Manhattan. “But how much autonomy an individual congregation has is not entirely clear.”

The district conducted the survey to get a better understanding of what members believe as its leaders decide how to process a resolution that would allow pastors to officiate same-sex covenant ceremonies “without fear of censure.”

Rainbow Mennonite Church of Kansas City brought the resolution to delegates for discussion last summer. Conference leaders need to decide whether to bring the resolution to a delegate vote next fall.

“The resolution from Rainbow Mennonite pushes us to ask ourselves who can decide what about matters of faith and practice,” Schrag said.

If approved, the resolution would put Western District in tension with the denomination’s Membership Guidelines, which ban same-sex ceremonies.

However, the resolution would be in accord with a 2011 decision by the district’s Leadership Commission, which did not discipline a pastor who violated the ban.

Hispanic statement

In addition to the survey data, the conference received a statement from nine pastors of Hispanic congregations. The pastors said they believe the Bible supports the church’s traditional teaching on marriage.

But they said if others believe differently and allow same-sex ceremonies, “we will respect what they decide and not impose an obligation to change or criticize their decisions, let alone question their Christian values.”

The Hispanic pastors also said they regretted that the conference was spending so much time discussing the issue.

Gilberto Flores, associate conference minister, summarized the Hispanic pastors as saying: “We fully disagree with same-sex relationships, but we don’t want to leave the conference. We won’t try to change anyone, and we hope no one tries to change us.”

After discussion in small groups, two participants said people at their tables considered the Hispanic pastors’ statement hopeful and prophetic.

Strengths, hazards

Participants were asked to consider the strengths and hazards of congregationalism. A handout suggested five of each.

Among the strengths: Congregationalism gives the flexibility to respond to God’s activity in a specific setting. It requires members to discern together the path of faithfulness.

Among the weaknesses: A congregation might act without considering the wisdom of the wider church. Congregational freedom might produce so much variety that common goals are difficult to agree upon.

“We are describing a tension that for a healthy church is necessary,” said Tom Szambecki of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton. “The hazards and strengths are necessary for each other.”

Helen Nachtigal of Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton said: “We like the mix of some guidelines with much autonomy that can be applied locally.”

John Hirschler of Beatrice, Neb., read 2 Tim. 4:3, which warns about false doctrine and teachers who tell people with “itching ears” what they want to hear.

“Much of this conversation really disturbs me,” he said “I don’t know of any society that embraced homosexuality that lasted. Rome didn’t last. . . . Sin can be forgiven, but the Bible does tell us that homosexuality is sin.”

Participants were asked to respond to three questions on congregationalism. The results generally indicated that congregations should not have an “unrestricted privilege of local discernment” and should “practice consultation” when “making a decision that affects others.”

Terry Shue, MC USA director of leadership development, told participants there is “anxiety across the church” on issues of same-sex relationships. He said a growing number of conference ministers are unsure if they can keep their congregations together with their conferences, let alone with the denomination.

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