We need help discerning what are disputable matters

Nov 21, 2014 by

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My church, Mennonite Church USA, like many denominations, is in a state of crisis over an issue I never thought would become a subject of dispute in my lifetime, the question of whether congregations can accept members in faithful same sex relationships.

As a pastor and counselor, I’ve met with many members who have lived for years with the pain of being gay or lesbian in a church in which their gender orientation is seen as unacceptable and wrong. In the past, this 3-4 percent of our members has largely suffered their isolation in silence and/or tried in vain to change their orientation. Most, unlike the majority of us, have remained celibate, or have quietly moved elsewhere.

Now some members are asking to have same-sex unions blessed by the church, and an increasing number of their friends, parents and other loved ones are supporting them. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a major rift that threatens to tear the church apart at every level — denominational, area conferences and local congregations — along with individual families who are divided over the issue.

Chester Wenger, a 96-year-old Lancaster Mennonite Conference retired pastor and missionary recently wrote an open letter to the church and submitted it to Mennonite World Review and The Mennonite. In it, he affirmed how having a beloved son in a committed same-sex relationship has led him and his wife to reconsider their position. Soon thereafter his daughter, Jewel, and her husband, Richard Showalter, wrote a respectful counter statement for Mennonite World Review. Both the Showalters and Wengers deeply love the church and are highly regarded as church leaders. Yet they are not of one mind on this issue.

Willard Swartley, another seasoned church leader and author of the book, Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment (Herald Press, 2003), which supports the church’s traditional view of marriage, wrote a recent letter to the MWR appealing for unity in the face of this debate. Specifically, he urges that we “embrace Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 and pray daily for 1) protection from the evil one; 2) sanctification by/in truth, and 3) unity — to be made completely one as Jesus is one with the Father for the purposes Jesus desires in verses 23-24.”

Canadian writer and pastor Glen Brubaker recently co-wrote a piece with David Augsburger, a lifelong pastor and seminary teacher, which they entitled ” ‘Welcome’ in Romans 14-15:7,” suggesting another possible response on the part of the church based on Paul’s teachings about how the church deals with “disputable matters.” In Paul’s time, some major differences the church experienced had to do with issues like the observance of Jewish holidays, eating food that had been offered in pagan idol worship, and observing certain traditionally Jewish dietary restrictions. The even more divisive issue of whether the sacred sign of circumcision would be required for all male believers had been settled earlier.

Can any part of Paul's teaching in Romans apply?

Can any part of Paul’s teaching in Romans apply?

As a pastor, Paul admonishes the “strong,” those with more robust consciences and fewer scruples in disputable matters, to respect and to never look down on the “weak,” those with more sensitive consciences that allowed them less freedom in such areas. And he repeatedly urges the latter not to pass judgment on fellow believers with whom they differ, but fully accept them as their sisters and brothers.

But then as now, the church has had difficulty deciding just what kinds of issues belong in that disputable or gray area. Are they only the things actually listed in Romans 13, 14 and in I Corinthians 8 and 10, most of which no longer are of great concern us? Or do they include any issues that are frequently disputed at any given time in the church’s life by those who have pledged allegiance to Jesus as Lord and want to be faithful to scripture (such as the matter debated by the Wengers and Showalters)?

The Mennonite church does experience consensus on a great many things. Some issues that are seldom considered disputable are that we all seek to base our life and practices on the Bible, and generally adhere to Palmer Becker’s three Anabaptist principles: “Jesus is the center of our faith”; “Community is the center of our life”; and, “Reconciliation is the center of our work.”

We have also, for better or worse, experienced broad consensus on certain differences that we’ve come to believe should not separate us, such as whether divorced persons can remarry, or whether Mennonites can ever be any part of the military. We also have major agreements regarding behaviors we all clearly rule out as unacceptable, like being sexually promiscuous or being married to more than one partner.

But what are we to do with disputable matters? Can we assume that anything can belong in this category simply by virtue of the fact that many are indeed disputing them?

I welcome your reflections.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.

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