MC USA council endorses unity statement

Among three proposed resolutions on sexuality, leaders state their preference

Mar 30, 2015 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Conservative, progressive or a call for unity and tolerance?

From left, Dean Beck, Moises Augustia and Karen Sensenig participate in a table group discussion during the Constituency Leaders Council meeting. — Hannah Heinzekehr/MC USA

From left, Dean Beck of Ohio Conference, Moises Augustia of Iglesia Menonita Hispana and Karen Sensenig of Lancaster Conference participate in a table group discussion during the Constituency Leaders Council meeting. — Hannah Heinzekehr/MC USA

That was the question for the Mennonite Church USA Constituency Leaders Council as its members weighed three proposed resolutions on sexuality and church polity.

They chose the call for unity and tolerance.

Meeting March 26-28 at Bethel College, the CLC endorsed a resolution to extend “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

The statement now goes back to the Resolutions Committee and then to the Executive Board. Each can make changes. The board will decide whether to recommend it to delegates at the July convention in Kansas City.

The board still can consider the other two resolutions. The CLC has an advisory role, not decision-making power.

The 70-member group of conference and constituent group leaders gave the Resolutions Committee what it asked for: one clear favorite.

Known as “Chicago-Reba,” the resolution came from Community Mennonite Church in Chicago, Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill., and North Baltimore Mennonite Church.

It acknowledges MC USA’s lack of consensus on “whether it is appropriate to bless Christians who are in same-sex covenanted unions.” It calls the church “to seek peace and unity as together we discern and seek wisdom on these matters.”

Of the other two proposals, the progressive resolution — known as “Just Church” and sponsored by seven congregations — got the least support.

It calls for “amend[ing] all church documents as needed to support full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the denomination at all levels of participation and service.”

Also receiving less support than Chicago/Reba was a conservative resolution known as “Lower Deer Creek” for the Iowa congregation that is one of its sponsors.

It would require the CLC to “review the actions of all conferences who have acted contrary to our Confession of Faith as it relates to performing same-sex covenant ceremonies or credentialing persons living in same-sex relationship . . . and bring the Executive Board recommendations for sanction or termination of membership for such conferences.”

The full text of the three proposed resolutions: http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/10_ Sexuality-Resolutions.pdf

Discussion of proposals

After discussion in table groups, participants described their views of the three proposed resolutions.

Dan Miller of Indiana-Michigan said the Chicago/Reba statement “has the most chance of success but doesn’t change the trajectory of separation that we are currently on. . . . Are we really coming to terms with how far apart we are?”

Richard Gehring of Western District said Chicago/Reba “seems to be the most likely to pass and best captures the essence of who we are as Mennonite Church USA.”

Rhoda Keener of Mennonite Women called the Just Church resolution “a helpful statement of where the LGBTQ community is.”

Michael Zehr of Southeast Conference said that at his table the Lower Deer Creek resolution “reflected our theology, but we felt that it was quite prescriptive and lacked expressions of grace and humility.”

Ron Guengerich of Central District said he was intrigued by the discussion of where authority lies: Scripture, the church and the Confession of Faith.

“I’m not satisfied with any of these,” he said. “All authority is given to Jesus Christ. For me, Scripture is a secondary authority to Jesus Christ.”

Keith Weaver of Lancaster Conference said, “I have a dream that we can make space for each other and respect each other.”

The group also gave counsel on three other resolutions. It overwhelmingly endorsed a churchwide statement on sexual abuse and said it was important to present it to the delegates this year.

Between two resolutions on U.S. warmaking, CLC members favored one known as “Faithful Witness Amid Endless War” but were evenly split on whether it should go to delegates.

About two-thirds favored sending to delegates a resolution that calls Israel’s occupation of Palestine sinful and advocates withdrawing investments from corporations that profit from the occupation and violence in Israel-Palestine.

The full text of these resolutions: http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/11_Other-resolutions.pdf

Room for both

In his executive director’s report, Ervin Stutzman invited two conference leaders — Lois Johns Kaufmann of Central District and Keith Weaver of Lancaster — to the front as symbols of his hope for unity even when conference cultures differ.

Lancaster takes a traditional position on same-sex relationships; Central District plans to license a gay man for pastoral ministry this year.

“My opinion is that there is room for both of these people in the church,” he said. “They are my friends. I admire both of them.”

But, he said, “I realize that organizational unity itself is not the unity of the spirit. I wish we could stay together as a church, but if we don’t, I hope we cultivate the kinds of relationships that show the unity of the spirit.

“There are some so committed to Mennonite Church USA that you couldn’t push them out with a bulldozer, and there are some so eager to leave that you couldn’t hold them in with a net.”


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  • Bruce Leichty

    Thank you, Ron Guengerich, for raising the issue of authority for church decision-making on this nettlesome issue. I have expressed a position similar to the one who you have expressed — the authority of Jesus is superior to the authority of “scripture” in the abstract. How one applies this is a bit more challenging than simply expressing it, since we don’t have Jesus physically present with us (but we do have the Holy Spirit, which was not identified as a source of authority for the CLC, either, apparently). May I suggest that there is another source of authority that we as Mennonites often completely overlook — without much thought — and that is Nature; or, if you want to be more theological about it, Creation, or the manifestation of created order. I derive a good bit of my theological position on this particular issue (same-sex coupling), from Nature, and I suggest that Jesus and the Early Church would have done so as well, without having to be explicit about it. .

  • Harold Miller

    Bless the CLC for calling us toward unity. A split will be like the breakup of a marriage with ripping of relationships as neighboring congregations and members in those congregations choose differently.

    Here’s a suggestion on the most effective way to work at unity. The main thing that can help conservatives feel a strong identity with MC USA (and therefore a sense of unity) is to reassure them about Scripture. They want to belong to a church (denomination, conference, congregation) that trusts the Bible, that believes that it was God speaking to the original audience. Otherwise a choice to stay with MC USA will feel like a choice against Scripture. Conservatives’ main concern is not purity. It’s not polity (having a strong, centralized denomination or having binding church statements). The only thing necessary is seeing the church honor and submit to the broad themes and trajectories of Scripture.

    When conservatives like Lower Deer Creek want our church statements on same-sex to be binding, I would guess that it’s not because of a fully-developed polity that views church statements as binding. They want the statements enforced simply because they see the Scriptures behind them as binding.

    Perhaps one day we conservatives will be okay with Conferences having theological disagreement on same-sex. But that day will only come when we see how persons can both hold to full inclusion of LGBT individuals and also honor and trust Scripture.

    So the most effective way that progressives can work for unity is through Bible study—through showing how they honestly grapple with the key texts that conservatives look at on same-sex (Rom 1, 1 Cor 6) rather than dismiss those texts, saying that Paul makes incorrect ethical assumptions or statements. Reassure the church that they have good interpretive reasons for their understanding of those texts. Without such Bible study, all the calls to unity by CLC or the KC Assembly will be to no avail.

    • Berry Friesen

      Harold, I applaud and support your comment.

      For sake of clarity, we need to get beyond that word “conservative” you and MWR used to describe the Lower Deer Creek proposal::

      “We resolve that the Constituency Leaders Council review the actions of all conferences who have acted contrary to our Confession of Faith as it relates to performing same-sex covenant ceremonies or credentialing persons living in same-sex relationship (Confession of Faith, Articles 17 & 19, and membership guidelines), and bring the Executive Board recommendations for sanction or termination of membership for such conferences (Bylaws of MCUSA, Article IX. 1.e.) by September 1, 2016.”

      This would provide MC USA with the clarity and accountability needed to function as denomination. It is “orderly” and not “conservative.” It simply creates a mechanism for the owners of MC USA to start acting like owners. It certainly does not commit anyone to specific forms of discipline for owners who break covenant (as Mountain States has done).

      Currently MC USA looks like a denomination, but it is not truly one. It’s a coalition of district conferences which, if are to make any sense of the recent CLC recommendation as reported by the Mennonite press, want to share fellowship but not the authority of denominational leadership.

      Which may be OK. Really. However, it would be a step forward to candidly admit this as we move forward along the lines of the CLC recommendation, albeit with the improvements you (Harold) have suggested.

    • John M. Miller

      Harold, it appears to me that the effort to make this a question of the authority of Scripture misses reality. I’m sure you are well aware that strong biblical arguments have been made for inclusion as well as the traditional arguments for exclusion. Biblical scholars have worked with the 5-7 texts that are used do deny inclusion, including the two you cite, and shown that there are legitimate ways to read these texts that support inclusion. So in reality the issue is not about the authority of Scripture but about the authority of one’s particular interpretation. If you are really unaware of the biblical scholarship around Romans 1:18-32 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that supports acceptance of same-sex sexuality and marriage, I can give you a bibliography. But I’m sure with all the attention you’ve given this issue over past years, you are well aware of the other interpretations.

      • Linda Rosenblum

        John, I cannot speak for Harold and his views of the scholarship that supports inclusion but I have read some of it and didn’t find it convincing. So yes, other people may read Scripture differently but one question that I have not seen addressed here is how do those of us who view Scripture in the traditional reading raise our children in a church (writ small or large) that teaches what we see as clearly counter Scriptural? I personally cannot raise my children in an environment that espouses what I see as a false teaching. Yes, adults and scholars at the highest academic levels can argue and re-argue their points. But what about our children? Did God intend His message to be so difficult that it takes a doctoral degree in theology to understand it? I don’t think so. Linda Rosenblum

        • John M. Miller

          Linda, you raise what is obviously one dimension to be faced in our consideration of the church’s stance vis-à-vis same-sex sexuality. I think when children are small, one can impart family held values with the expectation that they will absorb and comply. As children mature, they will become aware of other values. Sometimes they opt for values different from the parents. I don’t think it is possible, nor desirable, to try to isolate our children in a cocoon of insularity from the realities of our world.

          • Linda Rosenblum

            I don’t think the fellowship of the church should be equated with “the realities of the world.” The church should be a place where children see examples of living lives of Christ’s disciples, following the direction of Scripture, and I want to show my children a model of discipleship that follows what I believe Scripture says, not conflicting interpretations that are argued by opposing scholars and/or schools of thought. Linda Rosenblum

      • Harold Miller

        Yes, the assumption of many is that “there are legitimate ways to read [Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 in ways] that support inclusion.” But so far, speaking for myself, I am not aware of persons holding the inclusive view who carefully and thoroughly grapple with the Scriptural witness on same-sex partnerships. Many progressives think they have, but in conversation it becomes evident that they are oblivious to conservatives’ strong understandings. (I’ve written about this in “Listening and responding to voices of inclusion” which is on Executive Board’s resources list.)

        Perhaps I question this because I am the one who is oblivious, having not talked to all the progressives. And maybe I haven’t fully heard those I have talked with. But I do wonder if the inclusivist view is still new enough that it has not yet been rigorously examined by those who want it to be true.

        • John M. Miller

          I have not read Ruden’s work to which Ross refers, but I think your statement “I am not aware of persons holding the inclusive view who carefully and
          thoroughly grapple with the Scriptural witness on same-sex partnerships” fails to deal with reality. I am well aware of Swartley’s Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral
          Discernment with his dependence on Robert Gagnon. I gather that you follow a similar line of interpretation, and that’s fine but you must also be aware of Ted Grimsrud’s careful work and critique of Swartley. I think you do a disservice to your own position by so offhandedly dismissing the extensive work done with the biblical material by those who support inclusion. To Continue the Dialoge includes much careful work of biblical interpretation. Just because you disagree with the conclusions is not adequate reason to mischaracterize its nature. I suspect that you may also be aware of Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation. I don’t think anyone can deny the careful biblical interpretation by this Vineyard pastor who places high value on scriptural authority.

          I have done my own work regarding the biblical perspective. I find that one important aspect is to keep in balance the overarching themes of Scripture regarding God’s relationship with and norms for humanity, esp. his redeemed people, i.e., of respect for persons as shaped by God in their birth, acceptance of all without discrimination, and carefulness in delineation of what is sin and what is not. These are issues at play in our present discussion. I trust that we will be able to continue the dialog grounded in the reality of God’s Word and God’s World.

        • Berry Friesen

          Harold, my take is that progressive readings of many of the disputed texts have shown us convincingly that the same-sex relationships we are talking about today in our church are not what those scriptures addressed (prostitution, participation in quasi-religious revelry, violent and abusive acts, exploitation of power for personal gratification).

          Two things remain, however: (1) The Bible’s general affirmation of male-female union as a reflection of God’s wisdom and justice; and (2) Paul’s linkage in Romans 1 of same-sex unions with confused thinking and desire. Note that Paul understood this confused thinking to be broadly shared and manifest; he cites various consequences, with same-sex/bisexual desire only one of many.

          Together, this suggests a basis for inclusion, one that calls both of the two leading sides in this conflict to change directions.

    • Lisa Schirch

      Harold, we have sat down over coffee to discuss this in person. As I noted then, it is still offensive to suggest that those of us with a different interpretation on this issue have not taken the time to read the Bible. As noted in my article on MWR last year, those of us who see homosexuality (and all sexuality) as a gift, not a plague, have indeed read and reflected for many years on these passages you refer to… but also the Bible as a whole.

      Many of us have pointed out that the teachings of Jesus are at the center of how we read the Bible. Some teachings have priority over others. As Dorothy Nickel Friesen wrote on MWR, “the Bible is not a book.” Yet many would assume that Jesus himself handed out this book. But that is not true. The Bible is a collection of writing that was put together in a fully human and fully flawed exclusive and political process. The Church, not Jesus, decided that scriptural authority meant taking every word as the word of God. Yet even with that belief, there are still parts of the Bible that even very conservative believers will disregard as simply being relevant to the culture at the time.

      Most people in the church still think that Jesus’ disciples wrote the gospels. But this is not true. Our Biblical literacy and understanding of the Bible’s history (as in how it was put together) is weak. And this impacts how people understand the Bible.

      For some of us, Jesus’s teachings take precedence. We see some parts of the Bible (the teachings of Jesus) as having more importance and more significance. For others, it seems as if people pick and choose – deciding to put one of Paul’s fringe teachings (homosexuality) over Jesus welcoming everyone to the table and insisting that the Greatest Commandment is Love. It seems to many of us that the church is reading the Bible in different ways: some putting Paul’s rule of law above Jesus’ rule of love.

      And we have noted that Paul has other fringe teachings which the Church already dismisses (rules against eating shellfish, gluttony, greed, how to treat slaves, etc). And yet we don’t hear a response to this question… of why conservatives can ignore other parts of Paul’s teachings. And we note, then, that it seems to us that secular forces of homophobia – are more powerful that Jesus’ teachings of love.

      So for many of us, the issue is not one of scriptural authority but of scriptural interpretation and scriptural prioritization. Please know we find it offensive when our interpretation is described as simply lacking in integrity.

      The issue is how we read the Bible, and how we understand the history of how the Bible is written and how to understand it within the culture that it was written. It may be that our understanding of Biblical history, Biblical culture, and the way the Bible was put together is so different, that we will continue to have strife in the Mennonite church. But we should be clear that it is not a matter of some of us ignoring the Bible.

    • Ross Lynn Bender

      I’d like to recommend the book “Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time” (by Sarah Ruden, Pantheon Books, 2010). Ruden is a distinguished scholar and translator of Greek and Roman classical texts. Her book is the first I’ve seen that reads the Pauline and other epistles in their true context. She grapples with all the hard issues — homosexuality, women, the state, slavery, etc. — and demonstrates as no other author I’ve read the true meaning of these texts.

      Before we assume that others with differing views have not studied the Bible, I think we need to go back to the Bible with the admission that there is probably a lot that we have missed.

      • Harold Miller

        I did a Google search for some of Ruden’s points about the meaning of Paul’s texts. A Wikipedia article “Homosexuality in the New Testament” has this:
        “Sarah Ruden, in her Paul Among the People (2010) argues that the only form of homosexual sex that was apparent to the public in Paul’s time was exploitative pederasty, in which slave boys were raped by adult males, often very violently. Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, Ruden argues, can be interpreted most plausibly as a criticism of this kind of brutally exploitative behavior.”

        But (if that’s an accurate summary of Ruden) this is another instance of someone who is oblivious to strong textual observations supporting the conservatives’ understanding. Paul’s mention of lesbianism in Romans 1 shows that Paul was thinking of more than exploitive relations like pederasty. His language of mutual desire (“for one another”) shows that he was referring to behavior that is consensual rather than something like Ruden describes.

        • Ross Lynn Bender

          Thanks, Harold, for taking the time to check out Ruden’s book. If you have time, I think you’d find the whole thing worth reading.

          Also interesting is the reception of the book among the “conservatives.” Christianity Today, that rabidly conservative journal founded by Billy Graham, did a sympathetic interview with Ruden after her book appeared in 2010. Her book was also favorably reviewed by the right-wing journal, National Review, founded by William F. Buckley.

          If you Google “Paul among the people reviews”, you’d be quite surprised by the wide range of responses. Makes one wonder whether the terms “conservative” and “progressive” that are being thrown around in MennoWorld discussions have any actual meaning.

          BTW I should disclose that Dr. Ruden has spoken at my congregation, West Philadelphia Mennonite, several times.

  • Moises Angustia

    The experience was a good one and really enjoyed meeting new people. I really enjoyed the table discussions but I did not like how the resolution was selected because I am almost certain the consensus was not the resolution that we are reading about. The saddest part of this whole discussion is that Homosexuality is a sin, and no one is recognizing that, therefore hands down the resolution that should been presented to the delegates was of “Lower Deer Creek”

    • Jeff Linthicum

      Moises thank you for your stance and clarity!

    • Isaac Villegas

      Hi Moises. It was good to spend time with you at CLC. Can you clarify what you mean with this sentence? “I did not like how the resolution was selected because I am almost
      certain the consensus was not the resolution that we are reading about.” I was responsible for presenting to the CLC the resolutions submitted from various congregations. Did I do something wrong in how I submitted them to the CLC for their discernment?

      Thanks,
      isv

  • David Tiffany

    “Scripture is a secondary authority to Jesus Christ.”
    How is that possible? The Scripture is the Word of God, and Jesus is the Word become flesh.

    “About two-thirds favored sending to delegates a resolution that calls Israel’s occupation of Palestine sinful and advocates withdrawing investments from corporations that profit from the occupation and violence in Israel-Palestine.”

    And the Scripture tells us that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews as an everlasting inheritance. Therefore, we can know from the Scripture that the Jews are not the occupiers.

    Read your Scripture.

  • Carol Rose

    I’m glad that there is a growing recognition of the actual diversity of the church and that there is room for this diversity. This is us, in God’s image! The “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3) is characterized by diversity. This is good. The Just Church Resolution may or may not be brought to the delegates this year. But it deserves to be read today (https://justchurchresolution.wordpress.com/). With 11 congregations and groups signed on, with hundreds of individuals signed on (https://justchurchresolution.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/hello-world/)… There is always room for more to add your voice!

  • Don Patterson

    After reading both the TMail article and the MWR article, I come away surprised that there was so little mentioned that the Lower Deer Creek resolution was basically calling the Constituency Leaders Council to do what they are called to do by the Bylaws of Mennonite Church USA, Article IX, 1a-e.

    1. Constituency Leaders Council. A Constituency Leaders Council shall be organized to serve the
    Mennonite Church USA as follows:

    a. Serve as a council of denominational “elders,” discerning and advising the Executive Board, the
    Delegate Assembly, and the Mennonite Church USA on issues confronting each of them relative to faith and life.

    b. Engage and promote dialogue between area conferences, recognized constituency groups, and program agencies.

    c. Voice collective aspirations and concerns to denominational leadership.

    d. Provide opportunity for communication between and among program leaders.

    e. Provide counsel to the Executive Board on the admission to or termination of an area conference member of Mennonite Church USA.

    In fact, the words were softened by offering “sanction” as an alternative to “termination”. What
    the resolution adds to the original call of the CLC are deadlines to get it done.

    The first thing I glean from what I have been reading is that The Mennonite and Mennonite World Review has a distinct bias against congregations which they like to label conservative. With this trend, I am concerned that these publications are serving the best interest of the church.

    The second thing is that the CLC does not want to fulfill what it is called to do. Our new MCUSA
    polity was to cut through the things that hold back both the authoritarian and congregational polities by establishing a group of “elders” that would help guide the church.

    Further, I glean from the discussions read online, that many don’t want to use the bylaws of MCUSA and that each congregation should be free to do as they please while still calling themselves “Mennonite”. I don’t understand this. Why don’t those who want to change Mennonite
    theology and thought become Unitarian? Those of us who still see the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective as a very broad confession theologically are being forced out of the denomination by a violent faction, using labels as weapons. Slicing at other groups by using labels like “homophobe” will hopefully be discouraged at convention with equal regard as the groups that are protected in our midst from other forms of hate language. Such language is very unwelcoming.

    One statement reported is troubling. “Scripture is a secondary authority to Jesus Christ.” So where do we get our understanding of Jesus from? Didn’t Jesus say He didn’t come to abolish, but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17-20) scripture? Since I know Ron Guengerich, I tend to think that this statement may have been pulled out of context to serve the purpose of the writer. If so, shame on the writer. If not, Ron and I will need to share a cup of coffee.

    As one of the authors of the resolution and as lead pastor of the Lower Deer Creek Mennonite Church, I appreciate that my congregation has not taken its membership in MCUSA lightly, but has been willing to speak to the greater church rather than slip away silently. The congregation’s resolution was meant to be a wakeup call to an ineffective leadership group that was designed to move us from the older two polities (OM=Authoritarian; GC=Congregational) toward a new polity. This has less to do with human sexuality and more to do with failure to follow through on covenants and agreements. When groups deliberately break covenants, they are the ones who have violated relationships and we see the Bible calling us to be accountable for such violations.

    CLC has failed the church.

  • Lisa Schirch

    Sometimes I think there are really only two religions in the world… those that follow a religion that compels them to be self-righteous and judgmental of others and those that think that tolerance, respect and love are really what religion was meant to be about and how Jesus thought people should treat each other. Jesus says over and over not to judge others, those without sin should cast the first stone, people should look at the log in their own eye and not the speck of dust in their neighbors. The greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t understand the self-righteous judgmental movement within the church. I think we do need a conversation as a church on what we think Christianity is about, what we understand about how the Bible was written, how we each choose which portions of the Bible to dismiss and which to listen to – as clearly those against inclusion are also selecting some portions of the Bible to ignore or reinterpret in favor of something Jesus never spoke about: excluding people from the Church.

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