Forbearing family?

Resolutions tell adult siblings to work things out

May 25, 2015 by

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Mennonite Church USA congregations and conferences are like adult brothers and sisters. In a dispute, no one can force the other’s hand. Nor can they appeal to parental authority. They have to figure out for themselves how to get along.

Today there is a family crisis and a reunion coming up to talk about it. Will the siblings make peace or go their separate ways?

A plan has been placed on the table to preserve as much unity as can still be saved. It is in the form of two resolutions on church polity and same-sex relationships. Delegates will consider these statements at their convention June 30-July 5.

The plan can work if members acknowledge that they are adult siblings who need to live with their differences rather than try to control each other or look to a parent to give orders.

The resolutions describe a church that affirms the traditional view of marriage but that tolerates dissenting beliefs and actions. This accurately reflects the majority’s belief and the actual practice within the denomination today.

  • One resolution, written by the Executive Board, upholds the majority’s traditional position on same-sex relationships. It says the Membership Guidelines and Confession of Faith, which affirm the traditional definition of marriage, will continue to serve as guiding documents.
  • The other resolution, which comes from three congregations, implies that those in the minority ought to be accepted and allowed to act on their convictions. It calls for “grace, love and forbearance” toward those who, “in different ways, seek to be faithful” on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.
  • Both resolutions acknowledge that the church is divided on the issue of same-sex relationships but that a common purpose to follow Jesus Christ should unite the church with a bond that is stronger than any impulse to break it apart.

The resolutions bear the marks of a good compromise: It is probable that few will be completely satisfied. Traditionalists get affirmation but not assurance of a “pure” church. Progressives get tolerance but not approval.

The result is imperfection, as either group sees it. Traditionalists who believe conformity on this issue is essential will not find it. Progressives who would like the church to affirm their beliefs will be disappointed.

But the fact that it is the traditionalists who are leaving MC USA reveals one reason why it is hard to make the compromise work: It appears that traditionalists want purity more than progressives expect approval. We see evidence of this in the fact that we know of no LGBT-affirming congregation that has left the denomination because it disagrees with the Confession of Faith’s definition of marriage. But many conservative congregations have left, and more will leave, because they do not feel they can be part of a denomination in which some conferences allow gay or lesbian pastors and same-sex marriages.

We lament these departures but accept that congregations need to follow their convictions. We also believe this respect should extend in equal measure to congregations that affirm gay and lesbian members. Their convictions are worthy of “forbearance” — as the resolutions say — without the threat of coercion or punishment.

These dissenters are convinced that their variance from the Confession and the Guidelines does not diminish — and certainly does not erase — their identity as part of the MC USA family. The Central District Conference Ministerial Committee has said it well: “We do think there is space within these documents to allow for discernment on the individual, congregational and conference levels which differs from the majority.”

A family that forbears extends charity. It is composed of peers who are accountable to each other but know the limits of their influence. They respect each other’s choices and value relationships over uniformity. Like adult brothers and sisters, those who don’t conform are still family.


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