Friendly conservative suggestions to progressives

Jun 17, 2015 by

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We in Mennonite Church USA are uneasy about our apparent impasse over same-sex relationships. As Michael King writes in his first “Blogging Toward Kansas City” entry (King plans to offer blog reflections leading up to the national convention June 29-July 5 in Kansas City, Mo.), many in our church insist that we must allow “faithful dissent” on this issue and find “some clean, clear, genuine way to live with diversity of understandings”; yet, this dissent is itself “an ingredient of the impasse” because others in our church insist on “a clarity not muddled by the faithful dissenters.”

I have two suggestions for progressives who would like our church to avoid being fragmented in Kansas City and are open to possible ways of moving beyond the current impasse.

1. Vote for the resolution on the Membership Guidelines at Kansas City if you want to keep in MC USA the conservatives who can tolerate some diversity on the same-sex matter. Our Executive Board, in proposing this resolution on the Membership Guidelines, may have found the best way possible to keep us together the next few years.

The resolution gives openings for “faithful dissent.” The openings may seem minute to you, but they glare at us conservatives. When it talks about area conferences granting ministerial credentials consistent with our formational documents, it “presumes” they will do so “as seems best in their context” — language that suggests fuzzy freedom rather than clear authority. The resolution goes on to call the Constituency Leaders Council to engage in “conference-to-conference peer review when area conferences make decisions that are not aligned with the documents named above.” In other words, it acknowledges that conferences might take actions at variance with our formational documents and only calls for a response of “peer review” when that happens, not automatic discipline or even censure.

I know you want to make a final break with those Guidelines. But if 51 percent of MC USA delegates vote to do so, Evana Network’s ranks will swell. Such a vote would send a message that we as a church have discussed and decided the same-sex matter, and any conservatives who feel like they were not in on the discussion (i.e., all of them, for we have had no churchwide discussion on the issue itself) will feel like they are outsiders. Voices in Lancaster Mennonite Conference calling their conference to “practice unity in diversity” (see MWR’s, “Lancaster District Makes Unity Central“) will be drowned out by voices alarmed at a vote rejecting the Guidelines.

2. Call for Bible study if you want to work at a long-term way through our impasse on same-sex relationships. Not Bible study with the goal of seeing who’s right or with a goal of changing the other. Just Bible study where the goal is to rejoice in Scripture and show that we all take it seriously. That’s the “clarity” that we who are conservatives long for and need. We don’t need everyone to agree on what particular Scripture passages say. As Sam Thomas says about Lancaster Conference in the above mentioned MWR article, we have “a history of allowing diversity to take place and remaining united” on issues like divorce and remarriage and women in ministry. What is essential is not that we agree on same-sex but that we agree on Scripture — that we all “persist and delight” in reading it, that we all trust it (in its spirit and trajectory) as “the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life” (Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective).

If you want us who are conservatives to feel like we belong together with congregations and conferences who call for full inclusion of LGBT individuals, show us that those parts of the church are loving and honoring Scripture. Is not that an essential value in MC USA? In particular, at each point where conservatives wonder if progressive congregations and conferences are taking the Bible seriously, work to give a thoughtful response showing us that you are. As David Gushee wrote to fellow progressives in Baptist News Global, “How Traditionalists Connect the Biblical Dots,” the “broad themes of liberation, justice or inclusion of the marginalized” do not “invalidate the need to deal with the texts cited on the traditionalist side. . . . [W]hen progressives . . . refuse to engage the real concerns of the other side, they come across as fundamentally unserious about Scripture.”

Leaders in congregations like Community Mennonite in Harrisonburg, Va., Assembly Mennonite, in Goshen, Ind., and First Mennonite in Denver, have written statements on how they see Scripture leading them toward full inclusion. But we have not yet engaged in a careful, thorough-going conversation together. So we who are conservatives still remain unsure that inclusive congregations and conferences are loving and honoring Scripture when they take their actions of “faithful dissent.” (At least this is my perception, as I set forth in my Web article, “Listening and Responding to Voices of Inclusion.”)

We need some sort of purposeful churchwide Bible study on the issue, perhaps involving the creation of wiki-type articles (collaborative, succinct, easily visible) in which all the church can see how those holding the inclusivist stance seriously “engage the real concerns of the other side.” Again, the goal of this Bible study is not that we all end up agreeing, but that we all end up amazed at how passionately all of us love Scripture and take it seriously. The better we do at this, the larger will be the number of conservatives who can say that we all belong in MC USA.

Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va.

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