WDC: Same-sex marriage won’t bring censure

Nov 2, 2015 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Western District Conference delegates on Oct. 31 gave pastors the freedom to perform same-sex marriages if their congregations approve.

Western District Conference

A decorated cross stands at the back of Memorial Hall at Bethel College during the Western District Conference annual assembly Oct. 30-31. — Paul Schrag/MWR

The unprecedented action conflicts with Mennonite Church USA’s Membership Guidelines, which forbid pastors to officiate same-sex marriages, and Confession of Faith, which affirms traditional marriage only.

The resolution allows pastors to officiate, or refuse to officiate, same-sex marriages “without fear of censure” if their congregations affirm this action.

The statement, brought by Rainbow Mennonite Church of Kansas City, passed by a vote of 185 to 72, or 72 percent in favor.

During their annual meeting at Bethel College, Western District delegates debated the resolution and its potential impact in the conference and the denomination, which is experiencing conflict over how to relate to LGBT people.

“One of the strengths of this resolution is that it allows us to follow our conscience as God has led us without imposing that same requirement on other churches that are led to different missional priorities,” said Tom Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita. He said his congregation invites LGBT people to full participation.

Leon Heidebrecht of Inman warned of unintended consequences. “We are going down a different stream now,” he said. “Does that mean we need to jump on the politically correct bandwagon? How far do we need to run from our roots?”

Stan Epp of Newton cited Matt. 7:13-14, which says the wide path leads to destruction, and said it is easy to take the path of least resistance and go along with the culture rather than stand up for morality. “This will lead to destruction as a church,” he said.

Several delegates spoke of their desire for the church to extend greater welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Annette Voth of Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing said: “In some ways I think of variance as a really good thing. While I am strongly in support of the resolution, I am also strongly in support of hearing the voices that strongly disagree with me.”

Delegates wondered whether the conference would face consequences for being “at variance” — differing from a denominational stance. Moderator Richard Gehring of Manhattan reported on a recent meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council, a nationwide advisory group that is assigned to conduct a “peer-to-peer review” when a conference action differs from denominational positions.

Gehring said the CLC would not conduct any reviews until after its next meeting in March.

“I did not hear an interest in the CLC becoming a group that looks for punitive actions against others in the church,” he said.

The denomination’s Membership Guidelines — reaffirmed by delegates at this summer’s national convention — do not require a conference to discipline a pastor who officiates a same-sex marriage. But they do require a review process. In 2011, the Western District Ministerial Leadership Commission did not discipline a pastor who conducted a same-sex covenant ceremony.

Gehring said the conference would still review the credentials of a pastor who officiates a same-sex marriage, as the Membership Guidelines require, but the focus would change. Rather than deciding whether to discipline the pastor, the review would examine whether the pastor acted in consultation with the congregation. The fact that the pastor officiated a same-sex marriage would be noted in his or her personnel file.

Action on the resolution came after a year of study. Delegates first received the resolution in July 2014. Since then, conference leaders conducted a survey of members and held two conference-wide meetings to discuss the matter.

Gehring said the conference, which has 57 congregations, was seeing the resolution’s effects already. A few congregations have withdrawn, and others might reconsider their participation, he said.

In a question-and-answer session after the delegate meeting, MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman was asked what ripple effect the resolution might have across the denomination. He said: “We are on a path right now where more conservative conferences and congregations are feeling [the denomination] is not home for them any more, and this will just exacerbate that sense.”


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  • Conrad Ermle

    That’s exactly why Lancaster and two or three other district conferences are preparing to leave MCUSA, and take tens of thousands with them. It’s so sad to see a biblical counter-cultural movement (Anabaptists) ends us embracing the politically correct culture. Menno Simons, Jakob Hutter, Hans Denck, and even Jacob Amman must be spinning in their graves. The anointing is departing. — Conrad Ermle

  • Elaine Fehr

    This occurred on October 31st, a day when the dark side is celebrated. How fitting.

  • John Gingrich

    This action is not a bang but a whimper. This has been the creeping de facto position of much of the church since it became accepted in secular culture. The previous decisions of Western District, Mountain States, and Central District have all been following this dogma even though it was never officially approved. The survey by Conrad Kanagy shows that this is the position of a significant number of credentialed leaders in some areas of the country. Most of these leaders have received their foundational training in the Mennonite colleges and seminaries. The colleges themselves have already made the decision to accept this new interpretation of scripture by the new hiring policy of people in same-sex marriage. The next question is what the dissenters to this change will do with the grief that this brings. What would Grebel, Manz, and Simons do? What would Jesus do?

  • Berry Friesen

    How will WDC integrate this delegate action into its oversight function vis-a-vis congregations (including prospective ones) and pastor credentials? I assume the Confession of Faith is the key document in this regard. Was this addressed in the WCD convention before the delegates voted, or was it simply assumed it could be figured out somehow in the future?

  • Aaron Yoder

    Our denomination is only held together by a thread – the ever weakening Confession which clearly says, “In making decisions, whether to choose leaders or resolve issues, members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness, with the Scriptures as the constant guide (Article 16). My question is: which Scriptures were used as a guide during this discernment process? Matthew 7 was quoted by the minority voice. But which passages did the majority quote? If the Bible was never opened by the majority, nor even referred to as a source for correction (akin to the gathering at Kansas City), then all this group has ‘discerned’ is what is best according to their own experience or feelings. Such a process didn’t bode well for Israel: “For in those days there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Why do we think that it will bode well for a conference? What is happening here is not just a wholesale rejection of Article 19 in our common Confession of Faith, but a continued dismissal of the entire document which also says, “Persistent and uncorrected false teaching and sinful conduct among Christians undermine the proclamation and credibility of the gospel in the world.” Without discipline, our denomination will lose both it’s credibility and the gospel. That is terrifying news!

  • Forest Hazel

    “Same Sex Marriage Won’t Bring Censure” Well, maybe not from the Western District Conference, but I’m pretty sure God will not be supporting it….

  • Chuck Friesen

    It is so refreshing to see the Central, Mountain, and Western Districts moving forward. Whether Lancaster leaves (or not) does not need to influence their positions or practices. The days of being held hostage by threats of leaving are now over. That is good. (I seriously doubt Lancaster Conference will leave.)

  • Loren James

    24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who
    exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the
    creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

    26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise
    also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their
    lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and
    receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

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