Mennonite church coming apart over sexuality issues

Jun 10, 2016 by and

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Former MWR associate editor Rich Preheim wrote the following article for Religion News Service. We believe MWR readers will be interested in how he describes events in Mennonite Church USA for a wider audience.

A year ago, Mennonite Church USA was one of many Christian groups struggling with dissension over the place of gays and lesbians in the church. Today, it’s not just struggling, but falling apart.

The divisions reached the highest level of leadership after a member of the denomination’s Executive Board resigned last month after officiating at the wedding of two lesbians, a violation of church rules.

Over the past year, three of the denomination’s 20 regional conferences have voted to withdraw over what they view as sin, potentially shrinking denominational membership by 17 percent and halving the number of congregations. That doesn’t include individual congregations in other conferences that have also pulled out. That leaves the denomination with about 73,000 members and 600 congregations.

Meanwhile, two other conferences have gone in the other direction by welcoming LGBT people. The Central District Conference last summer granted ministerial credentials to a gay man, while the Western District Conference declared that its ministers could officiate same-sex weddings without fear of censure, if their congregations approve.

Officially, MC USA upholds that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the denomination’s rules limit its ability to discipline regional bodies.

“It’s about homosexuality, but it’s about a polity of governance that doesn’t lodge authority anywhere,” said Allen Lehman, administrator of Franklin Conference, which voted in April to withdraw from MC USA. The conference has 1,000 members in 14 congregations.

On May 21, Isaac Villegas, pastor of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, officiated at a wedding of a lesbian couple. Two days later he resigned his seat on the denomination’s Executive Board.

In an open letter, he wrote, “I hope . . . that soon we will no longer teach that queer desire is sinful; that soon we will let our churches bless those who wish to marry, whether gay or straight.”

The Virginia Conference, which includes Chapel Hill, has suspended Villegas’ ordination. The conference is assembling a committee to decide what additional measures it will take. Those may include revoking his ordination.

Villegas has the full support of his congregation, which he continues to pastor. In another sign of the widening rift, representatives from two Virginia Conference congregations traveled to Chapel Hill to express their support.

Living with the tension

Issues related to sexuality have plagued the group since it was formed by the merger of two denominations in 2002. Those differences came to the fore in 2013 when the Mountain States Conference licensed a gay pastor.

At least 16 congregations left the denomination in 2014, and the Gulf States Conference narrowly defeated a proposal to withdraw.

At the denomination’s biennial convention last year, delegates reaffirmed the sexuality standards and then approved a resolution that called for “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.”

Patricia Shelly, the denomination’s moderator, acknowledged that the two actions seem to be at odds.

“The current direction the delegates have set for us is to function with the tension,” she said.

The North Central Conference, one of the smallest, with 10 congregations, quickly decided to withdraw. Then the largest conference, based in Lancas­ter, Pa., also voted to leave.

Last fall, Evana, an alternative organization spearheaded by leaders from several former MC USA congregations, debuted and quickly became an attractive option for those looking for new affiliations.

Shelly said several other conferences are debating their futures. In the meantime, denominational officials are doing strategic planning.

“We’re planning for a smaller denomination, and that raises a lot of questions,” Shelly said.

No longer sustainable?

Mennonite World Review, an independent newspaper, has even suggested dismantling MC USA in favor of a looser organized alliance.

“In a time of declining loyalty and growing conflict, denominations as we have known them may no longer be sustainable financially or emotionally,” reads the April 11 editorial.

Instead, the editorial called for a looser coalition bonded by the basic tenets of Christian faith. Such an organization, it suggested, “would not be a place to judge whether others are too lax or too strict and what to do about them if they’re wrong.”

Moreover, “it would refuse to fight the battles over sexuality that preoccupy denominations and divert them from their mission.”

Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Aaron Yoder

    Thank you MWR for posting this wonderful and heartbreaking synopsis of my denomination. Suppose the Delegate Body was led into a time of prayer about the structure of MC USA and asked this question, “Should our structure be centered around a confessional covenant (as it is now), or should we move in the direction of a looser structure (similar to that of a local chamber of commerce)?” The latter option would bring the benefit of branding, shared responsibility for mission work and education, and may establish mutually beneficial partnerships for providing material aid for people around the world.

    The problem that we are faced with now is that this option has already been chosen – indirectly. Functionally, MC USA is no longer a denomination. This is why congregations on both sides of the theological spectrum are leaving. A denomination requires shared beliefs and practices in order to exist. This, in turn, implies shared authority. But where is the authority for MC USA? Scripture, which is no longer considered inerrant or sacred? Our forgotten Confession of Faith, which was sufficient less than 20 years ago? Our ignored Membership Guidelines? The confused Delegate Body? The divided CLC? Conference Ministers who are empowered to listen but rarely given permission to lead? The frustrated congregations? Where is the authority of MC USA? Can you find it? I cannot.

    As Anabaptists, we shouldn’t fret about this too much. We’ve been here before. In Europe, the hyper-spiritual followed Melchoir Hoffman or Hans Denk. The super-strict followed Jackob Hutter or Jacob Ammann. While the rest found refreshment in Menno Simon’s words, “These are the holy Christian Church…these regenerated people have a spiritual king over them who rules them by the unbroken scepre of his mouth, namely, with his Holy Spirit and Word…Their doctrine is the unadulterated Word of God, testified through Moses and the prophets, through Christ and the apostles, upon which they build their faith, which saves our souls. Everything that is contrary thereto, they consider accursed (1537ad, ‘New Birth).”

    Is there anyone in MC USA with the Holy Spirit-inspired boldness to lead us back to the ‘unadulterated Word of God’ similar to that of Menno. Your moment to lead has come. Let us not worship Menno Simons for what he did, but let us follow the Holy Spirit which enabled him to do what he did – regather an Anabaptist church under the authority of Jesus Christ and God’s written word.

    • Jason Miller

      “(C)ongregations on both sides of the theological spectrum are leaving.”

      Please name a liberal/progressive/inclusive church or conference that has chosen to leave MCUSA.

      • Aaron Yoder

        This comment is based upon Ervin Stutzman’s words from our Annual Assembly this spring. I am trusting that his observation is true.

        • Jason Miller

          I’ve encountered that statement before, but I’ve never been given an example of a liberal/progressive/inclusive church or conference leaving or threatening to leave. I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t care if Ervin said it. Unless someone can back it up with facts, it’s just a rhetorical flourish that tries to hide the fact that it’s conservatives who are choosing to leave and split up the church.

          I go to one of those progressive churches, but my family members are part of Lancaster Conference, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Mennonite Biblical Alliance, etc.

          • Bruce Leichty

            I agree with Jason on most his analysis — and I personally am not aware of so-called progressive churches leaving MCUSA (as opposed to occasionally being disciplined or disfellowshipped by their conferences) — but I would take issue with any explicit or implied attribution of blame to the “conservatives who are choosing to leave and split up the church.” I dare say that splitting off from the church one loves is never a glib option even for those reviled “conservatives.”

            MCUSA leadership has chosen to depart from and to refrain from upholding and to fail to advocate the consensus on which our fellowship was based, which in turn requires those congregations who wish to be faithful to God to leave. “Progressive” churches (what is progress?) haven’t had to leave because they exercise disproportionate influence over church leaders and see that the trajectory of the church is gradually turning toward their own values.

          • Jason Miller

            I am not blaming. I am not implying glibness. I am stating facts. I have intimate experience with conservative church splits. My grandfather was a pastor in Lancaster Conference for over 50 years.

            My parents would be welcomed as members in my Western District church. My family would not be allowed to become members in theirs. My church welcomes and is home to folks from across the “theological spectrum.” My parents’ church is not.

            These things are not equal.

          • Bruce Leichty

            I appreciate the clarification, but I wonder if your last statement (“these things are not equal”) doesn’t imply some judgment, especially in a world and church where equality is esteemed next to godliness. Is “welcoming” the ultimate good? I of course don’t know your situation, but I’d like to say that welcoming can come in different forms. I have been welcome to visit and worship in churches where I would not be allowed to be a member, and that doesn’t bother me. To me the hospitality and opportunity to visit are more important — and I would not seek membership in a church whose theology is incompatible with my own anyway. Certainly we agree that not all churches are equal in their willingness to accept members, but you seem to be saying that’s not good for the ones who are excluded, whereas I would suggest that historically we were careful (selective) about who became members and that there were good biblical reasons for this, and that we shouldn’t complain about churches which still adhere to these values — even if our own standards for membership might be different.

    • Craig Anderson

      Aaron, Please say more about your use of “sacred” in your sentence, “Scripture, which is no longer considered inerrant or sacred?” Are you charging that your opponents on this issue do not consider scripture sacred. Really? Are you being fair? reasonable? loving? Do you maintain that treating scriptures as sacred necessitates seeing them as inerrant? If you do, I do not agree at all! If you are charging that–apart from the issue of inerrancy–we are nonetheless no longer treating scripture as sacred I think that needs substantiation, not just throwing it out there in what seems to me to be a hasty and false accusation.

      • Aaron Yoder

        Craig, my comments in that section were simply intended to provoke a conversation. I believe that brothers and sisters in Christ in MC USA need to have new conversations about both of those words. Many in our culture, Christians and non-Christians consider the Bible to be ‘special’ or ‘sacred’ from other works of literature. But, in order to be a faithful Church, Christians need to have deeper conversations about what makes our approach to the Bible different from the world’s approach. Secondly, these conversations are necessary because higher textual criticism, even among self-proclaimed Christians, can tend stray upon a path that says (for example), “The Bible is indeed special, but Moses didn’t write parts of the Torah, therefore, we can throw it out.” Of course other examples exist. I believe MC USA can grow healthier as we clarify not just our submission to the Holy Spirit but HOW we are approaching the sacredness of Scripture. I hope this is helpful for you.

    • Troy Osborne

      The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective doesn’t consider scripture “Inerrant” or “Sacred” either.

  • Michael Danner

    I would argue that there is authority in MC USA, contrary to Allen’s contention. Authority in our structure is lodged with the members in the local congregation, the delegate body in most conferences (with Lancaster being an exception – and perhaps others that I am unaware of), and the delegate body of MC USA. What is unique about the way MC USA is structured – from congregations to conferences to the national body – is that we discern together what we commit to live with as individuals. Aaron Yoder (who is my pastor) helped me see this unique feature of MC USA, conferences and congregations in our church membership class. We decide together, what we voluntarily submit to as individuals. The problem isn’t that we don’t have a confession of Faith, membership guidelines, official polity, etc. – or that there is no authority lodged anywhere – again I have to disagree with Allen. The problem is that the part where we as individuals submit to the decisions we discern together is breaking down. Instead – and I place no blame on either progressives or conservatives here – when as individuals we don’t like what the collective discerns, we either leave or do what we want. When as congregations we don’t like what the delegates discern we either leave or do what we want. When as a conferences we don’t like what the national delegates discern we either leave or do what we want. Therefore, the relationship connection rooted in mutual submission to the discernment of the collective no longer functions. In many ways what is happening is that people are upset because there is no mechanism for one group to force other groups to do what they want them to do. The only other option is a top-down hierarchy rooted in “power over” others which isn’t Anabaptist, in my view.

    • Berry Friesen

      Michael, you’ve spoken accurately and truthfully. But isn’t your phrase “relationship connection” a bit obscure? Don’t you simply mean that we no longer keep our word and honor our commitments?

      I’ve had many discussions related to this. Always my conversation partners evoke Martin Luther King and his stance of civil disobedience vis-a-vis Jim Crow laws. My conversation partners claim the moral high ground, in other words, thus justifying their covenant breaking.

      And when in return I distinguish between the state and the church, my distinction is summarily dismissed. “The church is an empire too,” they insist. Thus, to break covenant, to ignore the authority they themselves helped to create through their promises and commitments, is conveniently heroic.

  • Arthur Sido

    The headline of this article confuses the difference between a symptom and the disease. While a movement to embrace sexual deviancy is the most visible current manifestation of what has gone terribly wrong with the MC USA, what is really happening has been going on for a long time, namely an abandonment of the Scriptures as sufficient and authoritative for matters of faith and practice. Once you reject the authority of Scripture in favor of the prevailing cultural winds it is next to impossible to put the cork back in the bottle. The death of the MC USA happened a long time ago and only now are the majority of people realizing it.

  • James Foxvog

    Our Bible study this evening was on the book of Jude. It seems so up to date and appropriate to these discussions.

  • Jeremy Yoder

    It’s unfortunate that this article contains multiple, easily verifiable factual errors — such as the name of Mountain States Mennonite Conference. I see that particular error was corrected here, but I’ve seen this error on other websites that picked up the article from the Religion News Service.

    With all due respect to the author, this type of mistake is sloppy and adds fuel to critiques I’ve seen elsewhere to how Preheim has characterized this conflict.

  • Conrad Ermle

    Sexual deviancy and those who support it are determined to destroy the church. Our Anabaptist foreparents must be spinning in their graves. Simple as that. – Conrad Ermle

  • Jeremy Martin

    Isaac Villegas wrote “I hope . . . that soon we will no longer teach that queer desire is sinful; that soon we will let our churches bless those who wish to marry, whether gay or straight.” . . Isaac, nobody is claiming that homosexual desire is sinful. Acting on those desires is sinful, and harmful to the person. If we accept that God created marriage, then who are we to expand or redefine marriage? This sounds suspiciously like the time in Judges when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. . .