Self-inflicted wound

A dissenter can be a faithful national leader

Jun 20, 2016 by

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“Physician, heal yourself!” Jesus expected that the skeptics would hurl this challenge when he announced God’s reign of peace (Luke 4:23). Today, Mennonite Church USA needs to accept the challenge of these words. They challenge us to live the gospel of peace that we preach.

Members of MC USA might hear them as a call to heal the church by living peaceably with each other despite differences over how to relate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Instead of healing itself, the denomination is suffering more self-inflicted wounds. Now it is time to make peace rather than cause more injury. It is time to accept differences over how to relate to sexual minorities rather than continue to divide and punish.

The latest self-inflicted wound is the resignation of Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina, from the denomination’s Executive Board. Some members of the board advised him to resign because he officiated a same-sex wedding. Virginia Mennonite Conference has suspended his credentials.

Villegas has broken a rule that forbids pastors to perform same-sex weddings. Thus the question: Is he disqualified from a denominational leadership role?

We believe Villegas should not have been advised to resign. He was a valued board member whose variance from the denomination’s position on this one issue should not outweigh the many gifts he has demonstrated in nearly three years of service on the Executive Board.

Villegas’ stance on same-sex marriage does not make him an outlier. His convictions align with a significant segment of the denomination — members who fully affirm LGBT Christians or are willing to worship alongside those who do. Last fall, Western District Conference delegates voted to allow pastors to officiate same-sex marriages if their congregations approve. This congregational viewpoint ought to have a place on the Executive Board. As Villegas wrote in a May 23 letter, he acted with the full approval of his congregation: “I would be denying God’s call in my life if I were to reject our discernment of the Spirit’s leading.”

In his letter, Villegas noted that denominational statements make room for those who dissent from the Confession of Faith. The 2015 “Forbearance in the Midst of Differences” resolution is the most recent. Variance on the place of LGBT people in the church holds unique status as officially tolerated dissent. This ought to be true of the Executive Board as well.

A dissenter can be a faithful leader, especially one who is supported by a body of loyal dissenters who love their spiritual home and cannot imagine leaving it. The #WeStandWithIsaac movement on social media gives evidence of this.

Meanwhile, the church yearns for healing. “Many of us,” says the forbearance resolution, “desire to be liberated from the entrenched nature of this conflict so that we may be freed to join together in mission, service [and] witness.” The proverb Jesus cited suggests the way to liberation: “Heal yourself.” This can happen only if the church calls a truce, stops fighting endless battles that no one wins, and accepts that it cannot expect everyone to relate to LGBT Christians the same way.

Thus far, members of MC USA have done more wounding than healing. Advising a gifted leader to step down is just the latest self-inflicted injury.


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  • Berry Friesen

    “A dissenter can be a faithful leader.” Yes, Paul, I’m standing to applaud.

    What about a dissenter who willfully violates his church’s teaching, a teaching affirmed only a few months earlier in a tension-filled convention? What about a dissenter who deliberately breaks his vows, the vows by which he received the authority to be called a minister of the church?

    These details matter, as the history of dissent and courageous civil disobedience will tell us if we take the time to study it. Dissenters are hard to stomach, but they serve their community nonetheless by giving voice to a minority viewpoint and holding the majority accountable.

    Dissent combined with acts of disobedience take the matter to another level; now consequences follow, for what has occurred is not just public persuasion, but a public flaunting of the standards the community has already put in place. One cannot lead a community and flaunt its standards at the same time.

  • Harold Miller

    You’re right, Paul, that “variance on the place of LGBT people in the church holds unique status as officially tolerated dissent.” But do we then go on and let Forbearance cancel out the Membership Guidelines? Somehow we need to try to pull off letting neither cancel out the other — a very difficult dance to do. You want healing to come to MC USA. It’s hard enough for our church to be healthy when members are deliberately and expressly going against either Forbearance or the Guidelines. But what happens when national staff or executive board members go against those church resolutions? Yes, making Isaac leave seems like a self-inflicted wound. But perhaps Isaac and the Board recognized that him staying would also be some form of self-inflicted wound. I’m not so much disagreeing with you, Paul, as wanting you to be seeing the whole picture.

  • Ted Grimsrud

    I think both Berry Friesen and Harold Miller get things exactly backwards regarding authority. The purpose of the Membership Guidelines, et al (as with Torah itself, I’d say) is to empower faithfulness to our merciful God—not to be ends in themselves.

    As tools for faithful living constructed by fallible human beings, the Guidelines, et al, must be subject to constantly revised interpretation and application in light of the call to faithfulness (i.e., “dissent”).

  • Trevor Bechtel

    Is it really the case that “variance on the place of LGBT people in the church holds unique status as officially tolerated dissent”? Forbearance is about difference rather than dissent. I don’t see Villegas as a dissenter, rather, I see him as a pastor faithful to the call of the spirit in the context of the community he pastors. He is also one of the most articulate voices in the denomination and merits a leadership role. Villegas is clearly at odds with VMC; but that is because of the particularly pernicious way that VMC defines pastoral misconduct; it is unclear to me that he is in any way at odds with MCUSA. I agree that it is a self inflicted wound, but it has been cut out of fear rather than a concern about the limits of dissent.

    • Aaron Yoder

      Trevor, our polity says that a person cannot be a member of MC USA without being a member of a local Mennonite conference. If VMC has cited this as pastoral misconduct, then this status must also apply to the denomination.

  • James Regier

    Here is as good a place as any, I suppose, to thank Isaac Villegas for his service, and his faithfulness to the calling to serve ALL Mennonites, including LGBTQ+. May there be ever more Isaacs, Thedas, Marks, Joannas, Weldons, Randalls, (there is a longer list, but these are names I remember). May MCUSA reach the point where it realizes that in rejecting LGBTQ+ Mennonites, MCUSA is ever so slowly but surely destroying itself. May it make this realization and change course before it is too late and only a smoldering ruin remains.

  • Daniel Hoopert

    We’ve come to a sad point in our church life; we have elevated our opinions and our own written documents to the level of authoritative guides for church life. We need to return to and reaffirm convictions that God’s Word, the written Scriptures, are our infallible (and inerrant) norm for faith and life. We need to recognize that God’s Spirit does not lead in ways that contradict the Word that He inspired his apostles to write. On church discipline: church discipline is healing for believers. Paul told the congregation at Corinth to expel the man who was “living” with his father’s wife (many take this to mean his step mother), so that he flesh would be destroyed, but so that his spirit would be saved in the Day of the Lord (1 Cor.5:5). Paul writes in 2 Corinthians to receive back into fellowship a member who had been disciplined and who had repented so that he would not be overcome by excessive sorrow. Things that the Scriptures condemn can not be overlooked in the church: A little leaven leavens the whole lump ,or, “sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough” (NLT). Making peace with those at variance with Scripture will not bring healing.

    • Steve Yoder

      Daniel, is that view of scripture a part of Anabaptist heritage, or did it come along as part of the late 19th early 20 century Fundamentalist movement that did have a large affect on Mennonite churches? Perhaps the Spirit does not lead in ways tat contradict the word. But given the human role in receiving, remembering, writing, collecting editing, translating, interpreting, applying the word, I am more comfortable saying the Spirit does not contradict the Word (capital W), and exercising a modicum of humility about my own ability (and yours too, or any other individual for that matter) to know exactly how to interpret, understand and follow the Spirit of Jesus in every time and every place. To understand the word, or Word, or Spirit, I believe we need each other. And I believe we together are engaged in another sea change of understanding the word such as occurred when slavery was no longer supported, and when second class status for women was no longer supported, to name just two of many.

      • Daniel Hoopert

        This is just a quick response to you, Steve, and to Charlie. I read The Anabaptist Story by William Estep a number of years ago (over 20); I think there were Anabaptists who grounded their beliefs in the written word, although they might not have been as stringent as I am (I will need to review the work). But Estep also wrote of those whom he (or others) called “spiritists,” who, as I recall, took positions according to what they subjectively thought God was telling them (you can correct this is if you have opportunity before I look again at Estep’s book). Textual critics such as Daniel Wallace (and probably Bruce Metzger and J. Harold Greenlee before him) would say, I believe, that we have a very, very good knowledge of the original texts (manuscripts) of the New Testament. And so far as there being no statement in Scripture that Scripture is inerrant or infallible, why should there be such statements? Who was asking that in the late first century? The recipients of the letters understood the documents to be from apostles, or men who related closely to the Apostles, and the documents would have been accepted as authoritative. There are places where at least the Apostle Paul mentions if not asserts his authority. So let’s take the evidence that is in the Scriptures, statement by statement if we must, and engage in disciplines such as Biblical Theology to come to a good understanding of what the Scriptures are.

      • Steven Stubble

        This is another good example of how liberal theology employs the very concepts it seeks to discredit. In the same way that Kraybill (see above) invokes the infallible will of God to attack infallibility, so Yoder uses the written word to cast doubt on the viability of the written Word. If we don’t have the interpretive skills to understand the words of Scripture, why should we have the interpretive skills to understand Yoders post? Of course, we understand his writing perfectly well, in the same way we understand Scripture perfectly well. Liberal theology always self-destructs when held to the same standard it imposes on the normal, historical-grammatical hermeneutic used by those who hold to the sufficiency of Scripture.

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Biblical “infallibility” and biblical “inerrancy” are human inventions! Human beings produced both concepts, for totally self-serving purposes (control of the pious masses). The Bible itself does not make such high-minded claims about its origins, so why should we? As Professor Bart Ehrman so eloquently put it: “Why should one think that God performed the miracle of inspiring the words if he didn’t perform the miracle of preserving the words?” We do not have the original autographs of any of the biblical texts, just tens of thousands of variant copies. Thus, speaking of an “inerrant” Bible is an absurdity. These are not “opinions” to be sad about, as Daniel Hoopert asserts. They are facts. We should be grateful to live in an age where church-sponsored superstition and priestly authority no longer hold sway over the human mind. God gave us the gift of rational thinking, and God intends us to put that capability to good use. In this case, God wants us to put “biblical infallibility and inerrancy” in the same place where we’ve put “headship of the male” and “church discipline” — in the dustbin.

      • Steven Stubble

        An important consequence of rejecting the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture is that it becomes virtually impossible to discuss the WILL of God with any degree of certainty. After all, who can say which parts of the Bible are “correct” and which are a figment of someones imagination? Its a purely subjective exercise (see Steve Yoder below for a similar position). Thats why it is so significant that Mr Kraybills post contains 2 statement about what God desires: he “intends” us to think rationally, and “wants” us to discard inerrency. These types of statements are supposed to reveal Gods will to us — precisely the thing Mr Kraybill rejects at the outset as untenable!
        It s important to remember that liberal theology always collapses under the same weight of criticism it imposes on the historical-grammatical hermeneutic used by those who hold to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.

  • Steve Yoder

    Interesting constellation of terms developing here: difference…dissent…disobedience. Perhaps where “difference” is not allowed (as the Forbearance Resolution alone would have, but the EB was not willing to let stand without adding the Guidelines Resolution), dissent will emerge. And then where dissent is squelched, (civil) disobedience is the next step. It is not clear whether Berry is comfortable with a leader engaging in civil disobedience or not. I think careful study of the history of courageous dissent and civil disobedience will show that it is chock full of leaders who willfully disobeyed their church’s edicts, and accepted the consequences.

    • Linda Rosenblum

      I don’t think the idea of (civil) disobedience applies since membership in a faith community is voluntary and one joins that community knowing what the tenets of the fellowship are. Civil disobedience to the state refers to citizens who are subject to the laws imposed by a civil authority (although the authority may have been democratically elected). I don’t see the two being equivalent. Linda Rosenblum

  • Harold Miller

    Maybe it boils down to this: should a national leader of a church be choosing to act in “disobedience” to that church? I can appreciate that you who think the Membership Guidelines are dead wrong would approve of that disobedience. Can you appreciate how it appears to those who see the Guidelines as right?

    MC USA, the church that we love, faces a choice:
    – Will we continue our current pattern of some congregations and conferences breaking covenant by “disobedience” and others breaking covenant by leaving? Clearly neither trust MC USA.
    – Or will both sides (and the middle, which values both sides) “seek additional guidance in processes of Biblical/communal discernment” (as the latest version of our “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” document recommends when we are pursuing God’s will in matters of church practice or theology)? Trusting the church involves a choice to discern together whether we need to revise our covenant, as Ted says, “in light of the call to faithfulness.”

  • John K Stoner

    I read the whole Jesus event/ministry as a dissent to dogmas carefully debated, crafted, and agreed upon by authoritative leaders and many good folks.

  • John Gingrich

    The use of the Luke 4:23 verse to make the point for healing the church is a strange paradox. In fact, in the total discourse, the “gentle healer” rejects this proverb and drives a division so deep into the group that they try to kill him. Jesus is not afraid of provoking conflict and division. In Matt 10:34-39 Jesus says his coming does not always bring peace but division (a sword). The gentle healer could be very passionate, especially when it came to righteousness. This is the same gentle healer that said if your lusts are controlling you, blind yourself. Let’s make sure we are not asking the church to unify by ignoring righteousness. That’s the way to sickness, not healing.

  • Aaron Yoder

    There’s no doubt that the North American church has not demonstrated much love towards people with same-sex attraction nor has shown that holy, single living is a good and Godly way to live. This simply needs to change. There is also no doubt that it’s unfruitful now to talk about the word ‘infallibility’ in regards to Scripture. Yes, the word is neither in the Bible nor in the COF. Although I agree with its definition in relationship to Scripture, fighting over words is pointless. Instead, let’s look into the historical context of the Greco-Roman world to see if the Apostles Paul’s writings on homosexuality are transferable into today’s context. Romans 1:25-27 says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and serve the creature…God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and men likewise gave up natural relationship with woman and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men.” At the time of this critic, Greeks had come to believe that male-male relationships and female-female relationships were a higher form of love (than heterosexuality) due to Plato’s Symposium and the Myth of Aristophanes. Paul’s writings were clearly contradicting this creation myth which was perpetuated within the culture. 1 Timothy 1:10 says, “men who practice homosexuality…and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” What was Paul referring to? How about marriage between Emperor Nero and Pythagoras in 64AD which the historian Tacitus documented? “The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible” (Tacitus, Annals, XV). To declare same-sex marriage and its sexual activity as holy is to stand directly opposed to the Apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit who inspired him. It is also a confession which says that this “new movement of the spirit” is parallel to the winds within the Greco-Roman culture. I simply cannot tear our the book of Romans and Paul’s letter to Timothy and pretend that they do not exist. History validates their topic. Yet, is this what ought to be expected to lead within MC USA?

    • Wilbur H Entz

      Good post. I would point out that THE LIE in Romans 1:25 is nothing other than the theory of evolution. Ken Ham called his book, where he decries the theory of evolution, THE LIE.

      • Keith Wiebe

        I would call Ken Ham’s Ark and the millions of dollars it took to build a non floating model “THE LIE”. Have you ever thought that perhaps Ken makes millions off of calling science lies?

        • Wilbur H Entz

          During the weekend I attended Ken Ham’s AiG Museum we saw and encountered many Amish young people there as well. My first thought was that Ken Ham had spent his millions and millions very wisely! It is only when we begin to listen to Ken Ham and others like him that this MC USA downward spiral can be stopped!

          • Keith Wiebe

            Most followers of Ken Ham wouldn’t be in MC USA to begin. They either would have gotten out years ago or belong to a Bible church that doesn’t believe in a literal reading of Jesus. Do you think the Amish young people have the science or engineering background to argue with Ken? Now, if we saw professors with PHD’s in the sciences and engineers from Nasa we know Ken would be on to something but alas, no such luck, only 8th grade educated Amish or maybe some homeschoolers thrown in.

      • Aaron Yoder

        Although I can understand where you are coming from, you are reading something into the text which isn’t the point of the text. The Roman Christians would not have been thinking about a distinction between the young academic field of ‘science’ and the Hebrew creation account. Don’t forget that proper heremeutics with Scripture comes by first understanding the Truth in it’s context and then applying it today.

  • Jeff Linthicum

    The interesting statement in this entire article is Paul’s use of we, in we believe Villegas should not have been advised to resign. Who is the we that is spoken of here? Is this now the official stance of MWR, take stand contrary to the official documents of the church?

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