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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