Impossible dream?

Two actions chart course for dealing with diversity

Sep 12, 2016 by

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Are Mennonites trying to do the impossible? Maybe, but we shouldn’t give up. We are just beginning to test new ways to live with disagreement on sexuality and to build unity.

A couple of positive new directions — one nationally in Canada, the other regionally in the United States — gained approval in the past few months. In different ways, these have the potential to make the church more accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians and to redirect members’ energy away from conflict and toward unity around shared spiritual practices.

– At the national level, Mennonite Church Canada delegates approved a resolution to “create space/leave room . . . to test alternative understandings . . . to see if they are a nudging of the Spirit of God.” The “understandings” are of committed same-sex relationships.

While similar in some ways to Mennonite Church USA’s 2015 “forbearance” resolution, the MC Canada document goes further and therefore is the most friendly statement yet by a Mennonite denomination in regard to sexual minorities. It says those who dissent from traditional understandings deserve not only acknowledgement but respect. Their views will not merely be tolerated but seriously examined as possibly Spirit-led. Creating space is an act of welcome that far exceeds a grudging admission that someone is hanging around and causing trouble. MC Canada delegates have signaled a willingness not only to live with differences but to see diversity as positive and to grow in faith as a result of it.

– Central Plains Mennonite Conference of MC USA broke new ground in a different way. Delegates approved a covenant that commits them to shared spiritual practices. These include worship, prayer, Bible study with each other and with “neighbors and strangers,” practicing hospitality and making peace. The covenant describes how to “work together in response to differences of belief” and to “hold congregations together in healthy accountability.”

In one act of accountability, a congregation whose beliefs differ from commonly held positions will be asked to engage in Bible study with a congregation that supports traditional beliefs. But there is no coercion: “Congregations will have to surrender the claim to control the decisions of other congregations.” When a congregation persists in variance of belief, the conference “will apply the reasoning of Gama­liel,” the teacher who said in Acts 5:38-39 that an activity of human origin will fail but a movement of God cannot be stopped.

The Central Plains covenant (and a similar one that Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference is working on) sets an example of stepping away from the battle over sexuality that is tearing so many religious communities apart. It calls for “letting go of our need to control the outcome [of a disagreement] so that we can seek the movement of God’s Spirit and abandon ourselves to it.”

In a culture of winning and losing, this advice is radical. It requires “self-emptying,” as the document says, and it applies equally to progressives and traditionalists. It doesn’t rule out believing that one occupies the moral high ground, but it does mean granting one’s neighbor the right to occupy a different spot.

With MC Canada’s example of making room for differences and Central Plains’ model of focusing on spiritual practices that unite us, the church might yet find that with God all things are possible.


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  • Michael Danner

    My only push back is the assumption that we, as a church, don’t know how to remain together when he have differences. We do this quite well when the issue is divorce and remarriage or church membership for police and active duty military personnel, or congregations who still can’t bring themselves to support ordained women in pastoral ministry, or patriarchal/hierarchical decision making structures, etc. We actually remain together across differences pretty well. At issue here is not an inability to stay together amidst difference, it is a (un)willingness to stay together amidst THIS difference over human sexuality. Without a commitment to remain together over THIS difference, I’m curious – and hopefully, prayerfully, expectantly waiting and watching – to see how covenants rooted in practices help move the church forward.

  • Harold Miller

    You again show a knack for succinctly presenting what matters, Paul.

    The approach you describe in MC Canada and in our Central Plains and Indiana-Michigan conferences — that of granting neighboring church bodies the right to alternative understandings about committed same-sex relationships — has a lot of appeal. It shows respect for sister congregations (or districts or conferences) as they discern God’s will differently than us. It calls for humility and patience as we let time reveal what is of God.

    But I worry that more is at stake than mutual respect and humility. And that more is happening than just Mennos interpreting Scripture differently, something we do all the time. I worry that an “essential” of our faith is at stake.

    When we discuss the Bible on same-sex relations, arguments can be made by both conservatives and progressives for their interpretations. But the only interpretations with strong certainty—I don’t say this lightly—are the ones for the church’s historic stance. (I have hungrily read every Anabaptist who offers progressive biblical arguments, and many non-Anabaptists too, and have painstakingly summarized what I have found—see, for instance, “Interpretations I have met” at interactingwithjesus.org/rom1.)

    That’s not a lasting problem, because weak arguments are eventually taken care of. This is what I find worrisome: the pattern that we see when progressives are faced with the prospect that their biblical interpretations are weak exegetically and might never be as strong as the historic interpretations. In that moment, they turn to arguments from experience. Again and again. When their biblical interpretation is challenged, they retreat to what seems right. Again and again I get the impression that it is not their biblical arguments that progressives view as so solid and so secure that they can rest their stance on them. It is rather their “good sense” arguments that give them certainty. For instance, one evangelical pastor begins a book affirming same-sex marriage with this chapter: “The Harvest of Despair: Why Traditional Condemnations of Gay Relationships Can’t Be Right.”

    If such a pattern is real (I pray it is not), then our church’s same-sex issue is not ultimately a matter of differing biblical interpretations, calling us to show mutual humility and forbearance. Rather it is a matter of differing authorities. Some might couch it as differing hermeneutics. But doesn’t it boil down to whether we have more trust in our sense of what is right or have more trust in the historico-critical witness of Scripture? If so, an “essential” of our faith is at stake.

    • Matthew Froese

      I agree that a fundamental part of the progressive argument for most people, including myself, is experience. However, I believe that looking to our experience, and through our experience to the experience of those in our community, is an essential part of discernment and has a strong Biblical basis.

      I refer you to two passages to provide some of the Biblical foundation for this approach: Matthew 7:15-20 and Luke 11:46. The passage in Matthew tells us that we will have to discern true prophets from false prophets by how well their teaching works, which is necessarily experiential. In Luke, Jesus makes it abundantly clear in His rebuke that He does not support the application of the law without consideration for the effects that is has on those the law is being applied to.

      I don’t take these to mean that we can look solely to our experience, but neither can we be blind to experience. Rather, I’d argue that we’re called to something more complicated and less definite; we are called to struggle as a community to find ways to live together that draw people toward faith and discipleship. We need our communities to hold us accountable to faithful behaviour but also to discern when we need to be lifted up rather than burdened.

      My experience together with the discernment of my church has brought me to believe that demanding that people be changed in their sexual orientation is to “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry”.

      The really difficult part here is that to accept this approach means accepting that different people and different churches will almost certainly come to different views on the essentials while being faithful to Scripture, as Scripture itself points us to our varied experiences.

      • Harold Miller

        Thanks, Matthew, for trying to help us who are conservatives work through this. You agree that experience is “a fundamental part of the progressive argument.” And I agree with you that experience is “an essential part of discernment” (along with Scripture, tradition, and reason).

        But the specific thing that can trouble us conservatives is experience’s role in biblical interpretation: if we use experience to determine which interpretation of a passage is the correct one (e.g., we decide that the right interpretation of Rom 1 is the one what has Paul saying what we, from our experience, think he should say). And the 2 passages you cite are examples showing the importance of experience in discernment, but not in biblical interpretation. In Mt 7:15-20 Jesus uses experiences (fruit we see) to “discern true prophets from false prophets,” as you say. That doesn’t apply to biblical interpretation, does it? None of the biblical authors are false prophets. And in Lk 11:46 Jesus is, as you say, talking about “the application of the law” by the religious lawyers. Again, that’s different than interpretation. Application and interpretation are two different steps, aren’t they? First we interpret the passage and then we apply it.

        I resonate with your desire that we “find ways to live together that draw people toward faith and discipleship,” to be communities that hold each other accountable while also showing needed grace. We are working toward the same goal.

        • Matthew Froese

          Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think there are a lot of fundamental assumptions and approaches here that will differ between us, but I’ll reply on two parts. I don’t represent that either of these is likely representative of a progressive view, of which there are likely many, but these are mine.

          First, I don’t hold to the view that there is a single correct interpretation of the Bible or any particular part of it, mostly as I would hate to lose one of my favourite parts of exploring scripture; the possibility of discovering that inside of ancient words there is a depth of meaning that goes beyond a single reading or perspective. So I don’t use my experience to determine a “correct” interpretation, but rather to take one look at scripture that I can bring into conversation with my church community.

          Second, I’m not sure about the split between discernment and interpretation as you’ve used them. I think there are more layers to think about between scripture and our actions – I’d start with a few more; the text itself (thinking about translation issues, etc.), our understanding of the text, the teaching on the meaning of the text that we receive, our comprehension of that teaching, our understanding of a situation that may relate, our process of deciding what to do about it, and finally, what we actually do. I think any of these steps can be and should be examined critically, and experience is one of the lenses we can apply along with the others you mention above.

          So in this case, I turn to my experience and the experience of others and find a lack of good fruit from the conservative approach to LGBTQ people and the church – it’s far too easy to find people who have been driven out of church communities and away from discipleship, or to find people who have earnestly believed that their orientation can be changed who have spent years of their lives in reparative therapy that fails to change them in the way they have been told they need to be changed.

          Getting more to your concern above – I’m not suggesting that the Biblical authors are false prophets, but I am saying that false teaching about the right words will still bear bad fruit. I think that’s one point that people with opposing perspectives here can likely agree on!

          • Harold Miller

            Thanks, Matthew, for a thoughtful reply. I fully agree with you about the “lack of good fruit from the conservative approach to LGBTQ people.” But what is responsible for that “lack of good fruit”? Is it the conservative’s belief that opposite sex relations show the wisdom of God? Or is it their lack of godly accommodation (or compassion or grace or however we name it) as they apply the wisdom of God? Both are in Scripture. Progressives camp out on accommodation. Conservatives on wisdom. If only we as a church would show both! (Thanks, Berry.)
            Harold

          • Daniel Hoopert

            Matthew, I’m going to use a line of thought that is not original with me. You’ve written a message in response to Harold. Suppose some reader, (me, for instance), would suggest that your writing could be taken in different ways (leaving aside such things as poetry, which may be designed to be taken in different ways)? You (and other authors, speakers) would object. But the Scriptures are God’s communication to us. The individual passages have one truth to communicate (even when there is irony, the irony is used to convey a single message; and even in poetry, there may just well be that there is one message that is presented). We cannot say that there are optional interpretations for us to choose from. So what do we do? What do we do when interpreting Scripture? The things we do when reading a post on MWR. We take into account the grammar that is used, the meanings of the words that are used, the flow of thought, context, and so forth. What about historical background? There can be a place for that, but we need to be careful that we do not interpret some passage in light of some supposed historical setting so that as a result we ignore the arguments of the passages themselves. The writings of Scripture conform in many ways to types of discourse that we know today. In fact, there is a beauty to what we can see.

          • Matthew Froese

            Do you think there a Biblical basis for the notion that “individual passages have one truth to communicate” or is it possible this is an assumption you are bringing to your reading of Scripture?

          • Daniel Hoopert

            I’d say it’s a basic principle of communication. If communication has two (or more) meanings, communication breaks down.

          • Matthew Froese

            I don’t think we share an understanding here.

  • John Gingrich

    Maybe the various Mennonite entities mentioned in the editorial are beginning to find a way to live with disagreements but I question whether they are really building unity. When the way out of conflict is to say we will allow you to have your own private “understanding” of biblical sexual morality we are saying there are no biblical rules for sexual morality. This technique could be applied to any moral or doctrinal disagreement and the logical end is that anyone can make up any belief system that they desire and everyone else must respect their biblical interpretations and “surrender control” to their personal decisions. How can we know that some newly invented morality is not “a nudging of the Spirit of God”? If the answer is to see what survives and prospers like the “reasoning of Gameliel”, shouldn’t we be joining the Mormons or Islam?

    Where are the referees, the Mennonite Supreme Court, or the Mennonite Council at Jerusalem of Acts 15? The Mennonite “Keepers of the Sacred Fire” of the seminaries and denominational and conference leadership have all joined in the same surrender of let everyone do what is right in their own eyes. Does this apply to all our beliefs and disagreements and if not who decides which ones can be solved with this technique? What kind of unity can there be when we don’t share common beliefs?

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