Defining Some Terms: A Response to the MCUSA Executive Board Statement

IMG_1807On February 17, 2014, the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA released a statement entitled “Moving Forward.” (I’m pretty sure the irony is unintentional.)This statement is a response to the recent licensing of Theda Good by Mountain States Mennonite Conference.

I grieved when I read this statement and realized that once again LGBTQ people are the subject of conversations that they are not invited to be a part of; that once again inclusive churches are being scapegoated for denominational difficulties; that once again the answer from our leadership is a non-answer and therefore a maintenance of the status quo.

I could go on and on and on about all of the problems inherent in this statement; about all of the ways that it disappoints and even disgusts me. And while that blog post would be kind of fun to write, I think it would not be particularly nurturing to the broader church.

What might be helpful, however, is to define a few of the terms and phrases that keep getting thrown around in this denominational conversation–words and phrases that make star appearances in the recent Executive Board statement.

1) Accountability is not the same thing as obedience. Obedience simply means following the rules. Accountability is about relationship. It is about living together in community and encouraging each other toward greater faithfulness–faithfulness to Jesus, not faithfulness to rules.

If you tell me I can’t eat any more chocolate and I comply, that’s obedience. If I tell you I don’t want to eat any more chocolate and you get all the Hershey bars out of my house, that’s accountability. There is a big difference.

2) “Polarities” suggests two groups at equally radical ends of a spectrum. So, to begin with, it is difficult to understand how one could “exacerbate the polarities.” Polarities are, by definition, fully exacerbated already. I am also not convinced that the people who say, “please make space for us in the denomination,” are taking a position that is as radical and hostile (i.e. “polarizing”) as those who say, “make everyone comply with our beliefs or we will leave the denomination.” (More on this here.)

3) At variance. It just means that we disagree with some statement made by some group and approved by another group at some point in relatively-but-not-too recent Mennonite history. Some churches are at variance because they refuse to consider female pastoral candidates. Others are at variance because they practice open communion. Others are at variance because they welcome LGBTQ individuals into church membership and leadership. We need to quit using the term “at variance” as some sort of scarlet letter. Or, as was expressed to me when it was added to my Ministerial Profile, a “slap on the wrist.” It is merely descriptive, and it describes pretty much everyone in Mennonite Church USA.

4) Loving dialog means that we love each other and we are in dialog. It does not mean that we keep our mouths shut for fear of “exacerbating the polarities.” It does not mean that we have conversations about sexual minorities but never with them. (Please read Jennifer Yoder’s testimony regarding her experience as a queer woman among Mennonites.) It does not mean that we accuse anyone who disagrees with us of fraying “the fragile strands of accountability that hold our church together.” It does not mean we threaten to leave if we do not get our way.

If we are loving, then our words are thoughtful and honest. If we are in dialog then we speak and listen and respond and listen and speak . . . for as long as it takes, or at least as long as both conversation partners are committed to the “loving” aspect of the dialog.

– – – –

To be honest, when I read that the Executive Board had appointed a(nother) task force, I just wanted to sigh and roll my eyes. But such a response would not have been loving or conducive to dialog. So rather than sigh and roll my eyes–O.K. I said honesty was also part of the deal so I should say in addition to sighing and rolling my eyes–I will pray and hope that we get some definitions right along the way.

I pray that the “task force” will actually be a force for the forward movement implied by the title of the board’s statement. And I pray we will understand that “forward” means discerning what is right for this time, not clinging to denominational rules from nearly a decade ago–or more.

And mostly I pray we get the definition of “Christian” right. That we will be true and faithful followers of Christ Jesus, walking in his way of peace and love and justice.

12 thoughts on “Defining Some Terms: A Response to the MCUSA Executive Board Statement

  1. I continue to appreciate your seemingly tireless efforts to help us all progress toward a more humane, loving, Christlike existence in this world.

  2. I am not a Mennonite, but I found what you said very well thought out. I am in the UMC and we have the same problems about forgetting what Christian really means.

    • Paul, what a thoughtful, needed reflection on being “at variance” and on the racial marginalization that still exists in our churches. How do we not throw the baby out with the bathwater? Indeed. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection and sharing. Sharing of resources too (where might i find your surname that i may credit the Ash Wednesday Service I’m going to adapt for our congregation?).

    I belong to and minister with a United Church of Canada congregation. We continue on the journey, discovering new ways in which we’ve decided to be the arbiters of Word and Way, doing God’s work for God – ’cause somehow our faith won’t let us let go and let God. The topic of LBTQ ministry personnel is one we’ve discussed, debated, devoted, disrupted, divided and – since 1988 – come to terms with. Our moderator (sort of a ‘speaker’ for our denomination) is an ‘out’ gay man, whose partner is also a minister in our denomination. One day folk will wonder why we thought it was important to point that out. They are gifted, spirited, wonderful people. It is a joy to serve with them and to have the benefit of their wisdom as we continue to peel back the layers of cultural conditioning that allow us to set some apart. Fortunately, God continues to insist on grace and inclusion. Fortunate for us all.

    the point of this is not to ‘boast’ but to offer hope. Was it Art Garfunkel who wrote about the long way and the road that is muddy and rough? But we’ll get there, we know we will.

    Thank you for doing all you do to further the cause of right relationship, and for reminding us of the road we travel together.


    • Keith, Thank you for sharing a bit of your story. I know that the Mennonites are not alone in our struggles. My last name is Harader. Glad you find the Ash Wednesday material useful. Peace.

  4. How do you expect those of us who view homosexuality as sin to raise our children in a congregation or conference which “affirms LBGtQ” members or even pastors? Should I tell my children that I understand that the Bible identifies this as sin but it’s okay for these folks to do it because they disagree with me? Yes, I do have friends/acquaintances who are gay and my children are familiar with them. However, they do not share my church nor my faith. For those who are “at variance” on this issue, you are placing us traditionalists in an untenable situation. As a traditional and ethnic Mennonite, I cannot foresee any way that the MCUSA will survive this rift. We do not affirm other sins among us why is homosexuality different?

    • Linda, I do think that you could tell your children that while you view homosexuality as a sin, other believers read scripture differently. Your willingness to remain in loving relationship with people you disagree with could be a powerful witness to your children about the love and grace of God and walking the path of Jesus Christ. I certainly try to communicate to my children that while I believe it is a sin to refuse marriage and ordination to gay people, other people have a different understanding of scripture and we try to be church together anyway.

      • One of my favourite sermons in the past few months:

        That week at Home Church included a list of issues for us to debate as family. Some were more abstract theological and so it might be easier to say those aren’t as important. Others were very practical, including same-sex marriage and the use of violence. In our group of 10 or 12 young adults we had each side represented on every issue, except maybe violence which had some play devil’s advocate for just war but didn’t really buy it. I do know some in the church who are in the military or the police force, though. In any case, the point was simple: nobody even entertained the idea that we had to divide over these disagreements. We’re family. We can discuss and debate but we always do so as family. Somebody who opposes same-sex marriage is just as much a part of the family as those who support it or even those who are engaged in it. And on this particular issue, the denomination doesn’t sanction same-sex marriage but a lot of people in it do, including pastors, think we should. We even have an all-gay Home Church at one of our sites. Tension? Sure. Requirement for division? No way.

        I could also talk about one of my best friends in university. We started out both moderate evangelicals, more of the Wesleyan variety. Over the span of about a year I veered toward Anabaptism and he veered toward conservative Reformed (agreeing with a lot of the theology of those like Piper, Driscoll, and company, but not their attitudes of anger and judgement). He referred to my bookshelf as the wall of heresy, populated with Emergent authors, Anabaptists, New Atheists, and more along with the conservative Reformeds. We’d go back and forth on issues every couple of weeks and then walk away feeling more like brothers than when we started.

        There are also cases where I did divide with other Christians. But here’s the big difference: the problem in those cases were much less the disagreement and much more the judgement (sometimes mine, sometimes theirs, sometimes both). My problem with one of the campus groups wasn’t their theology or their practice nearly so much as it was that I was made to be a lesser member of the community for asking questions. They operated on fear and exclusion. I was one of about 120 in that group in my first year of university. By the end of my second year there were about 30 left. If we approach community with that attitude, we will probably have similar results, but the differences themselves were not a reason to divide – as with the university friend and some of the people in my Home Church, I am regularly in community with people who think similarly still today, but minus the judgementalism.

      • But to include those who we believe to be actively engaged in sin in my congregation is also counter scriptural (in my opinion). We are to address holiness to one another and rebuke those in love to turn away from sin, not to say continue in your sin because you think it is okay. We must choose to keep our fellowships holy. If you disagree, then by all means join together with those that agree with you but do not force us to accept sin in our fellowships. I really am on the “polar” opposites of this issue and cannot see how the conference can survive. Either those who disagree with the stance of the conference as is will have to form their own conference, or those like me will choose to leave MCUSA. Agreeing to disagree is not loving, it is asking to accept sin as “okay” because we disagree. Surely you could think of some sin that you would not want to “include” in your congregation, whatever that sin may be, hate, lying, killing, whatever. Homosexuality is no different from any other sin. We are all sinners saved by grace, we do however, actively seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help to turn away and be renewed. Maybe my natural inclination to sin is different than those naturally inclined to same sex attraction, but I don’t try to justify my sin by saying I was born that way. Yes, I was born that way, it is part of my personality, but I have been renewed by the Spirit and seek to live a life acceptable to God as I read the scripture. No sin is bigger than what God can deliver us from.

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