When Conservative Mennonites Accuse Liberal Mennonites of Betrayal

Some of you may find this hard to believe, but I enjoy being in conversation with conservative Mennonites (at least the ones who don’t condemn me to hell as they bludgeon me with Leviticus). When I find the right dialog partners–or they find me–and when I listen well and open myself to the Holy Spirit, sometimes I learn something. Sometimes I come to a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others. (Please note that understanding and agreement are not the same thing.)

One recent conversation has helped me better understand why so many conservatives in MCUSA accuse liberals of “betrayal.” It’s an accusation I hear a lot–and one I deeply resent.

My conversation partner explained to me that when conservatives agreed to join the newly-formed MCUSA denomination, they understood themselves to be entering into a covenant. As part of that covenant, churches within the new denomination would not bless same-sex unions or ordain gay pastors. That is what the Confession of Faith and the Membership Guidelines said. That is how they understood it.

So those of us who officiate same-sex weddings and support the ordination of LGBTQ pastors are, indeed, breaking the covenant that conservatives thought they signed on to.

The thing is, that is not the covenant that my church signed on to when it joined MCUSA. Peace Mennonite has been publicly welcoming and affirming since before MCUSA existed. And the denomination invited us in and never once said, “By the way, you’ll have to quit accepting gay people if you want to be in this denomination.” I can guarantee that if we had been presented a covenant that required us to exclude LGBTQ people from the full life and ministry of the church, we never would have signed on.

And this covenant the conservatives signed is not the covenant I signed on to when I accepted ordination in the Mennonite church. I was asked (as are all ministerial candidates, I think) about my points of agreement and disagreement with the Confession of Faith. And I told the ministerial board that I disagreed with the statement in Article 19: Marriage is between one man and one woman. They ordained me anyway. If they had said that I could only be a pastor if I refused to officiate same sex weddings, I would not have signed on to that covenant.

Is it possible that even though we are all in the same denomination we agreed to different covenants? That we have misunderstood the terms of this relationship from the beginning?

We could spend time placing blame here: Is it the denominational leadership’s fault for misrepresenting the covenant to one or both “sides”? Is it the conservatives’ fault for willfully misunderstanding the covenant, for just assuming that their interpretation of the denominational documents (like their interpretation of the Bible) is the only interpretation? Is it the liberals’ fault for glibly going along with the merger and not thinking through what it might mean to be at variance with certain statements in the Membership Guidelines and the Confession of Faith?

At this stage, I don’t think placing blame will help us move forward. (It might make us feel better, but it won’t help us move forward.) We are in the situation we are in regardless.

The conservative churches entered a covenant to be in a denomination that would uphold their view of Christian marriage. The liberal churches entered a covenant to be in a denomination that would allow them to include LGBTQ people in whatever ways they felt called to include them. Yet we have all ended up in a denomination together. So where do we go from here?

8 thoughts on “When Conservative Mennonites Accuse Liberal Mennonites of Betrayal

  1. I think you and I covered this in our conversation… perhaps, instead of a centralized hierarchal authoritarian structure of the church denomination, we should shift to something more congregationally oriented. Perhaps use the MWC shared convictions (http://www.mwc-cmm.org/article/shared-convictions) as our common point for a denomination but then allow member congregations to maintain a tension on other points… This seems, to me, to be more faithful to the Anabaptist tradition from whence we came than to have a stricture confessional/creed structure that is more common with other Protestant denominations.

    I dunno if this will ever happen, but it seems, at least in my limited view, to be the best hope to maintain relationships within the denomination without having yet ANOTHER schism sully our reputation…and by that, I don’t mean to imply either “side” would be at fault for such a schism, just that, the way things are going right now, that seems to be the trajectory we are on… and I really don’t like it.

  2. There is much bigotry and discrimination within the Conservative Mennonite camp. Dialogue with the Conservative faction is virtually useless and usually leads to further entrenchment on their part. There is only so much you can do with people who source religion to confirm their righteous anger,hatred and prejudices. But, we must remember, there are loving people out there who deserve our support and comradery.

    • My experience in dialoging with conservatives is that it is “useless” if my goal is to change their minds about what the Bible says regarding sexuality. But if my goal is to understand and be understood, then those conversations can be quite useful. It does, of course, depend on the conservative.

      • Agreement on such things is not a requirement… Understanding, mutual love, diversified unity (how’s that for an oxymoron)… these are the hallmarks of the Body of Christ…

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful blog. We are also dealing with this issue north of the border. I am grateful for what seems to be a growing determination to find our unity in Christ, beyond our diversity on hot button topics like sexuality and the types of sexual covenants we affirm. There also seems to be a growing sentiment to let individual congregations find their own way on this matter and to be more compassionate toward each other as we slowly find our ways forward. Those of us with Russian Mennonite GC roots have a strong history of congregational autonomy. Sometimes that gets in the way of unity, but sometimes it actually helps us. So we wait and pray, sometimes with fear and trembling, to see how the future of our church will unfold. Grace and peace to you and MC USA in this matter.

    • I used to attend an MB church in rural Saskatchewan and work in a place that consists of predominate conservative Mennonites. All 3 churches in town are Mennonite. I am from an Anglican background, and it is tough to have a conversation regarding women in ministry, so you can’t even start a talk about the acceptance of those in the LGTBQ community.

      The church allows for a LGTBQ person to attend service, but highly recommend they have nothing else to do with the church inless they “change”. This is from the MB conference. The General Conference Mennonite church in town probably has the same guideline. The third, and last, is a conservative dream come true.

  4. Thanks for a very constructive addition to the denominational dialogue. Yes, it is clear that we conservatives and the liberal churches were operating under different assumed promises to each other. And the question clearly is where do we go from here? The first thing I believe is that we don’t need to fear dividing the church. Our denomination is not the church, it is just an institution that may or may not contain a small part of the church. How do we renegotiate our promises to each other? Are we too different to even find a common life together? Are we willing to do the hard work required? Sometimes I just feel like that old Gershwin song says, “Let’s call the Whole Thing Off”. But then a few lines from the middle of that song make me pause. It says; “if we call the whole thing off then we must part, and oh, if we ever part, that might break my heart.” Somehow I hope we can find the miracle that is required.

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