God is Still Speaking. Dare We Stifle the Prophetic Voice?

Confession of Faith in a Queer Perspective: Article 4. Scripture
Reflections by Frank Trnka

Like so much of what we have seen coming from the merged MCUSA, the language of the fourth article of the Confession of Faith seems to serve primarily as reassurance to Mennonites of an evangelical, fundamentalist bent that MCUSA is holding fast to a use of the Bible that leaves them comfortable and unchallenged. Then there are a few vaguely worded phrases that give more progressive members of the church hope that there might be a place for them and their understandings in the merged church. But these are rather slim pickings, and the preponderance of the language upholds the patriarchy, the corporate model of the church, and tradition at the expense of the prophetic voice and justice-seeking at the margins.

Jesus reserved some of his harshest language for the people of his day who valued maintaining the status quo more than loving God and neighbor, the “brood of vipers” in Mt. 23:33. One doesn’t need to look very deeply to see the far-reaching critique Jesus made of the social and political assumptions of power, privilege and “chosen-ness” to know that he was envisioning something far different. The powerful have spent the last 2,000+ years trying to downplay the implications of his message with suitable distractions to keep the focus off the core critique of power and privilege.

One does not need to spend much time traveling in a culturally different place where one’s first language is not the predominant language, or trying to learn another language oneself, to realize that ways of looking at the world are different in that culture and language. Some things are similar and some things are quite different, and one’s presuppositions about how the world works need to be re-examined. I’m reminded of the outrage when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was newly proposed: “If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me!”

How do we understand the Bible in it’s own languages – what did the Bible really say? The Greek and Hebrew dictionaries and grammar books have been written almost exclusively by European men. Add on the many attempts at translation and clarity is even harder to come by.

When the unthinking reading suits our purposes – people are tempted to keep that; when we are confronted by our greed and bigotry – people find a crafty way to weasel out of the obvious reading. If Tea Party Republicans can consider themselves good, faithful Christians, the Bible can be made to support almost anything, as it has in the past with slavery, or currently in attempts to remove medical coverage for poor children or close our borders to needy immigrants.

We bring our expectations to the texts – we assume Jesus was not married, did not have children, was asexual. How do we know? There are many references to “the disciple Jesus loved” and he traveled with a close-knit group of men. If a traveling evangelist in our day did this, people would wonder – why not about Jesus? Is it possible that visiting a temple prostitute or having a sexual relationship with your young slave, while you also had your official property-transferring marriage might in some way be different than what we understand to be committed queer relationships today?

On balance, how can so many biblical texts about welcoming the stranger and taking care of the poor and the evils of wealth, gluttony and greed be overlooked as not applicable, while at the same time obsessively focusing on a few verses taken out of their context and historical meaning and used simple-mindedly to condemn the experiences of queer people created and loved by God?

We currently have a culture that glorifies ignorance. Simply pointing one’s finger forcefully at a particular Bible verse does not make your understanding of it any truer or deeper. There is a place for study and scholarship and people who have devoted time to trying to understand the Biblical story in the contexts of the cultures in which they happened. When one hears someone doing this after a lifetime of being told the story can only be looked at one way, that fresh perspective can be overwhelming and powerful.

God is still speaking. We need to open ourselves to listening.

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This post is part of a series in which LGBTQ Mennonites reflect on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. 

18 thoughts on “God is Still Speaking. Dare We Stifle the Prophetic Voice?

  1. and you are just as convinced that your reading is the correct one too. Your reading supports your version as does the way the “traditional” reading supports the way others read it. Your language about “justice seeking” implies that those who differ from your opinion are not seeking justice. Also, the terms “inclusive” and “exclusive” are condescending to those who disagree with the definition of sin and behavior. Nobody is excluding any person individually because of who they are, we are just calling for Christ’s church to seek holiness and to turn from sinful behavior. There is a big difference. I’m convinced that no amount of discussion will ever change anybody’s minds about this.

  2. Oh yeah, that and being called simple-minded when reading Scripture isn’t building many bridges either.

  3. Very strong, beautiful words. Jesus and the Spirit were strong with you as you wrote this. Thank you for the encouragement.

  4. Linda Rosenblum, I’m confused by this. On the one hand, you say you’re “convinced that no amount of discussion will ever change anybody’s mind about this.” On the other hand, you seem to be upset at Frank for not “building bridges” to you. Why would you assume that “bridge-building” is his purpose in writing this reflection? This series is called “Confession of Faith in a Queer Perspective.” That’s what you read. Clearly you have decided that no queer perspective is ever going to shake your faith in what you believe to be true. Why should that be Frank’s problem? Or any queer person’s problem, for that matter?

    It seems to me that the one thing that you and Frank might legitimately agree on is that the “vaguely-worded phrases” in MCUSA documents that try to blandly paper over major theological divisions are silly hogwash. My bridge-building suggestion is that you accept Frank’s reflection as something you’re never going to agree with and leave it at that, since that is clearly your underlying conviction anyway.

  5. Stephanie- I guess I’m responding to more than just this one post but the larger discourse where it seems that those pushing for more “inclusion” are continually asking for more discussion. I agree that there is probably not any room for more discussion for those on the opposite ends of this discourse. I’m not asking anybody to change their minds to see things my way but I’m also on the side of agreement with our stated Confession of Faith. It still bewilders me why those who don’t agree with the Confession of Faith ever joined this body (in my understanding) entered into a covenant with their fingers crossed. And then make condescending language against those of us who did in good faith enter into that covenant with full agreement of what it said. If you didn’t buy into it from the get go, why didn’t you make a church of your own that wouldn’t have had these issues that are so divisive? I read and read and read blogs, comment sections in MWR and The Mennonite and still don’t understand why anyone would join a group that they don’t agree with even if they agree with some of the things that group supports and then expect the rest of the group to accommodate their views

    • Linda, since I just wrote my dissertation on the LGBTQ Mennonite movement, I could probably go on for way too long in response to that question, and I’m going to try not to (and probably fail). Because Anabaptism isn’t a doctrinal approach to Christianity, Anabaptists have always had these conflicts over the proper role of “confessions” and other church-related documents.

      If what you’re objecting to is the continued discussion, you should understand that the original resolutions about human sexuality from Purdue/Saskatoon that are referred to in the CoF and in the Membership Guidelines call for continued “dialogue.” “We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ,” and “We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other”: both of these lines are in those resolutions. Not that I put much stock in that, personally, because I know the history of how those resolutions came to pass, and it’s an ugly, nasty history that I wish MCUSA would own. But if the letter of the law in these statements and resolutions is what you care about, you can’t in good faith say that the discussion shouldn’t happen.

      Also, taking off the historian hat and speaking as someone who grew up in the General Conference Mennonite Church: the MCUSA merger left an awful lot of people in that conference feeling betrayed. When I talk to people of my parents’ (baby boomer) generation in historically GC areas, they often talk about MCUSA as though it was the end of the church they loved and believed in. But they were people who believed in cooperation and creating a church that could work across ideological and theological differences, and they wanted to be part of a peace church with enough power to have influence in the world. So those of them who served as delegates and voted on the merger took church leaders at their word when they were assured that Section 3 of the 2001 Membership Guidelines was a temporary measure and wouldn’t be that important. They shouldn’t have believed that–it was a lie, and I still don’t understand why the merged church became such a priority that so many ostensibly LGBTQ-friendly people signed this blatantly fear-based document. But when you scold people for “joining a group they don’t agree with,” you leave out something huge: a lot of MCUSA Mennonites didn’t “join” this “group,” exactly. Their church turned into MCUSA, and the past fifteen years have been a slow process of trying to understand what that means, and if they can still justifiably belong to the church that they thought was their own.

      If you think that the sum total of that complexity can be reduced to the words in denominational statements, you have a much more black-and-white view of the world than I do.

  6. Well coming from the MC side of the house, I think lots of us regular folks (not delegates or clergy) are mystified by the whole MCUSA thing as well. We didn’t directly take part in the discussions nor probably had any idea of what was going on at all. I at least understood membership in church to be a voluntary joining of a body of like minded believers who come together under a covenant in good faith. There probably was a reason that a MC and GC existed in the first place because of differing understandings of what membership means and differing views of Scripture. My (and I do believe much of this is MC cultural) understanding of Anabaptism is that one joins the membership under the auspices of accepting the statements of that body of believers. GC apparently doesn’t see things in that way. Hence, the whole blow up.

    • To Linda Rosenblum:

      As a person who has roots in the General Conference–all my grandparents or great-grandparents migrated from Molotschna in the late 1800’s– and became a member of the Mennonite Church before the merger: The differences between the two denominations are almost all historical and geographical. Because of differences in geography, different ideas emerged about how to do church. GC’s tended to organize quicker–so even with smaller numbers started educational institutions and publishing ventures sooner. My opinion, but I feel it is an informed opinion with 20 + years experience in a joint publishing effort.

      And to the point of the “inclusive” question: If we are to be “missional”, doesn’t it make sense to reach out first to those who have expressed interest in being part of the church? To me it seems that those closest to us should be the ones easiest for us to give our support and encouragement. But this has turned into a sibling-rivalry type of fight. “Who REALLY owns this church?” seems to be the main question. Continued dialog is the only way we can work out our salvation for this time.

  7. Linda and Stephanie, it’s important to acknowledge the strong consensus in both churches in support of the Confession of Faith. Yes, there was and is vigorous dissent to Article 19 (Family, Singleness and Marriage) and to the delegate statements that addressed sexuality; this dissent has been honored by the call for continued dialogue. Still, it would be a mistake to assume the Confession was imposed on anyone.

    The primary difficulty in the pre-merger negotiations was the very different ways the two churches exercised oversight. Many within the older Mennonite Church (MC) districts feared that the more congregational approach of the General Conference (GC) districts would lead to moral drift. MC district conferences faced the loss of many congregations over this concern.

    To keep that number to a minimum (certainly a laudable goal), the MC districts insisted on a commitment from each district conference in the merged church regarding the exercise of oversight “on issues related to membership and homosexuality.” That commitment was given by all district conferences from both churches and became Section 3 of the 2001 Membership Guidelines.

    To gain perspective on our current crisis, read Tim Nafziger’s article published in the February 2015 edition of The Mennonite. It is entitled “Discussion of MSMC decision ‘complicated and difficult’.” When reading the article, be sure to click through to the June 2012 letter from the Executive Board; it demonstrates the generous spirit with which the Executive Board responded to the varied ways district conferences implemented Section 3. Also note how Mountain States Mennonite Conference viewed the Executive Board’s generous letter as authority to take the unprecedented step of licensing an individual who is part of a same-sex marriage.

    Taking all of this into account along with Stephanie’s comment, I think many of Linda’s points stand, as do Frank’s about the selective and self-serving way we often read and apply scripture.

    • Berry, I’m tempted to take up more comment space here by offering some generational perspective on the centrality of the Confession of Faith, particularly Article 19. But honestly, it feels like a waste of time, because the underlying issue here is that I believe that all of the documents we’re discussing here do a pitiful job of addressing gender, sexuality, and the ethics of intimate relationships, and on a related note, I believe that working against full acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people is bigoted and morally indefensible. Period. Yes, I can have an amiable exchange with people who disagree with me on those points, but that ethic is an unshakable core to me. By the standards of MCUSA’s Executive Board, that makes me an inflexible extremist and possibly even hateful or violent. Which…whatever. Have fun with all your documents.

      Frank is one of those Christians who makes me want to not give up on the church. But I’m not sure this church deserves him. And I’m not sure this church deserves all of the people my age and younger who give up and leave and then are explained away with phrases like “moral drift.”

  8. Well, Berry, first contact from you since the ending of our deep, long-term friendship thirty years ago – and on a blog post no less. I would have hoped by now that some life or family circumstances might have provided you with the laxative to break free your mental and emotional constipation, but your world still seems to have neat boxes of who belongs and who doesn’t, who has worth and who doesn’t, who might be answering God’s call and who couldn’t possibly hear it. The loaded terms you use to praise the executive board and censure Mountain States for doing a new thing make it pretty clear you are still comfortable flushing queer people from the church for the sake of your particular concept of unity, just as I heard you were doing in your time at Mennonite Central Committee after you left Minneapolis.

  9. Stephanie- I gather you are fed up with both Berry and I but at the very essence of this issue is not how we hold tight to denominational documents but rather how we hold tight to Scripture and how that is reflected and supported in the denominational documents. We are just as sincere about how we read Scripture as you are. We have simply come to different understandings of that Scripture. Again, nobody is ever going to change anybody else’s opinions here. We only get annoyed and exasperated by the other side’s stance.

    • If this is about differences in how people interpret scripture then discuss the scriptures where the differences lay. Every other kind of discussion is a detour. The idea that scripture somehow supports inclusion of those practicing sexual behaviors prohibited by those same scriptures and Apostolic teaching just isn’t realistically or historically tenable. If people think some spirit is leading in a different direction then it is incumbent on them to bring confirmation in the Spirit that they have new prophetic leading, even signs and wonders in authorizing power, for this divergent teaching. I haven’t seen it, but if the Spirit is speaking some new message I desire to listen. If it isn’t the Spirit then it is just more of the “did God really say that?” kind of deception misleading us again.

    • “Conclusions” while the discussion is progressing.

      I think that we all need to stop trying to come to a conclusion while the discussion is in process. I know it is very adult to put some things in their proper place. But that is what Jesus meant about coming as a child. We have to be open to hearing the other people, open to learning something from the other believers. Let’s listen and try to hear as well as we can. Let’s feel for the other’s hope to belong and be brought face to face with God. Together.

  10. I think one thing Frank’s post illustrates beautifully and the subsequent comments confirm is that there is a substantial difference among Mennonites in how we view scripture–not just in how we interpret particular passages in the Bible, but in the way we view the authority of scripture and our method of understanding it more generally. (That’s called “hermeneutics” for those who appreciate seminary lingo.) I did not invite Frank to share a guest post in order to subject him to criticism of his well-thought-out and sincere relationship with scripture. He has shared here as a way for those of us who do not identify as lgbtq to better understand the perspective of someone who does so identify. Further respectful discussion of Frank’s particular comments are welcome, as well as humble sharing of individulal’s relationship with the Bible. Thanks.

  11. Pingback: Confession of Faith in a Queer Perspective: Article 22 | Spacious Faith

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