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Villegas resigns from Executive Board after performing same-sex wedding

5.23. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 5,624 Times read

Photo: Pastor Isaac Villegas teaches children’s Sunday school at Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. Villegas resigned from the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board after he performed a same-sex wedding ceremony on May 21. Photo provided. 

On Saturday, May 21, Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship (CHMF) and a member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (EB), officiated at a same-sex wedding for two members of his congregation. On May 23, Villegas resigned from his role with the EB. According to Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) policies, the automatic response for a pastor who performs a same-sex wedding ceremony is suspension of pastoral credentials. At press time, VMC had not contacted The Mennonite or Villegas about the status of his credentials.

Update (May 26): On May 25, Virginia Mennonite Conference informed Villegas via e-mail that his pastoral credentials had been suspended. The conference conducted a short investigation by a three person team—Rev. Spencer Bradford, Eastern Carolina District Minister, Clyde Kratz, VMC Executive Conference Minister, and Gordon Zook, a member of the Faith and Life Commission–that confirmed that Villegas did perform a same-sex wedding ceremony on May 21. The e-mail from the group to Villegas said, “…the Faith and Life Commission suspends your credentials as an ordained minister of the Virginia Mennonite Conference effective immediately on the basis of a breach of trust with the Conference.”

The conference will set up an Accountability/Support Team to work with Villegas over the next year to “heal the breach of trust and restore mutually agreed understandings and expectations of credentialed ministry.” The written statement said, “We are saddened by the necessity of this action and pray that our unity in common mind (2 Cor. 13:11, Phil. 2:2) and shared ministry will be restored by Christ.”

In a May 26 interview, Villegas reflected on the wedding and said, “I sensed the Spirit at work when I pronounced the couple wife and wife in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Villegas has no regrets and says he would celebrate another same-sex wedding in his community again if the opportunity arose. “I hope that in meeting with the [accountability] group that FLC would change their minds about disciplining pastors who perform same sex weddings,” he said.

This is the first time that the 2013 VMC policy regarding credentialed leaders who perform same-sex covenant ceremonies has been put to use. Suspension means that all “ministerial privileges” granted by the conference are put on hold, including the ability to serve as a delegate at VMC assemblies. Credentials may be restored at the end of the allotted suspension period if there is acknowledgement of the breach of trust by the minister and an agreement to a year of probation.

In a policy developed in April 2015, the FLC reiterated that performing a same-sex wedding ceremony was considered pastoral misconduct and represented a “breach of trust.” The policy cites a 2014 MC USA polity manual, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership, which lists a number of “breach of trust situations,” including, among others, use of pornography, intentional dishonesty, acts of violence, and financial irresponsibility. According to the FLC policy, performing a same-sex ceremony relates to criteria concerning “failure to be accountable to the conference that holds the credential,” “major theological devitation from Christian/Anabaptist understandings,” and “behaviors that undermine the congregation, another congregation or the relationship with the wider Mennonite church.”

Executive board conversations

During their February meeting, EB members also approved a new policy regarding the practical implications of two resolutions—Forbearance in the Midst of Difference and Resolution on the Status of the Membership Guidelines—approved by delegates at the Mennonite Church USA convention in July 2015. The new board policy includes the following statement: “In its deliberation, the board will welcome the diverse perspective within the church; at the same time, we expect board members to honor our decisions and the documents we are trusted to uphold.”

In a May 13 interview, Villegas said he first shared his intent to perform the wedding, affirmed by his congregation, with members of the EB Executive Committee in fall 2015 in a letter outlining CHMF’s discernment process. During in-person meetings in February, Villegas says, “it was the general counsel of the [Executive] Committee that it would make the most sense for me to resign if I were to perform the wedding and that we bring this before the whole board to test that counsel.”

In his resignation letter, addressed to MC USA delegates who appointed him to the EB in July 2013, Villegas says that he shared his intentions with board members during their February meeting and received some counsel to resign. He writes, “As a pastor who is committed to the movement of the Holy Spirit in my congregation—a congregation that affirms the blessing of same-sex marriages—I am at variance with part three of the Membership Guidelines.” Villegas also cites the example of 13 other Mennonite pastors who have previously performed same-sex wedding ceremonies and offered affirmation for the lives and ministries of LGBTQ individuals.

Villegas said: “I’m grateful for the gay and lesbian people who are at my church, and I can’t imagine our congregation without them and without their gifts. I’ve seen God’s love in their lives and in their love.”

During his time on the board, Villegas served as a member of the Executive Committee and as chair of the Resolutions Committee for the 2015 Delegate Assembly.

Patricia Shelly, MC USA moderator and chair of the EB, said that board members received Villegas’ resignation last week but have not had time to act on it as a board. They plan to discuss the resignation further at their next board meetings, June 2-4 in Orlando.

In a May 19 interview, Shelly acknowledged that when Villegas shared his intention to perform a same-sex wedding with board members in February, the board gave counsel, but there was not a unanimous response or any specific action taken. “When we discuss Isaac’s resignation in Orlando, I am sure there will also be different kinds of responses,” said Shelly. “The board will not be of one mind.”

Isaac2

Patricia Shelly, moderator-elect and chair of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) from North Newton, Kan., talks with Isaac Villegas, executive board member and Resolutions Committee chair of Chapel Hill, N.C., at the March 2015 CLC meetings. (Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr)

Shelly also emphasized that the board is aware that Virginia Mennonite Conference is processing this decision as well and that the EB will “respect the work they [the conference] are doing.”

Shelly and other board members expressed a deep sense of grief at Villegas’ resignation and thankfulness for his contributions. “While I can’t speak for the board yet in terms of our response to Isaac’s resignation, I can say unequivocally that board members will be grieved he’s no longer part of our work.”

Congregational and conference processes

The wedding comes after extensive correspondence between CHMF members and VMC staff and committees.

On Sept. 22, 2014, Martha King and Meghan Florian, CHMF representatives for equality in membership, wrote a letter to VMC’s Faith and Life Commission (FLC), the conference group responsible for leadership on “spiritual, doctrinal and faith and life issues,” informing the group of CHMF’s decision to “welcome people who are LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] into all aspects of church life and to extend all the rights and privileges of congregational membership” and to join the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests’ Supportive Communities Network. This decision came after an 18-month discernment process for the congregation. The letter also asked members of the FLC to offer their opinion on whether or not CHMF should remain within the conference or seek membership elsewhere.

In subsequent letters and exchanges, members of CHMF, including Villegas, King and Florian, corresponded with conference and FLC leaders about their congregation’s process and biblical and theological rationale for this decision. During an April 25 meeting, FLC members affirmed CHMF’s continued membership in the conference, while also stating that VMC policies prohibit pastors from officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies.

In May 2013, the FLC issued a statement reaffirming Article 19 from the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective which states, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” The statement also says that “if a credentialed person conducts a covenanting ceremony for a same-sex couple, their credentials will be immediately suspended while a review is underway.”

According to King, when Villegas was approached about performing a wedding, he brought the query to CHMF deacons for processing. In a May 13 interview, King said the deacons “discerned that it would be OK for Isaac to go ahead with performing this wedding” and brought the question to the entire congregation. In November 2015, the congregation affirmed the direction.

King says the congregation knew this decision would place them at variance with the conference’s current policies but that “the congregation has also felt like we are following the word of the Gospels.” She says it has been most disappointing to see Villegas singled out for a decision the congregation made together. “This absolutely is about our whole congregation because our whole congregation has given our blessing for Isaac to perform this wedding,” she says. “Isaac is both a pastor and a brother in our congregation. Don’t separate his pastoral actions out from representing our congregation.”

In a Nov. 7, 2015, letter, Villegas informed the FLC of his intention to officiate a same-sex wedding and asked the commission to reconsider suspending his credentials. “I request this exemption because of my pastoral calling in our congregation’s context and my experience with this couple,” he wrote. “I believe that God desires for me to bless their relationship with the ordinance of marriage.” He also cited the recent resolution on Forbearance in the Midst of Difference as grounds for reconsidering suspension. In addition, this spring, the pastoral team of Community Mennonite Fellowship in Harrisonburg, Va., sent a letter to the FLC asking them to reconsider suspending Villegas’ credentials.

In a May 19 interview, Community Mennonite pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig said the conference’s “stated intentions start to confuse variance and misconduct.” She emphasized that a review without automatic suspension would seem more in keeping with theological variance. Davis Sensenig and other members of the Community Mennonite pastoral team visited CHMF in 2015, and she praised CHMF’s transparency with the conference throughout their process.

“VMC is diverse, and we can still rely on the Holy Spirit for times like this,” said Davis Sensenig. “I hope our leaders will feel like they have options.…I think that’s what’s so hard. A lot of us have experienced Chapel Hill and Isaac as being agents of the Spirit of Christ in significant ways.”

In January, Villegas also met face to face with the FLC to answer questions about the congregation’s process and his decision to perform the wedding. Other CHMF members were not permitted to attend since FLC meetings are closed.

In April, the FLC created a new policy, sent to all VMC credentialed leaders on May 3, that outlined specific procedures for credentialed leaders who perform a same-sex wedding. The policy notes that performing a same-sex wedding represents a “breach of trust” by a credentialed minister in three areas described in the MC USA ministerial leadership handbook, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership: “failure to be accountable to the area conference that holds the credential,” “major theological deviation from Christian and Anabaptist/Mennonite understandings” and “behaviors that undermine the congregation, another congregation or the relationship with the wider Mennonite church.”

The policy stipulates that if the performance of a same-sex covenanting ceremony is confirmed, the minister’s credentials are automatically suspended. Suspension means that all “ministerial privileges” granted by the conference are put on hold, including the ability to serve as a delegate at VMC assemblies. Credentials may be restored at the end of the allotted suspension period if there is acknowledgement of the breach of trust by the minister and an agreement to a year of probation.

Although he would not comment on Villegas’ specific situation, VMC executive conference minister Clyde Kratz wrote in a May 17 statement: “With clear knowledge of VMC’s alignment with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, a Shared Understanding of Church Leadership, the 2013 Faith & Life Commission statement and May 2016 policy, any credentialed leader who conducts a same-sex wedding, therefore, intentionally breaches policy for which suspension is the automatic response.”

Villegas’ district minister, Rev. Spencer Bradford, and members of the FLC were contacted but declined to comment for this story.

Even if his credentials would be suspended, members of CHMF have said they will still consider Villegas their pastor and are planning a celebration of his 10 years of ministry on June 5.

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24 Responses to “Villegas resigns from Executive Board after performing same-sex wedding”

  1. Jon Brandt says:

    So sad. That the opportunity to celebrate and affirm the love and commitment of two people, under God, should result in this. The MCUSA has lost its way.

    We have an opportunity to strengthen the church, and our witness in the world, but we are refusing to acknowledge love where it is flourishing.

  2. Bruce Leichty says:

    It will be interesting to see if this comment is permitted, by one who is not grieved to see Pastor Villegas resign from the Executive Board and who will speak frankly. Although I have never met Isaac personally, and am willing to do so, my experience in communicating with him about a completely different matter (the Palestinian resolution as to which he played a role) was negative, and I was put off by his dismissive attitude. His attitude toward me suggested that he cared only about his leader colleagues and his own politically correct constituency in that context, and he apparently feels the same way here — notwithstanding all the usual myopic allusions to love and gifts of those involved, etc. — the usual “angels of lights.” This type of “new Mennonite” can be “counterculture” only when the expression is permitted by the Democratic Party. I cannot be surprised, then, that he would arrogate to himself the authority to make his own decisions about same sex marriage, which can never be viewed as permissible for Christians notwithstanding the pressures of current American polity and culture and liberal interpreters of Scripture. for whom a certain sloppy definition of love has subsumed the whole commandment. The demands of love are greater than this. He has now honored those demands in part by his resignation from a position of denominational leadership, but he and all the other pastors still clinging to the Mennonite name who are committed to performing same sex marriage should now also form their own denomination and cease troubling what was once a faithful nonconformed fellowship known as the Mennonite church.

  3. Framk says:

    As Harry Caray would have said…….”Whod thunk!!!”

  4. Mark Schloneger says:

    Unlike you, Bruce, I do know Isaac. Isaac is a friend of mine, someone that I respect both as a person and a pastor. You may disagree with him, but, given all that you have heaped upon him here, I don’t blame him for not engaging with you.

    • Bruce Leichty says:

      For the Marks and Isaacs of the church the table is really not so big after all, is it? It’s just for the approved marginalized, the minority ethnic groups who are angry and vocal, not the unapproved.

  5. Hilary Scarsella says:

    Isaac, I have not had the pleasure of working with you or even meeting you, but many people I know, trust and love speak with such gratitude for the energy, honesty and love you gift to this church. Your presence in MC USA leadership has been a beacon of hope to me. I’m SAD that you will no longer be in that role, but I’m also so glad for the decision you and your community made to marry all who are committed to each other in love. I trust that the way will open for your voice to keep on soothing and rattling those who need each one.

  6. Rick Yoder says:

    Thanks to Isaac and Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship – and to the pastoral team at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va for writing a letter supportive of Isaac’s action to Va Mennonite Conference.

  7. Steve says:

    Isaac, thanks for being more courageous than most of us will know. Isn’t it something how that other “Spirit” has come out into the open to combat the thread of openness and commitment to each other that has been trying to emerge for 30 years now? Its time to discern the Spirits, and name the Zeitgeist of MCUSA leadership.

  8. M. South says:

    “Although I have never met Isaac personally, and am willing to do so, my experience in communicating with him about a completely different matter negative, and I was put off by his dismissive attitude. His attitude toward me suggested that he cared only about his leader colleagues and his own politically correct constituency in that context, and he apparently feels the same way here — notwithstanding all the usual myopic allusions to love and gifts of those involved, etc. — the usual ‘angels of lights.’ This type of ‘new Mennonite’ can be ‘counterculture’ only when the expression is permitted by the Democratic Party. I cannot be surprised, then, that he would arrogate to himself the authority to make his own decisions about same sex marriage”

    While not knowing the gentleman personally, and wishing the best for everyone, I have to note that many of those promoting the New Revelation – which is a mirror counterpart to the entirely secular progressivist ideology from which it derives – are similarly dismissive of those who haven’t been informed by the same Spirit as they claim to have been. You won’t be feeling the love, unless you submit to sign on to their agenda.

    I would say integrity demands not only the resignation from the board, which in this context is mostly a political act and designed to have theatrical dramatic effect towards overthrow of the church’s teaching authority, but resignation from affiliation to the Mennonite church itself. Those who want a different church should feel free to start their own, rather than mounting a coup.

  9. Monica says:

    As the “bonus mom” who took in a gay child driven out of his family and Mennonite church, thank you. I hope one day my son will have a Pastor like you that will be able to lead him back to the faith in God that was shattered by the rejection be experienced.

    • Bruce Leichty says:

      Monica, I applaud you for your compassion, and all those similarly who have compassion. The only persons I would like to see “drive themselves out” are those who are aggressively pushing what is essentially a cultural agenda on the church. They have wreaked much havoc and destruction. It is no coincidence that this is occurring amidst the decadence and anomie of Western society in this era. Moreover, for the Christian, an expression of compassion still has limits and must have limits. What I hope our church can some day realize is that is good and right to welcome and engage in dialogue with those who are struggling with same sex attraction, but not acceptable to then conclude that it will be equally normative to solemnize the commitments of the most persistent among them to a person of the same sex. Thus, even though homosexual attraction itself does not deserve condemnation, neither does it deserve blessing and the normative label.

  10. Rick Schmidt says:

    Totally agree with the analysis of Bruce Leichty and M. South. Most of the other comments totally miss the point: it’s not that we aren’t “grateful for the gay and lesbian people who are at our church” and most of us have “…. seen God’s love in their lives and in their love.”
    It’s that the response of the secular progressives in the Church, who at all times apply the test of “politically correctness” to everything they tackle, results in MORE division & disagreement instead of harmony.
    Lack of harmony and some measure of doctrinal consistency is what ultimately drove me out of the Mennonite church after being raised and educated in that environment.
    As Leichty states, the seats at the Mennonite table these days are “just for the approved marginalized, the minority ethnic groups who are angry and vocal” and not for the rest of us.
    Since my exit, I’ve still been following these (and other) profound changes in doctrine & biblical interpretation happening in the Mennonite community, and truly must say I have no regrets at all …. only thankfulness that I was shown the truth before it was too late for me.

    • Debra Bender says:

      Have no desire to get into the Mennonite version of the current political climate, except to say I agree. 100%. With both Bruce and Rick.

  11. james says:

    To Mr. South and Mr. Lichty:
    Ironically, I believe it was first Jesus who showed us how to run a religious coup, instead of jumping his Jewish Ship, he put his fellow Jews in the position where they had to say “crucify him”. I percieve that you, my dear brothers, are feeling these liberal mennos are destroying your church, just as many jews felt challenged by the early church. I would encourage you to step back and see the bigger picture; marriage between one man and one woman was the vestige of the local rural community economy. and this was destroyed long ago by the avarice and individualism of the industrial state and the capitalist economy. I believe the only way to go back to this hallowed commitment you remember, is to give up everything you have, and move back to a simpler life, perhaps to a farming community of years past. The irony for me is that this calling back to simplicity, community, peace, church and family is essentially the marrow in Mennonite bones. Ironically, most of us are not ready to give up the enticements that modernity has to offer us. So we must suffer a modern evangelical religion which has co-evolved with the Empire and the modern capitalist state to create individuals who can no longer see beyond themselves and their personal needs. We fear the loss of what we hold to be OURS, but Jesus calls all of us, like Paul, to transformation. That transformation is for everybody, our whole society, it includes liberal mennos and likewise those of us who feel sympathy with our brothers South and Lichty. We bicker about details while the principalities and powers are setting the table to finish off the last bite of mennonite broth. Mennonite history and culture has a great vitality to offer the modern predicament, but if the “right and left” gets swallowed by civil religion we will be left with only the memory of how wholesome grandma’s broth tasted and how good it made us feel.

    • James,

      Your comment is thought-provoking and well-taken, even if you did misspell my last name. Although I won’t try to address all the nuances, I agree with you that Jesus was not intent on forming a new “denomination,” as it were (or a new religion if you want to think in those categories). But there is a real distinction in what he was doing — calling his people to honor the spirit and intent of the law and prophets, standing against both temple and culture — and what so-called gay advocates are doing in the church now. They believe, to paraphrase M. South, that they have a “new revelation” that the entire church must accept, and they are not attempting to do this by persuasion, but rather by changing our institutional rules and foundational statements. I accept that the process of evaluating such rules and statements is ongoing and must be ongoing, but let’s just acknowledge the distinctions.

      Moreover, I don’t accept your “either-or” dichotomy. The proposition that we have to go back to “horses and buggies” in order to uphold man-woman marriage is a nonsequitur. Yes, we are Mennonites who accept and benefit from some of the features (you call them “enticements”) of modernity. That doesn’t mean that we can’t distinguish the babe from the bathwater.

      Your proposition that man-woman marriage is a vestige of the rural community economy is itself a conclusion introduced to you — I would hazard to say — by some self-important academic who didn’t know how to properly distinguish associations (family patterns in the rural economy are associated with man-woman marriage) from cause and effect (the man-woman marriage pattern is a product of the rural economy).

      By your comments it doesn’t appear to me that you are really ready to “suffer a modern evangelical religion” which marries faith and the state, so why you are you so ready to suffer a modern religion (I’m not sure it is evangelical) which so transparently superimposes culture on faith? Mennonites at their best have something more to offer the nation than just a cry of “peace, peace” — and we know the perils of that cry in any case. If the principalities and powers are ready to finish us off, it is not only through the brazen and predatory acts of Empire to which we daily acquiesce, but also through the insidious and stealthy erosion of our basic principles and values concerning marriage and family and nature — not that I am without sin, but I will at least identify the process.

    • M. South says:

      I can certainly hear the call to live a simpler life, outside the corrosive spiritual effects of a totalist consumer culture, which ends up making appetite the purpose of life. It’s a necessity for many who are now the unnecessariat in the globalized economy that no longer needs their labor and has no place for those without the funds to feed the consumer addiction.

      But how do we ‘return’ to the land, in an era where farmland’s been gobbled up by corporate mega-agriculture and pushed the cost of farmland to stratospheric levels? There are many who are ready to give up the enticements, many others forced to, but where are we necessary? I agree that civil religion, with its adherence to political authority, has no answers, whether in its past alliance with jingoism or in its current gender bender intoxication.

  12. Monica Schmucker says:

    I recently married a divorced man. The wedding took place in a Mennonite church, officiated by a Mennonite pastor who is a friend of mine. It meant a great deal to me to make this commitment in a community of friends and family, including a pastor who knows and cares about me. I realize this would have been unacceptable a few decades ago and am grateful that no one risked ridicule or loss of ministerial credentials to do it. I know that Isaac acts with pastoral love and to extend that to a same-sex couple who feel that love and care is a special thing. This is not primarily about “issues,” it is about people who are made in the image of God. Institutions may feel the need to take certain actions, and I respect their right (or sense of obligation) to do so, but in the end, these three remain: Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. Let us be compassionate in our judgments since the same measure will be used on us.

    • Marvin Yoder says:

      Monica;
      I,m curious, did your pastor friend council you and your husband to be on the Biblical precepts of marriage and husband/wife relationships, with the goal of guarding against your marriage suffering the same gut wrenching sinful fate of your husbands first marriage? If he did great and I pray that you and your husband have many happy years together. If not, I question just how much your pastor friend really cares for you.
      Blessings, Marv

  13. Does anyone have the history of the first Mennonite pastor to marry an interracial couple? Were there any repercussions there?

    • Bruce Leichty says:

      You mean marriages between Flemish and Frisians, right? Or Russian Mennonites and Swiss? MB’s and OM’s? (my parents were in the latter category)

      This is a typical tactic of the LGetc community. Shout “race” and wait for Mennonite guilt to take over. There is nothing about interracial marriage — which is difficult but not against nature (describes my own first marriage) — that is comparable to a so-called marriage between a man and a man. It is a tactical construct to treat principled opposition to same sex marriage as comparable to racial discrimination, a construct that the Chosen Elite have used to full advantage in Amerika and in our debased judicial system. The same tactical construct could just as easily be used — and may yet some day be used — to justify polygamy or incest or pedophilia.

      • M Mullet says:

        Perhaps the question was meant to illustrate how the church has changed in the past. Perhaps it was an innocent request for information. Evidently, it was worthy of a snarky response. The use of unflattering labels and attempts to link your “opponents” with abhorrent behavior are time worn classics. Who’s employing tactics?

      • Debra Bender says:

        While Bruce and I often agree to disagree (and have done so for nigh unto 30 years), I totally agree with him on the attempt to drag race into this discussion. My husband is biracial and some of the comments and attitudes we’ve experienced in the few times we’ve appeared at Mennonite functions would blow your mind. And it wasn’t behind our backs; it was blunt, ignorant and in our faces. But, hey, that’s the Mennonite way. Use race to try to change an uncomfortable discussion. The more things change, the more they stay the same. For the record, Merv, we were married by one of the kindest, most patient and caring Cook County judges I ever had the pleasure to meet . . . so we can’t help with your historical inquiry. Sorry.

  14. Frank Lostaunau says:

    Thank You for your excellent work Mr. Villegas!

  15. Paul Polner says:

    Have I lost it? Am I the only one left in this world who knows that homosexuality is a sin? No, I don’t hate anyone because they’re L,B,G or T but why do they think I hate them just because of what my Bible tells me? If you are LBGT you don’t have to believe in God’s Word. You can continue on in whatever lifestyle you’ve selected. I know God can pull you out of it if you truly want Him to! It’s your prerogative. There is NO HATE. But we as Christians are tossing our faith out the window to satisfy political correctness. PC is fleeting, God’s Word is forever! I love my gay friends. But to condone gay marriage in the eyes of God is not Biblical. Please re-evaluate why you believe what you believe with respect to Biblical truths and not political correctness or social pressure.