Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
I am profoundly reluctant to write this letter because I know there are those it will wound deeply. But I have also come to the conviction that I can no longer hide the light the Lord has lit within me, under a bushel. I want to share with you what the Lord has been telling me and my dear life companion.
First, a defense of my ministry—if you will allow me to paraphrase the words of the Apostle Paul from Philippians 3:4ff.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:
• Baptized into a Virginia Conference Mennonite Church as a young boy, youngest son of a Mennonite evangelist and second president of Eastern Mennonite Seminary (now EMU), AD Wenger.
• Mothered by a diligent student and teacher of the Scriptures, the oldest daughter of a Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishop and faithful to her Church in every way.
• At the request of Lancaster Mennonite Conference ordained in 1949, by Virginia Mennonite Conference for mission work in Ethiopia.
• Appointed by Eastern Mennonite Mission Board of Lancaster Conference as the Educational Director for the Mennonite Mission in Ethiopia.
• Founded and taught Bible in the Bible Academy of Nazareth Ethiopia which was established to train potential leaders for the budding Meserete Kristos Church.
• First elected chairman of Ethiopia’s Meserete Kristos Church, now the largest Mennonite church in the world.
• Happily turned the MKC chairmanship over to an Ethiopian who later was chosen and served as president of Mennonite World Conference.
• Began and taught in various educational programs in Lancaster Conference that were centered on Bible teaching (e.g. Keystone Bible Institutes, Paul Timothy Program).
• Former director of Home Missions of Eastern Mennonite Missions.
• Former pastor and still a member in good standing of Blossom Hill Mennonite Church, a thriving congregation of many young adults and young families.
• Lifelong student of the Bible and when it comes to quoting scripture passages I would be ready to compete with any one.
• Father of 8 children (one deceased) all of whom love the Lord and serve his Kingdom.
• Pleaded for patience when my congregation decided to leave Lancaster Conference over the women’s leadership issue to join Atlantic Coast Mennonite Conference.
• When it comes to my desire to be faithful to the laws of God and to walk uprightly with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, my children and many, many Ethiopian and US witnesses will vouch for my integrity.
My life has been filled with much joy seeing God at work in numerous settings. God’s grace has been shown daily on my behalf. But as the Apostle Paul has said so well, “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”
So, with all of the above acknowledged, what is the light I’ve been hiding under the bushel?
• When our gay young adult son about 35 years ago was excommunicated from the Mennonite Church by a church leader, without any conversation with him or his parents, my wife and I grieved deeply.
• For many years, in the company of other grieving parents of homosexual persons, we have told our stories, read and reread the Scriptures. Most striking to us is that God, who created the world, who gave us Eden, also gives us the “leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations.”
• The world we live in is no longer the idyllic Eden. It is a broken, complex, messy, violent and yet wonderful world. God’s mercy-filled grace infuses our broken world with a goodness that keeps surprising us with joy—and healing. God’s grace also calls us to faithfully love God and neighbor above all else.
• The church we belong to has the power to bind and loose. Today’s church, much like the early Christians, has the Spirit-given power to rethink whether or not “circumcision” will continue to define who is in and who is out.
• Because of the brokenness of all sexualities that abuse, lust, access pornography, have sex with unmarried partners of the same or the other gender—because of this brokenness, the church must rise up to reclaim a godly and wholesome sexuality:
-a godly sexuality that is wholesome because it is covenanted, accountable to and blessed within the church (not left to fend for itself outside the church);
-a godly sexuality that is wholesome because it calls every one to recommit our bodies (whether heterosexual or homosexual) to be temples of the Holy Spirit, seeking first the Kingdom of God and covenanting to follow Jesus every day.
• When my wife and I read the Bible with today’s fractured, anxious church in mind, we ask, what is Jesus calling us to do with those sons and daughters who are among the most despised people in the world—in all races and communities?
• What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?
• We know from Deuteronomy that eunuchs were a sexual minority, loathed and considered unacceptable for admission to the “assembly of the Lord” and yet in Isaiah 56 the Lord says: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’… I will give them a name better than sons and daughters….for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples … ”
• My dear wife Sara Jane and I love all of our children. We give thanks for the remarkable Kingdom work each of them is doing. We know that several of our children believe that the church should not endorse same-sex marriage. And several of our children believe that same-sex marriage is a faithful and godly choice when blessed by the church.
• While the tension around this issue is painful in our family, we continue to love each other, to sing, pray and play together. Our children all honor us with deep devotion and faithful care—and genuinely enjoy each other.
• My wife and I are devoted to our Lord, with a firm commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. We strive to be faithfully obedient to Jesus.
• We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways.
• We know that while many of us hear different things from the Scriptures, God’s deepest desire, as made known in Jesus Christ, is “to seek and to save that which was lost.” We believe this is an opportune moment for the church to boldly proclaim a pastoral, grace-filled readiness to include both homosexuals and heterosexuals within the blessing of a marriage covenant designed to be wholesome and God-honoring.
This is the light that has been burning more and more brightly under my bushel, and I am now prepared finally, as a 96-year old, still zealous missionary, to let it shine. So …
• When the laws of Pennsylvania changed in July, our gay son and his committed partner of twenty-seven years went immediately to apply for a marriage license. Subsequently they asked me if I would marry them. I happily agreed. We held a private ceremony with only six persons present. Our son and his partner are members of an Episcopal Church, but they chose my wife and me to share with them in this holy covenant of marriage.
• When I reported this event to Lancaster Conference leaders, they responded with grace-filled pastoral listening, while acknowledging that what I’d done was out of step with established credentialing agreements with other Mennonite Conferences. Afterward the LMC credentialing committee met on Sept. 10 and retired my credentials and I am at peace with their decision and understand their need to take this action.
• I know persons will accuse me for my transgression, but my act of love was done on behalf of the church I love, and my conscience is clear. I feel that my act of love in signing a marriage license for our son and his companion was in line with the actions of Peter and Paul who led the church of Christ to welcome the uncircumcised into the fellowship of the family of God.
• Paul and Peter both received harsh criticism for years for their deeds but the Holy Spirit led the Jerusalem conference to heartily approve their testimony and leadership. My prayer is that our Church leaders in their next Assembly will likewise not only approve but warmly invite into congregational fellowship those believers in Christ who have suffered exclusion from membership in our Mennonite Church. Let us pray the Spirit of Christ will teach us all how to love and welcome the outcasts as Jesus did.
• My dear companion of 70 years and I declare our enduring love for Lancaster Mennonite Conference, for the Mennonite Church, for the Meserete Kristos Church and for all God’s people. We carry no bitterness or regret for our actions. Our hearts are filled with love for all.
• We pray that our love in family and Church will bind us together in God’s family even when our understandings of God’s will may differ. Christ’s prayer for oneness in John 17 can be attained!
Click here for Tim Nafziger’s blog: The hole in Lancaster Conference’s case against Chester Wenger.
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