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Michael Danner is Executive Conference Minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference.
Is Mennonite Church USA moving towards full LGBTQ inclusion? This is a question I have been asked numerous times since the Future Church Summit in Orlando, Florida.
Of course, that answer lacks nuance. Who, exactly, is Mennonite Church USA? What about all the voices that were not present at the Future Church Summit? What about those conservative churches that did not send delegates? What about the average person in the pew? What about ongoing experiences of exclusion experienced and reported by LGBTQ persons in the church? The list of questions could go on.
My answer is not rooted in insider information or gleaned in back-room conversations about the strategic direction of MC USA. While I’m a conference minister, I’ve yet to attain that level of “behind the curtain” access. My answer is rooted in common sense.
Consider this simple example. There are 10 people in an organization. Five people in the organization hold position A. The other five people hold position “not-A.” What happens when the people holding position “not-A” leave the organization?
When one person holding position “not-A” leaves the church, power begins to shift. You might not notice, but it does. When two leave, it becomes more obvious. When three leave, things clearly shift. Taken to its logical end, when all the people holding position “not-A” leave, those who remain will all hold position A. At the same time, people holding position “not-A” will not choose to join the organization, either.
That is a simple illustration of how an institution can become defined by a particular position over time. This is what leads me to say that MC USA is moving towards full inclusion. From what I can see, people advocating for full inclusion are showing up and speaking up. Those who do not hold that view are not showing up in the same numbers or speaking up with the same volume.
This is the irony. The reason that MC USA is moving towards full inclusion, in my view, is not strategic or intentional. It is not because Pink Menno has so much power it is chasing conservative people away. It isn’t because our universities and seminaries are liberal. It isn’t because MC USA leaders are cowering to culture over the truth of the Bible. It is not even because those advocating for full inclusion have presented an overwhelmingly convincing theological argument.
The reason people who espouse the traditional view of same-sex relationships are no longer showing up or speaking up is a result of another belief. That belief is the belief that one cannot stay true to the Scriptures and maintain integrity in one’s personal faith while remaining in relationship with those that hold different, or even “wrong,” views. When one holds that belief, then the variance in belief about same-sex relationships and marriage becomes about something deeper.
At the heart, the division within MC USA over same-sex relationships and marriage is profoundly theological. Both sides read and understand the Bible differently. But the direction of MC USA, in my view, is not a result of one side having won the theological debate. It is about one side having a theology that allows presence in the midst of differences and another side that doesn’t. The result is that those who hold to a traditional view, and also believe their personal integrity and faithfulness is bound up in separation, are leaving the church.
I am not advocating for perpetual conflict or silence on matters of human sexuality. I also don’t believe we should remain together for the sake of remaining together. I believe the current discussions of human sexuality more broadly in our culture and church require all hands on deck, doing our best work together.
However, I do not believe those are the only options. I believe we can have robust dialogue that gets beyond sound-bites and shibboleths. I believe we can create space to discern how best to love God and love others at the intersection of faith and sexuality in our culture. I believe we can discern a word that brings life and hope to all persons, gay and straight. I believe we can practice the best of our tradition within the most difficult of circumstances.
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