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The Church’s Movement

8.8. 2017 Written By: Michael Danner 1,065 read

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.

My plain answer is yes. Yes, we are.

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.

In my view, MC USA is moving towards full inclusion because those who espouse the so-called “traditional view” on same-sex sexuality and marriage are no longer showing up or speaking up.

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.

It strikes me that the incarnation of Jesus defeats that logic. We profess to believe that Jesus became human, dwelt among us, and yet remained without sin. That reality creates space for us, as his followers, to remain together in the midst of differences, even differences we consider sin within our own community.

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.

I don’t believe we need fewer conversations on matters of human sexuality. Nor do we need more conversations like we’ve had in the past. If our only options are to fight together or to separate, I vote for separation. I am weary of perpetual conflict.

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.

What does following Jesus require of us? To remain lovingly present, connected and engaged with others—even our enemies—as we work toward the bigger purposes of the Gospel of God’s kingdom. May it be so within MC USA.

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6 Responses to “The Church’s Movement”

  1. John Gingrich says:

    The great tragedy of the history of the church is that people in the past did not know that “the incarnation of Jesus…creates space for us to remain together in the midst of differences, even differences we consider sin within our own community.” If Stephen, Polycarp, Felix Manz, Thomas Becket, Margaretha Sattler, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer and countless thousands of others down through the centuries had known this they would not have had to take a stand for their beliefs. They would have seen the truth that sin doesn’t matter and we can just live with it. They would have escaped the torture and death that their beliefs precipitated. We are so much wiser today than they were.

    • michaeldanner says:

      Just for clarity, I’m not suggesting that the incarnation obligates us to remain. There are good reasons not to remain in certain circumstances (as Berry identified above). You’ve identified some good historical examples as well. Rather, I’m addressing the counter argument that states that one must separate if differences over the definition of particular sins can’t be ironed out. I’m also not saying that sin doesn’t matter. Of course it does. It disrupts God’s shalom in real and painful ways. I happen to believe that sometimes we are prone to separate when there may be benefit to remaining and articulating our positions clearly and in love. It’s at least something to consider as we weigh options relative to the future of MC USA. Where does separation leave the wider church (or this is just an inevitable result of humans in community)? I believe the incarnation – if you take Jesus’ models as something to follow – creates a space for this possibility, even in situations where we clearly believe others are sinful and wrong.

      • John Gingrich says:

        Thanks for your gentle response, I apologize if I was too strong with my sarcasm. But the MCUSA talking point that we can remain together as a “spiritual body” in spite of differences in biblical understandings of morality, atonement, biblical inspiration, and other basics of our beliefs is different from remaining in relationship with “individuals” who we love but see as outside God’s will. The “essentials” of the faith are a much shorter list than most people would number, but the forbearance resolution and the arguments for remaining together in spite of any and all differences would make the inquisitor and the martyr fellow believers. It would make the Crusaders and the Anabaptists fellow disciples. The abolitionists and the slave owners each had their own interpretation of the scriptures and they would both be valid. The practical result of the forbearance resolution is that there are no denominational essentials of the Faith. Each congregation’s local beliefs are given equal respect and validity. That’s not a “church” that will have any permanence, integrity, or divine enabling.

  2. Jesus teaches us (a) that faithfulness requires us to engage rather than separate ourselves from the unfaithful, (b) not to display our most beautiful things before those who have no regard for beauty (Matthew 7:6) and (c) to sometimes simply walk away and go to more receptive environs (Matthew 10:14). I wonder how Pastor Danner is able to determine that those who leave MC USA are disobeying the first rather than obeying the second or the third.
    Speaking personally, it isn’t a theology of separation that pushes me but an affirmative desire to invest my time and resources in a body that winsomely offers the wisdom of Scripture to the world. Increasingly, “progressive congregations” are turning away from Genesis 1-2 as God’s wisdom regarding matters of gender and marriage. Indeed, following pop Western culture, leading elements of MC USA disparage and stigmatize that understanding as “heterosexism.”

  3. John Gingrich says:

    We all want to see ourselves as the Swiss Brethren, and no one thinks they might be the Zurich council. So many more rabbit trails, but they can wait. God bless you, brother.

  4. I’m baffled by two aspects of your response, Pastor Danner.
    One, you do not mention the Delegate Assembly’s statement reaffirming the Membership Guidelines and thus reaffirming the traditional Mennonite teaching regarding same-sex marriage. That statement is very specific and is focused on our teaching position. Thus, it is much more relevant to the question, How does our communion interpret Scripture? than the forbearance resolution.
    Two, you seem oblivious to the fact that forbearance is a stance taken in response to error. That’s how Scripture uses the term and that is its common meaning as well. You can legitimately argue the forbearance resolution implies that this particular error (pastors marrying same-sex couples) does not concern “an essential doctrine,” but you cannot legitimately claim it changes MC USA’s teaching regarding same-sex marriage.

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