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Since its formation in 2001, Mennonite Church USA has declined from more than 120,000 adult members to about 67,000 adult members today. Most of this loss has been due to congregations, as well as some area conferences, leaving the denomination. Although congregations and conferences have left over a variety of issues, the most prominent one has been the increasing acceptance of gay members, gay leaders and gay marriage.
Over the course of my 34 years as a credentialed minister, I have seen Mennonite congregations struggle with several divisive issues: the use of alcohol, charismatic gifts, divorce and remarriage and the ordination of women. Some members and congregations left the denomination over these issues. But nothing has been as divisive as the debate over acceptance of gay folks and gay marriage. Why is this issue so much more divisive than all the others? I think it mostly boils down to three reasons.
1. The authority and interpretation of the Bible is fundamentally at stake. Before the Civil War, Christians in the North and South furiously debated how to interpret the Bible regarding slavery. Their disagreements were so great several denominations split. For Southern slave owners, the Bible was clear: slavery was accepted and regulated in Scripture. Nowhere does Jesus or any biblical author reject the institution of slavery or even call it into question, so how could it be wrong? Northern abolitionists pointed to Scriptural themes of liberation and jubilee, our equality in Christ, and the primacy of love.
Christians today use similar arguments regarding the acceptance or rejection of gay relationships. Traditional interpreters point out that there is not a single positive reference toward gay relationships in the Bible. The few times same-gender sexual conduct is mentioned, it is always resoundingly rejected. So how can it be right? Progressive interpreters rely on the Scriptural themes of ever-expanding inclusion, the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of gays and the primacy of love. In addition, progressives are more likely to read the Bible through the lenses of scientific research and experience.
How we understand the authority of the Bible and its proper interpretation is at stake as we discern the rightness or wrongness of gay relationships. Unlike the issues of women in leadership or divorce and remarriage, there are no contrary examples or exception clauses in the Bible when it comes to gay relationships. To support gay relationships requires appealing to overarching and dynamic biblical principles rather than to specific allowances or counter-examples in Scripture. Making such a shift in how we interpret the Bible is too unfamiliar and seemingly dangerous for many members of our congregations.
2. Gay relationships violate a moral intuition embedded in most members. Recent research suggests we make most of our moral decisions on the basis of intuition, not reason. Jonathan Haidt, in his seminal book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, claims that we humans have six moral intuitions: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The last one refers to our sense that certain objects or behaviors are holy, while others are taboo or disgusting. For instance, we might consider it disgusting to eat a dead cockroach—even if the cockroach has been completely sterilized. Rationally, there is no reason not to eat the cockroach, but our gut response may prevent us from doing so. I think for most people with a heterosexual orientation (men in particular), there is a response of disgust at the thought of same-gender sexual behavior. It feels unnatural, dirty and wrong. No amount of rational argument will change that emotional response, though it may be possible to set that response aside.
Liberals tend to use the moral intuitions of care, liberty and fairness to overrule the moral intuition of sanctity (as well as of loyalty and authority), but conservatives tend to give sanctity equal weight with the other moral intuitions. Such valuing of sanctity has clear benefits. Research suggests that moral rules based on a sense of sanctity help religious groups cohere and become more stable, outlasting non-religious groups or religious groups with fewer sanctity rules. We ignore the intuition of sanctity at our peril.
3. MC USA lacks sufficient rootedness to successfully process such a high-anxiety issue. MC USA is the result of the recent merging of two groups that had their own network of relationships and their own unique polities. Members of the old Mennonite Church (MC) had, overall, a high level of trust in their own denomination, as did General Conference Mennonites (GC). But when they were brought together they were no longer as familiar with each other and with how the new denomination operated. So when MC USA was immediately confronted with volatile debates over gay inclusion and marriage, there was insufficient trust and rapport in the new structures for a viable path to emerge. In hindsight, MC USA was created at the worst time for successfully processing this issue.
We cannot go back in time. MC USA is a reality (a good one, in my opinion), and we should help it thrive as much as possible. To go forward we will need to develop a shared understanding of biblical authority and interpretation, and we will need to integrate our various moral intuitions in a way that honors all of their strengths.
Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor at First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Virginia.
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