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To the Point . . .

Scarcity of Common Ground

Recently I returned from a three-day church-wide consultation in Kansas City, Kansas, involving three Mennonite denominations: General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, and the Canadian Mennonite Church who are seeking to integrate into one common denomination. The consultation was designed to find common ground on the issue of homosexuality as it relates to church membership and discipline. This issue has come into focus especially since some congregations have accepted into membership individuals in same-sex committed relationships. Some of these congregations, who have dual affiliation with the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church, have been disciplined via sanctions or expulsion from their Mennonite Church Conference. Yet they retain membership in the General Conference Mennonite Church. The proposed polity for membership in the new denomination was that any congregation who holds membership in any of the three denominations will be a member in the new integrated Mennonite Church.

About 120 persons were present to this invited consultation. Each area conference/district of the three denominations was invited to send three representatives. The general boards, program boards, integration committee, membership committee and denominational staff persons were present or had representatives there. Additional representatives were invited from various constituent groups such as the African-American Mennonite Association, Hispanic Mennonite Convention, Mennonite Women, etc. The six disciplined congregations were invited to send two representatives each. Five of these congregations responded by sending representatives.

An official news release to the Mennonite press defined the common ground that was found: "general agreement that the new Mennonite Church should be a channel of God's grace to all people, that membership should be open to all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, including people of same-sex orientation, that congregational membership for people in same-sex relationships is not in keeping with the faith statements of the Mennonite churches and that area conferences should establish procedures for working with congregations on difficult issues."

I wish to share some personal observations regarding the consultation.

  • Most of the consultation occurred in pre-assigned table discussion groups of eight persons that reflected the varied views and represented bodies. This was delightful as we learned to know each other, our very divergent as well as common views, and provided a basis for fellowship and friendship during the days we spent together.

  • We are very far apart on the issues of homosexuality, membership and polity. While the individuals present in the consultation qualitatively represented the scope of our diversity with their divergent viewpoints, the group composition did not quantitatively represent the position of the church.

  • I was surprised to find a significant number of individuals who were unable to say whether a committed same-sex relationship was morally wrong or right.

  • The issues of homosexuality, discipline, and church membership are deep within us; we care about them; we do not like to talk about them; we care about the church; we want to agree, but we find it difficult or impossible to reconcile conflicting voices.

  • The affirmed common ground statements are general and vague. For example, while we commonly affirmed that ministry to individuals in same-sex covenanted relationships was needed, we were unable to commonly define that ministry. For some it meant to listen and support persons in their homosexual relationship; for others it meant to call these individuals to repentance for their lifestyle and to commit themselves to celibacy.

  • While we generally could agree that a monogamous same-sex relationship was at variance with the Confession of Faith in the Mennonite Perspective as well as other church statements on sexuality, we were unable to agree that this same relationship was at variance with the teachings of Scriptures.

  • We have multiple understandings about the use of words in comparing heterosexual and homosexual relationships. For example, commitment in a monogamous same-sex relationship does not necessary relate to permanency ("till death do us part"), rather it is commitment for this time. Some feel that calling individuals to sexual celibacy, who are not in a heterosexual marriage, is not appropriate since celibacy is a gift, not all persons (homosexual and heterosexual) have that gift.

  • The "Integration Train," designed to merge the three denominations, is moving full speed ahead. I was surprised to see how firmly the time-table seems to be held by certain persons.

  • Some persons have the perception that a merger at this time will result in the loss of a few congregations. In my conversations, it is apparent to me that if the process of integration continues at the current rate we will see major divisions within our conferences and in some cases our congregations, resulting in major realignment of the Mennonite Church along theological issues.

  • It is apparent that homosexuality is a primary issue with the North American Mennonite Church (also Northern Europe) but is not a focal issue in the broader Mennonite Church, e.g. in Africa and Central and South America. The perception in the Two-Third's World is one of amazement and dismay that we North American Mennonites can not get this issue resolved in a timely and Biblical manner. Our continued paralysis on this issue will increase the distance between North American Mennonites and the Two-Third World. One person made the point that in a consultation like this one, we would do well to listen to the Mennonite voices in the two-thirds world. They could be very instructive for us.

  • Our African-American brothers and sisters clearly indicate that this is not their issue. In the African-American Mennonite church, homosexual practice is comparable to adultery--both are forbidden by Scripture. One African-American brother publicly shared that this is really an issue for white Mennonite males who should "get their act together before they divide the entire Mennonite church."

  • During the consultation we spent time in worship. Some was inspiring; other portions seemed manipulative. Much emphasis was put on the love of God--a God who invites all to come, all to participate, all to accept; absent were the voices proclaiming the holiness of God--the God who hates sin, the God who judges, the God who calls us to a life of holiness.

We have forgotten that God is both Love and Holy and that God's people are called to holiness and love. These two descriptions together provide the balance we need in our theological understanding of the Divine as well as for our lifestyle polity and practice. We have failed to meaningfully apply the teachings of the Scripture to our church life and polity. Significantly while all Scripture passages that mention homosexuality are negative, naming the practice as sin, we hesitate to do the same.

We fail to recognize that on the issue of homosexuality the Christian Church has had a united witness against the practice for 1900 years. Only in the recent 20 years has this issue become a point of dissension within the church.

Much of our confusion has resulted from elevating the theology of experience above the theology of the Bible. Frequently I have heard comparisons made between persons who are practicing homosexuals in the church with the issue of the gospel being opened for the Gentiles in the book of Acts. The voice of experience in Acts--seeing the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the Gentiles--made the Jewish Christians go back to Scripture and finding that the promise to Abraham was intended that "all nations of the earth be blessed." For the parallel to fit the issue of homosexuality, we would need to find in Scripture that God's ultimate plan and design for human relationships is for persons in same-sex covenanted relationships--even from the design of Creation! Evidence from Scripture is the opposite.

Let us walk in the way of God's design. Let us name the practice of homosexuality as sin and call individuals in that bondage to repentance, deliverance, and faith in Jesus. Let is show love, compassion, and mercy by illustrating the best way--a way of holiness--that renounces the evil in our world and culture, repents of our own sin, and experiences the power and presence of the grace of Jesus. Until we can do so, the common ground is sparse.

Roman J. Miller -- Harrisonburg, Virginia

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