A group of eight Mennonite pastors in the Harrisonburg VA area met from April to November for a series of conversations on the Bible and same-sex intimacy. (View schedule. Read two of my previous blogs on it: June 26, Sept 27.)
For our final session on Nov 22, we each shared two things: 1) what we feel is important to tell our congregation about our time together, and 2) what reflections we would offer in a broader church setting (eg., an MC USA Workshop). Below is a form of what I shared.
To my congregation (Trissels):
Even though our group of pastors represented the full spectrum of beliefs on the issue, showing strong disagreement at times, we clearly loved, enjoyed, and respected each other. All of us were quick to listen and slow to speak. All of us are deeply committed to follow Jesus. All of us love the church. There was also a passionate love for Scripture across the spectrum, though I felt that some of us did not squarely face the exegetical question that is at the heart of the issue (more below).
I poured much time and energy into our sessions because there is a possibility that our conference (VMC) will join some of its sister conferences in changing its policy on same-sex relationships. [Currently if a credentialed person in VMC conducts a covenanting ceremony for a same sex couple, their credentials will be immediately suspended.] My concern is not because same-sex marriage (two persons committing to love each other!) is so bad. My concern is rather: does our church trust Scripture? or trust our own discernment of what is best? I feel that we cannot change on same-sex relationships without also changing our stance on Scripture (i.e., no longer honoring and submitting to all the Spirit’s movement in the Bible, specifically the theme of ever-deepening moral obedience). So I invested much in this conversation, thinking I could help prevent this shift and thereby spare us as a congregation from the trauma of needing to work through how to respond if our conference would change.
Our series of conversations definitely helped us understand each other more. But I don’t believe my input had much effect on anyone’s position. So after writing this piece and sending it to a few conference leaders, I’m going to stop being an activist to try to prevent this change in our conference. (I will do other things if asked, but I will not initiate anything. Also some things I wrote during the summer might still be published.) I pray that God will raise up others who will help our conference remain true to Scripture (or else help us as a congregation see how VMC can change its stance on same-sex relationships and still be honoring and obeying that specific theme of Scripture).
To the broader church (Virginia Mennonite Conference):
Why would eight pastors meet all those times to discuss the Bible and same-sex relationships?
A main reason: We are welcoming same-sex couples into our congregations. May this increase. We should welcome these couples in grace and with pastoral care. But when we call them to walk with us “on the way,” following Jesus, which way are we calling them? There are two opposing answers. Are they going to hear mixed messages, a wrong message?
Thankfully we have help in Scripture, our “fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for life (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective).
Here is what Scripture says, things that we in VMC agree on:
– We agree that Gen 1-2 presents male-female unions as divinely designed.
– We agree that same-sex relations are mentioned in a list of sins in Rom 1 and a list in 1 Cor 6.
Conservatives go on to say that the strongest, most natural reading is that Paul is referring to all same-sex relationships known in the Greco-Roman world, including those that enjoyed a marriage-like commitment (such as we see today); a moderate in our group spoke of the strength of the traditional understanding of 1 Cor 6 (see the presentation to our group at interactingwithjesus.org/1cor6).
Progressives in our group spoke as if these lists do not apply to today’s same-sex relationships, though no textual reasons were given to support that interpretation. A moderate suggested that maybe progressives use a new hermeneutic here.
– We would agree that Scripture never affirms same-sex intimacy. There are no biblical passages saying that same-sex intimacy is good in God’s eyes. At most, texts can make room for the possibility that such intimacy is good.
That one uncertainty— how we read Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6—makes all the difference. Our stance on same-sex relationships depends on how we read those texts.
– Yes, a major biblical theme is welcome and hospitality, and a church that fully includes persons in same-sex marriages is following that biblical theme. However, if Paul had all same-sex relationships in view when he wrote Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6, then the church will not bless same-sex marriages or credential the pastoral gifts of persons in such marriages. We are not to welcome the marginalized in a way that blesses what Scripture calls sin.
– Yes, Paul said that in Christ there is neither male nor female. But if he views same-sex intimacy as sinful his statement about “neither male nor female” would not be saying that male-male, female-female, male-female marriages are all equivalent.
– Yes, the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of LGBT individuals. But does that presence show affirmation of same-sex intimacy? Or does it show grace? It cannot be affirmation if Scripture calls such intimacy sin. But it can be grace, just as the Spirit on the centurion Cornelius was grace.
– Yes, the church is to show tolerance when brothers and sisters have differing consciences regarding “disputable matters.” But something is not “disputable” because a lot of people question it but because Scripture is not clear on it.
In other words, though there are biblical arguments raising the possibility for change in our stance on same-sex marriage, none of them work if the texts which specifically address same-sex relations say that all such relations are sin. It always comes back to what those texts say. We as a conference have not yet done study showing how they are not clear. (Nor have other Mennonite Church USA conferences. For instance, Central District Conference’s lengthy statement, Human Sexuality: A Biblical Perspective, omits any discussion of Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6.)
By the way, we do not have to agree on how to interpret those texts. That would set the bar too high. Our goal should be that we see each other respecting and valuing the biblical text, squarely facing the texts that might prohibit same-sex marriage.
Honoring Scripture is an essential. Even if our conference is a centered-set (focusing on a common center) rather than a bounded-set (drawing boundary lines to show who is in and who is out), surely part of that center is trust in Scripture. If we decide to accept same-sex marriage without doing this Bible study, it will appear that we are not honoring and trusting Scripture. And how can we be confident that we are giving the “fully reliable and trustworthy” message to the sexual minorities in our midst?
I believe God is using this issue for the church’s good. It is forcing us to sort through the role of Scripture. Do we trust it enough, give it enough authority? It is “enough” when we are willing to let our discernment “be tested and corrected” by its light (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective). May our faith and life ultimately rest on Scripture, not on what seems best to us.
The group’s response:
The main response was a pastor cautioning me that just sitting down and studying Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 with progressives won’t resolve the disagreement. I was told that I would not be able to discern whether the progressives are truly honoring those Scriptures until I live with them and walk with them in their daily lives.
This might be that “new hermeneutic” mentioned earlier. But as I told the group, it leaves me puzzled. It’s true that our life experiences affect what we see in the text. But once progressives see something new in the text, if it’s really there won’t they be able to set forth some historical-grammatical evidence for that reading? It’s true that a close relationship helps us hear and understand another. But, though difficult, surely many constructive conversations about the meaning and application of a text have taken place between two persons who don’t live and walk with each other in their daily lives.
I can think of only one reason for why I would not be able to feel any weight in another’s interpretation of a text until I spend time with them. That reason would be that a text’s meaning is that which is most plausible and natural to the readers in their context (rather than the meaning which would have been most plausible and natural for the biblical author in their context.). Yet I don’t think our group members would say that. I think all would say that historical-grammatical interpretation (that tries to help us understand what the original author intended to convey to his readers) is necessary. So, as I said, I’m puzzled. If progressives are being thorough in their historical-grammatical work on Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6, isn’t it possible for them to set forth that work in writing or in conversation? Surely they can at least begin to set it forth. Again, progressives don’t have to get conservatives to agree on how to interpret those texts. They just need to show why their interpretations of Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6 have weight.
Blogs on this pastors’ conversation:
2016-06-07 – God’s help (Bible and same-sex)
2016-06-28 – Ambiguous “No’s” (Bible and same-sex)
2016-07-12 – Like an urban legend (Bible and same-sex)
2016-09-27 – The main argument (Bible and same-sex)
2016-12-13 – Conversation wrap-up (Bible and same-sex)