Background for this page.
    Mennonite Church USA is the merger of the two largest Mennonite or Anabaptist denominations; Feb 1, 2002 was its birthday.
    Each congregation in MC USA belongs to one of 21 area conferences; and through membership in that conference it has membership in the denomination. Conferences are quite autonomous in determining which congregations can join them, though there is much mutual address between conferences, and common values and common mission.
    The merger hit a major snag over the issue of homosexuality. Mennonites are a people who work hard at Jesus' teaching on loving the "enemy." So we have a "bent" toward valuing and listening intently to those who oppose us. This high tolerance for diversity has resulted in, well, diversity. One instance is a handful of congregations who believe that committed same-sex partnerships can be holy. Some MC USA conferences have disciplined these congregations for diverging from the denomination's "teaching position" on the sinfulness of homosexual sex. But not all have — we tend to hesitate to have the powers-that-be silence a minority voice. This diversity was, of course, present long before Feb 1, 2002. But creating a new denomination and new bylaws (includes membership guidelines!) placed it front and center. There has been a hemorrhage of theologically-conservative congregations from the new denomination.

Gentle strategies toward unity on the "h-issue"

Where Mennonite Church USA is now (2006), and what should happen next

Harold N. Miller

This article analyzes a denomination (Mennonite Church USA) that has had its vitality sapped and its future threatened by the "h-issue." It doesn't address the issue itself (whether homosexual sex is sin), but the dynamics going on as the church grapples with the issue. It analyzes the present situation in MC USA, outlines huge potential for harm, and lists gentle strategies for good.

Here are two verities concerning MC USA and this issue:
    1) There is absolutely no possibility that MC USA's "teaching position" on homosexuality will change. It's not on the horizon. There are no conference or denominational leaders pushing for a change. Even if a few in Executive Board or Constituency Leaders Council sympathize with the idea (I'm not saying any do), everyone knows we couldn't do so without there being a huge split.
    2) A few of our conferences (there are 21 district conferences in MC USA) have one or two congregations who are at variance with MC USA in their teaching and practice regarding homosexuality. Most conferences in MC USA have acted to discipline such at-variance congregations, but these few conferences have not. The second verity: there is absolutely no way that the denomination will act to force those conferences to discipline the variant congregations (ie, remove the congregations from the conference). None of the national MC USA leaders have the will to do that. Though those in Executive Board or Constituency Leaders Council would say that all homosexual sex is sin, they will not say there should be a legislative fiat forcing conferences to discipline regarding homosexuality. We Anabaptists (Mennonites) go very slow in forcing someone to do something.
    MC USA has chosen to live between the parameters of those two verities: a clear teaching position describing "homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity as sin," yet toleration of member congregations in variance with that teaching position.

I am dismayed at these "at variance" congregations and their conferences. Yet I remain fully committed to MC USA. Here's why I don't yet see it as something to break fellowship over.
    1) While it is true that some conferences have chosen to not discipline their "at variance" congregations, this does not necessarily mean that those conferences are softening their stance on homosexuality. It is possible that they are quite firm on this issue but are choosing to focus conference attention and energies toward engaging in vigorous mission, rather than being sidetracked onto the homosexual debate. It is also possible that they are showing patience and grace to these congregations as a way of keeping the opportunity for mutual address.
    2) If denominational leaders believed that an "essential" belief was at stake ("in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity"), then I'm sure they would be willing to force the issue and work for more consistent practice across MC USA. For instance, if Rainbow Mennonite Church was saying "Buddha, not Jesus, is Lord," we would (after dialogue, of course, doing all we can to appeal to them!) make it clear that they have removed themselves from membership in MC USA. [Later I say a little more on what beliefs should be "essentials".]

Our foundational church document, the Membership Guidelines, reflects the above verities. How else could it have been approved in Nashville in 2001 by a 90% vote?! In other words, it is appropriately murky — it succeeds at embodying the tension present within the denomination. It maintains a firm teaching position on homosexuality while allowing "at variance" practice.
    The Guidelines say that homosexual sex is sin. But then immediately go on to call for continued dialogue between those of differing views. And then to warn against abuse of power — which in this context can only mean "don't be hasty to rule against those who believe differently from the church's teaching position." The Guidelines allow any congregation, even if they have a view different than the church statements on homosexuality, to still be a full member, as long as they are part of a member conference. Further, the Guidelines are deliberately ambiguous as to whether church leaders who teach the holiness of same-sex partnerships can remain in full relationship with their conferences. The April 2000 draft of the Guidelines said that pastors "are expected to uphold the wider church's discernment as the teaching points of the church." But that line was dropped between then and Nashville. The final form of the Guidelines only says that a pastor who performs a same-sex covenant ceremony will have his or her credentials reviewed — note, it doesn't say automatically revoked.
    Because of this ambiguity or murkiness, different persons could say they "support" the Membership Guidelines, meaning different things by it. One could support the document because it calls homosexual sex as sin; another could support it because it calls the church to continue dialogue with those of a differing view and tolerates those of differing practice.
    This dynamic may have been present in the situation of Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship when they left Southeast Conference which would not affirm their practice of accepting gays in same-sex partnerships as members, and applied for membership in Central District Conference. Central was cautious, wanting reassured that Atlanta supports the Membership Guidelines and will not teach against the Confession of Faith. Atlanta affirmed that this is the case, and became a member of CDC. Does this mean that Atlanta has shifted their position from a couple years earlier so that they are no longer "at variance"? Or could they affirm support of the Membership Guidelines because, though the document calls homosexual sex as sin, it also tolerates those who have a differing view and practice?

So far this paper has looked at things that are "givens," at the way things are. As I said, much of it dismays me. But I can "live with" it.
    Now let's shift and look at the future.
    There are three basic courses of action available. The easiest option is for MC USA to continue as it is (ie, remain murky). But I pray that we will not continue in this uncertain mode. As long as we remain murky on homosexuality, MC USA will continue down the same troubled road as the mainline churches: the h-issue will be a continual drain of time and energy. The Left will continue pushing the envelope, exerting pressure for gay and lesbian "marriage" ceremonies and then ordination. And each new push will stir a new outcry from those on the Right, and further diminish their sense of affinity with the denomination.
    A second option is to reduce murkiness by moving toward the Left. But as I said earlier, no one in leadership is advocating this position. We cannot change MC USA's teaching position on homosexuality without there being a huge split (the first verity).
    I invite the church to consider the remaining option: reduce murkiness by moving toward the Right. In the next section I suggest several ways for moving Right. I hasten to say that none of them are un-Anabaptist. None forcibly restrict the Spirit of God from ever speaking through the minority. You can trust that our denominational leadership bodies will only choose to do that which values gentleness, a culture of congregational autonomy, and an awareness that God sometimes speaks through the minority voice. We won't work to end the murkiness over homosexuality through some legislative act that tries to settle the issue by fiat. MC USA would never have the two-thirds majority needed to do that (the second verity).
    (Let me pause to again reassure persons that if an issue was an "essential," then hopefully we would be able as a denomination to say what we believe and then — after much listening and appeals! — discipline any who violate the "essential.")

There is hope! There are several strategies which can make things less murky and which do not rely on powers-that-be acting to enforce conformity — ways that allow us to be gentle with those who are "at variance" on homosexuality (saving boundary-tending for issues like the authority of Scripture) yet put us on a trajectory toward unity on this issue.
    Below are four such courses of action, each of which, if tried by themselves, wouldn't be sufficient to end the murkiness or to reassure the theologically-conservative congregations perched on the edge. But if we choose to do most or all of them together (plus some others that you think of!), then we might lessen the damage of murkiness.

1) Shine the light - We can search for fresh ways to uphold our church's "teaching position" on homosexuality, to shine the "light" of our collective discernment — not with "in your face" confrontation but simply by speaking clearly. This strategy of speaking the truth in mutual dialogue, can give us hope for MC USA, because this approach can lead to unity — not a unity through the powers-that-be acting to enforce conformity but as the result of truth acting. Walk in the light and light will overcome darkness — both the darkness on the Left and on the Right!
    This light must be subdued to some extent: we must not talk about the "teaching position" on homosexuality so much that we take the focus off mission.
    Also we must not trumpet the church's teaching position so loudly that we can no longer hear the possibly-prophetic minority voice. Nonetheless, the church's position is what should be presented with singular clarity. Surely the collective discernment of the gathered church is something that matters. When our church at the end of several years of study at the congregational- and conference-level says that the "teaching position" of the church is that homosexual sex is sin, shouldn't we let that have an impact on us and shape our public teaching? The framers of our Membership Guidelines were wise in choosing the term "teaching position," for it safeguards the minority voice while honoring the counsel of the gathered denomination. The term basically says, "you can be part of the church if you disagree with this position, but please don't teach against this position." It doesn't end vigorous debate in appropriate contexts; it only calls us to not preach or teach against this discernment of the church.

2) Accountability through credentialing - Conferences can choose to hold pastors accountable for upholding the teaching position of the church. The fact that conferences hold ministerial credentials gives them a natural means for exercising this accountability.
    Our past approach to accountability tended to focus on "who congregations receive as members." This can hinder mission by causing congregations to hesitate in welcoming sinners. A group should be not judged by the sins of its new believers and members but by what it teaches and strives for. So a focus on "what credentialed congregational leaders teach" is appropriate. It is also more compassionate to a gay or lesbian who the congregation discerns is moving toward Christ, keeping them out of the spotlight of conference discipline.
    Central Plains Conference articulated this as a polity. Some conferences may not embrace such a polity. But many will — all our conferences have a culture that has allowed for discipline by decredentialing.

3) Honor clear essentials - We can call the "at variance" congregations (and the conferences that choose not to discipline these congregations) to at least express a commitment to honor the authority of Scripture and to resist society's siren call of sexual fulfillment by lifting up standards like monogamy. [Below I say a little more on these commitments as "essentials". And cite examples of groups abandoning these commitments.]
    We conservatives have a hard time imagining that someone could both call MC USA to bless same-sex partnerships and be committed to not compromise the authority of Scripture and not adopt the world's sexual values, but such persons do exist. Each time an "at variance" congregation (or their conference) affirms essentials like Scripture and monogamy, it will make it a bit easier for the conservatives to "live with" the variance.

4) Prophetic liaison - Congregations who are "at variance" could take some form of liaison association with their conference, choosing a status of less than full membership for themselves to acknowledge their variance. (Surely congregations actively working to change the teaching position of the church on a high-profile issue — so high-profile that other congregations are leaving MC USA over it — should be willing to acknowledge that they are at variance with the church.) They would use their relationship with the conference as an opportunity to give a prophetic witness of the change to which they believe the Spirit of God is calling the church.
    At the March 1999 Kansas City consultation on membership, John Zimmerman first suggested this idea which he now calls "prophetic self-marginalization." (He might want to tweak my description of it.) We saw it affirmed by our table group which included a welcoming church pastor and a conference elder from North Central.

Pray that MC USA can take some significant steps toward reducing the murkiness, perhaps through encouraging some of the above steps, perhaps by something that you see and I don't yet. I'm confident that the Spirit of God has many ways of improving on and adding to that list of gentle strategies, setting us on a trajectory toward unity regarding homosexuality.

—Harold Miller
pastor, Trissels Mennonite Church - Broadway VA
member, Executive Board - Mennonite Church USA (1999-2005)
initial draft July 10, 2003; revised November 10, 2006

Collection of reasons for staying with Mennonite Church USA

A close friend asked: "Why is it so important that we be a part of Mennonite Church USA?"

My first answer was that it's definitely not of highest importance. Not like "Jesus is Lord" or "all Scripture is the Word of God." I can see no scenario where I would abandon those things. Though I can see scenarios where I would abandon MC USA.

Nonetheless, I will move mighty slow to leave MC USA. If I err, may it be on the side of slowness. For these reasons: a statement coming out of Mennonite World Conference says, Christian unity is not "an option we might choose" but "an urgent imperative to be obeyed." Jesus prayed that those who would follow him "might be one" (Jn 17:20-23). The Apostle Paul worked ceaselessly for unity, even in situations of serious division and among those whose doctrines he saw as misguided and wrong (1 Cor. 1:12; 12-13; Romans 12:1-15:13; Phil. 2). Denominational splits are a lot like the breakup of a marriage. Think of the ripping of relationships as neighboring congregations choose differently. Even worse, enemies of the church would yet again rejoice as Christians cannot get along.

...our denominational stance on human sexuality remains clear: the Membership Guidelines say that the Purdue and Saskatoon statements describing homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity as sin is "the teaching position of the Mennonite Church USA." Unlike mainline denominations, our church agencies are not committed to a cultural agenda that is antithetical to evangelical sensitivities. And our denomination's educational materials do not promote sexual values that violate our deepest convictions. And our stance as individual conferences can remain even more clear.

...staying gives opportunity for our voice to be heard in MC USA. I want those on the Left to continue to be salted by those of us on the Right — and vice versa. takes a lot to stop a gracious God from pouring out his Spirit on us. That's something that we conservatives need to keep reminding ourselves of: a little less fear and a little more faith. God in mercy preserves and sustains even those who get a lot of things wrong.

...if I leave every church group upon signs of unfaithfulness, I'm going to be leaving every group. For some it will be homosexuality; for it some it will be greed and materialism; for others it will be glorification of state-sanctioned violence; for others racism, injustice, self-righteousness, whatever.

...if we are concerned about leaven, maybe we should stay with MC USA. Because whatever new group we align with will also have leaven — and it will be in a form we're not as familiar with and won't recognize as quickly and won't be as able to resist! friends in the West, where Mennonite churches are few and far between and not all piled on a heap, say that their congregations need each other and so they work on relationships even with those who are diverse from them. But some of us in the East have the luxury of being able to split and split and still have lots of fellowship to choose from. Woe to us who are rich.

...if we who are theologically-conservative leave MC USA, we are abandoning many fellow conservatives in congregations and conferences for whom MC USA is the only option for Anabaptist fellowship in their vicinity.

Further, the central vision of the Mennonite church is so rich! It calls us to evangelism and to working for social justice. It encourages the community of believers to gather around the Word in mutual discernment, and to take seriously even the "hard sayings" of Jesus. MC USA's vision statement says it well:

God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God's healing and hope flow through us to the world.


Is homosexuality an "essential"?

Many in MC USA would say that our teaching position on homosexuality is an "essential," something so critical it should be a boundary marker. Therefore conferences have been willing to remove congregations over this issue.
    In the past I too was saying that this teaching position is an "essential." But I now say that two underlying elements are the "essentials" instead. I asked myself why we conservatives feel so strongly about those who disagree with the teaching position on homosexuality. I realized that the answer for me was 1) a sense that the authority of Scripture was being compromised and 2) a sense that persons were uncritically falling for society's siren call of sexual fulfillment. I further realized that I could view those two underlying values as the "essentials."
    I am willing to say that I will try to tolerate variant views on homosexuality in MC USA, just as I tolerate diversity on other issues, if it is present without those other two things. To say it another way, I can "live with" a conference who does not discipline over homosexuality as long as that conference does affirm biblical authority and sexual norms like monogamy.
    I'm not saying that MC USA should okay every interpretation of Scripture as long as the persons holding it are trying to honor Scripture. No, we should acknowledge what is "at variance" with our discernment as a church. I'm just questioning whether we should cast out of our church good-hearted persons who honestly believe that faithfulness to Scripture involves affirming covenantal, lifelong, same-sex partnerships (yes, such persons do exist). I cling to this hope: that people in our midst who honor Scripture will gradually move toward the truth (not always our truth). We on the Right should care enough to be patient for this to happen.
    Let me give examples of the above "essentials" being abandoned by those who hold a variant view on homosexuality.
    First, a loss of Scripture's authority. Too often an argument supporting same-sex partnerships arises in the context of an assumption that teachings of Scripture can be mistaken. For instance, Walter Wink wrote a piece on the Bible and homosexuality that can be found many places on the web; it's a form of his Nov 7, 1979 Christian Century article. It includes this quote: "The Bible clearly considers homosexual behavior a sin, and whether it is stated three times or 3,000 is beside the point. Just as some of us grew up 'knowing' that homosexual acts were the unutterable sin, though no one ever spoke about it, so the whole Bible 'knows' it to be wrong. I freely grant all that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct." Wink goes on to conclude that the biblical teaching is indeed wrong.
    Surely that's a low view of Scripture.
    A high view of Scripture does not mean we must say that every teaching of Scripture is for today. For instance, we don't greet one another with a holy kiss, even though that command is given five times in New Testament. A high view of Scripture means that we believe no core biblical teaching was a "mistake" but was rather exactly what the Spirit of God wanted to say to the original hearers. And it means that we will try to apply and obey the principles within the Bible. For instance, the intent of the holy kiss (show warm affection) is best achieved in our culture by a holy hug or firm handshake.
    Second, I see the Anabaptist (Mennonite) gay community "buying into" the sexual values of this Age. (I'm here looking beyond homosexuality itself.) I have listened to persons who identify themselves as Anabaptist and gay, and I sense them making peace with values such as these: "one sexual partner is not enough" or "sexual relations can be pursued outside committed lifelong monogamous partnerships."
    I'm uncomfortable elaborating on this. I much prefer to find what is good in people, especially a minority. I'm a people-pleaser, one who shies away from statements that might lead others to doubt my character or motivation. But since 1996 when my conference asked me to study this issue, the "spirit" of the Anabaptist gay community has been troubling me.
    Take their stance on monogamy. Seldom, if ever, has the Anabaptist gay community or its leaders publicly affirmed monogamy. Seldom do its members even privately affirm that all gay partnerships should be monogamous (meaning sexual exclusivity and not just an emotional monogamy). I've been told that their Dialogue newsletter cannot lift up the standard of monogamy because there are too many Anabaptist gays who question the need for sexual exclusivity in committed relationships. That means this community's silence on monogamy is deafening. It's all the more so since, in the general gay population according to gay writers, "the cheating ratio of 'married' gay males, given enough time, approaches 100%" (After the Ball; Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen [Doubleday, 1989] p330). It seems that Anabaptist gays are in danger of selling their souls to the spirit of this Age — wouldn't all Christian ethicists say that non-monogamous sexual relationships are unhealthy and unChristian?
    Please note that I'm focusing on standards, not behavior. Heterosexual Anabaptists also do not have a laudable track record when it comes to behavior regarding lifelong monogamous partnerships. But all heterosexual communities would say that monogamy is their standard, and seek to call and encourage one another toward this standard. In contrast, the gay community distances itself from this accepted Christian value.