Adapted from a devotional I gave April 16, 2005 at my last meeting on the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board

Hope for unity on the "h-issue"

Four things I have learned during our denominational struggle

Harold N. Miller

"May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." --Romans 15:5-6

The apostle prays that God will give the church a spirit of unity. For him the issue was meat offered to idols. For us it is homosexuality.

We need unity on this issue. It's an area about which persons in our denomination feel so strongly that they have gotten the church to affirm it three times in the last 20 years (Saskatoon/Purdue, Confession of Faith, Membership Guidelines). Feelings are so strong that congregations leave over it, conferences discipline over it. And that's just one end of the spectrum. Equally strong feelings of conscience rise on the opposite end. We need unity so we do not go down the same troubled road as other denominations who have this issue as a continual drain of energy with folks on one end pushing the envelope and then outcry and hemorrhaging from the other end.

Our primary focus as Mennonite Church USA must be on our Center, on following Jesus and with one heart and mouth glorifying God. But Paul knew that some attention must be given to what divides the church. Thus he addressed meat offered to idols. Imagine a person saying to their doctor: "Yes, I know there is something in my body that might threaten my future health; but I'm not going to take time away from my life work to look at it."

During my years on denominational boards (Mennonite Church General Board and then Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA) we have been struggling to gain unity in the face of this difference that divides us. I offer some perspectives that have come together for me during these years that I believe are cause for hope.

1) Hear the other's heart. When someone takes a stance that seems to me unfaithful, something I don't want to be a part of "my church," I've learned that I need to spend enough time with them to hear their heart -- to hear their motivation for doing and saying what they do (for example, hear why conference leaders are not disciplining a congregation that is "at-variance" to the denomination's position on homosexuality.) More often than not, I find myself resonating with their motivations (conference leaders may choose to focus conference attention and energies toward engaging in vigorous mission rather than be sidetracked onto a debate on homosexuality, or they may show patience and grace to congregations as a way of keeping opportunity for mutual address.) Then, even if I still disagree with their conclusions or actions, I'm not quite as anxious or scared. Indeed people can do great damage out of good motives! But I attest that knowing someone's heart can take the edge off one's anxiety. Even if our opinions on the issue don't change, our opinion of each other does.

2) Trust the church. When someone takes a stance that I view as unfaithful, I've learned that I don't need to take on the job of telling them they are wrong. My job is to speak the truth as I see it. I don't need to -- as an individual -- declare that someone is wrong. I can let the church make that decision. When I pronounce those who disagree with me as wrong, I am acting as if I decide by myself what is true. My job is to speak what I see and then trust in the power of God's truth and the gathered community's ability to discern it. Folks on both ends of the spectrum in our denomination find it difficult to choose to trust.

3) See the essentials. In the middle of my time as a board member I underwent a major shift. I asked myself why we conservatives feel so strongly about those who are trying to overturn the denomination's teaching position on homosexuality and 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 then realized that I could, for the sake of dialogue, choose to just insist that those two underlying values be treated as essential. It is excruciating for me to take that position since I'm positive that those two underlying values lead us to view same-sex sexual activity as wrong. It requires a lot of trust in the church! I take it in hopes of opening dialogue: does an affirmation of biblical authority and the norm of monogamy lead us to the church's teaching position?

4) Don't pretend we have unity. Many conservatives have wondered why we need to dialogue on this issue when the church has already spoken. The answer is that there are many good-hearted brothers and sisters who don't think the matter is settled. There is wisdom in our Membership Guidelines (approved in Nashville in 2001 by a 90% vote) presenting our teaching position that homosexual sex is sin and then immediately going on to call for continued dialogue. It's a false unity if we pretend that strong differences don't exist. Do we want a unity that is through the powers-that-be acting to enforce conformity or a unity that is the result of truth acting? The framers of the Guidelines were wise in choosing the term "teaching position," seeing that it can be used to safeguard the minority voice while honoring the counsel of the gathered denomination. The Guidelines don't end vigorous debate in appropriate contexts or label those who disagree with the teaching position as not a part of the church; they only call such persons to not preach or teach or take pastoral actions contrary to this discernment of the church. The challenge facing us now is to find and facilitate some safe public places where we can hear the possibly-prophetic minority voice as well as hear the church's teaching position presented with clarity and freshness. I have the hope that truth presented will have impact. Not just my truth, because none of us has all the truth -- we need everyone's "truth." I'm sure that opening up such dialogue will make things get worse before they get better. But talking together is the only route toward true unity.

Did you notice that when the apostle Paul dreams of God giving the church a spirit of unity, he just "happens" to mention that God also gives endurance and encouragement? We in Mennonite Church USA need all God can supply! Lord, we open ourselves to you.

There is a scenario that will greatly lower my hope for Spirit-led unity on this issue: our leaders choosing to keep the church silent on homosexuality -- no fresh expressions of our church's discernment but only reiterations that in the past we said such-and-such. If the church is silent while the world speaks, why should I be optimistic?