2013-02-01 issue:

Membership guidelines allow conversation

Opinion: Perspectives from readers

by Harold N. Miller

Our Membership Guidelines for the Formation of Mennonite Church USA say it is a teaching position of our church that homosexual sexual activity is sin.

The framers of the guidelines were wise in using the term “teaching position.” It is a valuable tool that gives weight (but not too much) to our church statements. It helps us both honor the collective counsel of the gathered denomination and open ourselves to the Spirit speaking to us through the voice of the minority.

In preparing for Pittsburgh 2011, our leaders hinted that they might limit the visibility of Pink Mennos. The Mennonite blogosphere lit up. TMail’s blogger cried injustice; he even quoted Martin Luther King Jr. against our leaders. I posted on his blog that I agreed with him that limiting the Pink Mennos can be injustice, those in power helping silence a minority.

I also challenged him not to reduce our leaders to one dimension (for or against justice) but recognize their felt responsibility to let our church’s discernment shape our assembly. We would not cry “injustice” if our leaders restricted the voice and visibility of people advocating war; such restriction would flow from who we are. We also have churchwide documents (from 1986/87, 1995, 2001) against same-sex eroticism. How do our leaders give the dissenting minority a voice yet let those statements (while they stand) continue to impact the message that people hear from our denomination?

A healthy balance: The term “teaching position” helps us find that balance. First, labeling something a teaching position reminds us that the church has spoken in this area. In humility we acknowledge the statements of the denomination, especially when they come at the end of several years of conversation at the congregational and conference level. We know wisdom was not born with us.

Nonetheless, those statements may be wrong —and many are sure the sexuality one is. Andre Gingerich Stoner described the dilemma as he opened a Conversation Room session at our Pittsburgh assembly: “How does the church take positions on issues and also remain open to the possibility of new insight and leading of the Spirit?”

Here the term “teaching position” shows itself as valuable in a second way: It not only helps us honor the collective discernment of the gathered denomination but maintains room for the possibly prophetic minority voice. When the guidelines call a particular stance a teaching position, they do not demand that we assent to it. They even make space for us to vigorously dispute it in non-teaching settings. In fact, they go on to invite this by declaring that the call to “be in dialogue with those who hold differing views” is also a teaching position of our church. The guidelines only expect us who are members to recognize that our church’s teaching on sexuality is our “best human understanding of God’s way.”

I heard of a man, not a pacifist, who nonetheless joined a Mennonite congregation, knowing that his kids would be taught peace. He even served as adult Sunday school teacher but chose not to teach against our denomination’s position. Similarly, the guidelines do not say that one has to hold to the church’s teaching on sexuality to be a member. They only ask us to acknowledge it, and they call our credentialed pastors not to act against it.

Let’s talk: Dialogue on our church’s position on sexuality is indeed needed, to the dismay of those of us who are sure the sexuality issue was settled by the Bible long ago and by the church in 1986/87, 1995 and 2001. Goodhearted brothers and sisters have sincere questions about the church’s position on same-sex partnerships, and we must talk.

I welcome The Mennonite’s move toward ending its moratorium on this subject. During the years that our society has been dramatically shifting on homosexuality, we have been largely silent —no articles in our church periodical, no churchwide consultations or conversations. Do we really want our young adults making up their mind while only hearing the world? The only thing our denomination has said during the last 12 years is that in the past we said such and such. That has little appeal to young adults; if anything it moves them to run the other way.

So let’s talk. Without mutual accountability through dialogue there is no chance of unity on this issue. Without us as a church searching together for what the Spirit of God is saying as we study Scripture and observe life, we will end up being formed not by God but by the world.

Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church in Broadway, Va.