This article appeared in the June 23, 2014 Tmail, and was initially online at

Two calls to heed

Conservatives and progressives each have a same-sex issue of their own that is very difficult and very necessary to face.

Harold N. Miller

Persons of conscience within Mennonite Church USA issue two contrasting calls to the church as Michael King has observed ("Double conversion," MWR, Mar 3 2014). One group dreams of the church moving away from norms of excluding outsiders and marginalized persons, away from "hate-filled aspects of culture that have led to suicide, torture and even killing of some of us deemed today's unclean." Another group calls us away from idolizing sexual fulfillment, away from "a hedonistic culture [that] is driving an emotional contagion seducing the church down the wrong path."

My prayer is that we as a church will heed both calls.

Essentials for a welcoming church
We will not fulfill the first call until all MC USA congregations, particularly our conservative ones, are safe and welcoming places for LGBT individuals.

Our churches must see the image of God in these persons, celebrating the strengths they bring — every nature has strengths and weaknesses.

We must follow the example of Jesus and lead with grace rather than with law. To the woman caught in adultery (John 8), Jesus said "Go and sin no more" but not until first declaring "I do not condemn you." The command to stop her natural behavior was preceded by actions and words that courageously protected and valued her. With the Samaritan women, who was living with someone not her husband after a string of failed marriages (John 4), Jesus began a conversation with no word of reprimand or judgment. Instead he was vulnerable before her, letting her meet his need for water, and then drawing her with talk of living water that would quench her deepest thirst. When he finally raised the matter of her living situation, she changed the subject and he went along with her.

We must not run ahead of the Spirit's work in the lives of individuals. I think of the story of a Mennonite pastor reaching out to the owners of a local bar. The owner couple made a commitment to Christ, yet seemed to feel no conviction to shut their bar down. It took 9 months before they did; during that time the pastor and overseer took a lot of heat. It was good that the church gave that time of love and acceptance. This way the couple maintained a spontaneous faith of their own instead of being pressured to act on somebody else's faith; they went on to plant the congregation's first daughter church. Those with a traditional view on homosexuality must give similar acceptance to a noncelibate LGBT person who is beginning to follow Christ.

Many congregations take an additional step in welcoming such persons: they extend a blessing on same-sex sex as long as it is within a covenant relationship. We as a denomination are discerning whether to adopt this. Yet even if we continue to teach that our church is to gently steer persons away from same-sex practice, the example of Jesus shows that our congregations can be a safe haven even while calling someone to stop a behavior. What is essential is not radical inclusion (approving even what we understand to be sin) but radical hospitality, surrounding persons who are drawn to Jesus with love and encouragement as we invite and challenge them to grow in following Jesus.

Unexpected pattern of hedonism
We as a denomination will not fully carry out the second call (will not avoid idolizing sexual fulfillment) until our progressive congregations face and respond to one particular pattern in the LGBT community.

Researchers suggest that a majority of long-term male couples have a sexually "open" marriage in which the partners agree to outside sexual liaisons.

• A website for The Couples Study (google its name to go there) lists studies on the incidence of agreed-upon non-monogamy among "male couples who have been together for five years or more."

• An article in The New York Times, entitled "Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret," reported a study of male couples which found that "about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners." The article adds, "None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it."

• Another study described in the journal Family Process (September 2011) drew its sample from gay couples from all over the nation who trekked to Vermont to get a civil union when it became the first state to offer them such status. It used siblings of the gay couples as a control, to see how heterosexual marriages compare. Among the gay men, 49.5% said that they as a couple agree to be "open" rather than sexually exclusive or monogamous. Their male married siblings (hetero) showed starkly differing stats: 6.0% said their marriage was "open" and 10.1% said they cheated on their wives in their marriage.

Most straight supporters of same-sex partnerships in Mennonite Church USA assume that Anabaptist male long-term couples are sexually exclusive. That assumption is not warranted, for we in the church tend to mirror society around us in our sexual practices. Further, few, if any, Anabaptist gay leaders publicly encourage their community to hold to sexual monogamy (not just social monogamy) in their covenant relationships. Few, if any, insist that a sexually open relationship is contrary to the integrity of that relationship. Of greater concern, many of these leaders often make public comments that keep space for non-monogamy.

This is not an instance of practice falling short of an ideal — all of us, whether opposite-sex or same-sex, fall and need grace. This is the ideal itself being dropped. When will a significant strand of Anabaptist gay writing and witness lift up sexual exclusivity as a standard in same-sex partnerships and stand against this prevalent tendency in the larger gay world around them? [Read more on this pattern.]

It's important to clarify that the focus here is not on individual same-sex relationships, saying that the rightness of a particular couple is determined by whether they are monogamous. On that basis, many same-sex couples are excellent examples of goodness. The focus here is on the general pattern of non-monogamy in long-term male couples and the degree of acquiescence to the pattern by gays in our church.

Until we as a church stand against this, we are making peace with the oversexed spirit of the age in which we live. This is not the only way that we fall for this siren call from culture around us, violating our shared conviction that "genital sexual intimacy is intended to be expressed within a monogamous, life-long covenanted relationship" (Body & Soul curriculum [MennoMedia 2010]). Heterosexual persons fall in great numbers; we must acknowledge the work we need to do in the areas of premarital sex and divorce. May we also acknowledge and confront homosexual persons in our midst who see sexual exclusivity as mere personal preference rather than a moral obligation in a lifelong covenant.

Half way home
Answering these two calls will not settle everything. Our church's deep divisions over homosexuality will not be resolved by conservatives welcoming LGBT folk and progressives working at a glaring instance of hedonism in our midst. Mere welcome will not satisfy congregations who want the church to bless same-sex covenant relationships. Mere monogamy will not satisfy congregations who believe the Bible looks on even monogamous same-sex partnerships as wrong.

Nonetheless, answering these calls will move our church a step or two closer toward common ground on the matter. It will bring to light those in our church who choose not to love same-sex attracted folk. And reveal those who idolize sexual pleasure. We will be moving in the right direction, perhaps even half way home!