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2014-07-01 issue:

Two calls to heed

Web exclusive opinion piece

by Harold Miller

Persons of conscience within Mennonite Church USA issue two contrasting calls to the church on homosexuality, as Michael King has observed ("Double conversion," Mennonite World Review).

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 every Mennonite Church USA congregation is a safe and welcoming place for LGBT folks. Our churches must see the image of God in these persons, celebrating the strengths they bring—every nature has strengths and weaknesses.

Further, for the church to be a safe haven we must follow the example of Jesus in John 8 as he related to the woman caught in adultery: 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.

Many congregations take an additional step in welcoming LGBT persons: they extend a blessing on same-sex eroticism within a covenant relationship.

Yet the example of Jesus shows that we can be a safe haven even while calling persons 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 church will not fully carry out the second call until we face and respond to one particular pattern in the LGBT community.

Researchers (virtually all of them gay men) suggest that a decided majority of long-term male couples have a sexually "open" marriage in which the partners agree to outside sexual liaisons. (A great deal of apparent confirmation for this pattern in long-term male couples can be cited). 

In contrast, studies that use nationally representative samples find that around four percent of heterosexual married men had extramarital sex during the past year and that 20-25 percent of heterosexual men in the United States engage in extramarital sex at some point in their marriage.

We want to believe that the Christian gay community is different. Yet we in the church too often mirror society around us in our sexual practices. Raising further concern, our church's gay community and the groups who advocate for that community are silent on sexual exclusivity being a moral obligation in same-sex partnerships rather than mere personal preference.

As I have stated publicly in MWR, "I am unaware of any Anabaptist gay leaders who encourage their community toward the principle that genital sexual intimacy is intended to be expressed within a monogamous, life-long covenanted relationship."

Instead I can cite many examples of leaders making comments that keep space for non-monogamy.

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.

Until we as a church stand against this pattern, we are making peace with the oversexed spirit of the age in which we live. This is not the only way that the church falls for this siren call from culture around us, violating our own consensus that "genital sexual intimacy is intended to be expressed within a monogamous, life-long covenanted relationship" [Body & Soul curriculum, MennoMedia 2010]—we must acknowledge the work we need to do in the areas of premarital sex and divorce and pornography.

May we also acknowledge and confront those in our midst who do not see sexual exclusivity as essential to the integrity of a lifelong covenant.

Half way home
This is not a final answer. Our church's deep divisions over homosexuality will not be resolved by us answering a call to welcome LGBT folk and a call to work against 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 views even monogamous same-sex partnerships as wrong.

Nonetheless, answering those two 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!

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

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  • Posted by artdude at Monday, June 23, 2014 at 05:54 PM

    Harold: I applaud your efforts, in the last paragraph, to "move our church a step or two closer toward common ground." I also am encouraged by your trying to listen to two different calls. So often, I am amazed that we as heterosexuals try to think we know everything about same-sex relationships, when in fact we know not much at all. I am also amazed that same-sex persons even want to be a part of the church, considering how badly they are treated. Be careful to describe all same-sex non-monogamous behavior, as the big surprise to many traditionalists is, that there can actually be same-sex relationships that are monogamous, loving, committed. When that happens with people who want to be part of the church, think we have to at least listen to that. Also be careful with using language like "hedonism" and "same-sex eroticism" describing LGBT people, if you do not also describe heterosexual activity the same way. But thanks for a different look at the question. I think the truth is out there, and we need to think outside the box, as in Acts 10, Peter with the lowered sheet was confronted with a paradigm shift he didn't know what to do with. I take my clues from Acts 15, in the Jerusalem Conference, when they realized that it wasn't following the old Law that saved them, but evidence of the Spirit. I want to see evidence of the Spirit, whether gay or straight.

  • Posted by Chett at Friday, June 27, 2014 at 07:39 PM

    So let me get this straight: we'll be a "welcoming" place for gays, where "welcoming" means we won't throw them out, but we'll make it very clear to them that their "behavior" (we have a sexuality, they have "a behavior") is sinful and on a par with adultery and alcoholism. And marriage? Just shut up about that, since some gay people, somewhere, aren't monogamous. And our reward for this incredible generosity is to expect that every gay person who shows up in our church has to beat their breast and repent for the attitudes espoused by any gay person that has offended us.

    This is a great idea! And while we're at it, let's stop doing any marriages, since some married people commit adultery or get divorced.

    This is not "acceptance". This is giving gay people a hearty welcome into the closets of our churches.

    (Pause. Chett counts to 10 and takes a deep breath.)

    Perhaps I can strike a more positive tone. How about this: Gay people love and desire people of their own gender for the same reason we love and desire people of the opposite gender: because God made them (and us) that way. Their sexual desire, like ours, is a potential channel of God's grace and love. So let's just forget about "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality". These are abstractions. Our churches are filled with individual people, not concepts. The gay brother or sister is no different in the sight of God than we are. And since they aren't different, we must encourage them to pursue monogamous relationships that are informed by their desires to lay down their lives for one another.

    Reality check: this attitude involves both affirming their sexuality, like ours, as a gift from God, AND accepting their right to commit to a lifetime of love and service. If we can't at least do this, we might as well drive them out more efficiently than we already are.

    A gay brother or sister is responsible for ordering their own lives, not the lives of every other person who is like them in some respect. Quit using the bad attitudes of someone else to condemn the person in front of you.

  • Posted by hnmiller at Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    Thanks, Chett, for a memorable comment. I enjoyed both the passion and the choice to calmly state things as clear as possible.

    You say, "Quit using the bad attitudes of someone else to condemn the person in front of you." If the non-monogamous pattern was just "someone else" I probably wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing this article. But it's ones wanting full participation and affirmation in MC USA who are silent on sexual exclusivity being a moral obligation in same-sex partnerships. At least I am unaware of any leader in the Anabaptist gay community or in some group advocating for that community (like the Pink Mennos) who has publicly encouraged that community to hold to sexual exclusivity in their covenant relationships.

    As Michael A. Yeakey II commented on Facebook.com/TheMennonite, the "assertions about the lack of monogamy in same-sex marriage are not fabrications but are based on widely-available articles about the phenomenon. If and when same-sex couples hope to be fully integrated into the Mennonite Church, then they should realize that they will be held to the same standard as straight couples."

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