Homosexuality and the Mennonite Church
Homosexuality has proved to be one of the more contentious and difficult issues the Mennonite Church has faced in recent years. Congregations have been excommunicated and pastors’ credentials have been revoked over the issue. Some congregations and conferences have spent significant time and emotional energy in dialogue about the issue over the last 25 years—especially on the ethical propriety of covenanted homosexual relationships. Some congregations have been expelled for accepting noncelibate gay and lesbian persons; more have withdrawn from conferences perceived as too lax on the issue. The issue has tested the polity of the church as leaders have responded to pastors and congregations whom they have seen as “at variance” with the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
For a free church with a high view of the Bible, the issue has proved particularly problematic. For some, the challenge has been to discern God’s will on the subject; for others, the challenge has been to know how to relate to other individuals, congregations, or conferences whom they see as ignoring or taking lightly the biblical teachings on the subject; and for yet others, the challenge has been to show appropriate patience with a church that has seemed fearful, reactionary, and slow to respond to the justice issues involved.
1976–1987: THE RISING CONSCIOUSNESS
Homosexuality came into the broader consciousness of the Mennonite churches in North America in the late 1970s. In 1976 the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (BMC; now the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests) was founded to provide support for Mennonite and Church of the Brethren gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (and their families), to foster dialogue on homosexuality in the church, and to provide accurate information about homosexuality from a variety of religious, biological, and social-science perspectives. In 1978 Mennonite Medical Association sponsored a symposium in Harrisonburg , Va., on the topic of human sexuality. Also that year, Rainbow Boulevard Mennonite Church of Kansas City, Kansas, released a statement indicating that it would welcome gay and lesbian couples into church membership.
In 1980 the General Conference Mennonite Church (“GCs”) commissioned a study on human sexuality. The other large body of Mennonites in North America (the Mennonite Church [“MCs”]) decided in 1981 to join the study. Homosexuality seemed to be the focal issue for the study, even though most agreed that a proper understanding of homosexuality depended upon a broader understanding of human sexuality in Christian perspective. A committee made up of medical doctors, psychologists, biblical scholars, ethicists, and church leaders worked hard for four years to identify common ground and issues requiring further discernment, and produced a study guide for congregations entitled Human Sexuality and the Christian Life: A Working Document for Study and Dialogue.
In 1983 the two largest bodies of Mennonites in North America met in their first joint assembly at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The sexuality committee gave an interim report. BMC set up a display at the assembly with the initial approval of the governing boards. However, within a few hours it was ordered to be dismantled. At most general assemblies since, BMC’s presence has been unofficial and at the margins.
In 1985, the Mennonite Church General Assembly accepted Human Sexuality in the Christian Life as a working document and commended it for study by congregations. A year later the General Conference Mennonite assembly, meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, acted similarly, while also passing a “Resolution on Human Sexuality” that was not part of the committee’s report. This resolution affirmed sexuality as a gift of God and committed the church to continuing study and dialogue on the issue. It confessed fear and “judgmental attitudes” while also expressing an understanding of homosexual “activity” as sin. In 1987 the Mennonite Church passed a similar resolution at Purdue University (Indiana).
The 1980s generally were a time of study and congregational discernment, though the original study committee was disappointed with how few congregations actually studied their document. By the end of the decade, the church had achieved a heightened awareness about homosexuality along with a growing disparity of perspectives regarding whether sexual issues in general are essentially simple or complex.
One theological-ethical problem the church encountered in its discussion of homosexuality is the existence of differing approaches to the Bible and differing views of God’s reign. Some fear that the tolerance of homosexuality is both the symbol of and the proof that others have left behind the authoritative structures of belief and morality. They are drawn more by a straightforward or simple hermeneutic than they are by a complex one. At the same time, others view the rejection of gay relationships as a fixation on one moral issue at the expense of other issues more central to the teaching of Jesus, and are convinced more by a complex hermeneutic than they are by a simple or straightforward one. As important as the theological-ethical issues are, differing conceptions of both the meaning of the 1986 and 1987 resolutions as well as their relative authority continue to vex the church: are they “rules” to be enforced or “guidelines” that inform and describe?
1988–1998: DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS AND POLARIZATION
In 1988, Ames Mennonite Church—a dual-conference MC/GC congregation—was expelled by the MC Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference for accepting covenanted gay couples—the first such expulsion of a congregation by a regional conference over the issue of homosexuality. Their gay pastor had lost his ministerial credentials a few years earlier.
The general level of anxiety among some conference and denominational leaders seemed to be rising. In 1990 the two Mennonite bodies appointed a joint “Listening Committee” to “care for gay and lesbian persons and their families … by listening to their alienation and pain … to encourage and facilitate dialogue between persons of various perspectives … [and] to make recommendations … regarding policy, program, and church life.” In 1991 the Mennonite Church General Board issued a statement that urged continued study, called for celibacy on the part of homosexuals, and condemned harsh attitudes toward homosexual persons.
A year later the Listening Committee presented their report and a list of recommendations to the respective bodies that commissioned them. It urged the church to intensify its efforts to encourage further study of the issue at all levels, from the congregational level to graduate study, while providing further support staffing on the denominational level. Both denominations received their report, but neither the GC nor the MC General Board accepted the committee’s recommendations and both suppressed the release of those recommendations to the broader church.
This action by the General Boards led to a period of uncertainty about the status of the “dialogue” to which the church had committed itself in its earlier resolutions. Anxiety about “the position” of the church on the issue increased. In 1995 the two Mennonite denominations decided to work toward merger (finalized in 2001). As one step toward this goal, they adopted a new Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which did not make an explicit statement about homosexuality. However, it did include an article on marriage and family that states, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. … Right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship.”
Officially, the Mennonite churches seemed torn between two strong commitments: the commitment to maintain a clear and biblical ethical teaching that rules out sexual union between gay or lesbian persons on the one hand, and the commitment to love and show compassion toward all—especially the marginalized—on the other hand. Unofficially, different opinions lingered about the “causes” of homosexuality and their ethical implications. The high level of anxiety and increasing polarization on the issues allowed little emotional space for true dialogue on the issues, resulting in the increased politicization of the issue in the church.
Later in 1995, the MC Council on Faith, Life, and Strategy attempted to calm matters by issuing a statement declaring that the 1987 resolution “is the position of the Mennonite Church,” that this position is “both clearly stated and biblical,” and that the church’s commitment to remain in loving dialogue “should not be construed to mean that the homosexual issue is unresolved or that the position of the church is in question.” Rather, the commitment to “dialogue” applied only to the pastoral application of the church’s position. This statement had a mixed reception in the church.
If the 1980s were the decade of initial study and discernment in the Mennonite Church, the 1990s were the decade of polarization. By 1995 the Gospel Herald (official newspaper of the MCs) was receiving so many letters to the editor on homosexuality that the editor declared a moratorium on the printing of such letters. At the same time, homosexuality was dominating the discussions on Mennolink, a public listserv discussion group about, for, of, and by Mennonites, with more than a thousand subscribers. The MC and GC General Boards adopted the guideline, “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love: Commitments for Mennonites in Times of Disagreement.”
In 1996 a list of “Supporting Congregations” (congregations willing to make a public statement about acceptance of same-sex couples) was published in Mennonite Weekly Review. This led to further concern and disciplinary actions. In 1997 the (eastern Pennsylvania) Franconia Mennonite Conference voted to expel Germantown Mennonite Church, the oldest Mennonite congregation in North America (founded in 1683). In 1999, Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church was expelled by the Northwest Conference of the Mennonite Church (and by the Mennonite Brethren Church, a separate Mennonite denomination of which it had also been a part) and a year later suspended by the Conference of Mennonites in Alberta. Several other excommunications or disciplinary actions were taken by various regional conferences in 1997. This “Supporting Communities Network” continues to grow and now includes supportive groups within congregations.
1998–2001: MEMBERSHIP GUIDELINES, THE CLC, AND MERGER
Further progress had been made in moving the MCs and GCs toward merger, now being called “transformation.” However, polity differences, which became apparent in the varying responses to variances from the church’s teaching on homosexuality, were threatening to derail the merger. In 1998 the Conference of Mennonites in Canada adopted a “Resolution on the Issue of Homosexuality” that reaffirmed the 1986 and 1987 resolutions on homosexuality and the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, while also calling for continuing dialogue on the issue.
In 1998 the MC and GC General Boards met together in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Several regional conferences had signaled that they would not be party to the merger/transformation if “denominational membership guidelines allow for including congregations that accept non-celibate homosexuals as members.” The boards decided that they must develop a set of “membership guidelines” that would specify how noncompliance with the teaching of the church on homosexuality would be dealt with on the conference and denominational levels. They were convinced that the success of the merger depended upon broad support of those membership guidelines in both MC and GC congregations.
That same year (1998), several individuals unhappy with the progress of the Mennonite Church in arriving at a more open, welcoming stance toward gay and lesbian persons, organized a “Welcome Committee” that committed itself to contribute to the dialogue to which the church had repeatedly committed itself.
Over the next two years, membership guidelines were developed, tested, and revised. In March 1999 the church held a major consultation on membership and homosexuality near Kansas City, Missouri. The result of the consultation was a general consensus among those present that congregational membership by same-sex covenanted couples was not in keeping with the faith statements of the Mennonite Church. A last-minute resolution at the general assembly in St. Louis later that year reaffirming that “sexual relations are reserved for a man and a woman in marriage” failed to garner the requisite votes, in part because some thought the resolution was manipulative in nature. However, because the reasons for the failure of the resolution on the last day of the assembly were open to widely different interpretations, it failed to bring further unity to the church and led to some despair. (In 2003 the delegates at Mennonite Church Canada passed by one vote a resolution that directed the Board to write a letter to the Canadian government reaffirming the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Like the St. Louis ’99 resolution, the near-failure of the resolution was interpreted in widely different ways.)
The membership guidelines did not receive the requisite votes for approval at St. Louis ’99. In the fall of 1999, the “Constituency Leaders Council” was formed as an advisory group to the new MC USA’s Executive Board, consisting of representatives from the regional conferences for face-to-face table conversation on difficult subjects, including homosexuality. In the more than five years that it has met, it has been the occasion for the most significant and transforming dialogue on the subject, in part because of careful planning, attentive listening, and the resourcing of professionals in conflict, communication, and conciliation. The CLC rewrote the membership guidelines, which were approved by the delegates at the 2001 general assembly in Nashville. New to the rewritten guidelines was a section called “Clarification of Some Issues Related to Homosexuality and Membership.”
Just when it looked as though the Mennonite Church was moving toward a conservative consensus on homosexuality, an open letter appeared in one of the leading Mennonite newspapers. On February 17, 2000, the “Welcome Committee” purchased space in Mennonite Weekly Review to publish “A Welcoming Open Letter on ‘Homosexuality.’” This letter called the church to “bless monogamous relationships of same-sex couples who affirm covenant vows” and was signed by 650 individuals across North America, many of whom were in leadership positions.
As friends and family members of gay and lesbian persons in the church, the Welcome Committee lamented the denial and destruction of committed relationships implicit in the hard line that some in the church were taking on homosexuality. The Committee pointed out that the resolutions explicitly called upon the churches to continue open dialogue on these issues. Believing that this dialogue had not been adequately encouraged by church leadership, the Committee hoped with this statement to make it clear that more discernment was needed before the church could speak with consensus.
The letter generated considerable response. Letters to the editors of the Mennonite papers poured in. Over the next few years, the Welcome Committee gathered and published dozens of articles on such varied topics as the history of the discussion in the Mennonite Church, personal experiences and reflections, biblical interpretation, Mennonite polity and homosexuality, biological and psychological perspectives, and dealing with the culture of fear in the church.
In the fall of 2000, the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA recommended the adoption of the proposed membership guidelines. Among other things, these guidelines called for unity and accountability within a limited range of theological positions. The guidelines reaffirmed the 1986 Saskatoon and 1987 Purdue resolutions and the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as “the teaching position of the Mennonite Church USA.” In light of the challenge represented in the Welcome letter, the guidelines stipulated that “pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.”
Some have understood this reaffirmation of “the teaching position of Mennonite Church USA” in a narrow, reductionistic way, as refering primarily to the first commitment in the resolutions of 1986 and 1987, “that sexual intercourse is reserved for a man and woman united in marriage and that violation of this teaching is a sin.” Although the drafters of the guidelines acknowledged and reaffirmed the second and third commitments in the Saskatoon and Purdue resolutions, many who now evoke the “teaching position of MC USA” have largely abandoned the second commitment, namely, “to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance,” and have abandoned entirely the third, “to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other” and to do so by promoting congregational study. When the latter two commitments are kept, these latter commitments are sometimes seen as a sign of one’s lack of commitment to the church’s “position.” Furthermore, some members of the church view the disciplinary actions toward congregations by regional conferences in the late 1990s as counter to the church’s “position” to remain in loving dialogue on these issues.
The adoption of the membership guidelines by the delegates to the General Assembly in Nashville (2001) culminated in the official merger (or “transformation”) of the MC and GC denominations, which simultaneously saw the re-alignment of the church along national lines into “Mennonite Church USA” and “Mennonite Church Canada,” both of which were made up of former MC and GC congregations. By 2005, all of the former MC/GC conferences in the U.S. had become members of Mennonite Church USA.
As a whole, the Mennonite Church in North America seems less interested in and tolerant of dialogue on sexuality issues than it was in the 1980s. At the same time, about half of the regional conferences in MC USA (and two in MC Canada) have congregations that openly welcome gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual members. There appears to be less interest in making homosexuality a litmus test for faithfulness, and more willingness to allow flexibility in how congregations and conferences respond pastorally to gay and lesbian persons in their midst. The focus of attention for where to draw lines in the sand has shifted from membership to ministerial credentials.
MENNONITE CHURCH CANADA
Until the merger of the MCs and GCs at Nashville in 2001, the story of homosexuality and the Mennonite Church in Canada has in general followed the story in the U.S., perhaps with a lesser degree of conflict. However, conflict over homosexuality and how to deal with congregations at variance erupted in Alberta in the late 1990s with events leading up to the expulsion of Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church. One large established congregation withdrew from the regional conference. The Northwest Mennonite Conference, which had been a provisional member of Mennonite Church Canada, withdrew from the national church. In 2002 the coming out of a lesbian on the pastoral team at Toronto United Mennonite Church led to intense conversations with the leaders of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, culminating in the discontinuation of the pastor’s license.
In 2005, the Canadian Parliament, following the rulings of several provincial courts and the Supreme Court of Canada, passed a law replacing the traditional definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman with a definition that is “a union between two persons.” In the Canadian context, where the Mennonite Church has often worked more closely and collaboratively with the government than has been the case in the U.S., this move has raised the prospect of conscientious dissent in a new way.
THE BROADER MENNONITE CHURCH
Other Mennonite-related church bodies within North America, such as the Mennonite Brethren and the Conservative Mennonite Conference, are nearly unanimous in their condemnation of homosexuality. Outside of North America, the Mennonite Church is divided. The great majority of Mennonites around the world would condemn homosexuality outright, while finding it difficult to understand how the issue could be controversial in North America. At the same time, the Mennonite church in the Netherlands, the Algemeene Doopsgezinde Societeit, both ordains and conducts marriages of gay people in its congregations—and similarly finds it difficult to understand how the issue could be controversial in North America.
Dialogue, published three times a year by BMC, addresses various themes and “provides information from the social sciences, biblical studies, personal experiences, and theology in order to provide insight into the complex issues surrounding homosexuality.”
Garber, Lin. “Mennonites and the ‘Homosexual’ Issue: A Recent History.” Chap. 6 in C. Norman Kraus, ed. To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality. The Living Issues Discussion Series, no. 1. Foreword by Richard A. Kauffman. Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press, 2001, pp. 92–110. Also included in Booklet #2 of the Welcome to Dialogue Series.
Human Sexuality in the Christian Life: A Working Document for Study and Dialogue. Newton, Kans.: Faith & Life Press, 1985. Available online at http://ljohns.ambs.edu/hscl/hscl0.htm.
King, Michael A. Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality. C. Henry Smith Series, no. 3. Foreword by Herbert Simons. Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press, 2001.
Kraus, C. Norman, ed. To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality. The Living Issues Discussion Series, no. 1. Foreword by Richard A. Kauffman. Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press, 2001.
Kreider, Roberta, ed. From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People and Those Who Love Them. Gaithersburg, Md.: Chi Rho Press, 1998.
———, ed. Together In Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Couples. Foreword by Elsie Enns Steelberg. Kulpsville, Pa.: Strategic Press, 2002.
———, ed. The Cost Of Truth: Faith Stories of Mennonite and Brethren Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been. Kulpsville, Pa.: Strategic Press, 2004.
“Statements of Mennonite Conferences, Boards, and Committees on Homosexuality,” compiled by Loren L. Johns (http://ljohns.ambs.edu/ChurchDocs.htm)
“Supportive Communities Network” (http://www.bmclgbt.org/scn.html)
Swartley, Willard M. Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003.
Welcome to Dialogue Series, published by the Welcome Committee: Mennonites Working to Increase Dialogue on Gay and Lesbian Inclusion (full text also available online: http://www.welcome-committee.org/booklet-index.html.
Loren L. Johns
Loren L. Johns is academic dean and associate professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. He has written on various aspects of the Apocalypse of John, especially as it contributes to a contemporary practice of peace and justice. In 2003 he published The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John: An Investigation into Its Origins and Rhetorical Force.