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Homosexuality and the Mennonite Church USA

In 2001 the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) and the Mennonite Church (MC) accepted a common set of membership guidelines and a plan to merge into a single denomination.  This union of two historic Anabaptist denominations of North America gave birth to the Mennonite Church USA.  While the vote counts for the merger exceeded the expectations of the Executive Board (Trollinger 9), the road to unification had been fraught with many years of tense debate over the divisive issue of homosexuality.

As modern understanding of human sexuality continues to develop we are faced with theological questions that neither the biblical authors nor the early Church were equipped to address.  As a result, the Mennonite Church USA, like many other denominations, has grappled with conflicts between biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexual activity, the authority of scripture and the mandate of the Church in the world today.  Members have appealed to various canons within the cannon, tradition, reason, experience and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to chart a course.  While a tenuous agreement has been reached on the subject, the debate continues and conflict smolders just beneath the surface.  In this paper I will discuss the events leading to today’s conflict, the solution offered, and my own reasons for standing with those in the Mennonite Church USA who welcome lesbians and gays into the church and seek to affirm them and their relationships as Christian sisters and brothers.

A Brief History

Though many larger American denominations have only recently begun to grapple with a stance on homosexuality, Anabaptists have been pondering the question at least since the formation of the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns[1] (BMC) in 1976.  The founders of the BMC sought to provide support for gays and lesbians within their denominations, fostering dialog within the church and acting as a resource for those who wished to explore the social, religious and biological dimensions of homosexuality (Johns paragraph 3).

Within the next few years the tide of consciousness continued to rise.  The Mennonite Medical Association sponsored a symposium on human sexuality in 1978.  In that same year the Rainbow Boulevard Mennonite Church of Kansas City, Kansas, announced that it would welcome gays and lesbians as members (Johns paragraph 3).  By 1980 the discussion was taken up by the GC, which commissioned a study on human sexuality that the MC joined in 1981 (Robinson paragraph 5).  A committee of doctors, psychologists, biblical scholars, ethicists and church leaders (Johns paragraph 3) worked for four years, producing a report entitled Human Sexuality and the Christian Life: A Working Document for Study and Dialogue.

As a result of the study, the GC released the Saskatoon statement in 1986, followed by the Purdue statement of the MC in 1987.  The statements, which closely resemble one another, consist of:

  • An affirmation that sexuality is a gift from God, that the body should be considered positive and that sexual drives are a real part of life;
  • A confession of sexism, a lingering wrong view of the human body, judgmental attitudes, slowness to forgive and fear of those of differing sexual orientation;
  • A statement of understanding that sexual intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in marriage (precluding premarital, extramarital and homosexual sex); and
  • A covenant to study biblical sexuality, to remain in dialogue and continue congregational discernment in matters of sexuality, and to obey the discerned will of God (Resolution; Call).

The Purdue and Saskatoon Resolutions provided a much needed framework for further discussion within the church.  But soon a question arose over the meaning of "dialogue" in the two statements.  Some church members felt that this meant that there was still question regarding the acceptance of homosexual behavior.  To remedy this situation, the MC Council of Life, Faith and Strategy released statement on the "Meaning of Dialogue," which flatly stated that the nature of homosexuality is sinful and that the word "dialogue" refers only to pastoral care for gays and lesbians and those close to them, as well as endorsement of ministries designed to bring people out of homosexuality and establish heterosexual patterns[2] (Meaning).  However, the statement had no binding authority over the denomination and dissent continued.

Feeling that the previous resolutions were not explicit enough in their condemnation of homosexual activity, the Lancaster Conference (MC) issued its own statement, "The Church and Homosexuality," in 1997.  In this document the conference bishops recognized the many causes of homosexual desire and also affirmed homosexual orientation as a reality.  However, backing their argument with scriptural references believed to condemn homosexual acts (see below), they called for a rejection of same sex activity and an active cultivation of heterosexual interest (paragraph 25).

The debates continued within congregations throughout the United States.  Finally, in January 2000 the Lancaster Conference released a "Statement of Faith and Call to Prayer" that demanded an explicit, unified position on homosexuality as a prerequisite to merging into the Mennonite Church USA.  Summarizing the heart of their complaint, the bishops wrote, "We believe that we cannot be faithful to our understanding of Scripture that homosexual behavior is sin and join with a church body which does not support those commitments" (Statement).

However, those who opposed this viewpoint published "A Welcoming Letter on Homosexuality" in the Mennonite Weekly Review in which they called for affirmation of monogamous relationships of same-sex couples and an open dialogue with lesbians and gays in the church (paragraph 10).

In spite of all of the conflict, the Delegate Assembly of MC and GC representatives approved the "Membership Guidelines for the formation of the Mennonite Church USA" that formally stated the position of the proposed denomination in 2001.  The third section of the guidelines dealt specifically with issues related to homosexuality and church membership.  However, in accordance with the GC tradition of local congregational autonomy in matters of church membership, the document left room for local churches and individual members to be "at variance"[3] with the guidelines while still remaining a part of the denominational community (Dintaman).

While the membership guidelines are silent regarding whether homosexuals may be members of the church, an explicit statement of polity forbids credentialed pastors within the denomination to perform a same-sex covenant ceremony on threat of review by the local conference ministerial credentialing body (Membership 3).

The Conflict

Differences in church members’ understanding of the weight given to biblical authority and Jesus’ call to radical inclusivity lie at the heart of the homosexuality debate within the Mennonite Church USA.  Traditionally Mennonites hold biblical authority in high esteem.  In Article 4 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, the joint statement of the GC and MC adopted in preparation for the merger, the delegates wrote:

"We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship. Other claims on our understanding of Christian faith and life, such as tradition, culture, experience, reason, and political powers, need to be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture" (paragraph 4).

Further, Anabaptist tradition generally holds that when in conflict, the teachings of the New Testament supersede those of the Old Testament.

The wording of the Confession is intentionally vague, avoiding any conflict that might arise by requiring a literal interpretation of biblical passages.  It is in this ambiguity that the beginning of conflict over how the Bible relates to homosexuality begins.

On the one hand, the view represented by the Lancaster Conference selects scriptures to form a linear argument:

  • Mark 10:3-9.  Jesus speaks of the marriage bond between a man and a woman as instituted by God and denounces divorce as a human contrivance.  As such, this viewpoint holds that marriage can only consist of a man and a woman.
  • Exodus 20:14; Galatians 5:16-21; Colossians 3:5, 6; and Revelation 21:8.  Old Testament law is the first to condemn adultery.  New Testament passages are also referenced to build a broader case against sexual acts with a partner outside of a marriage covenant, characterizing such activity as the fruits of lust.
  • Leviticus 8:22; 20:10-16; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:9, 10.  Finally biblical references believed to address same-sex lust and sexual activity are added to the picture (Church).

With scripture as the primary locus of authority, this side of the debate is drawn into an air-tight case.  By defining marriage as between a man and a woman, it is actually unnecessary to have any further debate over same-sex activity.  Homosexual acts are lumped together with sex before marriage (fornication), sex outside of marriage (adultery), and prostitution.  However, there is also perceived weight in the last category of passages which are traditionally interpreted as condemning all same-sex sexual activity.

On the other side of the debate, more weight is given to human experience and reason, coupled with scientific discovery.  Those who would welcome gays and lesbians into the church focus on the formation of sexual orientation in early life and the apparent immutable character it displays in most human beings (Welcome paragraph 9).  Some proponents of inclusivity go further, following the formulation of the "Welcoming Letter" referenced above:

We see the "homosexuality question" in the context of wider issues of power, patriarchy, nonviolence and exclusion/inclusion in the church. We invite the church to consider whether exclusion of "homosexuals" is nonconformity to the world or actually conformity to those principalities and powers that so often tempt us to exclude those who differ from whatever the "mainstream" of the moment may be (paragraph 12).

Based on these two approaches, each with its own loci of authority, the two camps talk past each other, neither recognizing the validity of the other’s argument.  As with most theological debates, either point of view is legitimated by its own authorities.  Further, because conditions for church membership are left to local authorities, those who are "at variance" with the stated policy of the denomination are free to do as they wish in terms of accepting homosexuals into their congregations.

While it is not clear how this debate will end, it is clear that not everyone within the denomination agrees.  A review of the denominational integration process is scheduled for 2007, at which time it is possible that further policy statements may be produced.  My own congregation is included among those who are "at variance" with the denominational position on homosexuality.  Lesbians and gays are not only welcome within the church, but also hold key positions in leadership and worship.  Though the issue of ordination of a gay or lesbian clergy candidate has not yet come up within the congregation, it appears that the church would with much grief, give up its denominational affiliation with Mennonite Church USA in support of such an action (Dintaman).  For now, the church lives in the tension of unresolved questions in an effort to avoid spending all of its efforts and energy on this one issue within the church.

My Position

Though not raised as a cultural Mennonite, I have chosen to affiliate with my local church for several reasons, among which is its stance on issues surrounding homosexuality within the church.   As a gay man this issue is of vital importance to my own sense of well-being within a church.  The challenges of living within a community of believers become exponentially more complex when one must also contend with an unwelcoming environment.  An atmosphere of love and mutual respect is the cornerstone of any meaningful conversation between the church at large and its gay members.

I value the position of the Mennonite Church USA in balancing the authority of scripture with the rejection of requiring literal interpretation.  As is often the case with biblical studies, it is necessary to dig beneath a surface-level reading of the passages in question in order to understand the context in which they were written.  Without such study, we risk drawing the wrong conclusions.

The Levitical prohibitions against male homosexual activity are found directly within the Holiness Code, which is framed by passages that suggest that the prohibitions it lays out are directly related to the cultic practices of the Canaanites who occupied Palestine during the settlement era (Leviticus 18:3; 18:27-28).  Beginning from this context, an examination of the Greek word used in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy and commonly translated as "sodomites" (NRSV), "perverts" (NIV) or "homosexuals" (NAS) in our own time traces the origin of the word back to these same Levitical passages.[4] Paul’s reference to same-sex lust in Romans 1 is also located within a larger diatribe against pagan temple practices of his time.  In light of this context, none of these passages can be used to condemn homosexual activity any more than the references within the same texts regarding heterosexual activity can be used to condemn all sexual acts between a man and a woman.

These arguments require some knowledge of both ancient Greek and an understanding of the cultic practices of the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman culture.  While this more complex hermeneutic may prove less appealing to those who seek easy answers, we cannot do justice to the Church or the people who are caught up in the tension of the question without examining these arguments in more detail.

Progress within the Church is often measured in centuries rather than years or months.  With this in mind, we may expect that the debate over homosexuality within the Mennonite Church USA and the Church as a whole will continue for many years to come.  However, as we continue to balance the authorities that Christians have relied on over the years in determining theology, I feel certain that one day this debate, too, shall pass and the Church will continue to provide God’s witness in the world.


[1] The BMC has since been renamed the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests.

[2] commonly referred to now as "ex-gay" ministries

[3] My thanks to Pastor Pam Dintaman of Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster for providing the term "at variance" for the description of members and congregations that do not fully subscribe to the membership guidelines.

[4] The LXX translation of Leviticus 20:13 places the words arsēn (man) and koitēn (marriage bed) next to each other.  Paul coins the new word arsenokoitai by compounding these two words.

Works Cited

A Call to Affirmation, Confession, and Covenant Regarding Human Sexuality Statement adopted at the 198 biennial session by the Mennonite Church General Assembly, Lafayette, Indiana July 8, 1987.  16 Oct. 2006 <http://www.ambs.edu/LJohns/Resolutions.htm>

The Church and Homosexuality  Statement adopted by the Leadership Assembly of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania 19 Sep. 1997.  28 Oct. 2006  <http://www.ambs.edu/LJohns/Lancaste.htm>

Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective  Statement adopted at the triennial session by the Mennonite General Assembly and the General Conference Mennonite Church, Wichita, Kansas July 28, 1996.  28 Oct. 2006  <http://www.mennolink.org/doc/cof/>

Dintaman, Pam.  Personal interview.  27 Oct. 2006.

Johns, Loren L.  "Homosexuality and the Mennonite Church."  22 Oct. 2006  <http://www.ambs.edu/ljohns/H&MC.htm>

Meaning of "Dialogue"  Statement adopted by the Mennonite Church Council on Faith, Life and Strategy Nov. 1995.  28 Oct. 2007  <http://www.ambs.edu/LJohns/DIALOGUE.htm>

Membership Guidelines for the formation of the Mennonite Church USA  Adopted by the Delegate Assembly, Nashville, Tennessee 5 July 2001.  16 Oct. 2006 <http://www.mennoniteusa.org/doc_files/membership_guidelines/membershipguidelines.pdf>

"Mennonites also face the gay issue."  The Christian Century 19 Apr. 2000.  ProQuest Religion.  Lancaster Theological Seminary, Philip Schaff Lib.  16 Oct. 2006  <http://www.proquest.com/>

Resolution on Human Sexuality  Statement adopted  at the 1986 triennial session by the General Conference Mennonite Church, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan 21-27 July 1986.  16 Oct. 2006  <http://www.ambs.edu/LJohn/Resolutions.htm>

Robinson, B. A.  "The Mennonite Churches and Homosexuality."  13 Nov. 2000.  22 Oct. 2006  <http://www.religioustolerance.org>

Trollinger, William Vance Jr . "Managing a merger."  The Christian Century 1 Aug. 2001.  ProQuest Religion.  Lancaster Theological Seminary, Philip Schaff Lib.  16 Oct. 2006 <http://www.proquest.com/>

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