Since the 1980s, the Mennonite church has been debating how it should relate to those who are same-sex attracted. It has been a long and difficult debate, and it isn’t over yet. Since 2009, Mennonite Church Canada has been working on how to deal with this contentious issue through the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process. The BFC task force reported in July 2014 that Mennonites in Canada do not agree on how to interpret the Bible on this issue. All sides take the Bible seriously, but they interpret it differently. And so this passionate discussion continues.
Our feature article on page 4, “A biblical and better way,” by Ron Sider, was specifically requested by readers from different parts of the country. While not all readers will agree with Sider’s point of view, he presents a well-articulated argument that we have not carried in these pages recently. Meanwhile, this issue of the magazine also has a story of the first same-sex couple to be publicly married by MC Canada clergy (see page 13).
As the debate stretches on, many of us have heard arguments on both sides from people we respect. One side says that Jesus was welcoming and loving, and so should we be. If we exclude those who are same-sex attracted, we are guilty of injustice. The other side frames the issue in ethical terms. If sexual intimacy outside of a monogamous heterosexual marriage was a sin for so many centuries, how can we with integrity declare it is no longer sinful?
It seems there are many of us who don’t know what to think and wish a compromise would be possible. The BFC task force reported that most congregations responding to BFC 5, “Biblical perspectives on human sexuality,” affirmed the church’s traditional position, but at the same time wanted to be more welcoming. Our majority position seems to be that we don’t want to be exclusionary, but neither do we want to abandon long-standing sexual ethics.
MC U.S.A. is having a similar discussion. A significant number of congregations chose to leave MC U.S.A. in 2014 after one of its conferences licensed a pastor living in a same-sex relationship. Whole conferences have debated withdrawing from MC U.S.A. A survey of U.S. Mennonite pastors in 2014 shows that younger people and those living in larger cities are more apt to be inclusive. Probably the same is true in Canada.
This is a difficult discussion, but it isn’t going to go away. MC Canada congregations have been asked for further discernment through BFC 6, with reports due by Feb. 28. Fortunately, the BFC 6 document includes more resources for this discussion, including a video, “Discerning What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches,” by Loren Johns, professor of New Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The text   of the video is also available for those who want to study it closely.
After looking at various biblical texts that relate to homosexuality, and explaining how they can be interpreted differently, Johns asks whether there are precedents in the Bible for a major theological shift like the one we are facing. He refers to two such shifts in the New Testament. Acts 10 recounts the story of Peter’s vision in which God tells Peter in a dream to eat animals that are forbidden according to Leviticus 11. The message of the dream was confirmed when shortly afterward the Gentiles in Caesarea received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The other theological shift in the early church related to the question of whether Christians needed to be circumcised. A study of Acts 15 shows that the church considered not only Scripture, but also experience, reason, tradition and the voice of the Holy Spirit in its discernment.
Johns does not take a position on whether the church should shift its theology on this issue, but points out the importance of loving each other in the midst of the discussion. He says, “So when knowledge and listening to the Spirit leave us short of the uniformity of perspective for which we had hoped—and it sometimes will, according to Paul in I Corinthians 13—faith, hope and love can still get us through.”
As the church continues its discernment, may we all continue to pray for guidance, while exercising all the humility, patience and love we can muster.