Making space for the Spirit

September 20, 2017 | Editorial | Volume 21 Issue 18
Virginia A. Hostetler | Executive Editor


Fourteen months have gone by since the conclusion of the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process and the decision congregational delegates made at Assembly 2016. At the end of that seven-year process, a large majority of the delegates voted in favour of “creating space” for congregations to differ from one another when it comes to committed same-sex relationships.

The framers of the BFC recommendation acknowledged that “there are those among us (congregations and individuals) whose careful study of Scripture and prayerful journey of discernment lead them to a different understanding on committed same-sex relationships than is commonly assumed by readings of Article 19 in our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.”

Their recommendation was “that we create space/leave room within our body to test alternative understandings from that of the larger body to see if they are a prophetic nudging of the Spirit of God.” The discernment document called on both area churches and congregations to “determine how they will create this space” within their midst.

Have we taken up this challenge?

Wearied from the hard slog of difficult BFC conversations, many of us breathed a sigh of relief and moved on to points of agreement about easier issues. A segment of us saw the assembly decision as confirmation that the church has totally lost its way on a key point of faith. Another segment saw it as permission to proceed with full inclusion of same-sex members into our congregations.

Both of these positions risk marginalizing the “other side.” We can be tempted to scold or “correct” the other party and, in the process, fail to listen sensitively to the concerns and fears they express. We also risk not hearing the voice of God’s Spirit.

What are we to do with these recommendations to create space and listen for the nudging of the Holy Spirit? What does it look like, with this particular issue, to make—or allow—room for testing our understandings, as individuals and as congregations?

First, we must ask ourselves: Can we trust that the Holy Spirit speaks not only to us and the ones we agree with but also to the sisters and brothers with whom we have a disagreement?

We might need to confront our own fears as we live into the BFC recommendations. Maybe we fear having our minds and our attitudes stretched. Maybe we don’t want to confront the complexity of our own sexuality. Do we trust God to continue guiding all of us—individually and congregationally—through seemingly unresolvable differences?

The BFC Task Force recognized that the work of discernment in community is a long-term, ongoing process. There was acknowledgement that “unity in Christ is not the same as agreement on all theological, biblical understandings.” In the midst of disagreement, there was also a deep desire for unity as a larger church body.

The challenge is to not get so entrenched in our own corner that we are unable to provide “gracious space for ‘the other,’ ” as one of my colleagues put it. This means moving beyond judgment to a posture of listening and caring. It means changing our speech and attitudes toward those we are tempted to chastise or belittle. Paying attention to how we care for each other.

A possible first step is to have honest, caring conversation with individuals who differ from us. Consider the suggestion of John Paul Lederach, Mennonite peacemaker extraordinaire. To cultivate compassion, he suggests: “Give yourself the gift of finding one person with whom you disagree and commit to having coffee once every few months with each other for the rest of your life.”

Lederach explains that the purpose of this meeting would not be to argue or convince, but rather to “bear witness to your lives in friendship,” to cultivate a caring and honest relationship. In that space we can lay our fears aside and invite the Spirit to nudge and guide.

As individuals and congregations, let’s allow space for the Holy Spirit to continue teaching us. Let’s practise a Christ-mandated love towards those with whom we disagree. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Special Assembly coverage
During the event, to be held Oct. 13 to 15, you can follow Canadian Mennonite and Mennonite Church Canada on Facebook and Twitter: hashtag: #mcassembly2017. Our report will appear in the Nov. 6 issue.

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How shall we know that it is God's Spirit leading? Without a common understanding of Scripture, a common Creed we have no standard against which to discern.
Are we to embrace an institutional subjectivism that sees the Spirit's leading as the path of least resistance? With more congregations leaving will the path forward have less resistance for those who have left do not raise their voice to even whisper.... "Stop: go another way."
Conference ministers speak of broken hearts and yet persist in the way they are going. Nowhere in this editorial do the Scriptures play a role in guiding us in this process. Are we so enlightened that we need not refer to Scripture as a guide? Are we so enlightened that the witness of the early church fathers are left in silence and dust? Even our Anabaptist forbearers?
I remind our readers that our namesake, Menno Simons, reproved Jan Mathjis from Scripture in order to discern the true leading of the Spirit. Contra Jan Mathjis may yet prove to be instructive in our day?

The point missed time and again in this debate is the fact that there are many counterfeit spirits posing as the one true Spirit of God. For this reason not everything that seems good to our intellect and feelings is necessarily from God. This is precisely why Scripture instructs us to 'test the spirits.' Those promoting homosexuality in our denomination are clearing being outsmarted by the 'spirit of the age' and fooled into believing they're being 'nudged' by the Holy Spirit. How do I know this? Simple. The Spirit of God is the HOLY Spirit: the Spirit who leads us in the path of holiness, not sin. Any spirit that teaches us to go against the abundantly clear biblical teaching on human sexuality is a false spirit. Tragically, many of our leaders are happily under the influence of such a spirit, even when directly warned to repent. For such things there are eternal consequences.

I find it difficult to understand the conversation re: the LGBTQ community. It seems to me that the discussion involves whether or not we want to include a certain segment of our society. Isn't that exactly the struggle Jesus had with the religious leaders of His time? Weren't they all about excluding certain groups of people as well, for all the 'right' reasons?
Thank you for the editorial, Virginia, re: making room for the Spirit. You suggested we find someone we don't agree with and start a conversation there. May I suggest we find members of the LGBTQ community and start to listen to their stories of pain and exclusion? Perhaps as we become friends with the marginalized we will be surprised to find Jesus in their midst.

Erika, I think you're mistaken when you say that the issue is about inclusion of certain groups. The reason why this issue is so divisive in the church is because it is about whether to accept the scriptures as authoritative or not. This is precisely why Jesus had such harsh words for the religious leaders of his time - because they made void the word of God in sake of their man-made traditions, which tied a unreasonable burden upon the backs of the people.

If you look closely at the gospels, however, you'll see that Jesus required both the powerful and the marginalized to accept his teaching. The main difference seems to be that the poor and marginalized had an easier time accepting his message as good news than the elites, who had more earthly privilege to lose by following Jesus. Nevertheless, even then we see Jesus telling the poor and sick to "stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." (John 5.14)

In this way we see that Jesus' message is inclusive in that all are welcome at his table, but exclusive in the sense that they must forsake their sinful ways and live according to God's eternal word. This is where the MC often makes a crucial error when it comes to the homosexual issue. We misinterpret Jesus' grace as permission to act immorally, when in fact God's grace is designed to lead us to repentance. (Romans 2.4)

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