This coming Monday marks an anniversary of sorts for MC USA. For some it marks a milestone and a step forward, for others it marks a death knell and destruction. It is the one year anniversary of the Mountain States Conference’s (a conference of Mennonite Church USA) decision to license Theda Good as a pastor.
What is so notable about that? Women have been licensed as Mennonite pastors before. What makes the licensing of this particular woman so momentous? The answer is that she is in a committed same-sex relationship. What this historic licensing has done is spark a year of turmoil.
It has started dialogues on whether we need to rethink the provision in the Confession of Faith that defines marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman. It has also started conversations on what does the Bible really say about same-sex relationships. It has us searching for answers to questions about whether homosexual relationships are always wrong, or could they be right if it is a committed relationship between two people.
It has been my experience that we as a denomination strive to include all of God’s children in our folds. We all come with baggage, our own particular brands of sin and shame. We are all humans living in a broken world. However we don’t allow all to serve as leaders in our congregations, as leaders are held to a higher standard according to 1 Timothy 3:1-13:
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way — for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
So we have standards in place for the people who are leading our congregations. We chose pastors to shepherd our flocks based on credentials and their moral character and worship and various other types of leaders based on their values and whether they have a heart for worship and/or leadership. Those standards have been developed over the years by our denomination through conversations, prayers, and community discernment.
One of the good things that has come out of this is that the conversations are no longer being delayed and hidden. The church body at large is going to have to address how we as a denomination move forward with multiple issues that arise when the topic of homosexuality comes up, not just in terms of leadership roles.
Do we begin the process that will change our Confession of Faith or do we reaffirm that Confession of Faith? How can we address polity issues with grace and in love? What measures can we utilize for accountability among conferences when we feel a conference is acting in violation of our shared beliefs?
In the days ahead the Mennonite denomination needs to have some challenging discussions on very personal topics. We are being called at this moment in time to discern some very hard questions.
However there are also bad things coming out of this. Church dissention is running rampant. Conferences have different views on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Congregations are withdrawing from conferences. Many are feeling let down by MC USA’s perceived lack of response to the Mountain States decision, whether they were waiting for the church at the national level to levy support for the decision or administer discipline. New networks are forming, which could possibly be a good thing, but are they forming prematurely?
In addition to churches withdrawing outright from their conferences, others are choosing to remain part of an MC USA congregation but to boycott the scheduled national convention this summer in Kansas City, MS. They are choosing to stay away, and therefore are excluding themselves from the conversations.
And that is my biggest cause for concern. We as a denomination have always valued community discernment on matters of theology and beliefs. How does leading by the Holy Spirit occur in community discernment if we aren’t all showing up for the community conversations?
At the end of the day, no matter how this plays out, some will be happy and others will be angry or hurt. Inevitably there will most likely be some church divisions and splits, but we all need to be present and take part in the conversations going on now. We need to prepare our hearts and minds and use prayer and scriptures for guidance as we relate with one another on our differing views.
Most of all, we need to proceed with love. Show up and be present. Pray for grace and mercy. Discern together with the Holy Spirit and be open to where he leads us. And no matter what, bring glory to God in all that we do.
Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of host, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3: 16-18, NRSV)