Opinion: It’s time to take a stand for LGBT Inclusion in the Mennonite Church
by James M. Branum
NOTE: This opinion piece represents the views of the author and does not represent the official stance of Joy Mennonite Church.
Introductory Note: I wrote this op-ed for our church newsletter. I’ve decided to publish it here as well.
We have a long tradition in our church of being willing to discuss difficult issues. This essay is written as part of that tradition.
I believe it is time for our congregation to take a proactive, public stance in affirmation of our gay brothers and sisters in Christ.
I’ve been a member of this congregation for seven years. During this time the issue of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality has been formally raised on at least two occasions. In both instances, we agreed that while church membership was open to all, we would not state this publicly out of concern of how our decision might affect unity in the Mennonite Church.
I don’t think we can hold to this stance in good conscience anymore.
The issue of Scripture
The Mennonite tradition is a Christian tradition that uses a Christ-centered method of Biblical interpretation; this is important since the canonical Gospel accounts do not show Jesus ever discussing homosexuality.
The epistles do, however, speak about homosexuality (see Romans 1, I Corinthians 6, I Timothy 1 and Jude 1), however it would appear that these texts have more to do with the values of the culture of the Roman Empire in the First Century than anything else. Moreover the texts seem to be speaking more about exploitative forms of sexuality, rather than the kind of loving covenantal gay relationships that are common today.
Unfortunately, many Mennonites take the few references to homosexuality in the New Testament very literally, while at the same time assume other scriptures in the same texts are not to be taken literally. For instance, almost all Mennonites today believe that the teachings of the epistles on the issue of gender are cultural in nature and are not commands to be literally followed today. Because of this understanding, women are not “silent in the assembly” (see I Corinthians 14:34) in most Mennonite churches. And within the broader denomination, women are permitted to teach and have authority over men (a seeming violation of I Timothy 2:12). In fact our current MCUSA Moderator-elect is a woman.
I think Mennonites made the right call on the subject of gender. We rightly understood that Jesus’ call for radical love requires that we reject the literalistic interpretation of the epistles, and instead read those texts through the eyes of love.
I think it is time that we apply this same understanding to our excluded gay sisters and brothers.
My own history on this issue
I haven’t always believed in LGBT equality. Growing up in a small town Church of Christ, I was taught that homosexuality was an abomination. While some people would say we should “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” I must confess that I mostly focused on hating the sin.
When I went to college, I fortified my homophobia with religious and political zealotry. During my years at SWOSU, I encountered openly gay people for the first time. Still I held to my prejudices. In particular I remember one young gay man from a political science class. I flippantly told him that he could be changed with God’s help. He responded that he once wanted to change, but that it was impossible. He had prayed for years, and had even be sent to de-gayification therapy by his Christian parents, all without success. Sadly I wasn’t yet ready to give up my prejudices, but I did have to admit that my platitudes weren’t doing him any good at all.
After I transferred colleges to study theology, I came to the conclusion that the “gay problem” could only be solved by love; I thought that gay people could and should change, but this would only happen when they had truly, deeply experienced the love of God and God’s people. I tried to remember that the most important part of ministry to gays was to love the sinner first and foremost.
A few years later I moved back to Oklahoma. I was still a homophobe when a friend invited me to watch the movie, The Laramie Project with her.
This true-to-life movie (originally a play) was set in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a young gay man had been murdered because of his sexual orientation and the community was shook. Locals responded in different ways, some with love and others with hate. The climax moment of the film was the ending where locals found a creative and beautiful way to combat the hate speech of the notorious anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church who had come to protest.
What stuck with me from the movie was a statement by a local Laramie pastor. If I recall correctly, the pastor said, “I only hope that poor Matthew accepted Jesus into his heart before he was killed.” These condescending words sickened me for their thinly veiled judgment. But I also knew that this pastor was saying something I might have said a few years ago, and that he even probably thought he was “loving the sinner…”
In that moment I understood something else, that to “love the sinner…” was one stepping stone away from the more extreme version of hate. Sexuality is something that is deep in our psyche, so to attack a person’s sexuality is to attack a large part of who they are.
I wept because I realized how hurtful my words and thoughts had been up to that point.
A short time later, I joined Joy Mennonite. Since then I’ve struggled with how we can live out the radical values of Jesus in the context of a homophobic denominational structure.
Why we must be public
In past conversations, several of our members have said that we should not take a preemptive pro-gay stance, but rather should wait until a gay prospective member comes to us. I think the intent was well-meaning (why cause unnecessary dissension for an issue that isn’t in front of us?), but also unrealistic. Members of the gay community largely believe that the “default position” of Christianity is that of exclusion. Gay people assume that they are either not welcome, or that if they are welcome, they are only welcome as second-class citizens who can’t marry and can’t serve in church leadership.
I have a story to tell that helps to illustrate this. A few years ago I attended Oklahoma City’s Gay Pride festival (a weekend celebration of LGBT equality). While there, I was browsing the literature table of one of the local gay friendly churches. I saw a man walk to the table. The man turned to a friend who was a few feet away and said, “Come here! I think you’ll like this.” The man’s friend walked to the table, but when he saw what it was, his face sunk and he turned away. That moment spoke volumes to me. You could tell that this man must have been hurt by Christians in the past.
This is the kind of hurt we are called to mend. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation and part of this is reaching out to those who don’t think they belong in the Kingdom of God.
Our role as a prophetic voice in MCUSA
Currently the issue of homosexuality is hotly debated in our denomination. While there is a truce of sorts in certain areas of the church, in other parts of MCUSA the forces of exclusion are strong.
One example is the recent expulsion of Randall Spaulding from the bi-national Mennonite Church worship council.
According to GayMennonite.com, Randall was told in an email by Terry Shue, director of leadership development for MCUSA that “Your competency in this role has never been in question, it is solely the fact of your ongoing relationship with another man which we find to be incompatible with serving in this role.” This of course is even more distressing since Randall had already been defrocked by the Southeastern Conference for being gay. (for more information on this story, see http://bit.ly/dNsXQ5)
Or let’s look at our own conference. While WDC (Western District Conference) has permitted congregations to be at variance on this issue, ministers who preside over the weddings of lesbians and gays are required by our denomination to have their credentials reviewed. In March, Joanna Harader (pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kansas) had to answer for the crime of officiating at a wedding of two lesbians. While thankfully the leadership commission (in a split vote) ruled that she could keep her credentials, Joanna will have to go through this same rigamarole the next time she is called to perform a gay wedding. (see http://bit.ly/fEnmtF)
And in other conferences, pastors ARE having their ordination credentials stripped for performing gay marriages.
The tragic result of our church’s policies is that at least some gay young people will not answer the call to ministry. It will mean that our next Mennonite hymnal will be missing the contributions that Randall Spaudling would have brought to the table. And it means that the church is not really being the church.
I realize that Joy Mennonite Church has little influence in MCUSA or even our conference. We are a tiny church that stands at the margins of any kind of Mennonite institutional power. But our God is the God of lost causes. It is our job to do what is right no matter what the consequences.
It is for these reasons that I am asking our congregation to start the process of becoming an affirming church. A starting point might be to adopt a “Welcome Statement” similar to the one used by Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence:
We welcome into the full life of Peace Mennonite Church all who seek to follow Jesus’ way of peacemaking and compassion. We rejoice in the diverse characteristics each person brings to our community, and we embrace differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental ability, economic status, marital status, and age.
I would also ask that we not “hide our light under a bushel.” We must be public about our stand: to our community here in Oklahoma City, and to the broader Mennonite denomination.
This of course is a first step. We will have many more steps in speaking and acting on behalf of justice and LGBT equality, but I pray that we will start walking.