Is the Mennonite Confession of Faith Anti-Gay?

Ted Grimsrud—June 20, 2010

The debate over homosexuality among Mennonites continues apace. Just this morning I learned of a recent lengthy and intense meeting held among leaders in Mennonite congregations in a regional district. It sounds like the meeting was, as these meetings have been for decades now, emotionally stressful and mostly non-conclusive. And, has been the case now since 1995, partisans for the churches taking a restrictive rather than inclusive stance toward sexual minorities insisted that they were simply defending the clear teaching of the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF).

These partisans do have formal warrant for their argument in that the Membership Guidelines that were formulated to set terms for the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church in 2001 do take a restrictive stand—and cite the CofF as offering crucial support for this stance. However, a careful reading of the CofF itself does not support such use. [The following paragraphs are taken from a longer article: “Mennonite Church USA’s ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality: A Critique.”]

The first source that is cited in the Membership Guidelines in the statement asserting a restrictive stance for the new denomination is the 1995 CofF. That the CofF would be cited as the basis for the “teaching position” on homosexuality is interesting. This citation, without explanation, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear and direct teaching concerning homosexuality. However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention homosexuality. So, here we have an example of theology by citation more than by exposition. It’s enough to cite the official doctrinal statement of MC USA with a proof text to establish a “teaching position” that then will be used by leaders to justify closing down discussion.

Let’s look at the actual content of the Confession of Faith. Article 19 addresses “Family, Singleness, and Marriage.” The first sentence in the third paragraph of this article, the sentence quoted in the Membership Guidelines, reads thus: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” At the end of this sentence, a footnote reference is given to two biblical texts. The first text is Mark 10:9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” This verse is part of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (which here in Mark is totally rejected) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin” [Mark 10:11-12]). Note that the CofF cites Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching, which allows for no exceptions to the forbidding of divorce and characterizing of remarriage as sin; it does not cite the slightly more relaxed account in Matthew 19:9 that does allow for a divorce exception in the case of the infidelity of the partner.

The second text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” Note that the CofF ends the citation at verse 11 and hence does not include the “exception” of an unbeliever leaving a believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:15).

Based on this footnote, then, it seems clear that the thrust of the CofF sentence that begins Article 19 is on the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage (that is, emphasizing the “for life” conclusion to the first sentence). So, not only does Article 19 not speak directly of homosexuality, the one place that may be seen indirectly to allude to “homosexual practice” (the definition of marriage as “one man, one woman, for life) clearly has in mind a different issue—divorce and remarriage.

That divorce and remarriage are in mind in the first sentence of Article 19 is made even clearer by the commentary on this Article. The commentary (which is also part of the CofF as officially adopted by the Mennonite Church USA) speaks to the divorce issue and says nothing about homosexuality. “Today’s church needs to uphold the permanency of marriage and help couples in conflict move toward reconciliation. At the same time, the church, as a reconciling and forgiving community, offers healing and new beginnings. The church is to bring strength and healing to individuals and families” (emphasis added).

While we need to note that the commentary and scripture citations make it clear that the sentence from Article 19 of the CofF that is quoted in the Membership Guidelines is being misused when it is construed as a basis for an official “teaching position” concerning homosexuality, we should also notice another point the CofF makes.

The commentary softens the strictness of the CofF article and the two New Testament texts cited. “At the same time,” the church is a place of welcome and forgiveness. This comment does not spell out a more nuanced approach to divorce and remarriage, but it does seem to open the door for such. One could easily draw from this commentary a basis for accepting divorced and remarried people as full members of Mennonite congregations (which, of course, is in fact increasingly the practice). The point, it would appear, is that the CofF makes a strong statement about the importance of Christian marriage, but implicitly allows for exceptions in the case of divorce and remarriage—exceptions that are not seen, in many contexts, to negate the theological affirmation of the marriage covenant as a life-long commitment. More important, we could say, than absolute fidelity to the ideal is that the church “brings strength and healing to individuals and families”—including even people who are divorced and remarried.

Could such an approach also be applied to people in same-sex covenanted partnerships? The CofF could be read in a way that would imply an affirmative answer to this question—if indeed the churches’ priorities should be on bringing “strength and healing.” Of course, such a reading and application would stand in tension with the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF.

Another question we should ask about the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF arises when we look at the introduction to the CofF, remembering that the introduction was also affirmed by both the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church in 1995 when the CofF was officially approved by the denominations. In the introduction, we read of six ways the CofF “serves the church.” That is, the CofF itself gives instruction concerning the role it is meant to serve in the Mennonite churches. This is what it says: “How do Mennonite confessions of faith serve the church? First, they provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible. Second, confessions of faith provide guidance for belief and practice. In this connection, a written statement should support but not replace the lived witness of faith. Third, confessions build a foundation for unity within and among churches. Fourth, confessions offer an outline for instructing new church members and for sharing information with inquirers. Fifth, confessions give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times. And sixth, confessions help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths.”

What’s missing? Anything hinting that the CofF is meant to be used as an authoritative basis for a boundary marking “teaching position”—not to mention that the CofF should not be used as the basis for such a “teaching position” on a topic it doesn’t even address.

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