Mennonites have become pretty good at scaring people away with our unwelcoming spirit. I have just learned of another Mennonite institution that is justifying what I call a “restrictive” approach to homosexuality by referring to the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. In this case, it’s a conference beginning a “review” process with a pastor who has expressed a willingness to officiate at a same-sex wedding.
I am troubled by the narrowness of spirit that seems to lie behind the initiating of such a process. As well, I am troubled by how such an approach is justified by a demonstrably wrong use of the 1995 Confession of Faith. I have spoken and written about this “wrong use” several times now. I offer here a short statement I gave while on a panel of faculty and administrators at Eastern Mennonite University on April 11, 2013, that addressed EMU’s hiring practices in relation to gay and lesbian professors.
Earlier, I published a longer article critiquing the “teaching position” of the Mennonite Church USA that underwrites the official “restrictive approach” the church expects its congregations and leaders to take (Brethren Life and Thought, Winter 2010) and shorter article that essentially summarized some of the main points of the longer article (The Mennonite, January 2013).
Purposes of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
In 1995, two North American Mennonite denominations in the midst of the merger that formed Mennonite Church USA cooperatively approved a document known as Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This confession was meant to serve several purposes—most immediately to provide an affirmation of convictions that would provide a sense of common ground for these two groups as they joined together.
The confession, as stated in its introduction, also meant to “provide guidelines for the interpretation of scripture,…provide guidance for belief and practice,…build a foundation for unity within and among churches,…offer an outline for instructing new church members and for sharing…with inquirers,…give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times,… and help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths” (8).
What the Confession is not for
What is not stated is that the Confession was meant to serve as a basis for protecting boundary lines, establishing strict bases for membership in the Mennonite church for congregations or individuals, or determining bases for employment at Mennonite institutions. In fact, the writings of the confession assured the delegates who approved it in 1995 that it was not to serve as a kind of litmus test—it was meant to speak to the center or core of the faith community’s theological identity, not to empower policing of its boundary lines.
As it turned out, the Confession has been used for the sake of boundary maintenance—most notably with regard to the issue of homosexuality. Ironically, the confession says nothing about homosexuality (Helmut Harder, the co-chair of the committee that wrote the Confession told me in conversation in the early 1990s that the committee was intentionally avoiding speaking to that issue). A double irony may be seen in how many people who claim that the Confession does give authoritative guidance on homosexuality ignore that actual content of the Confession’s article that allegedly refers to homosexuality.
The actual focus of the Confession’s article on marriage
Article 19 of the Confession addresses “Family, Singleness, and Marriage,” and includes this sentence: “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 refers 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 (in Mark, Jesus rejects divorce without qualification) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin” [Mark 10:11-12]). 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.”
As this footnote shows, Article 19 focuses on the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage. Not only does it not speak of homosexuality, the one place that may allude to homosexuality (the definition of marriage as “one man, one woman, for life”) has in mind a different issue—divorce and remarriage.
In addition, the Confession’s commentary on this article speaks to divorce 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.”
The commentary and Scripture citations make it clear that the quoted sentence from Article 19 of the CofF is being misused when it is construed as a basis for making policies that are negative concerning homosexuality. If anything, following the teaching of the Confession should lead to opposition to divorced and remarried, not to people in same-sex relationships.
However, the commentary points toward the church’s role as a “reconciling and forgiving community”—which it has been in important respects toward people who have gone through divorces, at least more than toward gay and lesbian people.