by James M. Lapp
On March 14, 2015, about 40 Franconia Mennonite Conference leaders gathered to discuss the response of credentialed leaders in our conference to the Mennonite Church USA survey on issues related to people in same-gender relationship in the church. Conrad Kanagy, a sociologist and pastor from Elizabethtown, Pennyslvania, who compiled the results of the survey, provided interpretation of the results with particular reference to its meaning for our conference.
In a nutshell, we learned the credentialed leaders in Franconia Conference (and six other Mennonite Church USA conferences) are fairly evenly divided in their response to people with same-gender attraction. Perhaps that is not a surprise to most people. Kanagy observed that these responses offer a “proxy” for deeper themes that contribute to our current tensions. In other words, when we discuss our different responses to homosexuality, there are other themes that feed these differences, like how we understand Scripture, Jesus, mission and the church.
We are left with the question of what we do with our differences. As Kanagy reported, these convictions run deep and are not easily changed; for a variety of reasons, we will likely always disagree on this and other important questions. Is that unlike the New Testament church where Paul addressed questions on which they strongly disagreed? Of course our issues always seems different and more serious than their issues—but are our disagreements more substantial than Acts 15 and the inclusion or exclusion of Gentiles in a Jewish church?
We hear reports of those who think they must break ties with the Mennonite Church USA over this issue of same-gender relationships. That is a common response when we disagree–to separate and form a new alliance of like-minded people on this issue. The body of Christ, including Mennonites, reflects a great assortment of people who claim to follow Jesus but disagree on some point of doctrine or practice. To divide reinforces our sense of faithfulness and purity, but does it honor Christ and the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17?
In our “third way” church, might there not a third way response on this issue? What if our focus shifted from boundary maintenance to the “center” we all claim to have in Jesus Christ? How might that focus cast our disagreements in a different light? Might the tone of the conversation soften and we discover more grace for one another? We can still debate and argue and exhort one another on our understanding of Scripture, while still extending to one another the respect and love in keeping with the first and greatest commandment incumbent on us all. What holds the body together is our common allegiance to Jesus, not theories of inspiration, atonement, details on being peacemakers, or our views on same-gender people. Must our disagreements break relationships in the body of Christ?
God seems to have created us to be different. Paul makes clear in I Corinthians 12 that our diversity is not an accident, but God’s design for the church. It becomes our laboratory for learning to love even when we disagree. The New Testament letters repeatedly urge, indeed command us to love one another, extend kindness and grace toward each other, forgive quickly, and respect our brothers and sisters with our different personalities, convictions, and styles of living out our discipleship.
Some years ago I recall reading a statement by John Esau, a sage in the field of pastoral leadership, who said that churches do not leave conferences. Pastors lead congregations away from their conference or denominational connections. The way congregations respond in this season of high tension and stress will often reflect the tone and character of us as pastoral leaders. Does our own anxiety spread to those we serve? Do we plant seeds that undermine trust in relationships or do we engender hope and generosity? Do we emphasize boundaries and who is in and who is out, or do we call the people to a magnanimous love and grace toward others, as Conrad Kanagy invited us to exhibit, when discussing contentious topics like sexuality? Leaders make a powerful difference in the direction a church takes.
We need not minimize the importance of sexuality. But neither dare we abdicate our leadership role in providing pastoral direction on these hard questions that often quickly become polarized. The Holy Spirit of God has come to provide inner clarity and wisdom to leaders (John 16:12-13). May we be attentive to the Spirit and not allow the forces of society and the strong voices around us to determine our direction.
This survey was only a tool to greater awareness. Let’s allow these survey results serve as the impetus for collegially reaching out to each other as pastors in mutual support as we seek to discern and carry out the will of Jesus, the Lord of the church, on this and other important challenges we face.
James M. Lapp serves with his wife Miriam Book as interim pastors at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pennsylvania. He is a credentialed pastoral leader in Franconia Conference.