Calif. MB congregation suspended over LGBTQ-affirming proposal

Leaders’ recommendation prompts district action, though church has not yet voted

Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Fresno, Calif., is considering a proposal to affirm and welcome LGBTQ people. — Willow Avenue Mennonite Church Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Fresno, Calif., is considering a proposal to affirm and welcome LGBTQ people. — Willow Avenue Mennonite Church

A Mennonite Brethren congregation in Fresno, Calif., where several MB seminary and university faculty ­attend is under suspension by its district conference for considering a proposal to affirm and welcome LGBTQ people.

In addition, church member Lynn Jost — a former seminary president, current Bible professor and longtime denominational leader — has surrendered his ordination credential at the request of the national and district Boards of Faith and Life because he has publicly supported the proposal in his role as church moderator.

The congregation, Willow Avenue Mennonite Church, has not yet voted on whether to adopt the LGBTQ-­affirming position. But the Pacific District Conference of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches suspended its membership in early October because the proposal is not consistent with the USMB Confession of Faith’s articles on marriage and discipleship.

Pacific District minister Jordan Ringhofer said the suspension was prompted by the church council’s and pastors’ unanimous support of the resolution.

“It’s not the welcoming or inclusive” aspect of the statement that is a problem, he said. “It’s to be an affirming church in regard to LGBTQIA+. That is not in line with our Confession of Faith. . . . The suspension is to protect the church. The alternative would be to expel a church for proposing something that is contrary.”

Jost said conversations about being an affirming congregation had been happening in some form for almost four decades, but the current discussion began in May.

The church council recommended on May 24 that the congregation “resolve to welcome, accept and affirm LGBTQIA+ people without reservation, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, where all are equally eligible for membership, baptism, marriage, volunteer leadership, employment and pastoral ministry.”

The document cited Jesus’ radical love and embrace of all, without reservation, and the Bible’s mandate to love neighbors, including the marginalized.

A congregational vote on the resolution has been scheduled for Dec. 5.

The recommendation, along with a video of moderator Lynn Jost and Pastor Audrey Hindes speaking positively about it, was shared with the congregation and Ringhofer. The Pacific District and USMB Boards of Faith and Life reviewed the materials and requested on Aug. 10 that Jost surrender his ordination credential for teaching and leading contrary to the Confession. He did so in an Aug. 31 letter. Hindes was not asked to do so because she is not licensed with the denomination.

Among Willow Avenue members who have held leadership roles in the MB denomination and beyond, Jost has one of the highest-profile careers. At Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, he was president and academic dean and currently is professor of Old Testament and director of the Center for Anabaptist Studies.

Jost has represented USMB on Mennonite World Conference’s General Council, served on the International Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ Confession of Faith Task Force and the USMB Board of Faith and Life, chaired the 1999 revision of the MB Confession of Faith, taught from 1990 to 2006 as professor of biblical studies at Tabor College, worked as a church planter in Spain and served pastorates in Hesston, Kan., and Kingsburg, Calif.

Longtime seminary faculty member Valerie Rempel, who ended her seminary leadership role this summer, has been a member of the congregation.

MWC general secretary César García has also been a member and now lives in Ontario, where he is a member of a Mennonite Church Canada congregation. He preached at Willow Avenue on Sept. 19 for MWC Peace Sunday while visiting to attend his daughter’s wedding shower.

Another member, Bill Braun, is the U.S. representative on MWC’s Executive Council. At least four other members teach in the seminary or Fresno Pacific University’s Bible department, and other members teach in other departments.

In a statement, FPU told Anabaptist World that the university and seminary are taking no role in concerns between Willow Avenue and Pacific District.

“No one at the university or seminary has been told their position is in danger based on their participation in Willow Avenue or the outcome of the current discussions,” FPU stated. “Faculty and staff at FPU and FPBS represent a variety of Christian traditions.”

Jost said many members of Willow Avenue have lifelong identity as MBs and lifelong relationships with others in the conference.

“From its inception in the 1960s, the congregation has tried to offer a place where difficult questions can be addressed, sometimes in ways that open doors for other MBs,” he said. “The conversation regarding inclusion flows out of the congregation’s decades-old mission statement to ‘follow Jesus Christ daily and radically . . . to be an inclusive community without discrimination.’

“The denomination has communicated to the congregation that this conversation is incompatible with denominational membership. The congregation welcomes resolution of the impasse. Faithfulness to our vocation as Jesus-followers is our priority. Jesus welcomes all — so do we.”

Since the suspension went into effect, members of Willow Avenue have not been allowed to participate in their roles on the boards of FPU or MB Foundation. The church did not have delegates at Pacific District’s Nov. 4-6 convention. Ringhofer said there was no floor discussion about the congregation because it was not present and has not held a congregational vote on its proposed resolution.

“I will not speak to anyone’s individual accuracy in interpreting and applying Scripture,” Ringhofer said. “What I can say is that our larger body has agreed to what we confess Scripture to say, and in the Confession we hold ourselves accountable to one another.”

Ringhofer said both the suspension and Jost’s surrender of credentials are temporary, pending the congregation’s decision about its affirming resolution.

“It’s the U.S. body as a whole that makes decisions on the Confession of Faith,” he added. “So we’re really just abiding by what the Confession says and what our bylaws and policies say.”

USMB bylaws state that when a congregation dissolves or leaves the denomination, the district takes possession of its capital assets and property. A June 4 joint letter from the national and district Boards of Faith and Life stated: “If your congregation chooses to adopt the proposed resolution, you will also in effect be choosing to withdraw from the Pacific District Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. We would be saddened to have you leave our conference fellowship and will be praying for much wisdom for your council and membership.”

Ringhofer declined to answer questions about the status of the congregation’s property ownership should it pass an affirming resolution.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. Read More

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