Changing minds or following hearts?

Beliefs and practices matter. Love matters more.

Rural South Dakota near Freeman, the author’s home community. — S. Roy Kaufman Rural South Dakota near Freeman, the author’s home community. — S. Roy Kaufman

I have been a pastor for over 50 years, and the question of LGBTQ inclusion has been on the agenda of the church for all those decades. I’ve served rural congregations — the power brokers of the past — where most people held traditional views on sexuality. They didn’t think LGBTQ inclusion was “their issue.” But it was always on the agenda of Mennonite Church USA and its predecessors. At national conventions, LGBTQ people and their advocates persistently worked for change. It was a classic power struggle, and each side claimed God was on their side.

Eventually, the power dynamics shifted. At MC USA’s special delegate session in 2022, the inclusionists prevailed. Delegates approved an LGBTQ-affirming resolution. Now, in a reversal of roles, some of the traditionalists, many from congregations like those I served, are wondering if they should leave and find a place where they would feel more welcome. Too many have been leaving.

Is this really what anyone wants? Is the church no better than secular institutions, where the majority imposes its will at any cost? Have we embraced former outcasts only to create another group of outsiders? If the church is to be a redeemed community, can we turn our backs on brothers and sisters on either side? All are seeking to follow Jesus based on their understanding of God’s intention for the human family.

I believe we should stop trying to change minds and instead follow our hearts. This would mean making decisions based on our relationships with Jesus and each other, not on maintaining or changing the beliefs and practices of the church or its members. Many of us are already doing this.

If they were following their hearts, traditionalists would, I think, say something like this to LGBTQ people seeking or wishing to retain membership in a congregation: “We aren’t convinced same-sex unions reflect God’s intention for the human family, yet we see that you love Jesus and want the best for yourselves and your families. We love you as brothers or sisters in Christ (and perhaps as our sons or daughters). We want you to be a part of the church, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us all to a fuller understanding of God’s will.”

I think this is what parents who are not altogether comfortable with same-sex relationships have been saying to their LGBTQ sons and daughters for decades. The relationship matters more than agreement and more than who is right or wrong.

At the same time, LGBTQ people at the church door might say something like this to traditionalists: “We are not asking you to change your beliefs about what God intends for the human family. But we love Jesus and are seeking to be faithful to him. And we love you as members of this church (and perhaps as our parents). We, too, are on a journey as followers of Jesus, and we would like to walk with you.”

Power struggles rarely, if ever, produce redemptive change. Trying to change minds only produces winners and losers. People are hurt; relationships are broken.

Having lived in six congregations and studied church history, I have seen that the church is most vital when everyone, despite perceived or actual deviation from the stated practices and beliefs of the church, follows their hearts and continues to worship and fellowship together.

Uniformity of belief, or enforced purity, yields an arid church devoid of life and love. This doesn’t mean beliefs and practices don’t matter, only that love matters more.

Love, following our hearts, would seem to be the one thing that potentially differentiates the church from other institutions. If all of us, traditionalists and inclusionists alike, followed our hearts and agreed to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, the church might have something to offer a world of exclusion and division.

Perhaps a story from my family’s history could point the way toward addressing the question of LGBTQ inclusion redemptively.

When I was a teenager, my oldest brother and his wife divorced and married the divorced partners of another marriage. My father was deeply hurt and offended. My brother withdrew his membership in the church where he was baptized. This preserved the “purity” of the church, which seemed to be my father’s primary concern. Both new marriages succeeded and endured until death separated the new partners.

To his credit, my father did not disinherit his oldest son, despite the divorce and remarriage. And, to his credit, my brother did not turn from his parental home in disgust. He continued to attend family gatherings with his new family, despite those first visits being exceedingly uncomfortable for all. Eventually the family grew to accept and love the new family my brother brought to us.

My father never changed his belief that divorce, and particularly remarriage, is a sin. Nor did my brother ask him to. They both decided to stop trying to change each other’s minds and instead followed their hearts. I believe they both reflected the best of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, even though that wasn’t my brother’s intention at that point in his life.

S. Roy Kaufman is a retired pastor and author in Freeman, S.D. His most recent book, The Drama of a Rural Community’s Life Cycle: Its Prehistory, Birth, Growth, Maturity, Decline and Rebirth(Wipf and Stock, 2020), is the story of his home community at Freeman and the three Anabaptist cultures that came to settle there from Ukraine in the 1870s. As an agrarian theologian and historian, Kaufman has spent a lifetime seeking to understand and to preserve the agrarian heritage of the Mennonite church and the rural congregations he served.

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