About 40 Franconia Mennonite Conference leaders gathered March 14 to discuss the Mennonite Church USA survey of credentialed leaders on issues related to people in same-gender relationships.
We learned that the credentialed leaders in Franconia and six other conferences are fairly evenly divided in their views.
Conrad Kanagy, a sociologist and pastor who interpreted the survey results, observed that these responses offer a proxy for deeper issues that contribute to our current tensions.
In other words, when we discuss our different responses to homosexuality, other themes feed these differences, like how we understand Scripture, Jesus, mission and the church.
What shall we do with our differences? These convictions run deep. We will likely always disagree on this and other important questions.
Is that unlike the New Testament church? We might think our issues are different and more serious than theirs. But are they really more substantial than those we read about in Acts 15 regarding the inclusion or exclusion of Gentiles in a Jewish church?
We hear of those who think they must break ties with MC USA over the issue of same-gender relationships. This is a common response when we disagree — to separate and form a new alliance of like-minded people.
But the body of Christ, including Mennonites, reflects a great assortment of people who claim to follow Jesus and 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?
A third-way response
Might there be a third-way response? What if our focus shifted from boundary maintenance to the center we all claim in Jesus Christ? How might that focus cast our disagreements in a different light? Might the tone of the conversation soften? Might we discover more grace for one another?
We can still debate, argue and exhort one another on our understanding of Scripture while extending respect and love in keeping with the first and greatest commandment.
What holds the body together is our allegiance to Jesus, not theories of inspiration or atonement, details on being peacemakers or our views about people with same-gender attraction. Must our disagreements break relationships in the body of Christ?
God seems to have created us to be different. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that our diversity is not an accident but God’s design. The church becomes our laboratory for learning to love, even when we disagree. The New Testament letters command us to love one another, extend kindness and grace, forgive quickly and respect our brothers and sisters with different personalities, convictions and styles of living out our discipleship.
Pastors lead the way
Some years ago I read a statement by John A. Esau, a sage in the field of pastoral leadership, who said churches do not leave conferences. Pastors lead congregations away from their conference or denominational connections.
How congregations respond in this season of tension and stress will often reflect the tone and character of their pastors.
A pastor should ask: Does my own anxiety spread to those I serve? Do I plant seeds that undermine trust in relationships, or do I engender hope and generosity? Do I emphasize boundaries and who is in and who is out? Or do I call people to a magnanimous love and grace when discussing contentious topics like sexuality? Leaders make a powerful difference in the direction a church takes.
Pastors need not minimize the importance of sexuality. Neither dare they abdicate their leadership role in providing direction. The Holy Spirit has come to provide inner clarity and wisdom to leaders (John 16:12-13). May all of us be attentive to the Spirit and not allow the forces of society and the strong voices around us to determine our direction. Let’s reach out to each other in mutual support as we discern and carry out the will of Jesus, the Lord of the church.
James M. Lapp and his wife, Miriam Book, are interim pastors at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pa.