Isaac Villegas is Pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship.
Delegates of Mennonite Church USA,
In July 2013 you appointed me to serve on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA (EB). Soon after, I was appointed to the five-member Executive Committee of the EB. During these three years on the board, I have served as the chair of the Resolutions Committee, as well as a member of the ad hoc Restructuring Committee. This work has been fulfilling for me, because it gave me the opportunity to help our denomination grow in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. The Gospel is always embodied, and I have found the joy of Christ’s good news in visiting your congregations throughout this country as part of my work on the board. I’ve seen God’s beauty in your communities, and I’m grateful for all the ways you have welcomed me as a denominational leader.
So it is with regret that I write to inform you of my resignation from the Executive Board, effective May 23, 2016. With the guidance and support of my congregation, I officiated a wedding on May 21 between two women in our community. At the EB meeting in February 2016, when I shared my intentions, the board counseled me to resign if I were to officiate the wedding because this act would put me at variance with the 2001 Membership Guidelines, which you reaffirmed in Kansas City in 2015.
While the EB’s counsel was specific to me, the board also formalized a more general policy that applies to my situation and others: “We expect board members to honor our decisions and the documents we are trusted to uphold.” The Membership Guidelines has become a significant document in the life of our denomination, specifically its censure of pastors who conduct same-sex weddings. As a pastor who is committed to the movement of the Holy Spirit in my congregation—a congregation that affirms the blessing of same-sex marriages—I am at variance with part III of the Membership Guidelines.
After several years of congregational discernment, as we listened for the Word together in our study of Scripture, my congregation embraced God’s call to include Christians who are LGBTQI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex] in the life of the church. We decided that we would not use sexual and gender identities as criteria to determine who may give and receive the ordinances of the church. This direction “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) as we live into the reality of the Gospel, where there is no longer any distinction between male and female, because we have been made one body in Jesus Christ through baptism (Galatians 3:27-28).
As a member of my congregation, as a minister of this gospel, I would be denying God’s call in my life if I were to reject our discernment of the Spirit’s leading. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). The lives of LGBTQI Christians are good, and I will hold fast to them, bound up together in the same body, members of one another through Jesus Christ.
As a Mennonite pastor I know that I am not discovering something new here. There is already a cloud of witnesses who have officiated same-sex weddings in our denomination: Loris Habegger, Joanna Harader, Sheri Hostetler, Cynthia Lapp, Weldon Nisly, Megan Ramer, Vernon Rempel, Karl Shelly, Tim Stair, Kathleen Temple, Helen Wells O’Brian, Chester Wenger, Amy Yoder McGloughlin, and other ministers whose contexts prevent them being named in public. A tradition has been emerging in our church documents that makes space for LGBTQI Mennonites within our congregations. This incipient tradition was already there at the beginning of our denominational conversations about sexuality, in our 1986 (Saskatoon) and 1987 (Purdue) statements:
“We affirm that we can feel positive about our bodies and our sexuality because we are created in God’s image and know our Creator… We repent of our wrong view of the body, which keeps us from speaking openly and honestly about our bodies, including our sexual nature… We repent of our judgmental attitudes and our slowness to forgive each other when we fail or when our sexual values differ from those of other Christians… We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance… we covenant that as we discern God’s will for our lives and our fellowship, we will seek to obey it, through God’s grace and strength.”
In these two documents we called for the affirmation of our sexualities, because our bodies are full of God’s goodness, and therefore we should repent of all the ways we have taught people false doctrines that cause them to hate themselves; to hate their sexuality. We committed ourselves to staying together, despite our disagreements, as we open ourselves for God to lead us into further truth.
At our 2009 Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, we reaffirmed this tradition of bearing with one another while we disagree about the ways that human sexuality matters for Christian discipleship:
“We acknowledge the statements by Mennonite Church USA on human sexuality, which have been previously passed and are currently in place, while we also acknowledge the presence of dissenting voices within the denomination… We confess that we as a church (congregations, conferences, denomination) have rarely found a way to create a healthy, safe environment in which to have this dialogue, one that builds up the Body of Christ, and is respectful and honest about our differences.”
In this statement we made room for those of us who dissent from the position of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, and we expressed our desire for healthy and safe communities in which we can build up the body of Christ with our differences; where we can belong to one another even while disagreeing about the status of LGBTQI members of our churches.
As a culmination of this trajectory within our denomination, in July 2015 at our Delegate Assembly in Kansas City we committed to forbear with one another, as we face our disagreements about sexual unions:
“We call on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love, and forbearance toward conferences, congregations, and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”
This is the Mennonite community I’ve experienced, the Mennonite church that is my spiritual home. I hope we will soon find ways to commit ourselves to grace, love, and forbearance for every member of Christ’s body, even as we have different ways of living out our convictions regarding same-sex relationships. I hope that soon we will loosen the grip upon our lives of the denomination’s teaching position regarding sexuality; that soon we will no longer teach that queer desire is sinful; that soon we will let our churches bless those who wish to marry, whether gay or straight.
Over the years, while serving on the EB, I’ve received phone calls and emails from Mennonites who have been affected by the anti-LGBTQ position of our denomination. To all of you who have reached out to me, to you who have trusted me with your stories—thank you for staying in our church, despite all the ways we have tried to exclude you. I’ve seen you contribute so much to the life of our church, your gifts, your grace, your love, your life bound up in the life of all of us, the joy of our communion.
You are here, and so am I, still working together to see how our fractured community becomes a church where all of us can belong. We are the church, living out the good news of Jesus Christ for the world. And I will pray for our church with the words of Jesus, his prayer for our communion in the glory of God here and now, manifest in our union, in our body:
“I ask that they may all be as one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
Isaac S. Villegas, pastor
Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
The views expressed in this opinion post do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.