Once again anxiety has risen in Mennonite Church USA over issues of homosexuality. When this happens, it is important to remember the covenant members have made.
Part of the covenant is easy to recall. It is the denomination’s teaching position: Homosexual practice is sinful; marriage is for heterosexuals. Though no one can be required to teach this, it is the church’s standard. Those who disagree are dissenters.
How, then, should the majority and the dissidents relate to each other? The covenant covers this too, in a second teaching position that’s cited much less often: Those who hold differing views on homosexuality are to be in dialogue with each other.
This covenant is found in MC USA’s 2001 membership guidelines. The guidelines cite the 1995 Confession of Faith and denominational statements on sexuality from 1986 and 1987 as the covenant’s sources. But they don’t quote exactly what the 1980s documents say. The phrase “to be in dialogue” does not adequately convey the depth of the relational and truth-seeking challenge they set before us.
“We covenant with each other,” the statements say, “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 promise compassion and prayer for each other that distrustful, broken and sinful relationships may experience God’s healing. We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and openness to each other.”
A church truly committed to this covenant would not splinter over homosexuality. Nor would it be likely to punish congregations and pastors who fully affirm gay and lesbian Christians in their midst.
Has it become too much to ask for the church to honor this covenant? Maybe the covenant was easier to follow back in the days when more gay and lesbian Christians hid their identity. Before pastors wrote letters calling for tolerance for congregations that “welcome and bless LGBTQ Jesus-followers.” Before Pink Menno T-shirts dotted the halls at conventions. Before a handful of same-sex weddings. Before Mountain States Mennonite Conference granted a license for ministry to a lesbian pastor.
Yes, the burden might have been lighter in the 1980s. But there’s been no decision to cast it off. The covenant is still in effect.
Maybe, after all these years, the covenant’s call to dialogue tells us something more than just to keep talking. If the conversation has become exhausting, or futile, or too stressful, perhaps dialogue simply means staying in fellowship with each other. It means not splitting a conference. It means not punishing the dissidents on homosexuality, who seek God’s will just as surely as do the dissidents who deny women the pastorate.
On no other issue have the members of MC USA made a covenant to maintain relationships of respect, tolerance and compassion. On no other issue do they need one so much.