HARRISONBURG, Va. — One hundred pastors and credentialed leaders in Virginia Mennonite Conference gathered Nov. 9-11 at Lindale Mennonite Church for a consultation on “Same-Gender Attraction, Relationship, Lifestyle.”
Craig Maven, lead pastor at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church, gave an overview of ways Mennonites have interacted with culture. There are many cultures in today’s pluralistic environment, including in the church.
“We cannot exist as a church without an element of culture to contrast against,” he said. “But which culture are we contrasting against? The shift is still ongoing.”
Phil Kniss, lead pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, brought a message on “The Unity of God’s Kingdom,” identifying four kinds of unity.
– Kingdom, or spiritual, unity unites people of faith despite different theologies and practices.
– Missional unity forms around a common cause, even if motivations and theological affirmations differ.
– Functional unity involves rights, responsibilities, authority and decision-making.
– Covenantal unity involves promises before God and to each other.
Nancy Heisey, a New Testament scholar and professor at Eastern Mennonite University, presented scriptural bases for six Christian views on homosexuality. The views are:
– Condemnation: Homosexual orientation and behavior are sinful.
– Promise of healing: LGBT people can move into a heterosexual orientation.
– Call to costly discipleship: A change of orientation may not be possible, but LGBT Christians should be celibate for life. (This is the teaching position of Mennonite Church USA.)
– Pastoral accommodation: Committed, monogamous same-sex partnerships can be tolerated as better than promiscuity.
– Affirmation: Same-gender relationships are a positive good.
– Liberation: The straight majority cannot dictate what LGBT people will do with their sexuality; to do so would be oppression.
Sam Weaver, a former Virginia Conference administrator, described how the conference dealt with issues and challenges during his tenure in leadership.
From 1966 to 1980, the conference was plagued by a lack of church planting and arguments over nonconformity. During that time, Southeastern Conference left Virginia Conference. Later, from 1981 to 1995, there was a renewed emphasis on church planting, and 31 churches were planted.
But there were significant issues. Churches in communities with a large military presence grappled with the issue of military personnel desiring church membership. The conference’s Eastern District drafted a statement on the issue, but because this was seen as a dogmatic compromise by some leaders from the Shenandoah Valley, the statement was viewed as “heresy,” Weaver said. Pastors were unwilling to reject or prohibit up to a third of their congregation from membership.
Weaver shared his pain at not being able to ordain women during some of his time in leadership. He sought counsel with several leaders, including George Brunk II and Linden Wenger. Their counsel led him to value erring on the side of grace and being OK with some ambiguity.
He challenged participants to embrace evangelism and not get consumed by the issues.
“What will people in 2030 be writing about us?” he asked. He said “issue obsession” can lead to a dead church and division, even to oblivion.
“Evangelism needs to be our primary goal and purpose, not agreement on every issue,” he said.
A panel of five pastors shared their hopes, dreams and laments about two resolutions passed by the Mennonite Church USA delegate body in this summer.
The panelists — Ryan Ahlgrim of First Mennonite Church, Richmond; Spencer Bradford of Durham (N.C.) Mennonite Church; Jennifer Davis Sensenig of Community Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg; Phil Kanagy of Weavers Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg; and Harold Miller of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway — responded to questions about the “forbearance” and Membership Guidelines resolutions and the tension that holding them together entails.
David Brubaker, a conflict mediation specialist, led a time of addressing hopes, challenges and next steps. This was a time of deep emotion, and some held back tears as they spoke.
Dawn Monger, a pastor at Lindale Mennonite Church, led a devotional based on a trip to Israel/Palestine that made her realize the importance of listening and looking someone in the eyes, even when it was painful and there was little commonality.
David Mishler, pastor of Huntington Mennonite Church, Newport News, said the two resolutions passed at the convention in Kansas City may lead the church to a higher plane than division.
“The church must hold various world views together,” he said. “Much of church activity has been focused inward instead to those outside our walls.”
As churches decide whether to stay in MC USA, Mishler suggested the conversations about same-gender issues are not an impediment to evangelism but will inform the kind of evangelism we do.
Clyde G. Kratz, executive conference minister, asked: Where does incremental change lead us over time? How does it help us become more like the kingdom of God than we currently are? He reflected on the quote: “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
“We are not in this alone,” Kratz said. “We all have hopes, dreams, fears and dilemmas. If we don’t plant anything and try to hold on to what we have, it will get away. God calls us for such a time as this, to lead.”
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