When ‘agree to disagree’ is dangerous

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Agreeing to disagree seems peace-loving, humble, tolerant — things we Mennonites are drawn to. We often make space for differing beliefs and practices. But many of us see an agree-to-disagree approach as dangerous on the matter of same-sex marriage.

Agreeing to disagree on sexuality opens us to move with culture. When a church body chooses an agree-to-disagree mindset, as Mennonite Church USA officially did in 2015, it’s only a matter of time until the theology changes and the church abandons its traditional position. Why? The official stance will no longer be taught. Members will hear a mixed message from the church, while popular culture gives an insistent, pervasive message.

Of course, if our culture is right in its approval of same-sex marriage, there is no danger here.

For those of us who are sure, as I am, that the historic Christian stance on same-sex relations is the clear, natural reading of scripture, tolerating diversity here means demoting scripture.

On other matters on which Christians have disagreed or still disagree — women in ministry, slavery and war — scripture presents competing views. But for those who believe, as I do, that scripture does not present competing views on same-sex relations, agreeing to disagree on this matter is to distrust scripture. We cannot in good conscience be part of a church body that disregards a New Testament consensus.

Jesus does not let a desire for unity diminish the need for faithfulness. Rather, he counsels his followers to treat one who sees no need to repent as outside the community (Matthew 18:17) and not to tolerate a teacher who misleads the church into im­morality (Revelation 2:20).

I pray that we will always relate to LGBTQ brothers and sisters with compassion, patience and grace. But I also hope we will ­always appropriately judge leaders who teach and act contrary to scripture.

It’s not only conservatives who pre­fer not to identify with a church that agrees to disagree on sexuality. Ultimately, many progressives don’t want this either. As MC USA delegates did when they passed the Repentance and Transformation resolution in 2022, they eventually want to move beyond forbearance and call those who hold the church’s traditional stance to repent of their “violence” and be transformed.

Few are hopeful that further conversation is the answer. Many denominations have tried and failed to keep together their progressive and conservative wings. These wings are, in many ways, separate religious communities. Their differing views on sexuality flow out of well-nigh incompatible cultural and theological streams.

John Paul Lederach, highly respected after decades of work in conflict transformation around the world, was asked to give counsel to a Mennonite conference in 2016 as it considered whether to ordain a gifted person in a lesbian relationship. He wrote an article in The Mennonite on practicing compassion in churchwide disagreements. One of his observations was on the “unintended tyranny of process.”

“I have spent a vocational lifetime trying to develop, design and facilitate processes for people to find their way through deep division and pain,” he wrote. “. . . [But] commitment to process must also acquire the wisdom to recognize when more talk will only replicate and potentially embitter the divisions it was designed to ameliorate. . . . Signs that this has gone round enough emerge when the process serves primarily for people to defend more creatively their deeply held convictions.”

This surely describes the situation in MC USA.

Lederach offered other observations, much of it along the lines of respectful ways of agreeing to disagree, a path that many conservatives reject — and that many progressives also find unsatisfactory, as MC USA delegates demonstrated in 2022 when they abandoned forbearance and declared the historic Christian view anathema.

Agreeing to disagree on sexuality distracts us from mission. Trying to include people whose beliefs and practices violate each other’s consciences ensures that the matter in contention remains an endless, energy-draining conversation.

Trying to rally around the many points of agreement will not eliminate the critical differences that absorb attention. When there is conscience-level discord, there needs to be a degree of resolution before a group is free to focus on mission.

When members of a church recognize that they are on different paths due to differing theological commitments, it can seem peace-loving and humble to agree to disagree. But this is not the way of wholeness and peace. It is fraught with danger as members find that their consciences compel them to trample the consciences of their siblings.

I believe we should instead graciously bless each other to realign along our respective paths, setting each other free to pursue our sense of the Holy Spirit’s leading, while maintaining the Anabaptist tradition of working shoulder-to-shoulder in projects like Mennonite Disaster Service and local relief sales.

Harold Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va.

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