By Ervin Stutzman
I have never had so many people assure me of their prayers as I have over the past few weeks. Many of these reassurances came in response to a message I sent to Conference Moderators, Conference Ministers and members of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board on January 6, 2014, calling them to prayer regarding two recent news announcements which unearthed deep tensions within our church.
The first was an announcement that Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) had initiated a listening process to help reevaluate the policy that prohibited the hiring of persons in same-sex relationships. The second was an announcement that Mountain States Mennonite Conference board had approved the recommendation of their ministerial leadership committee to grant ministerial credentials to Theda Good, a woman in a committed same-sex relationship.
I called the church to pray for discernment as our church considered the implications of these actions for our church. I acknowledged that as the Executive Board planned for its meeting in mid-February, we needed the enablement of God’s Spirit and the strength of God’s Word. Therefore, I invited the recipients to share any particular scriptures or devotional insights that came to mind as they prayed.
With my permission, many of the recipients forwarded the call to prayer to many others, so that I received responses from all over the church, including some readers of Equipping. I looked at each response as a window to the church, helping me see the landscape of our church during a season of rapid change. So, in a brief way, I will share about the emails and letters I received.
I was gratified that so many people took this call to prayer seriously. Many respondents promised to pray regularly for our church—some weekly or even daily. For example, David B. Miller of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary sent me a thoughtful letter and expressed a commitment to pray and fast each Friday, accompanied by colleagues. I am moved by these caring commitments.
Again, the respondents voiced deep feelings about the particular issues at stake—our church’s polity regarding same-sex marriage and the role of LGBTQ persons in our churches. We find ourselves at many different places on the spectrum of convictions on the issue, reflecting some of the same divisions that fragment our society. Many voiced their interest in following Jesus and staying faithful to the Bible, but differed on their interpretation and application of scripture.
You may be interested in seeing the scriptures that were suggested to me. Although this list may not contain every scripture that was cited in one way or another, it includes most of them. I’m fascinated by the way people with different convictions on issues of human sexuality look toward a different set of scriptures as guides for the journey. So I will list the scriptures below in three categories, without going into much detail about the explanations that accompanied them.
The scriptures in the first list below were submitted by people who were relatively neutral in their comments. That is, they did not express specific convictions on the issues of human sexuality, but found peace and a sense of spiritual guidance in the scriptures they suggested:
Book of Ezra; Psalm 23; Matthew 1:18-25, 18:15-17; Mark 14:32-38; John 4:5-42; Romans 5:1-11; 14:1; Ephesians 4. Persons shared the need for strong teaching, for discernment by the church, for prayerful and prophetic watchfulness, and for hopeful dependence on God, who reconciles all things.
Many respondents voiced their disagreement with the decisions that had been announced by EMU and the Mountain States Mennonite Conference. These respondents listed the following scriptures.
Leviticus 18:24-25, 20:13; Jeremiah 23:16-22; Ezekiel 33:6; Matthew 13:30, 16:18; Luke 17:1-2; John chapter 6, 17:17; 1 Corinthians. 5:5, 9, 11, 6:9-11; Romans 1:18-32; 2 Cor. 5:17, Philippians 3:8-11; 1 Timothy 1:9-11, 3:10; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 2:4-5; Jude 1:7; Revelation 1-3. Persons emphasized the need for strong leadership, for life and teaching regulated by the standards of scripture, and the need for transformation of old patterns of living into the new.
Finally, a significant number of respondents voiced agreement with the directions announced by EMU and the Mountain States Mennonite Conference. These respondents listed the following scriptures.
Book of Ruth; Isaiah 56; Matthew chapters 5-7, 19:1-12; Luke 4:18-19; Romans 14:1 – 15:3; 5:12-26, Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:10, 17-19; Acts 5:17-42, 8:26-40, chapters 10 and 11; 15:1-35. Persons emphasized the need for acceptance of outsiders or marginalized people, reconciliation among groups that had been alienated from each other, and loving discernment that allowed persons with differing convictions and practices to flourish.
Perhaps as we come to the table of discernment in groups across the church, we should think of each of the scriptures listed above as wise counselors, offering a perspective that must be considered if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus. The New Testament itself contains a significant amount of commentary on the interpretation and application of Old Testament scriptures.
We have much discernment to do as a church, in order to answer questions like the following: How shall we be faithful followers of Jesus in a rapidly changing society? How do we express both grace and truth in the way we disciple one another in the way of Jesus? And how shall we express God’s love to one another, especially to those whose convictions and practices differ from our own? Most of the scriptures listed above can serve as guides for that journey; we needn’t pick and choose.
I am immensely grateful for the prayers of God’s people on behalf of the church. “By the power of the Holy Spirit,” may we be more fully formed “as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”