(Or, how a conservative Mennonite boy came to be ‘Open and Affirming’.)
As I’ve mentioned previously, my congregation is currently going through a discernment process regarding granting membership to same-gender couples in committed relationships. And I’ve found myself (as should be obvious to anyone who read the earlier post) quite squarely on the side of those advocating for an open and affirming membership policy. As I reflect on my life, however, I find it a bit curious that fifteen years ago, I probably would have been voting and arguing on the other side. So I thought I’d reflect a bit here on why that is. Maybe it will be useful for my family or friends to read as well – especially for those for whom my “conversion” is recent, unexpected, or even unwelcome news.
I think you can start with how I was raised, which is to say that I love Jesus and am committed to trying to walk as he taught. This was true then, and it is true now. It also may be a bit of a surprise, but I’d still claim to be conservative – conservative in the sense that I take the Bible seriously. I don’t throw out what I don’t like. I think if there’s something there that makes me uncomfortable, I better face it head on and try to understand it. Well – fifteen years ago, I thought I understood pretty well what the Bible had to say to the LGBT community*. I was about to get a thorn in my side.
* I hate always using acronyms, but as my conversion is in some ways very recent, I don’t have a better way to say “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” yet. And you better believe I’m not going to type that out every time. I’m sure someone will help me with vocabulary if it’s important.
A Seed Planted
Somehow, I started reading What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey. I don’t know why I picked it up, but it convinced me that the Church has done a pretty poor job of sharing the love of Christ with LGBT brothers and sisters. Probably many in the Church feel the same. And so I started looking for some way to do this – to share the love of Christ with them – while not condoning their choices in life partners. Looking back now, I never had any success with that, and I no longer believe it’s possible.
A Plant Nourished
I happened to read Yancey’s book at a time when my wife and I were living in Ann Arbor and attending a diverse congregation – diverse in the sense of a variety of opinions and beliefs. It’s possible that I was among the most conservative people in the congregation – conservative in every sense of the word at that time. In fact, I almost didn’t attend, even though my wife had already worshipped with them for two years at the time when we got married and I moved to town. I considered asking her to look for a new congregation – I was just that disturbed by the variety. In the end, it was the overwhelming sense of community that I observed (and received) that kept me there in the early years of our marriage.
Anyway, I learned over time that it is possible to live and worship with someone even though the two of you disagree. In fact, it is grace (getting back to the book) that partly makes this possible. Grace allows us to take a risk and get involved with something that makes us uncomfortable, knowing that if we’ve made a mistake, God’s love and forgiveness can handle it. Grace is freeing that way, and it allows us to keep the door to the Church cracked open.
And there were people that disagreed with me on welcoming LGBT couples. One man, in particular, also read Yancey’s book. While he was grateful for the steps that it made, he suggested to me that it didn’t go far enough. (This was a discussion at the Parthenon, for any of you checking your facts.)
Skip ahead a few years. My wife, new daughter, and I found ourselves on Long Island, and unintentionally found ourselves attending a “welcoming” congregation. Perhaps it was because we had felt welcomed there, as well. In any case, they had a “contemporary” service – you know, one of those where you sing “off the wall”. Well, I particularly enjoy that style of worship and got involved with worship leading. And I realized soon thereafter that one of the other worship leaders was a gay man.
Well, at that point, I learned to live with ambiguity. On one hand, I still understood scripture to say marriage was reserved for heterosexual couples, so that made me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I recognized the fruit of the Spirit in his life. Not that I previously would have denied the possibility of a gay man being a faithful Christian. It’s just that you begin to see things differently when you encounter people rather than ideas. Often in my life, I’ve had enough sense (dumb luck, grace, …) to keep my mouth shut. Thankfully, this was one of those times.
Let’s move toward the present. By the time that we left Long Island about five years ago, there was really only one scripture that still bothered me: Romans 1. Here was my thinking on the others. I understand the Old Testament passages (including the oft-quoted ones in this debate) to be a covenant with Israel. As a Gentile, those passages provide context, but they don’t necessarily dictate how I should live. Most of the New Testament passages are ambiguous. But the passage from Romans is more difficult.
However, I’d now heard views from scholars on both sides of the debate, including disagreement between Anabaptists. In addition, I recognized that Mennonites in general were no longer in agreement. This is an important point for someone who places value in discerning the meaning of scripture in community. I had arrived at the place where I said essentially, “I don’t understand scripture on this point (as disconcerting as that might be), and grace dictates that I need to take the side of actively welcoming LGBT brothers and sisters.”
In the past few years, there has been one other scripture that has astounded me. It is the story in Acts of how Peter goes to meet with Cornelius and the other Gentiles who send for him. Peter addresses the group, saying
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile. (Acts 10.28, NRSV)
Later, in his report to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, he says
If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God? (11.17)
Now, go back and look at that first verse from Acts 10. Most Christians that I know are Gentiles. I have only met one person in my life that was a Jewish Christian. Those of us who are Gentiles – every one of us – are in the Church today because someone was willing to look past what was presumed to be unlawful and recognize the work of the Holy Spirit. The more I reflect on that, the more flabbergasted (nice word, huh?) I become. To me, it seems to be a nearly exact parallel of what my congregation is trying to discern now.
There is one more part to this story – the question of what to do with Romans 1. Until very recently, it bugged me. I had learned to live with it, but it still bugged me. I wanted a consistent reading of scripture that somehow encompassed the inclusion that I understood to be necessary, while not discarding the passages that were “hard to understand”. And then a friend pointed me to an essay by Walter Wink.
Now before you read the essay, I’ll let you know that it may be one of the more radical pieces of Bible study that I’ve come across. But it is thorough (which I needed, as a “conservative”), and it may be correct. It certainly doesn’t shy away from anything. He comes to the conclusion that the Bible may not actually have a sexual ethic; only an ethic of love as manifest in Jesus. I’m not going to try to review the article. You’ll have to read it for yourself. It may be dangerous. Or it may be incredibly freeing, because I think it has much broader implications (e.g. how does the Church deal with divorce and re-marriage?).
I think that just about wraps this story up, at least all that there is to tell at this point. I recognize, that as with racism (and other ‘ism’s, too), I have certain advantages from being in the majority – advantages that I don’t always recognize and may sometimes abuse. I may say or do something that would be offensive to those in the LGBT community. Happily, I now have friends that love me enough to correct me. Hopefully, they’ll find me humble enough to receive it. And I trust them to be gracious enough to forgive. It’s a freeing place to be.