« "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love and Learning" by Weldon Nisly »

The first challenge of this Respectful Conversation for me is that it is taking place online rather than in person. Nevertheless, it is a worthy conversation as we navigate this conflicted concern not only for ourselves but also for this eCircle and even for the church. It seems to me that our focus on “Christian faithfulness and human sexuality” is half of our purpose; the other half is modeling “Respectful Conversation” as faithful Christians who may differ significantly on substantive matters.  I hope my contribution honors both halves of this conversation.

A second challenge is responding to two conversation partners fully and fairly rather than to only one. Nevertheless, being three voices rather than two enlarges the conversation and expands the experience we bring to our particular part of this Respectful Conversation. Hopefully our three-way conversation adds a fruitful dimension to the larger dialogue.

My first response is to thank you, Chris and Tim, for your passionate personal and pastoral posts. I am grateful for you, for the clarity of your conviction, and for your contribution to this conversation. I am eager to share a second and third round of this conversation with you. Tim, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading your book, Oriented to Faith, which likely would have helped me know you better. I do recall our phone conversation about these matters a few years ago. Chris, this month’s exchange is my first connection with you. Not knowing each other poses a distance that has a relational downside for such an important conversation. But it may also foster a kind of generosity of spirit toward each other as an upside to our conversation.

There is so much worthy of conversation in what both of you have written that I am sure I will miss some important matters that merit response and questions. Rather than trying to speak to everything worth considering in your sharing, my intention is to identify a few arenas of agreement and note some ways we may disagree. Along with asking questions of each of you, I am sure I will offer further observations from my experience that I trust contributes to our continuing conversation.   

Agreements

Tim and Chris, a first arena of agreement that we share is claiming and proclaiming the church’s mandate to live the gospel. At the outset, Chris, you rightly acknowledge that ours is a daunting yet important task worth exploring “as we seek to embody the gospel faithfully in our particular cultural context.” Tim, you begin by rightly proclaiming “Churches should model the difficult practice of loving each other in spite of differences.”

I wholeheartedly concur that the Church is to faithfully embody the gospel, that we do so in a particular context, and that the test and testimony for doing so is loving each other. As Christians and as the Church we embody Christ’s love before a watching world. I sense that we agree that the central message Jesus commanded disciples is “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  I suspect we all agree that that is easier said than done and that we often fail to live Jesus’ love in our lives, in the church, and in the world.

A question I have long held in my heart is what would be transformed in how churches engage LGBT members if we truly loved as Christ loves us? What if every conversation about “Christian faith and human sexuality” was grounded in and measured by the love of Christ? Thanks to both of you for keeping the gospel of Jesus Christ front and center in your lives and ministry and in this conversation. I add my “Amen!” to your witness and proclamation.

I see a second arena of agreement being in the pain we bear and sorrow we share over how the church inflicts pain on sisters and brothers who are LGBT. Tim, you very graciously unpacked your vision for the church navigating this conflicted territory and noted the “many casualties” this conflict has cost the church: “We’ve ruptured families, churches, and denominations. We’ve hurt sexual minorities and alienated sincere Christians….We’ve eviscerated the Gospel witness that because of Jesus we can be reconciled not only to God, but with one another.” Chris, you lamented that “LGBT individuals have experienced horrible persecution from Christians….[and] have experienced profound rejection, and even violence, at the hands of religious leaders.” You both express a clear word that stands as a strong critique of the pain inflicted on our LGBT sisters and brothers by the church. I am grateful for and share the way you contrast such violent rejection of LGBT members with “Jesus’ radical welcome” and loving relationship with oppressed and marginalized people throughout the gospels.  

I also know that the pain I bear as an older white male heterosexual pastor encountering oppressive violence toward LGBT members, or even toward me as a welcoming and affirming pastor, is miniscule compared to the pain born by sisters and brothers who are victimized by such violence. In a comment not directed at either of you but from long painful experience in the church, I find it incomprehensible and unconscionable that “homosexuality” is deemed to be sin justifying the egregious sin of violence against sisters and brothers we categorically consider “other.” That flies in the face of all that is Jesus and the Gospels. What really is sin in this conflict? 

Let me add here that I intentionally use sin rather than sins. To speak of sins misleadingly references individual acts of moral transgression, particularly of dominant systems, rules, or boundaries. Sin is embodied before it is enacted. Sin is that which violates God, humanity, and creation, as a state of being in which behavior is enacting the violence (sin) already embodied.

Tim, I connects this view with what you rightly note about the Bible being wrongly used as a “moral encyclopedia.” You follow that up by reminding us that the Bible is “more a storybook than a morality textbook.” I concur that the Bible is the living Word of God not a moral code or rule book. In interpreting and living God’s Word we find much good moral instruction but not a moral weapon.

A third arena of agreement is our desire that our churches cease making “homosexuality” be the church defining and dividing matter that has broken human bodies and the body of Christ (my words not yours). Tim, you name so well that “the church should adopt a ‘third-way’ stance not just because the reasons this argument gets so heated are misguided. This is a chance for the church to witness to a beautiful and important aspect of the gospel: that because of Christ people who disagree over important things can still live together in peace.”

I heartily concur that we have an extraordinary opportunity to embody Christ’s peace rather than the breaking the body of Christ.

Chris, your call for being “welcoming and non-affirming” offers a way forward that you have embraced for your church. I read into your sharing a desire to find a way beyond this church-dividing matter when you claim “a place of affirming the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality while seeking to embrace LGBT people outside of the church and create space for creative, non-sexual, expressions of love and intimacy for those LGBT brothers and sisters within the church.”

I will probe that further in a moment but for now identify your stance as a way forward in the church that refrains from the “horrible persecution” with “disastrous consequences” you name. I concur with your recognition that “if we refuse to create space for LGBT Christians to flourish relationally, only telling them what they can’t do, we unwittingly wind up doing more harm than good.”

Could we agree that “human flourishing” is one of God’s intentions for all humans and that it has something (everything) to do with being in loving mutual relationship?

Disagreements

The common ground we find to agree on has potential to go a long way toward transforming our differences and transcending this great divide in the church. Nevertheless, by intent in this conversation and by virtue of being members of the body of Christ, we are compelled to honestly confess and explore our differences.

Chris and Tim, what I offer here doesn’t begin to do justice to the multiplicity and magnitude of these matters or to your good sharing. But I hope that I can respectfully reveal the heart of my concerns and ongoing exploration. I commend both of you for your clarity and commitment to scripture, even while our approaches, interpretations, and conclusions may differ.

Chris, you express that you “remain convinced that the biblical prohibitions of sexual intimacy between two people of the same gender do apply to our modern construct of same-sex relationships.” You identify three scholars, including James Brownson, from this wider Respectful Conversation, whose biblical interpretations are unconvincing. I wonder what you find unconvincing in alternative biblical interpretations. I also wonder what other scholars, beyond these three, that you have investigated that you find either unconvincing or convincing as you search the scriptures? Have you or would you be open to looking beyond the traditional approaches and interpretations of scripture? Who do you turn to for help with biblical interpretation and why?

Over the long haul my searching and survey of sexuality and scripture has consistently led me in the same direction. In that light I offer three observations:

First, I am no longer able to keep up with the burgeoning wealth of biblical scholars, theologians, and ethicists interpreting these texts either through their writing or in personal conversation. I am grateful for and have greatly enjoyed countless scholarly encounters over the years covering every dimension of this concern that I have identified as pertinent to faithful “human sexuality.”   

Second, overwhelmingly, Mennonite and other scholars that are most formative for me are part of this growing wealth of scholars who find a more inclusive interpretation of scripture and a more nuanced nature of sexuality.

Third, in my first post I shared my conviction that we will not find The Way forward in the Church based on a few select texts held to settle the matter and over which we are and will remain deeply divided. I say this for two reasons. One, is that in over forty years of experience in this conflict in the Mennonite Church, arguments over these select scriptures have not contributed to further revelation, resolution, or reconciliation. Second, I believe the real conflict we face, mostly without acknowledging or addressing it, is deeper than differing interpretations of these select texts; it is in substantially differing (even mutually exclusive) approaches to scripture and interpretive paradigms. These are fundamental hermeneutical questions the church must face and address before we can find our way on the sexuality matters. Differing paradigms of Biblical interpretation may be the primary confession and clarification we have to name and embody before we can cease dividing over “homosexuality” in our churches. Then we may even be able to agree to disagree in love and unity in Christ who has already made us one.   

Tim, I hear you implying something along this line when you rightly conclude, “The debate over same-sex relationships and the Bible is not one about Scripture’s authority, but of Scripture’s interpretation.”

Questions

Many questions may be posed by our conversation and merit asking and deserve further consideration, I want to ask some questions that loom largest for me. I still ask such questions of myself and reflect on my evolving responses over the years.

Let me preface my first question with another agreement I think the three of us share, which is that the church must hold together and honor differing views among members. Significant differences in theology and practice (and politics!) are inevitable in the church. Why is “homosexuality” a church defining and dividing matter when other highly conflicted issues don’t necessarily define or divide us? In the Mennonite Church women in leadership and divorce and remarriage have been contended over the past four decades as has “homosexuality.” Ironically, my ministry has precisely coincided with and engaged these three concerns and changes in the church. Yet we have found a way to navigate the contentious waters of women in leadership and divorce and remarriage in ways that honor the authority of scripture, the faithfulness of the church, and the integrity of pastoral leadership. We have done so with clarity and honesty, recognizing differences without resorting to discipline to keep members in line or out of the church. What are the differences in the differences we have on these matters? What are the limits of difference and on what “issues” that the church can tolerate and still be the church together?

Chris and Tim, I ask these questions not because you have shared something explicit that elicits them but because I see them as implicit on your sharing. Or, to be honest, these are questions that loom large for me over the years of ministry.

Let me ask you more explicit questions. How do you as a pastor hold together the views of those who feel strongly about “exclusion” and “inclusion” of LGBT members? Do you see these as parallel opposing views? In other words how do you encourage members to agree to disagree and still be church together?

My great struggle with these questions is twofold. On the one hand I believe the church must be able to “agree to disagree” on many if not most matters over which there is disagreement. In the Mennonite Church we worked out a method for “agreeing and disagreeing in love.” It has not found a clear consistent place in the church but I believe we have been able to embody it on many important matters without being fully aware of it. Are there limits to how far and on what concerns our disagreements can be embraced and still maintain the unity of the body? On the other hand, my deeper struggle is that our differences often are not parallel disagreements. And they certainly are not parallel harms or hurt. I do not see how the hurt a member may feel who holds the traditional view if LGBT members are included is equivalent to the harm done to an LGBT member who is excluded as a member or from marriage or ministry in the church. It really matters who is being harmed and what violence is being down to whom and with what manner of privilege and power are marshalled to harm another member of the body. 

Chris and Tim, has that been acknowledged or addressed in your churches? If so how do you navigate and negotiate those differences?    

Another cluster of questions comes from an insight that I receive from both of you, Chris and Tim. The insight I receive from you is the care and integrity with which you have given pastoral leadership and created space in your congregations to live with these nuanced differences.

Chris, you have found a kind of middle ground (for lack of a better term) of welcoming LGBT members yet be non-affirming of LGBT relationships. You certainly are consistent in the stance you have defined for your church. But I am wondering if or how your congregation came to that stance and how public it is and what you communicate about it with any new person exploring becoming a member of your church? Does that mean that no persons in a same-sex relationship can be members of your congregation? What would you do if a same-sex couple came to worship? Or asked to explore becoming a member? What would happen if an LGBT member came to you and shared a sense of call to ministry? All these are questions I have faced over the years as a pastor. 

Tim, I am especially intrigued by your stance that seems very close to my own. I am grateful for your opening words: “Rather than treat LGBT Christians as a sexuality to be affirmed or disciplined, churches should walk with LGBT people with curiosity. Churches should ask the same question of an LGBT member it asks of all its members: how is God at work in this person’s life and how can we cooperate with that?....Practically this means allowing for differences of belief and action on both sides……” Yet I could ask the same questions of you that I asked Chris? As a pastor what is your response and responsibility when an LGBT member comes to you to explore marriage or ministry? What is the church’s role and response when that happens?

I don’t ask these questions of either of you judgmentally. I have faced them in this and on other matters. The most frequent way I faced that kind of question was when someone was drawn to Seattle Mennonite Church but had real reservations about pacifism and our peace theology. My approach was always one of welcome, come and worship with us, be in relationship with us as a community of faith and live into your question. Yes, who we are and what we proclaim is deeply grounded in the nonviolent love of Jesus Christ, that is what you will hear and what we strive to live together. I am confident the Spirit will give you clarity in due time – clarity that grows into and shares our commitment to the nonviolent love of Jesus Christ or clarity that you are called to another spiritual home. If it is the later, and you truly do not share this way of Jesus, as your pastor, I will prayerfully help you find the spiritual home where you are called to be. I have helped more than one person find another spiritual home.

Finally, I find it surprising that none of us directly addressed the traditional creation question, where God’s creation of male and female somehow means “homosexuality” is not of creation and is “disordered.” My sense is that arguments over “birth” versus “choice” claims for “LGBT” orientation have diminished as awareness, experience, and scientific evidence grows that indicates considerable biological factors and nuanced diversity in sexual orientation. However, I have spent my pastoral years in congregations where that wasn’t disputed. So I am wondering if or how that is still a matter of contention across our churches? 

There still many questions and matters worthy of conversation but I am already beyond the word limit and my time so I let further conversation for our third post later this month. Again thanks Tim and Chris. I am honored to share this conversation with you.  

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