Two hundred people spent a sunny Saturday at Morden Mennonite Church in southern Manitoba to look squarely at how the church can deal with its same-sex crisis.
“Biblical marriage texts clearly envision marriage as a relationship between man and woman. Some of us believe . . . we must embrace such texts in a straightforward way,” read the booklet prepared for the Sept. 26, 2015, event.
“Some of us believe these convictions reflect the culture of ancient times,” the booklet continued, “and that therefore we need not be bound by them.”
Unlike the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process, which has not directly addressed the primary passages about same-sex matters, Michael Pahl, Morden Mennonite’s pastor, went through them in detail, digging into the original languages and contexts. Dan Epp-Tiessen, professor at Canadian Mennonite University, and John H. Neufeld, former pastor and former president of Canadian Mennonite Bible College, also made presentations.
The event was organized by Mennonite Church Manitoba at the suggestion of Winkler Bergthaler Mennonite Church, which has put its funding to MC Manitoba and MC Canada “on hold.” The Plum Coulee Bergthaler Mennonite Church withdrew from area and national churches last November based on its traditional view of marriage.
The format of the day was not debate, but rather examination of biblical teachings on marriage, the role of the Bible and how to deal with division.
“We are in a heap of trouble,” Neufeld said of the current tensions in the church, “so what are we going to do about it?” He said the trouble has roots that go back to Jesus’ decision to include an almost impossibly diverse group of people among his disciples. For instance, one was a Roman tax collector and another a Zealot committed to battling the Romans. Later, Peter and Paul threw the doors open to the Gentiles, introducing a whole other layer of messy, beautiful diversity.
Epp-Tiessen looked at how the Bible is interpreted, exploring ways that human reason and experience sometimes take people beyond where biblical writers left off. For example, from Old Testament to New, slavery is considered a legitimate institution, yet the church chose to contradict that po-sition. Epp-Tiessen also pointed out that the biblical understanding of marriage evolved from Old Testament times, when polygamy and “concubinage” were considered appropriate. Should current understandings of marriage now expand to include committed same-sex relationships or would that be a rebellion against God? he asked.
Pahl—who has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and has published three books of theology—looked at the primary passages that address same-sex activity, spelling out traditional views, affirming views and some of the ambiguities that exist in the original languages.
The day also included worship, discussion around tables and reporting back to the larger group. Both publicly and privately, some participants expressed a concern that not enough emphasis was given to the traditional biblical view. One person noted and lamented the absence of gay voices.
About 20 people from Winkler Bergthaler attended, although church leaders declined to offer any public comment.
In the final presentation, Neufeld highlighted the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the divisions within them. Paul said these showed that the church was still “of the flesh.” Neufeld looked at three images Paul uses as a corrective: the garden (a range of plants all doing their thing), the body (different parts that need each other), and the table (a place of welcome for a wide range of people).
“These images show us the way beyond agreement and disagreement,” Neufeld said, adding that people on all sides are called to repent in light of Paul’s three metaphors. We need each other. We are interdependent. We need to stay at the table.
In an interview, Ken Warkentin, MC Manitoba’s executive director, said the church’s position, as discerned collectively through the BFC process, is captured in the latest BFC document, which affirms the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective with its traditional view of marriage, while also appealing for space to test alternative understandings.
In a later interview, a rural pastor said that his congregation includes people with a considerable range of views on same-sex relationships and that those views are respectively discussed among the group. While this creates a degree of tension, he said it simply isn’t a “deal breaker” for anyone. They remain together in healthy fellowship. Perhaps that model best captures the wish of area church leaders. Unanimity is unrealistic, but can we all remain at the table?
When asked if he thinks that is possible, Warkentin said, “That is my prayer. . . . I love Winkler Bergthaler Church.”
For videos of the three presentations and concise written summaries of the Epp-Tiessen and Pahl presentations, visit http://bit.ly/1O8jL3i.