Story, Theology & Making Room

All theology is contextual.

I like to think of context as the story of a thing: in the case of theology, it is the who, what, when, where, why and how that shapes the process and content of biblical, spiritual and ethical understandings.

Often when I’m talking about theology and LGBTQ inclusion, I’m exploring contexts that shape what we find in the biblical text–literary, historical, social, political, etc.–that help us understand the content, how it came to be, and how it came to us. In doing so, I hope to read critically and inclusively (see Cheryl Anderson’s work on inclusive biblical interpretation). I hope to read in ways that cultivate love of God and neighbor, interdependence with all of creation, and commitment to justice and peace.

I also find it helpful to explore contexts that shape how we do theology. What stories influence who we are, our theological lenses and practices, our motivations and goals, etc.?

In my last post, I said I would explore Mary Anne’s theological reflections in light of “making room.” I want to do that by exploring elements of a story (context) giving shape to such reflections.

The Mary Anne I know has a heart that beats with deep pastoral concern for the church. She has rooted herself in a calling to connect people with God, to invite them into the good news of the kingdom. I have witnessed her devote her life as a prayer without ceasing: “Your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

Mary Anne’s chapter reflects on two and a half decades of pastoral ministry. The three deleted pages acknowledge that all three congregations in which she served wrestled with questions of LGBTQ inclusion. While at College Community MB Church (now Willow Avenue Mennonite Church), this “issue” took on flesh and blood: real people and families with names and faces and stories experienced the very real impact of these conversations.

Mary Anne writes, “The love we preached wasn’t something they could access… I realized I was helping to create a church environment that did not feel safe for families among us.” She acknowledges that the church’s position and decisions regarding LGBTQ inclusion contributed to people leaving “the church and then the Christian faith.” These real-life impacts led her to ask questions and wrestle with her theology. Her compassion moved her to seek a healing solution to the painful realities she witnessed.

My journey enters the story here: “My respect for Michelle grew as I witnessed her wrestle to live out her faith in so many ways… The years ticked on… Michelle continued her investigation of the Scriptures… When she married another woman, I was genuinely joyful that she found the community of deep connection, accountability, and intimacy that she had been diligently seeking for so long… I found my perspective on gay marriage beginning to turn.”

Because Mary Anne turns to the Bible as a “guide for faith and practice,” she brought her questions to its pages. As I’ve read her writing, listened to a recent interview, and spoken to her, I see her main question as: Does God make room for same-sex marriage? She has said, “As I study the scriptures, I think there is room for a gay couple to get married.”

In the context of the MB church where “sexual intimacy rightfully takes place only within marriage,” accepting same-sex marriage is critical to creating space for queer sexuality. Expanding the definition of marriage as “a covenant relationship intended to unite a man and a woman for life” to include two people of the same gender offers the possibility of upholding much of traditional marriage while making it more accessible.

LGBTQ folks have long been demonized as “sexual perverts” (RSV translation of malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Cor. 6:9 – see end note)–lustful, promiscuous, and self-centered as opposed to being “characterized by mutual love, faithfulness, and submission.” It is easy for churches that hold to traditional marriage to reject LGBTQ folks under the banner of rejecting “sexual immorality.” It becomes much harder to justify rejecting LGBTQ folks if their relationships exemplify “God’s intention for marriage.” Thus, one way of “making room” is to say, “If they (LGBTQ folks) express their sexuality in all the ways we (straight folks) say is good and godly, can we agree to make a concession on the ‘a man and a woman’ part? Isn’t sacrificing that one point worth it to bring people into the church and closer to God?”

I remember a pastor telling me that it was going to be good for the church community that my wife and I were beginning to attend to get to witness our relationship. They needed to see an example of a respectable and healthy marriage between two people of the same gender in order to begin rethinking their non-affirming position. Let’s put a pin in the fact that that puts an incredible amount of pressure on any couple, and no heterosexual couple is asked to prove the validity of heterosexual marriage in this way. The point is that for church communities that have little or no meaningful connection to LGBTQ folks, it is very easy to be suspicious and resistant to welcoming folks you think are very different than you. However, a “welcome” that depends on proving one’s acceptability (ie. ability and willingness to conform to the norm) and maintaining the comfort of those with the power to include or exclude reinforces inequality and promotes what Brené Brown calls “hustling for our worthiness.” This kind of “welcoming” is not inclusive and perpetuates harm. (More on this in another post.)

In one way, Mary Anne’s attempt to make room plays by all the rules of the MB story in which she lives and serves. She prioritizes scripture. She upholds a traditional sexual ethic. As pastor at River East, she and the church have practiced incredible integrity throughout their communal discerning of the Spirit’s leading by being transparent and inviting denominational leadership into their process. Many have praised her for her graciousness toward the very leadership who–without extending the respect of even speaking with her–deleted three pages of her chapter in On Holy Ground.

In another way, Mary Anne violates a core requirement, especially for women: do not challenge the patriarchy. Making room for gay marriage threatens the entire patriarchal system shaping the MB story. Leaders who control and/or benefit from that system will wage war against any such threats. They will do whatever it is in their power to do to neutralize or eliminate the threat and protect the system. They will delete pages and adamantly justify their actions. They will warn and bully and exclude churches. They will revoke pastoral credentials. They will put on study conferences that seem to “make room” for dialogue and practicing a community hermeneutic, but that really only shut down the conversation, mandate one right answer that they provide, and ensure their desired outcomes.

Mary Anne’s willingness to speak into this conversation “in conflict with a straightforward reading of our MB Confession of Faith” is brave and costly. MB leadership has, is and will continue to silence her and others who make room for anyone’s “perspective on gay marriage beginning to turn.”

This is part of the story Mary Anne has navigated her entire life and career. The way she “makes room” comes from the “third way” path she chooses. This path, that prioritizes “unity” among those who disagree within her church and between the church and the larger MB family, is deeply shaped by the context of that family.

In my next post, I will explore Mary Anne’s biblical reflections for making room for same-sex marriage. I have serious concerns about the path she opens, and I hope by exploring the context shaping such a path in this post, I am better able to engage the biblical and theological bricks that pave it.

Note: I’m eager for the release of 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture, a documentary film I’ve seen an early showing of that explores the story behind the first use of “homosexual” in the Bible in the 1946 Revised Standard Version and the impact of such a translation.

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