On the “Centrality of the Confession of Faith” for MB Leadership Suspending Church Membership Due to LGBTQ Inclusion

It seems like every month I’m hearing about another Mennonite Brethren (MB) church being placed on “membership suspension” by their MB Conference for adopting (or even discussing) LGBTQ inclusion in some form. Whether by making space for gay marriage as a “disputable or secondary matter” or affirming that the marriage covenant is open to same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike, churches are exploring ways of including LGBTQ people. It seems that any openness to such exploration is met with discipline in the form of censor, revoking pastoral credentials and/or suspending churches from conference membership.

Tomorrow the Ontario MB Conference (ONMB) is beginning its annual convention where delegates will vote on recommendations from the ONMB Board to suspend two churches. These churches “have each publicly expressed the decision to move away from our shared biblical understanding that for disciples of Jesus, sexual intimacy is necessarily limited to the context of a male/female marriage covenant (as described in Articles 10 and 11 of the MB Confession of Faith). By doing this, both congregations are moving away from and violating their ONMB affiliation covenant to operate in agreement with the MB Confession of Faith and practices.”

In its pre-convention letter, ONMB repeatedly supports its recommendation for these suspensions by pointing to the Confession of Faith. Page one outlines the ONMB Provincial Faith and Life Team’s (PFLT) “authority and mandate” to “maintain the centrality of the Confession of Faith.” Page two notes its collaboration with the National Faith and Life Team (NFLT) to “articulate and safeguard MB theological convictions… primarily through sustaining our MB confessional foundation.” Page three highlights PFLT’s engagement in providing helpful resources “to keep confessional integrity with the MB Confession of Faith and our communal interpretation of scripture.” “Your PFLT joins our churches in ensuring that we live and model that confessional integrity, while still demonstrating Christ’s love and grace to those who either view this differently, or who question how to practically merge faith and life on this [gay marriage] topic.”

The next four pages articulate the background and rationale for the proposed suspensions. Articles 10 and 11 of the MB Confession of Faith–“Discipleship” and “Marriage, Singleness and Family,” respectively–“faithfully describe the way of Jesus in terms of sexuality and sexual expression.” “Clarity in the ethical issue of sexuality really matters because it is a theological and a hermeneutical question that is about much more than simply sexual behaviors. It has larger implications for how we understand the nature of Christian discipleship, the authority of Scripture, the nature of the gospel, and so on.” As John Longhurst’s opinion piece on this statement says, “Finally–someone said it.”

The ONMB’s letter goes on: “While some declare that our historic understanding of sexual intimacy for Christians as limited to male/female marriage is really a disputable or secondary theological matter, the Faith & Life Team and ONMB Board believe it is critical to hold fast to our existing convictions. Our ethics cannot be distanced in significance from doctrine. Our Anabaptist forebears insisted that ‘to have faith is to follow’ and thus our ethical decisions are of critical importance. We believe that the biblical teaching on the subject of sexuality, as historically understood and articulated in the MB Confession of Faith, is strong and biblically defensible. We believe that when our hermeneutical approach, our posture toward Scripture, and our understanding of God’s expectations for Christian disciples are all shifted to allow for differing views on sexual ethics, many of our other faith commitments are also dramatically and negatively affected.

According to the ONMB, the Confession is central to protecting our faith, and these churches are choosing “a different path from the MB vision” by being out of alignment with that center. “The ONMB Board does not view this motion to our delegates as a removal of a church from membership–but rather as an action to formally recognize what [these churches] have already done by the actions of knowingly departing from their ONMB affiliation expectations.” In other words, these churches are choosing to suspend themselves. This process is being repeated in many MB conferences.

When I hear this “centrality of the Confession of Faith” rhetoric, I have questions. So, I’m going to ask them.

If “organizational structure and polity require that all ONMB churches and pastors affirm and comply with the Confession of Faith in its entirety,” why do only certain differences or disagreements trigger suspension?

There may be some difference between Canadian and US contexts (and bylaws, perhaps?), but I doubt that what I’ve witnessed in my almost two and a half decades of interaction with USMBs does not have some resonance in the Canadian conferences. I’ve lost count of the number of experiences I’ve had within MB churches, organizations and institutions where the Confession of Faith was decentralized, especially when it comes to Article 13, “Love and Nonresistance.” During my membership class in the first MB church I joined, I asked the pastor why worship services seemed to disregard or conflict with Article 13 (e.g. patriotic themes, American flag displayed in sanctuary, hymns with violent language, etc.). He chuckled and explained to me that many people in the congregation, and in the conference as a whole, do not agree with this article. In fact, having come from a Baptist background prior to his position at this church, he did not agree. Surprised, I asked if that was an issue when he was being credentialed with the MBs. He said, not at all. Many pastors and leaders do not hold the view communicated by Article 13. In fact, no pastor or leader completely agrees with the Confession of Faith. The tone in his voice was patronizing, as if to say, “Silly girl. The Confession of Faith is optional.”

Can we be honest about our inconsistent alignment with the Confession? If so, can we be open to the possibility that the “center” we seek to “safeguard” may be something else? We may get the best clues for understanding what really operates as our center by critically reflecting on the issues that cause the most defensiveness, the ones where there is least room for “variance,” the ones that prompt the strongest centering of the “authority” of the Confession. LGBTQ inclusion ranks among the top of that list. Why?

The ONMB claim that gender and sexuality lead to the proverbial slippery slope down which the authority of Scripture, among other doctrines, erode. Read between the lines: queers are a threat to what we hold dear. Then ask: What is it we’re holding onto? Is this another “battle for the Bible,” as John Longhurst suggests? “It’s not about whether LGBTQ+ people can love Jesus and be faithful disciples. They can. It’s about whether the Bible, as some interpret it, is true and can be trusted. That’s the big issue in play… the topic of LGBTQ+ welcome and affirmation is attracting so much attention, anger and recrimination because it is the last piece to be pulled before Christians today find themselves with a new perspective on the Bible, one that challenges hundreds of years of biblical tradition.” Is this about defending a particular understanding of “inspiration?” Article 2 (Revelation of God) does say, “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.”

Yes, and…

This is a fight to protect a particular understanding of the Bible. However, I don’t think that’s the root. This version of “biblical authority” is more like the trunk supporting a canopy, one branch of which is a doctrine of marriage like the one articulated in the MB Confession of Faith. One man + one woman + for life = the only permissible arrangement for sexual relationships. Feeding the trunk is a root system that is more difficult to assess because it is underground. One way to honestly examine what our root system includes–because we can make all sorts of claims–is to look at what the whole tree produces.

Toward the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he uses a metaphor that often gets used in conversations about LGBTQ inclusion by those advocating for an affirming reading of scripture. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit… Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:17-18, 20). The idea is this: non-affirming theology is producing the “bad fruit” of LGBTQ suffering, marginalization and exclusion. This “bad fruit” should move us with compassion, prompt us to ask, “Have we gotten something wrong? Is there another way of interpreting and applying scripture that might produce ‘good fruit’?” Many queer folks and their allies are begging churches to honestly face the “bad fruit” realities they live everyday, and to be open enough to critically examine what is going on below the surface.

I’ll be posting again to share what I think is going on under the surface, but for now I want to leave you with a few things to consider.

What can we learn about the understanding and use of “authority” at work in these cases of MB conferences suspending membership of churches who engage LGBTQ inclusion? 

Consider how the Confession of Faith is being used. Consider what understanding of “biblical authority” is being protected. Pay attention to who gets to make decisions and who does not. 

For example, we claim a “community hermeneutic” that is also part of our Confession: “The same Spirit guides the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture” (Article 2). Why aren’t these churches’ interpretive and discernment processes being honored as part of that hermeneutic? Are they not part of the “community”? Leaders use rhetoric about who is and isn’t “taking scripture seriously” in order to justify the rightness of their decisions and their authority to make such decisions. Is “safeguarding” the current iteration of the Confession of Faith even consistent with a “community hermeneutic”? After all, this is a document that has gone through changes and revisions. Whose voices are part of that process? What does that reveal to us?

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