Personal Reflections on My Belief about Homosexuality

Willis (Bill) Breckbill

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I love the Mennonite Church. For the past forty-six years I have served as pastor, conference minister and on numerous boards and committees. I want the Mennonite church to be faithful to its call to love people as God loves them.

My deep concern is that the Mennonite Church is failing to express God's love

My deep concern is that the Mennonite Church is failing to express God’s love to a minority group of people-people who discover that, through no choice of their own, they have a homosexual orientation. Many of them have been baptized into the Mennonite Church, many have attended our high schools and colleges, yet they are often marginalized. Some are asked by pastors or elders to leave their home congregation. Some parents who wish to support their son or daughter are restricted in what they are permitted to do in the church.

Let me make my position clear. Some persons who connect with a “gay life-style” (see glossary) do engage in destructive behaviors. Some heterosexual people also engage in destructive behaviors. I do not approve of such destructive behaviors. I refer to believing persons who are committed to following Jesus in discipleship and who want to be a part of the church. Many of them live among us, a number of whom I know personally.

It is my firm belief that these persons need to be included in the church. They have much to offer and the church is the poorer for excluding them. For the church system to make them second class persons is a breach of justice. What follows is a brief reflection on my life of faith and how I came to this understanding.

During my ministry I have seen the Mennonite church wrestle with a number of issues. One issue was clothing. Clothes were a defining factor for separation from the world. Men wore dark, plain suits and women wore cape dresses, the prayer veiling and were not permitted to cut their hair. Those who did not abide by the rules were disciplined by being refused communion. Many families left the Mennonite Church because of its stringent rules. Another issue was our relation to Afro-Americans. During the 1960s, while serving as pastor of the First Mennonite Church, Canton, Ohio, I was confronted with my own prejudices toward the “blacks,” as they were identified then. The community in which the church building was located was about fifty percent African-American. My stereotypes of blacks, and my phobias concerning them, needed to be challenged and changed. The Mennonite Church also faced the issue of divorce and remarriage. Many meetings and study groups worked at understanding God’s grace in this issue that was very threatening to the unity of the church. Now little is said about this issue and people who are divorced and remarried serve in leadership roles. As a denomination we also struggled with each other regarding the inclusion of women in leadership roles. There is still residue from this conflict, which in some areas remains unresolved.

Our current struggle regarding the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Mennonite church has dynamics similar to these previous struggles, and behaviors in relation to the issue have been similar. I remember persons who had a strong Christian witness but who, due to other convictions about clothes, were excluded from leadership roles. They often left the church. I remember a ministerial colleague, pastor of an urban church where Afro-American Christians freely participated, who felt marginalized by the church. I remember women who demonstrated outstanding gifts for ministry who had to be quiet if they wanted to remain in the church. Now we are facing the issue of whether or not to include those who confess Christ but are gay or lesbian. Currently, in most places, those who confess Christ and who experience same-sex attraction and wish to live honestly with that orientation are judged, maligned and marginalized. Many leave. Not only are gays and lesbians ostracized; those who take a position of support for them also risk loss of rapport and of not having their gifts used in the church.

My acquaintance with many gays and lesbians has been a most informative and emotive experience for me. This exposure shaped my understanding and convictions for welcoming them, both those who are celibate and those who live in a committed relationship with same-sex partners. For six years Ina Ruth, my wife, and I have attended the Connecting Families weekend. The gathering is for parents and friends of gays and lesbians who want to be supportive of each other and their children. Gays and lesbians also attend and participate in the activities. The weekend is spent with a resource person who helps us think about how to be supportive of our children and each other. It offers support as well as a place to share personal understandings and convictions. We have heard from such people as Peggy Campolo, writer and editor, and Ralph Blair, a theologian/ psychiatrist and director of Evangelicals Concerned, Inc.

One of the most powerful sessions during these weekends is our time of worship. One of our great traditions is singing. Often between sessions parents, gays, lesbians, partners and supportive friends gather to sing favorite hymns. The Sunday worship includes a sermon, sharing, singing and communion. Many who attend testify that for them it is the spiritual highlight of the year. Seeing parents and gay children worshipping God together openly and with zest is indeed a very moving experience. This joy is not hard to understand since many of these folks “live” in closets of fear. They have heard so many words of judgment and condemnation; here they worship God openly and without fear.

Many tears appear during the weekend because many of these people live with deep pain, inflicted by former friends, family, church or neighbors. Some parents who are supportive of their gay child are not allowed to teach a Sunday School class. Some have been barred from small groups. Some members of their home churches refuse to talk to them. Some pastors ask gays and lesbians not to attend their church. Membership has been denied. Some siblings will not talk with their gay brother or sister. Some are not invited to family gatherings. This alienation and ostracizing has led many to despair or to totally give up on the church and leave, or to join the non-Christian scene. No wonder the suicide rate among gay and lesbian teens and those in their early twenties is much higher than among non-gay. The church and some family members have been very unkind and unjust to gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

For all of us, the Bible is an important influence in our struggle to be faithful. The awareness that the Bible has been, and is, interpreted in various and conflicting ways should cause us to approach the Bible with humility. A person who says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” seems to be totally unaware that using a scripture verse in a particular setting to prove a certain point is an interpretation of that text. Many pastors and theologians have studied the texts relating to homosexuality. There is no simple or unified interpretation. Part of the problem is knowing the accurate words to use when translating from the original texts. Some translations use the word “homosexual” even though that particular text does not mean what we mean when we use the word homosexual.” The Bible always needs to be studied with an awareness of the context and the issues being addressed. (Booklet #4 in this series deals specifically with Biblical interpretation.)

When I look at the life of Jesus and how he included those on the margins and those who were outcasts in society and the religious community, I am convinced that he would invite lesbians and gay men of our society to join him. I know of no passage where Jesus refused to show his love and grace. His greatest words of judgment were toward religious leaders who by their religious rules kept people out. The Bible, for me, is a story of God’s forming a people to demonstrate the character of God. Many texts in both the Old and New Testament make clear that the Good News of God’s love is for all people. I do not know how to show God’s love to people and at the same time refuse to associate with them. I need to invite, include, and interact so that I can understand them and in some way share God’s love with them. I am the first to acknowledge that I fall short of this ideal. It is my conviction that God’s grace is “unrationed,” as our recently departed brother, Atlee Beechy, declared in his “Confession of a Peacemaker.”

The Bible has often been misused in the history of the Christian Church. When Copernicus came to an understanding that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe, the Church excommunicated him because it believed his theory was contrary to what the Bible taught. It understood the Bible to affirm a flat earth theory with the sun crossing the sky. The Bible is a pre-scientific book, and the writers did not know what we know today about the universe. Interestingly, Copernicus was reinstated by church leaders posthumously. This illustrates the need to be careful when we conclude that we know the answers from the Bible apart from scientific information and reason.

The church has kept women out of leadership roles for centuries using certain scriptures to support that position. Even today in many locations women are restricted by the church to limited roles. But clearly, in recent years women are making significant contributions as leaders in the church. They bring a sensitivity that has often not been found in men. Women have ministered to my spirit in very powerful ways. The church began to interpret the scripture, trying to understand Paul’s day and the role of women in that society. Today, in a different society, women are included in leadership roles and the church is much the richer for it.

The church permitted and supported slavery in the United States. Slaves were viewed as second class people or even as non-human. The stories of the mistreatment of slaves are soul-wrenching. The Bible assumes slavery. But through study and the prompting of the Spirit, the church changed its mind. Clearly, human beings need to be respected as human beings to be treated justly and humanely. Compassion, and not a specific Biblical text, changed our understanding about slavery.

Today the church faces the question of including gays and lesbians. Certain texts are cited, in my mind often misused, to reinforce a stereotype that excludes gays and lesbians. We establish guidelines to protect ourselves from sexual minorities as if they were dangerous; we fear that they will pollute us. So, to save us from our fears, we find ways to keep them at a distance. Homophobia is rampant even though often denied. Someone has said, “We develop laws and guidelines to protect us from the hard work of love.” In my mind the problem is not that there are gays and lesbians. They are not the problem. The problem is the church’s refusal to extend grace and open arms to receive them. Remember the scripture, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

In recent months I have been impressed by the diversity in nature. A brief look at the plant and animal world informs us of many varieties with great differences but with a common source or center. There is life.

When we look at our human family we readily observe great variety and diversity. We are tall and short, dark and light. We have blue eyes and brown eyes, blonde hair and black. We are left handed and right handed. Some people have artistic minds, some mechanical, some mathematical, some poetic. Some view things from a practical point of view while others are more theoretical. Today we talk about academic intelligence and emotional intelligence. No matter what areas of our life we examine we observe diversity. Why would we expect the area of sexuality to be either purely male or female? From general observations we notice that characteristics often attributed to men are seen in women and vice versa. This does not make these folks good or bad, only different from each other. The same-sex attraction of gays and lesbians is easy to understand amidst this diversity. Neither are these folks good or bad or emotionally sick because of their sexual orientation. They reflect part of the diversity of the human family.

I believe that gays and lesbians have an orientation that is different from heterosexuals. They do not choose to be homosexual. Something innate in their being causes them to be attracted sexually to the same gender. Many studies have been done on this subject, and the movement, as I read the material, is toward recognition of this reality. This causes me to ask, “How can we express God’s grace to those with a homosexual orientation?” Some people think that they should be cured” of their “perversion.” Some believe that God can change persons from being homosexual to being heterosexual, but the scene is not convincing. There are many, many stories of persons who declared themselves changed but later recognized that nothing had changed. These persons often come to a place of peace when they accept themselves as being gay or lesbian and experience God’s accepting grace.

There is a tendency to perceive all gays and lesbians as perverted and sinful. My experience is otherwise. Some of the most compassionate people I know are gay or lesbian. This is not only my observation, but also that of others. A woman whose husband died in a tragic accident experienced more care from a gay nephew than from other members in the family system. A woman minister friend experienced a gay man standing by her in the difficult times of losing her brother and later her father. Are these the kind of people we want to keep out of the church?

For human beings, intimate relationships are nurturing and fulfilling. Some people are not privileged to experience this and that makes me sad. I wish for all people a relationship that is mutually supportive, encouraging and life-giving. Not all heterosexual people enjoy this ideal, but they are not denied the privilege of trying to achieve it. I see no reason for me to determine that same-sex partnerships should be denied gays and lesbians. I observe these partnerships to be mutually supportive, encouraging and life-giving. If this is their experience, I have no need to call it bad or evil.

Where do we go from here in our Mennonite Church? Considering my view, I have the following suggestions:

  1. We need to find ways to talk with each other. The issue of receiving gays and lesbians, either practicing or celibate, into church is the problem. The problem is not gay and lesbian people. The problem is not that we disagree but that we attack one another. Unfortunately the report and recommendations of a Listening Committee duly appointed by both the General Conference and the Mennonite Church in 1990 was not given proper attention and implementation. (See Booklet #2) The committee’s findings and recommendations were given to the leadership of both denominations in 1993, but they decided not to release it to the church or to implement the recommendations. So we remain in a deadlock. The Purdue and Saskatoon Statements recommend that we dialogue about the issue. We have not had real dialogue. The process seems to be to avoid or defer. When will we have a structure for talking freely without fear of recrimination? Surely this should happen in a believers church where we maintain that God’s will is found by giving and receiving counsel, and studying the Word, all under the guidance of the Spirit.
  2. We need to extend God’s grace of acceptance to all who believe. As Christians we continue to fail on many fronts. The lists in the Bible of behaviors that displease God include greed, gossip, lust, adultery, strife, jealousy, envy, drunkenness and others. None of us is free from all of these behaviors. But when I look at my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I also see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These, Paul says, are fruit of the Spirit. Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, that by the fruit you will know the good and bad tree. I want to accept those who come to God by faith and show evidence of good fruit.
  3. We need to remove the category of “disciplined congregation” and enjoy the participation of each other in the search for wholeness. Most of the congregations that are currently under discipline are congregations that have studied this issue using the resources available to them. They studied the Word, were open to counsel, and felt led to receive gays and lesbians into their fellowship. It seems strange to me that members of congregations that have spent little or no time studying the issue want conferences to discipline those who have. We should be willing to bless each other even though we find ourselves with different understandings on this issue, for none of us has come to fullness of truth on the topic.
  4. We need to credential those who honestly seek to be faithful to the call of God on their lives, even though there is a difference in understanding and conviction. If discerning God’s will in the life of the church is an ongoing process, we need all the light that we can get. We included many people in the process of welcoming women into church leadership. We spent much time together processing whether divorced and remarried persons could retain membership in the church. I fail to understand why in our present situation some refuse to offer support to receive gays and lesbians into the church, to extend to them the privilege of serving. Is this an attempt to keep the church pure? Is it a matter of control? Is it homophobia? What is the motivational element behind exclusion?
  5. We should train persons to understand the gay/lesbian orientation so that with grace and care they can counsel young people who may have questions about their sexuality. To help youth sort out orientation for themselves before they come to the place where they think marriage will “fix” things, only to discover it does not, would be an exercise of Christian grace and nurture. Many people get hurt when such help is not provided. Possibly some who think that they might be gay or lesbian are not. They need safe places to go, where they can talk freely about their sexual attractions without fear of judgment or recrimination. Counsel could be given regarding how to relate to parents, family and church. Counsel could be given regarding same-sex partnership.

In conclusion, the church should be a place of grace and acceptance. I do not see the inclusion of gays and lesbians as being “easy on sin” but rather as a way to express God’s grace and acceptance. As I share my views here, I know there are many who take a different view. I am ready to be in conversation with those who differ with me. My presentation is brief and lacks detailed argument. Other pamphlets in this series will discuss in more detail some areas that I have identified. I have shared in a general way how I have come to my understandings and convictions. I do not claim to have any special insight, nor am I impressed by those who think they have. Each of us brings to the scriptures our own ideology. No one has a perfect or pure interpretation. We find new insights into better interpretation within community. Community happens when we are open with one another and to God’s Spirit.

Bill was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was baptized into the Mennonite Church upon his confession of faith in Jesus Christ when he was sixteen. After high school graduation he began working as a hired man for local farmers. Six years later he enrolled at Goshen College from which he received a BA in Bible and in 1955 a ThB. Bill has served as pastor in Mennonite congregations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Ontario, Indiana, and Northern Ireland. He served six years as Conference Minister in the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference and in the Indiana Michigan Conference for nearly ten. He also served on the General Board of the Mennonite Church for ten years and as moderator of the Mennonite Church from 1977 - 1979. He served as Mennonite Hour speaker from 1975 - 1977. His committee assignments included the committee that wrote “A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership.” He and his wife, Ina Ruth Krabill, have four adult children.
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