Mennonites and the "Homosexual" Issue: A Recent History

Lin Garber

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In November 1997 the oldest Mennonite congregation in North America was expelled from one of the two district conferences of which it was a member. A few months later the other conference with which it was affiliated, which had no mechanism by which to expel a congregation, expressly and explicitly rejected the ministerial credentials of that congregation’s new pastor. Both actions were in response to the congregation’s open acceptance into full membership of some members of sexual minorities.

In November 1997 the oldest Mennonite congregation in North America was expelled

The treatment of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Franconia Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the Eastern District of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) occasioned outcries of indignation from members and sympathizers of the sexual minorities in question, and those outcries in turn occasioned equally loud support for the conference actions by people who thought those sexual minorities had no place in their religious society. “What is the Mennonite Church coming to?” was the question asked by both sides in this dispute.

While all this was going on, the whole world seemed to be in turmoil over this problem of sexual minorities in relation to religion. The World Council of Churches, meeting in Zimbabwe in December 1998, was treated to the fulminations of Robert Mugabe, president of the host country, against gays and lesbians. A few months earlier the world convocation of Anglicans had voted overwhelmingly to condemn the intimate relationships of members of the same sex by a tally that showed a polar divergence of opinion between Third World clergy and most of those from Anglo-American countries. In India a film about lesbians was violently protested by leaders of orthodox Hinduism. One could have visited any country in the world, in any week of these last years of the second millennium, and found similar examples.

The view from within each one of these societies and faith communities can obscure the universality of the conflict. Anglican or Zimbabwean or Mennonite gays and lesbians can easily feel unjustly treated by their own people, as if their community is the oppressive exception to a tolerant world. Much has been written about the broad historical and geographical scope of the oppression and the way it waxes and wanes over time and across latitudes and longitudes. However, for readers of this booklet it may be best to concentrate on how these matters play out among Mennonites in North America. In looking at the Mennonite churches in relation to this subject, I will attempt to show (1) where they are now, and (2) how they got there.

Among Mennonites, the problem most often present is disagreement over who can be members of the church. In contrast to the “catholic” traditions, where all inhabitants of a community were ideally deemed to be members of the church and only admission or non-admission to the rites of communion created a distinction, in the Mennonite faith tradition membership is voluntary, and this has come to be the prevailing idea of Western democracies. Less prevalent is the Mennonite/Anabaptist idea that church membership entails a commitment to certain standards of practice agreed upon by the entire church community. It further entails commitments of mutual assistance in time of need, of mutual counsel, of obedience to the will of the whole “body” of faith.

It is not hard to see why such concepts can produce anxiety about the nature of those with whom one is in such intimate association. The necessary accompaniment to such communal mutuality is an energetic and intentional process of discernment, of careful and considerate reciprocal listening. These processes, especially among the relatively assimilated and institutionalized Mennonite bodies that are now engaged in the process of merger, have often taken second place to considerations of institutional survival, of bureaucratic efficiencies. Consequently, there has been an importation of “consultants” and “facilitators” and “resource persons” where there used to be-at least in the idealized fantasies about the good old days-prayers for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

All of this has meant that new notions of membership have arisen. Those who contribute to the overall health of the institution are somehow more welcome than those who might be disruptive, and especially those who might tend to repel the “stronger” (read, unfortunately, in all too many cases, “wealthier”) members.

To place the problem in context, we need to look at the policies of other religious denominations in regard to persons of same-gender affectional orientation (SGAs). While some mainstream denominations, such as the United Methodists and the Presbyterians, are embroiled in controversy over whether their gay and lesbian members may be ordained to the clergy, or whether they may have “services of union” or similar analogs to marriage blessed by the denominational clergy or performed on church property, among most Mennonites the controversy has been over whether to admit such people into membership at all.

Denominations such as the United Church of Christ and the Universalist-Unitarians place no restrictions, at least on the national level, on membership and full participation in leadership. Yet even where denominations have no official position against the membership of gay and lesbian people, barriers exist against such membership that vary from congregation to congregation, or parish to parish, or diocese to diocese.2

Celibacy, Promiscuity, or Committed Monogamy?

In the more active public discussion of these issues since the occasions of the most recent disciplinary actions, some Mennonites who oppose acceptance of SGAs into church membership have attempted to frame distinctions between “practicing” and “nonpracticing” homosexuals. People with same-gender affectional orientation are welcome in their churches, they say, as long as they promise to remain celibate: after all, the Bible mandates that sexual relations are to be confined to a marriage, and marriage is reserved for a man and a woman.

Members of the SGA community had for many years been trying to convey that there do exist such things as long-term, committed, covenant relationships among them; relationships that follow the ideal model of marriage required of opposite-sex couples, complete with vowed lifelong fidelity and mutual support. Such relationships were cited as the biblical, ethical, moral alternative to the promiscuity that was thought to be prevalent, especially among gay men, by many people in the dominant community.

That emphasis on the committed monogamous relationship backfired in a most startling and unexpected way. Suddenly it was the “committed monogamous relationships” of SGAs that themselves became the lightning rod for anti-gay polemics. One kind of reference, the kind that equates such relationships with criminal acts, came in a December 1997 letter to Mennonite Weekly Review: “For those who think that a monogamous homosexual relationship is not wrong, would they hold the same position that if two people commit adultery or steal or get drunk, then it is not wrong, but if more than two are involved in the activity, then it becomes wrong?”3 By definition, it was claimed, people in such relationships were “practicing” their “homosexual lifestyle,” which put them in the same category as those who were “addicted” to sexual acting-out in bathhouses or bars or public restrooms, or in other settings for promiscuous behavior.4

In fact, however, to the extent that “nonpracticing” homosexuals would be accepted into membership, that would represent an advance over the prevailing attitude reported in a 1989 study, wherein an average of 32 percent of respondents from the five bodies surveyed (ranging from 28% to 44%) would not accept “homosexual” persons “not engaging in homosexual acts” as members of their congregations; 80 percent would not accept such persons as leaders; and 88 percent would apparently deny the possibility of ordination to persons of acknowledged homosexual orientation even if they were celibate. To say it another way: only 20 percent of Mennonites would have accepted even celibate homosexuals as leaders (only 12 percent would ordain them), and just over two-thirds would have accepted even celibate homosexuals as church members. On the other hand, it should be noted that a sizeable minority of the two denominations in question (22% of the MCs and 32% of the GCs) were willing to accept “persons engaging in homosexual acts” into membership, although 97 percent of the former and 94 percent of the latter appeared unwilling to consider them for ordination.5

Bipolar Responses to the Issue

SGAs experience the following range of responses among North American and European Mennonites today (the rapidly growing population of Third World Mennonites presents complications of its own): from total acceptance in the Netherlands, including ordination to the clergy and the performance of commitment ceremonies in the churches, to absolute ostracism by those groups or congregations in the United States that are most closely aligned with American fundamentalism, or the “Religious Right.”

The two extremes at which Mennonite denominations within the North American “mainstream” have reacted to the presence of SGAs among them can be found in some district conferences of the MC,6 on the one hand, and the Brethren-Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (BMC), with its affiliated group, the Supportive Congregations Network (SCN) on the other. It should be emphasized that BMC has been struggling throughout its existence for any kind of recognition by the official church groupings, so the “pole” of response that it represents actually lies beyond the denominational “planet.”7

One of the most pervasive subsets of the fundamentalist approach is the advocacy of what are called “transformation ministries” by their adherents, or the “ex-gay” movement by its detractors. Within the realm of psychiatry, there are so-called reparative or conversion therapies, which have been repudiated by all the major professional associations in the field.8 This point of view is being aggressively promoted at the official level especially by Lancaster Conference, the largest district conference of the MC and one that will exercise great influence in the integrated denomination. In a negatively tendentious study guide (albeit couched in disingenuously soothing language) adopted by that conference in September 1997, “The Church and Homosexuality,” the last page provides “Resources for Additional Help.” The four listed entities-Day Seven Ministries, Exodus International, Homosexuals Anonymous, and Regeneration Books-are all related to the “ex-gay” movement.9 BMC and SCN are conspicuously absent, as is “Connecting Families” (a Brethren-Mennonite version of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFlag], which is also absent). Even any reference to such recognized authorities as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, with their multitude of resources, is missing. This is not too surprising, since those organizations have issued statements such as this: “Therefore, the American Psychiatric Association opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.”10

The Lancaster Conference study guide spells out the most restrictive position adopted by an MC district conference. Although the document is subtitled: “A Paper for Study and Discussion,” there is among Mennonites a tendency for such statements to be appealed to as authoritative by the people who agree with them, while people who have questions often find themselves silenced by reference to them. The September 1997 assembly that adopted the statement explicitly approved the inclusion of the following preemptive declaration by an overwhelming margin (greater than 98%): “Congregations who justify homosexual acts preclude themselves from continued fellowship with other congregations in Lancaster Conference.”

Such dicta are often seized upon by anti-gay partisans as authoritative final words, regardless of any mitigating context. The most telling example of that phenomenon is found in the nearly identical statements adopted by the GC (Saskatoon 1986) and the MC (Purdue 1987), which are full of the language of repentance and apology for past mistreatment of gay people and which call for continuing dialogue and prayerful discernment over the acknowledged disagreement that remained. Yet the single reference in these statements to homosexual genital contact as sinful is invoked by anti-gay polemicists on all possible occasions as “the official position of the Mennonite Church”:

We understand the Bible to teach that sexual intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in marriage and that violation of this teaching is a sin. It is our understanding that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sexual activity.11

Here is how the “Final Report: Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns” views that practice:

When the assemblies accepted the sexuality committee’s report and recommended its study in the congregations but nevertheless passed resolutions concerning homosexuality not in that report, a popular confusion emerged on whether the assemblies really wanted congregations to study the sexuality committee’s report on homosexuality or not, for, as some have told us, “There is nothing to study, the assemblies have spoken.”

This confusion persists to the present time. [emphasis added]12

The extreme position that all “homosexuals” can and should “change” if they wish to be members of the church crops up in the official statements of some other conferences, while referrals to ex-gay organizations are recommended in others, most notably in the “clarifications” issued by the MC General Board in 1991 (see text at [Johns]/SUMMARY.htm).

As a matter of fact, in the past many SGAs in the Mennonite community remained single; many more “hid their difference,” and the principle method of concealment was to enter a heterosexual marriage under the heavy, sometimes coercive, persuasion of people in the churches. The result has been a tragedy of unhappy and broken families.

Of particular concern are the depressed or burdened spouses and former spouses, especially wives and ex-wives of gay men. There are few if any support groups or systems within the Mennonite churches, and almost none in any other, or even in secular psychotherapy, for these women told by the church that all this man needs to change is the love of a good woman. When change did not occur, she could only conclude that it was because she was not a good woman.

In the psychiatric circles of the 1960s, Drs. Edmund Bergler, Irving Bieber, and Charles Socarides were the most prominent exponents of the idea that homosexuality in males was a disordered condition usually caused by a dominant mother in combination with a physically or psychologically absent or distant father, and that it could be cured by psychotherapeutic means. This idea has survived within a fringe of the profession and has been embraced by the religious right. Occupying a comparable position within Mennonite circles has been Dr. Enos Martin, affiliated with Hershey Medical Center and a bishop in the Lancaster Conference. He has been the leading Mennonite spokesperson for the “ex-gay” point of view for many years, and his influence has been pervasive, especially in southeastern Pennsylvania, which constitutes the population heartland of the MC.13

At the other pole are the Brethren-Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (BMC)and its subsidiary group, the Supportive Congregations Network (SCN). BMC originated in the mid-1970s, founded by Martin Rock, a gay male member of the Church of the Brethren who was employed by a Mennonite agency until his orientation was disclosed.14 The SCN consists of some twenty congregations in the MC, GC, and Church of the Brethren that have declared themselves “Open and Publicly Affirming” of their gay and lesbian members, plus another fifty or so who are either welcoming or exploring the question, but have not yet agreed to make their positions public.

The existence of this grouping renders inaccurate such statements as: “Mennonites consider homosexuality to be a sin,” or “practicing homosexuals may not be accepted into membership of Mennonite churches.” At least a dozen Mennonite churches openly declare their dissent from any such assertions, and a good many more are working on it.

Between these poles-the rejecting and expelling stances of some MC conferences and the welcoming attitudes of a small group of congregations-are some interesting gradations. Even in the brief time since the latest expulsions, there has been a movement by some of the most vocally anti-gay congregations out of the very conferences that took those actions, on the grounds that the actions were not drastic enough.15

At one end of this middle ground of conferences who have not adopted the “preemptive strike” strategy of the Lancaster Conference statement are six district conferences of the MC that have taken action to “discipline” such congregations. Four of these have finally moved to expel them: Iowa-Nebraska (Ames, 1988), Franconia (Germantown, 1997), South Central (Rainbow, Kansas City, Kans., Mar. 1998/Mar. 1999), and Southeast (Atlanta, Dec., 1998). Illinois and Indiana-Michigan have “disciplined” but not yet expelled congregations (Oak Park, Ill., and Maple Avenue, Waukesha, Wis., in the case of the former, and Southside and Assembly, in Elkhart and Goshen, Ind., respectively, in the case of the latter).

Two SCN-listed Mennonite congregations that are affiliated with MC district conferences have not been acted against: First Mennonite of San Francisco (whose district conference, Pacific Southwest, is itself an integrated body as of 1995), and Mennonite Congregation of Boston, which retains dual membership in Atlantic Coast Conference of the MC and the Eastern District of the GCMC. Another congregation, Faith, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, although not on the SCN publicly affirming list, is well known as accepting of gay and lesbian people. An action brought to discipline Faith at the Iowa-Nebraska Conference in 1998 failed to get the required two-thirds majority vote; a repeat attempt in 1999 succeeded when the wording of the resolution was changed from “discipline” to “placing under sanction.”16

Sources of the Denominational Dysfunction

Before 1969 Mennonites simply subscribed to the attitude of the general population on the subject of same-gender affection: they pretended it did not exist. There is little, then, that can be said to be a distinctively “Mennonite history of the gay issue” before that time. To be sure, the phenomenon presented some problems for people in charge of church institutions that had populations of healthy young people segregated by sex-notably the colleges with their single-sex dormitories and rules that required that women be safely within their buildings by curfew (11:00 p.m. in the one I attended). But again, those were problems shared by all of North American society. The prevailing mood was “don’t ask, don’t tell”-as it was with such subjects as premarital cohabitation, abortion, and even birth control.17

All that changed with the Stonewall incident of 28 June 1969.18 To much of the general population, this intrusion into their awareness of an uncomfortable subject was simply the final insult of the free-wheeling, rebellious 1960s. That was certainly true of most Mennonites, and yet enough Mennonites had been exposed to the “counterculture” movements of the period, or had actively participated in its various “liberation” and civil rights movements, that it was possible for some to enfold the newly visible cause of “gay liberation” into their sphere of sympathy and concern. That was especially the case in the growing populations of young Mennonite professionals and academics who were moving into university communities and metropolises such as Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and San Francisco.19

The “Mennonite fellowships” that formed within these new and unprecedented (for U.S. Mennonites) kinds of communities were diverse in many respects, in that they included representatives from across the smorgasbord of Mennonite sectarian expressions, from Old Order Amish to General Conference Mennonite, and they typically affiliated with two or three of the existing denominational organizations or conferences instead of just one. They also included a wider range of household types than previously obtained, from single persons living alone to unrelated persons living together-even the occasional mixed-gender but unmarried couple-to people living in communal arrangements and a large group of inhabitants of group quarters (student housing), all the way to a scattering of traditional nuclear families. Missing was the old extended family embracing grandparents and maiden aunts and bachelor uncles that so many of them had experienced in their developing years.

These fellowships, for all their countercultural aspirations, also tended to be somewhat uniform in their whiteness (their ethnicity pretty much confined to the Swiss-German or Dutch-Russian strains of their communities of origin), middle-class status, and level of educational achievement. But they engaged in dialogue with their urban settings in ways that would have scandalized many of their home communities had they known about them. Not least of these ways was the acceptance of gay people (an acceptable blanket term in the 1970s) into full participation and membership (though membership itself was often a somewhat amorphous concept for these groups).

At the same time, many of the metropolitan areas where such fellowships arose were also home to “mission churches” that were established, usually in ethnic-minority communities, by more theologically conservative emissaries, often of more rural churches. It was hardly unheard of for the same family to have one member going to, say, Columbia or New York University, and engaging in some of the exact “scandalous” or “sinful” behaviors (theater-going, to mention just one; cohabitation of the unmarried, for another) that another member might be trying to combat from a mission church in the Bronx.

The tensions between the social and theological conservatism of the missionizing groups and the openness to free inquiry that characterizes the academics continue to play out to this day, especially on the subject of same-gender relationships. It is an especially wrenching thing for members of the SGA community to hear their concerns dismissed by members of the African-American or Hispanic communities as “a white middle-class problem”-as if there were no black or Latino lesbian or gay people, and as if the SGA community does not feel the same weight of oppression and opprobrium that their sisters and brothers of color have felt and still feel. A particular sadness is that SGAs of color will be more readily welcomed in the largely white fellowships described above than in most Mennonite congregations where their own ethnicities predominate.

Yet if there is a “white middle-class problem” among the Mennonites in relation to the SGA issue, it would seem to reside among the forces of oppression and expulsion. Germantown, located in inner-city Philadelphia, was expelled from Franconia Conference and is subject to sanctions of dubious legality from the Eastern District of the General Conference Mennonite Church as a result of pressures from the wealthy and increasingly suburban (as opposed to its rural origins) Bucks-Montgomery community of Mennonites. The strongest locus of such pressure in Illinois Conference is in the affluent eastern suburbs of Peoria. In Southeast Conference it is in the largely white, hardly impoverished community of retired Mennonites at Sarasota.

Bureaucratic Homophobia: A Chronology of Discourse

The June 14, 1977 issue of Gospel Herald contained an article by Kevin Linehan with the title “A Pastoral Response to Homosexuality.”20 An anonymous letter published in response to that article more than two months later, in the August 23 issue, contained the following paragraph: “Now that you have opened the door to a discussion of this important issue, I feel it is mandatory for you to publish an article giving a sympathetic, balanced view to the question of the church’s relationship to the homosexual. Perhaps you may want to contact persons such as John Howard Yoder for suggestions.”

It has not been possible to track all the subsequent references to the subject in the letters-to-the-editor pages of all the church papers-there was a conspicuous lack of such references in most of the editorial content-but it is certain that this evocation of his name led a reluctant John Howard Yoder to fruitful delving into its ethical and theological underpinnings. Unfortunately much of his resulting work, cut short by his untimely death, has not been cleared for wider dissemination. But this was the beginning of what little serious study has been undertaken by Mennonite scholars. Much more remains to be done.

It may be that the 1978 statement by (then) Rainbow Boulevard Mennonite Church of Kansas City, Kansas, that it would welcome gays and lesbians into church membership helped force the issue onto the agenda of the denomination-wide agencies. In any case, that was the year in which the Mennonite Medical Association held the first of two consultations on the general subject of homosexuality. John Howard Yoder zeroed in on the principal weakness of the event’s format: “Here we come to a point where I must confess the severe limits of carrying on a conversation in the absence of the people we want to care about.”21

Some small progress was made at the second consultation the next year, when the former wife of a gay man told her story, whose one-sidedness was understandable. There is no indication in the published proceedings that any gay person was present, although conflicting reports would have either one “ex-gay” or two gay men, one not a Mennonite, as having been present. The actual case is not discernible from the published report since no contribution from a gay or lesbian Mennonite was included.

In May of 1980 a consultation was held at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Pennsylvania.22 A group of invited educators, church agency employees, and theologians was commissioned to wrestle with the topics of singles and sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality in a tightly scheduled weekend. What was new here was that several openly gay and lesbian Mennonites were invited to attend and to contribute to the discussions. But even here none was asked to serve as a resource person. Some of the people who had presented at the MMA consultations were again front and center at this event.

In 1981, the MC General Assembly met at Bowling Green, Ohio, and a forum was scheduled for the discussion of homosexuality. However, it was explicitly closed to any openly gay attenders, let alone contributors. The event was under the control of Dr. Enos Martin, the promoter of the “ex-gay” Day Seven Ministries. Protests against this procedure were to no avail.

In 1982 there was a seminar at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, at which John Howard Yoder continued his wrestling with the theological foundations of the ethics surrounding the church’s treatment of gay and lesbian people.23 By the time of the 1983 Joint Assembly of the GC and the MC at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the frustration of some gay and lesbian people and of some of their supporters with the silencing of the people most concerned and most informed about this topic that so vexed the larger church finally achieved some movement.

It must be stated firmly and without apology that this policy of exclusion and silencing could only have had its origins in homophobia.24 The fear and loathing of any kind of contact with gay and lesbian people led to great pressures being placed on the denominational leaders to keep “those people” away from the gatherings of the faithful. But at Bethlehem, the following events happened:

  • BMC set up a display with the initial approval of the governing boards, but it was ordered to be dismantled after a few hours. The Mennonite Women’s Caucus then provided display facilities at its booth.
  • A workshop session, with a sympathetic theologian and a sympathetic psychiatrist leading, was held with an overflow crowd in attendance.
  • BMC was assigned a private room within the convention facility to which drop-ins were welcomed.
  • The Region V Listening Committee conducted a session at which several gay men were invited to contribute.

The episode of the booths has been played out at every assembly since then, in one form or another. It seems to have become almost a ritual: BMC applies for display space, and after “due consideration” the request is denied on one pretext or another. BMC then books space in some nearby facility where it may receive inquiries and hold meetings. But there have been officially sponsored workshop sessions on the programs of most subsequent assemblies, and the procession of parents and the current year’s ex-gay poster boy (for the required “balance”) and one or two openly gay or lesbian people, shepherded by a nervous church functionary, has made the names and faces of some members of the Mennonite SGA community quite familiar to the people who make a practice of attending these assemblies.

Human Sexuality in the Christian Life is a remarkable document that was produced pursuant to the joint direction of the GCMC at its 1980 session and the MC in 1981.25 It was approved in 1985 at the MC General Assembly in Ames, Iowa (ironically, the community in which is located what would become two years later the first congregation to be expelled), and recommended by the administrators of the GCMC as the foundation for further study and ultimate action. It provided the framework from which were developed the now-notorious Saskatoon Statement of 1986 (GC) and Purdue Statement of 1987 (MC)-statements that do not deserve their notoriety on the grounds of what they actually say as much as on how egregiously they have been distorted. This study is referred to frequently in the Listening Committee Report, whose production appears in this booklet. Its section on homosexuality, numbered 2.7 and occupying some fifteen pages (104-20), is almost depressing to read now, some fifteen years later, simply because almost all that it says apparently still needs saying today. Its treatment, since its release, is reminiscent of those presidential commissions delegated with great fanfare to study a problem at great expense, and then summarily consigned to the trash can when their findings turn out to contradict the party line.

The Battle of the Proof Texts

The liveliest and most copious discourse that has been held on the subject in Mennonite forums has been that in the letters-to-the-editor columns of the church papers, at least until the recent emergence of the electronic forum called MennoLink. I regret that I only have ready access to files of Gospel Herald and Mennonite Weekly Review, and then to the successor publication to the Gospel Herald and The Mennonite as the organ of the GCMC. In the Gospel Herald issue of 29 August 1995, editor J. Lorne Peachey made this announcement: “After this issue, we will discontinue printing letters on homosexuality for a time. We will make an exception if a letter addresses something we print.”

Between 7 January 1995-the date of a conference among congregations that accepted gay and lesbian members and officials of the MC and GCMC General Boards-and the above announcement, there had been a crescendo of such letters. Following the expulsion of Germantown from Franconia Conference in November of 1997, which was reported in all the church papers, including the Gospel Herald, so that letters could be justified as “address[ing] something we print”-there was a de facto lifting of the moratorium. What follows is based on a glance at those letters printed from January through August of 1995, plus those in issues of December 1997 and January 1998.

Much could be learned from analysis of the correspondence, but one aspect of it that seems especially worth calling attention to is the use-or misuse-of Scripture to prove one’s point. I have done a crude classification of the letters by whether they take a stance favorable to, or opposed to, SGAs. I have placed letters advocating “transformation” or “change” as conditions for their acceptance in the “anti-gay” column, along with those that speak of “hating the sin but loving the sinner,” or similar language, and those that claim that all would be well if only SGAs would be celibate. Without going into a statistical breakdown (noting only that very few letters could be placed into a neutral category), one salient feature leaps out: the anti-gay polemicists rely heavily on two passages of Scripture as support for their position. One, not surprisingly, is 1 Corinthians 6 (writers cite anything from the whole chapter to the specific verses 9 and 10). What astonished me, and what I will focus on here, is that 1 Corinthians 5 was evoked more often than any other passage to show how terrible “homosexuality” is, and why the church has a right to expunge it from its midst.

In another forum I have referred to 1 Corinthians 5 as “the Golden Text of the authoritarians.” That was based simply on my noticing that whenever the subject of disfellowshipping or excommunicating members or expelling congregations from conferences arose, that text seemed to be the only one available to show that there was scriptural precedent for the practice. But most uses of this passage fail to note that the “sin” for which Paul recommended expulsion-of one person, not a congregation-in this single case was a heterosexual offense: “a man is living with his father’s wife.” Yet this incident was brought up no fewer than eight times in the group of letters studied (1 Corinthians 6 was cited six times, while the other familiar “clobber texts” from Leviticus and Romans 1 received no more than three mentions each).

One sample of how the passage was applied occurred in a letter by Paul O. King in the 4 April 1995 issue: “Paul’s words were sharp: ‘Hand that man over to Satan. Don’t associate with anyone who calls himself a brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater, or a slanderer, a drunkard, or a swindler.’ “ This is a very selective paraphrase, taking words from verse 5 and skipping to verse 11. Admittedly the writer does not claim to be quoting: he does not cite his source. The words he omitted were the conditions under which the drastic action is to be taken: “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present [Paul is referring to his own spirit here], with the power of our Lord Jesus” and the goal of the action: “for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” On the other hand, also omitted was the final condition of the discipline: “not even to eat with such a one.” The writer may have been reluctant to remind readers that he was quoting the passage used by Menno, and by today’s Old Order Amish and others, to justify the Meidung.

It must be acknowledged that nowhere in this Gospel Herald reader’s letter is there any direct reference to “homosexuality.” It begins with an observation that the “usual practice” in our church today on cultural or moral issues is to “appoint a listening committee and initiate dialogue.” It goes on to complain that as a result, “loving discipline of a brother or sister (or a congregation) is no longer a responsibility of the church.” I am not aware that any “listening committee” has ever been convened on any other subject than “homosexuality,” or that an entire congregation has ever been disciplined on any other grounds, so there can be no doubt as to the intended target of the observations.

Another letter makes the (erroneous) connection very explicit: “God assures us in Rom. 1:26-28 that he didn’t change his mind about homosexuality. And in 1 Cor. 5 we discover that it is still our responsibility to ‘cut off’ such from God’s people, lest the church is defiled.”26

On the other hand, defenders of the SGA cause resorted most frequently to two passages in the book of Acts: the story of Peter’s dream (“God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean”) in chapter 10, and the enlargement of the early church’s boundaries to include the uncircumcised in chapter 15.

What remains to be done is to make available, through the official church organs and institutions, the more serious study that is being done on the relevant scripture passages to the church as a whole. An excellent start was made in the Human Sexuality in the Christian Life study referred to above and in the Listening Committee Report, but these have not received wide distribution.

One would like to bring this story to a coherent and elegant end. Unfortunately, the end of the story is nowhere in sight. Each day brings news from all around the world, and from all corners of the Mennonite family within that vast world picture, that challenges any conclusion that might have been broached just yesterday. Only today (25 October 1999) came the report of a meeting over the weekend held at Lynchburg, Virginia, between Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and two hundred of his hitherto anti-gay followers, with his former ghost writer and now leader in the evangelical portion of the gay community Mel White and two hundred of his gay and lesbian followers. The meeting attempted, reportedly with at least a modicum of at least temporary success, to inaugurate civil discourse, within the paradigm of Christian love, between these two once-irreconcilable factions. The fallout from such a move is impossible to predict, but it seems certain to have some impact on the analogous discourse within the Mennonite Church USA.

So I will close with the barest recounting of the events of 1999 as related to the issue of SGAs and their place in the newly integrated-or integrating, south of the U.S.-Canadian border-Mennonite Church.

March 1999 Consultation on Membership and Homosexuality, Kansas City, Mo.: At a session of invited delegates from each conference in the integrating denominations (from which the press was barred), six “findings of significant agreement” were identified. The findings can be condensed into the sense that same-sex couples may be welcomed to attend Mennonite churches but not accepted into membership. Congregations that “appear to be diverging from scriptural teachings and our Mennonite confession and thus raise controversial issues” present conferences with the need for “clear procedures for engagement in mutual discernment.”

July 1999 Mennonite Church General Assembly and General Conference Mennonite Church joint session, St. Louis, Mo. [formation of Mennonite Church Canada from the MC district conferences in Canada and the GC-related Conference of Mennonites in Canada, and agreement to proceed with the incorporation of Mennonite Church USA]: The recommended guidelines for membership proposed that all current GC and MC congregations automatically become members of the new church, with membership and discipline decisions to reside in the area conferences. The guidelines were adopted for immediate implementation by 96 percent of Canadian delegates, but a vote to delay adoption pending two more years of study was passed by a majority of U.S. delegates from both conferences.

A resolution offered from the floor to reaffirm “church statements” that sexual activity is reserved for marriage, and that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman, failed to achieve the necessary 23 majority of both delegate bodies: MC delegates passed it, but a majority of GC delegates voted against it.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Mennonite Church Canada will go about its business and become a healthy, functioning organization, while Mennonite Church USA will continue to wend its way toward splintering.

Perhaps it would now be more appropriate to insert “Selah” than to say “Amen.”


  1. Readers with access to the World-Wide Web may use the following URL for resources that will illuminate much of what is said in this chapter: References to specific documents included at this site will follow this pattern: [Johns]/Resolutions.htm with “[Johns]” understood as an instruction to insert the URL up to the final “/” and then enter the rest of the individual address. Grateful thanks to Professor Loren Johns for an excellent piece of work.
  2. One example of the last case comes in the Episcopal Church, within which there is a collection of churches that publicly express their welcoming stance, similar to such collections as the Reconciling Congregations of the United Methodists, or the More Light Congregations of the largest Presbyterian body. But the only Episcopal churches in that grouping, called “Oasis,” are in the dioceses of San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey. The latter is the diocese of the now-retired Bishop Spong, famous for his advocacy of lesbian and gay rights, and the former is, of course, the location of the most established gay population in the United States. Yet there are many welcoming Episcopal parishes scattered throughout the country.
  3. Letter from Arnold Reimer, Beatrice, Nebraska, published in the 11 December 1997 issue of Mennonite Weekly Review. The first appearance of this usage with a pejorative connotation to come to my attention was in connection with the public discussion of the Franconia Conference action against Germantown Church in a process that became official in 1995 when Germantown was first placed on a kind of probation. I am not aware that the terminology came into question in earlier cases, such as Ames in 1988, or in contemporary controversies such as those surrounding four congregations in Illinois and Indiana-Michigan Conferences of the Mennonite Church.
  4. It has not been possible to trace the first uses of some of these terminologies, but it would be most instructive to do so. There is a persistent vocabulary used in anti-gay polemics that is unique to the genre, pointing to a common source. Groups studied by Didi Herman in The Antigay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1997), would seem to offer a fruitful starting point for investigation.
  5. J. Howard Kauffman and Leo Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991), 198.
  6. The abbreviations MC and GC are used in this chapter to refer to the entities known as the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church prior to the formation of the integrated denomination, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
  7. This history, as it pertains to denominational groupings, will be largely confined to the GCMC, MC, and CMC (Conference of Mennonites in Canada), which are integrating into a single binational body as of this writing, July 1999. With only the most minutely nuanced variations, the stance of all the remaining bodies can be summed up as complete and total rejection of membership for SGAs who have not promised to remain celibate.
  8. A statement adopted unanimously by the Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association in December of 1998 [hereafter APA statement 1998] concludes thus: “Several major professional organizations including the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all made statements against ‘reparative therapy’ because of concerns for the harm caused to patients. The American Psychiatric Association has already taken clear stands against discrimination, prejudice and unethical treatment on a variety of issues including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
  9. This document can be found at: [Johns]/Lancaste.htm Day Seven Ministries is the Mennonite wing of Exodus International, headquartered in Lancaster Conference and spearheaded by Dr. Enos Martin, a psychiatrist who is also a Lancaster Conference bishop. Exodus International, the second listed resource, is simply the umbrella group to which Day Seven adheres. Homosexuals Anonymous, as its name implies, treats same-sex orientation as an addiction, and Regeneration Books is described as “a ministry similar to Day Seven.”
  10. APA statement 1998.
  11. The statements are compared side by side at: [Johns]/Resolutions.htm
  12. “Final Report: Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns.” Memorandum from the Joint Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns, August 20, 1992, directed to Commission on Education, General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, Mennonite Church [hereafter “Final Report”], p. CL 20. The document is at: [Johns]/LCReport.htm
  13. For the positions of Bergler, Bieber, and Socarides, a useful commentary can be found in Martin Duberman, Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (New York, Dutton, 1991), 53-54 (Bergler), and 64-67 (Bieber and Socarides).
  14. Martin Rock’s personal story can be found in Roberta Kreider, ed., From Wounded Hearts (Gaithersburg, Md.: Chi Rho, 1998), 1-7.
  15. South Central Conference (MC) voted in March 1998 to expel Rainbow Church in Kansas City, Kansas; and the Executive Committee decided to make the decision effective one year later. The congregation that had been most insistent in bringing the matter to a head has subsequently withdrawn from the conference in protest against the year’s reprieve. When Indiana-Michigan Conference placed Southside Fellowship in Elkhart and Assembly Mennonite in Goshen “under discipline,” three congregations withdrew to protest that they had not been expelled. Similar actions occurred in Illinois after Oak Park Mennonite in Illinois and Maple Avenue Mennonite in Waukesha, Wisconsin, were “disciplined” but not expelled. When Franconia Conference voted, in May 1997, not to vote on the matter of the conference membership of Germantown Mennonite in Philadelphia, a group of ten congregations protested and insisted that the matter be reopened. The unprecedented procedure of a mail-in ballot was recommended by the outside consultant hired by the conference, and in November of that year the mail-in ballots (which had to be signed to be counted) resulted in a decision to expel Germantown. Even after that result, several of the protesting congregations withdrew or dropped the name “Mennonite.” Incidentally, the mail-in ballot procedure was later imitated by South Central Conference, but with some modifications. Both of these actions aroused so much adverse comment through the church press and elsewhere that it seems unlikely the method will be used again. It is ironic that of the four expelled congregations (Ames, Germantown, Rainbow, and Atlanta) and the five disciplined ones (Oak Park, Maple Avenue, Assembly, Southside, and Faith), only one, Rainbow, was a publicly affirming Supportive Congregation at the time of the action. (Action is still pending against South Calgary Inter-Mennonite, which is affiliated not only with the CMC, and the Northwest Conference of the MC, but also with the Mennonite Brethren Church.) There was no SCN when Ames was expelled; Germantown, Oak Park, and Maple Avenue have only joined the category since action was taken against them; and Atlanta, Southside, Assembly, and Faith have yet to declare themselves. Rainbow was the very first Mennonite congregation to express its acceptance of gay and lesbian members, as far back as 1978, yet it was not until a list of SCN members was published in 1996 in Mennonite Weekly Review that action was commenced against it.
  16. Other SCN Mennonite congregations are not affiliated with a conference that is exclusively MC: Boulder and Arvada in Colorado belong to the Western District of the GCMC, but not to Rocky Mountain Conference of the MC. Circle of Hope Mennonite Fellowship, a new congregation in Goshen, Indiana, has decided to defer any conference affiliation for the time being. St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship in Minnesota belongs only to the Northern District of the GCMC (an amusing situation arose when Iowa-Nebraska Conference attempted to expel St. Paul and were informed that the group had never joined!). In Canada, the Olive Branch congregation in Waterloo was formed only at the time when the two conferences in Ontario were well on their way to integration.
  17. There are certainly dramatic and poignant individual stories that could be told of Mennonite experiences prior to Stonewall, but they would have to be recovered via oral history or other private means. Because they were not recorded in any available public documents, they are beyond the scope of a paper like this one.
  18. There are many accounts of this incident, whose details are only peripherally relevant here. One is in Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis (San Diego, New York, and London, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1977), 196-202.
  19. The Canadian situation is not strictly comparable, in that cities like Kitchener, Vancouver, and especially Winnipeg, have long had substantial Mennonite populations that simply grew along with the expansion of these once-small cities into metropolises, while Toronto’s growth engulfed a traditional Mennonite community in the Markham area.
  20. For Kevin Linehan’s intense but short-lived involvement in the Mennonite Church as an “ex-gay” pastor, see his book Such Were Some of You (Scottdale and Kitchener: Herald Press, 1979).
  21. “Is Homosexuality a Sin? How Not to Work at a Question,” in the proceedings of the Mennonite Medical Association Consultations on Homosexuality held at Schiller Park, Illinois, in 1978 and 1979. Unfortunately I no longer have a copy of those proceedings.
  22. I have misplaced my correspondence regarding this event, so at this writing I cannot verify under what sponsorship it was held.
  23. See “History and Hermeneutics,” currently available on the Internet at ~theo/jhy/writings/mardiv%sex/hist%26 herm. htm.
  24. The following are a selection of articles regarding homophobia as a clinical phenomenon: Henry E. Adams et al., “Is Homophobia Associated With Homosexual Arousal?” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 105 (August 1996): 440-45; Walter W. Hudson and Wendell A. Ricketts, “A Strategy for the Measurement of Homophobia,” Journal of Homosexuality 5, no. 4 (1980): 357-72 [this paper presents the Index of Homophobia (IHP), one of the standard measurement tools used by clinicians]; Eric de Kuyper, “The Freudian Construction of Sexuality: the Gay Foundations of Heterosexuality and Straight Homophobia,” Journal of Homosexuality 24 nos. 34 (n.d.): 137-44; Glenn Wagner et al., “Integration of One’s Religion and Homosexuality: A Weapon Against Internalized Homophobia?” Journal of Homosexuality 26, no. 4 (1994): 91-110; Paul Van de Ven, “Comparisons Among Homophobic Reactions of Undergraduates, High School Students, and Young Offenders,” Journal of Sex Research 31, no. 2 (1994): 117-24; Richard Seltzer, “The Social Location of Those Holding Antihomosexual Attitudes,” Sex Roles 26, nos. 910 (1992): 391-98.
  25. Newton, Kansas, and Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 1985. The complete document is on the web at: [Johns]/HSCL-cl.htm.
  26. Letter from Duey Matthews, Pryor, Okla., in Gospel Herald, 21 March 1995, p. 5.
Lin was born in New Paris, Indiana, in 1935 as Verlin Garber and adopted the shorter form of the name in 1959 for professional purposes. A 1957 graduate of Goshen College with a B.A. in Music, he was a professional singer in New York City until 1983. In 1991 he and his companion (they have been together since 1963) moved to Boston, where he haunts the fringes of academia in an attempt to compensate for his misspent educational career. Baptized into the Mennonite Church as an adult of 8 years old, he is an active member of the Mennonite Congregation of Boston and has followed with keen attention the flow of change in his beloved faith community over the years. Nothing startles him more than to realize that the affectional orientation he was privileged by a gracious God to enjoy has become a chief focus of attention and concern throughout Christendom at this turn of the millennium.
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