"Homosexuality" and Church Membership: A Model of Power for Unity and Renewal

John K. Stoner

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Christ’s call to peacemaking faces a great test today in the controversy over people who are same-gender attracted. The unity of the church in the United States, and indeed globally, faces serious threat from conflicting responses to questions of church membership and leadership relating to “homosexuality” (in quotation marks for reasons explained below). To name just one example of the problem, unless a creative and Spirit-led course of action is found, questions of membership may easily derail movement toward unity in three branches of the Mennonite family of churches. This booklet series reflects a perspective outlining the dilemma that faces Mennonites and the larger Christian community in these turbulent times.

The church’s vocation of peacemaking, commissioned and blessed by Jesus in his words “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is in danger of being disregarded by Mennonites in the present controversy. In general, Christian responses to social offenders and threats to national security seem to reflect the biases of culture rather than the life and teachings of Jesus. Loving one’s enemy or recognizing and embracing the diversity of the human family have not been the prevailing model for responding to crime, violence, and national enemies, nor is it the way the church is dealing with the current issue of church membership for same-gender-affectional (SGA) persons. Nevertheless, the call to be peacemakers, whose only power is love, remains fundamental, and the church fails in its vocation to live the Good News when it disregards this task. Thus for Mennonites, peacemaking in a broadened perspective is crucial for a comprehensive and adequate perspective regarding same-gender affection.

I recognize that within Christian churches today there are significant initiatives to reconcile conflicting views. These initiatives spring from the Galilean vision that following Jesus involves a radical call to be peacemakers. Moreover, from a historical perspective, fruitful discussion about same-gender covenants is still largely in its early stages. There are reasons to believe that the Anabaptist theological and communal tradition of nonviolent power could now use its resources to light a path toward unity and renewal. To that end these booklets are dedicated.

Change and Membership

The need for change-in behavior, thinking, and attitudes-recurs in current discussions of “homosexuality.” Many people believe that such changes are both necessary and good. These booklets affirm the need for these changes. Yet to move the discussion from their (i.e., gays and lesbians) need to change, to my/our need to change adds to the complexity. Human nature suggests that we’re OK, but they need to change. But will this we/they dichotomy promote healing?

These booklets assume that open and inquiring minds will discover new insights and that critical study uncovers new truths about our faith and about the creation. Furthermore, the booklets support the premise that people can change when significant energy or power motivates them to initiate fundamental changes in their lives. Essentially, the writers believe in the power of truth to effect change. Although this claim may sound trite or presumptuous, it is grounded in Jesus’ announcement and call: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent [change] and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, NRSV). Every effort toward human growth makes certain assumptions about truth; we presume that more truth comes to those who seek it than to those who do not. As writers, we believe that, along with truth, love enables change. Love ultimately does not contradict truth. Thus, we depend on both truth and love to provide sufficient motivation for change.

This brief discourse on change, however, only scratches the surface of the challenges we face. As already hinted, it is extremely difficult for people to entertain even the possibility of change. The old adage about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” could be rephrased as “the thrill of old ideas and the agony of new ones.” For Mennonites, the possibility of new thoughts in the area of same-gender covenanted love raises profound issues of community and theology as well as issues of power, gender, and self-image. These issues can seem threatening. Unfortunately, with respect to the “homosexuality” debates, there is ample evidence that for Mennonites the issues of power, gender, and self-image are more decisive than those of community and theology. At this point, however, let us note some basic issues pertaining to community and theology.

When membership and leadership issues are discussed in the Mennonite church, clearly the behavior of individuals is important. Issues of faith are not limited to beliefs or mere doctrinal confessions. Moreover, in the believer’s church tradition, the community is not composed of all the residents of a geographical parish or the segment of the total population that was baptized in infancy. Instead it is composed of persons who have committed themselves to a distinctive way of life. So the recognition of who belongs to this community of faith is an important and dynamic question.

Mennonites believe that, given the importance of choice and commitment to communal values, defining and maintaining boundaries is crucially important. Thus, for those within the Anabaptist tradition, the fundamental boundary or distinction lies between the church and the world-that is, between the community of faith (those who have chosen to be in it) and the community of unbelief (those who have not chosen to be in the community of faith). Therefore, churches in the Anabaptist tradition are made up of those who choose to join the community and are then baptized. Becoming a member does not rest in any process that bypasses the free choice of the individual.

This boundary, moreover, differs from any boundary between those who are destined to spend eternity with God and those who are not. The question of an individual’s ultimate salvation or eternal destiny is another question-not totally unrelated, but so different as to be the source of endless mischief if confused with the question of church membership.

One’s behavior does matter for the boundaries of a community defined as a way of life. Still, a question intrudes: What kind of behavioral commitments (as well as doctrinal affirmations) should be expected of church members? One would suppose that the questions that Mennonites would ask of candidates for church membership and that underlie our standards of church membership would include the behaviors that the church deems important, based on its understanding of God’s will and the biblical record. In the Anabaptist understanding of Jesus, power, and the world, joining the community of believers involves a fundamental break with the prevailing values and notions of power by which the world system functions. In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink has called that world system the “Domination System” because it functions by the exercise of dominating power. The world believes in “redemptive violence”-that is, it believes that evil can and must be opposed and restrained by the use of dominating power, which functions ultimately by the power of the sword and death1 Anabaptists insist on a break with dominating power.

Given this Anabaptist perspective on power and the world, I propose three questions for determining the intention and readiness of individuals for membership in the believers church, a church that rejects dominating power in order to fully confess the lordship of Jesus Christ:

  1. Do you wish to belong to an enemy-loving community of people who celebrate the ever-expanding circle of salvation, who accept the grace of forgiveness and new life from God, and who build no walls to exclude people from the circle of their fellowship?

  2. Do you wish to belong to a justice-seeking community of people who identify with Jesus in his fearless advocacy for the oppressed, his passion to see justice prevail, and his resistance to the destructive power of empire, which in our day includes the American empire?

  3. Do you wish to belong to a peacemaking community that will go with Jesus to the cross as the price of its resistance to dominating power-a community that refuses to take up the sword or use violence in efforts to save self, others, or the world because the community trusts in the power of God’s Spirit and truth for salvation?

If the candidates answer “yes” to these questions, they might be baptized into the community. If they answer “no,” they might be advised to wait a while, thus giving them time for additional reflection on the beliefs which underlie the commitments made by the members of this community.

Perspectives: Language and Culture

Although not easy, it is urgently necessary to view the current discomfort around “homosexuality” from a historical perspective. What major human themes are dominant throughout the biblical story that are critical to an understanding of this issue? What are the larger purposes of God? What are the major challenges of our time? Does civilization face any urgent and inescapable crises in our day? Where are we in the overall movements in the history of the world? In the midst of this, how does the issue of “homosexuality” rank on the scale of what the church’s experience and message have defined as major issues? Indeed, how do we define the contours of the debate? We cannot move forward by starting, or concentrating, on ideas or tasks that are of minor importance. The church must know what is central to its being and message, and focus its energies there. A dime held in front of the eye can obscure the entire sun or, if one is in outer space, can render the whole world invisible. Similarly, a single issue like same-sex affection can distort the church’s vision of its total mission.

Some introductory comments on language and culture in North America will help to place the “homosexuality” discussion in perspective. (This essay does not presume to incorporate nuances on the issue from a comprehensive international perspective.) With regard to language, the word “homosexuality” is placed in quotation marks here to highlight the fact that it is loaded with cultural and historical baggage. To use this word without careful definition can convey, however unintentionally, a large measure of prejudice, animosity, and bigotry. Our current situation is rife with instances of bearing false witness simply by the misuse of language. For example, people often say “The Bible condemns homosexuality” without then distinguishing between “homosexual” orientation and “homosexual” conduct. Or they might say “Homosexuals are different from other minorities because they choose their minority status.” Whether either of these statements is correct needs discussion.

The six or seven texts of the Bible generally identified with the question of “homosexuality” use several words to describe certain behaviors in question. To translate all of these with one English word, homosexual/ity (first coined as a German word, homosexualität, in 1869 and translated into English as “homosexuality” in 18923) is to engage in (to name it charitably) a simplistic and inaccurate reductionism. In our culture the effect of such inaccurate translations is morally demeaning and intellectually dishonest. Moreover, in no case do the Hebrew and Greek words in question describe a type of person or a fixed state of being as the word homosexual presumes to do. They describe certain behavioral practices that have become unclear with the passage of time. They do not provide a helpful characterization of all the people in our society whose primary attraction is to individuals of their own gender.

In short, when we call same-gender-attracted persons “homosexuals,” we use language with an emotional and cultural impact comparable to that of other words that we easily recognize as racial or ethnic slurs. Anyone who doubts this need only ask a few people who are labeled “homosexuals” how this word sounds. These people wait to hear from the church that God loves them as God has made them. Likewise, to say simply that “homosexuality is sin” betrays an ignorance of language and a disdain for people hardly reflective of the Christian’s duty to speak truthfully and lovingly.

Not only language, but also cultural assumptions about gender and power shape the issues that are central to any discussion about same-gender affectional persons. Every Christian critique of culture (not only this Anabaptist Christian critique) begins with a working assumption about the character of North American culture, particularly about that culture’s definition of legitimate (and illegitimate) gender and power relationships. The dominant culture in North America is white patriarchal heterosexual.

This culture weaves gender and power together like threads in a cloth. Moreover, where power is involved, questions of justice, violence, and peacemaking immediately intrude. Because these themes are centrally important in Anabaptist theology, Anabaptism is positioned to make a distinctive contribution to the “homosexuality” dialogue.

Marvin Ellison’s description of gender and power in American society frames the issue clearly with this terse phrase on patriarchal sex: “Sexuality conditioned by male gender supremacy eroticizes power inequalities.”2 Ellison’s phrase deserves careful notice. When power inequalities are eroticized, sexual pleasure is linked to dominance/subordination. In our patriarchal culture, sexual pleasure for males is characteristically linked with dominating power over women. The prevalence of this paradigm of gender relationships and erotic pleasure in American society would be difficult to exaggerate. Failing to see and acknowledge this paradigm bypasses the understanding that illuminates the whole picture. This dominating power is fundamentally unjust, but it gives pleasure (feels good) to males, and consequently our dominant male culture promotes and defends it. Moreover, women, in trying to make the best of a bad situation (as oppressed people generally do), adapt to male power dominance and may resort to linking their own pleasure to male dominance.

Nevertheless, despite the heavy weight of past notions about the human body, the goodness of bodily pleasure (including sexual pleasure) deserves a clear and unequivocal affirmation. The remarkable linkage of pleasure with human bonding is a feature of nature and of the Creator’s design that receives far too little attention in Christian theology and education. Among the good fruits of this linkage are an irrepressible human desire for intimate bonding with another (the unitive impulse), and a delightful physical outcome for the realization of right human relationships-in other words, a physical desire for, and reward for, justice in human relationships.

Given the cultural reality of pleasurable male dominance, any threat to this power arrangement will be seen as an evil to be resisted. Thus any mutually committed, same-gender relationships are regarded as a threat to an accepted continuance of patriarchal power. As such, they are resisted as evil. This fact, according to Ellison and many other reflective people, is the primary source of resistance to “homosexuality” in American culture. Only one other factor-the deep-seated “natural” revulsion that many heterosexuals have for same-gender physical intimacy-comes close to dominating patriarchal power as the primary source of society’s prevailing condemnation of same-gender love. Thus, while the pleasurable-male-dominance understanding of gender and power in American culture fails to include everything that is at stake in the “homosexuality” debate, it does identify what may well be the most foundational and critical element in our attempts to understand the intensity of the current struggle.

This paradigm of dominating male power, moreover, provides the fundamental support for the largest economic and technological enterprise in America, the military industrial complex. A church that fails to critique this ongoing and gargantuan abuse of power, which threatens the world as we know it with imminent destruction, most likely would not object to any abuse of power in gender relationships.

Foundational Biblical Themes

While dominating patriarchal power has deep roots in cultural practice and secular tradition, the biblical record also provides a substantial basis for this model of gender relationships. One need look no further than a biblical “wise” man, Solomon, with his thousand wives and concubines, to see that male subordination and exploitation of women has been justified, based on the biblical tradition. But most Christians do not praise Solomon for his polygamy. A challenge for the church is to discover whether it can transcend certain aspects of the biblical record on same-gender relationships as resolutely as it has transcended some elements in its record on heterosexual relationships.

These language and cultural perspectives frame a question: “What are some clear and emphatic themes of Scripture and history that define the wider context of abiding truths in which the church considers the issue of “homosexuality?” From a broad survey of Scripture and creation, five themes emerge: an expanding circle of salvation, changing concepts of sin, the pursuit of justice and liberation, love of all persons and peacemaking, and the scientific evidence of inherited same-gender attraction. Clearly, the church’s judgment about the acceptability of same-gender expressions of affection should be decisively shaped by the force of these central themes.

1. The Expanding Circle of Salvation

The biblical story shows a progressive revelation that God intends to include certain people whom some might expect God to exclude. This expansion of the circle of salvation from the small band of Hebrews who thought themselves the only chosen ones, to inclusion of individual Gentiles, and eventually people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5)-the reconciliation of all is both dramatic and inescapable. This inclusion surprised Old Testament characters from Abraham to Jonah. The Jonah story is the great parable of resistance to any inclusion of strangers, outsiders, and enemies. When the Pharisees demanded a sign, Jesus gave the lessons of Jonah to them as the only sign that they would receive. The Bible’s trajectory of expanding the circle of salvation continues to amaze people today. Yet many persons continue their resistance and rejection of the outsider in a manner quite reminiscent of Jonah and of the Pharisees.

In today’s world, voices that demonize Muslims, Iraqis, Serbs, and others, that paint them as the enemy of democracy and Christianity, try to narrow the circle of salvation. This demonizing of the other is one of the greatest challenges of our time. But is the church addressing it? And do the voices that demonize Muslims and Iraqis do the same to our same-gender-affectional sisters and brothers? Do we allow false prophets to define our “enemies” for us, prophets who incite fear and exclusion? This is not an idle question.

Discussion of the “circle of salvation” that speculates on what individuals or classes of people may be “saved” must be seen, in any case, in the context of the Bible’s clear assertion that God’s purpose is to save the world (Greek, kosmos). The message of the popular John 3:16 text is God’s love for the kosmos (not individual souls). Any interpretation of John 3:16 (along with verse 17, “that the world might be saved through him”) that focuses chiefly on saving individuals is suspect on the face of it.

While some strands of the scriptural record moved toward inclusion, others assumed that there were good reasons for excluding some people from the community of faith. Those reasons were based on ideas of sin. This introduces our second theme.

2. A Changing Concept of Sin

To say “ideas” of sin is intentional because sin is by no means a uniform concept in the biblical record. Jesus represented an exponential leap forward in the process of deleting from previous lists of sins certain forbidden practices, foods, clothing, and places. As happened then, many people today are reluctant to follow Jesus’ lead in this process. Moreover, the biblical text confronts us with more than one voice. We cannot escape the task dramatically asserted by Jesus-“You have heard that it was said, but I say…”-to distinguish central, enduring concerns in the biblical record from those that are marginal or less worthy.

Evolving concepts of sin in the Bible remind us that people’s perceptions of sin have changed in the past and will continue to change in the future. To deny this rejects both wisdom from the past and guidance for the future. Thus, while the fact of change does not make the case for accepting a particular change, changes clearly cannot be rejected simply because they are new. Biblical definitions of sin are not fixed in stone. Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). Jesus did not answer all possible questions. He said that the revelation of truth about human relationships takes time. That delay makes some people uncomfortable-but then, Jesus was known for causing discomfort.

3. The Pursuit of Justice and Liberation

Far from excluding anyone, the God of biblical faith pursues justice for the oppressed and uplifts the “least” of the human family. In Scripture, justice does not mean punishment for wrongdoing, but righting of wrong-to lift the oppressed and achieve some equality for those who have been denied their just portion in life. The theme of justice is central in the story of the Exodus with the dramatic liberation of Israel from the oppression of the Egyptian empire. That God takes up the cause of those who are oppressed by an empire should not be lost on those of us who benefit from the American empire. From the Exodus experience to Jesus crediting the Samaritan woman at the well, the Bible portrays God’s work as meeting the needs of those without hope or support.

Indeed, the project of getting Israel out of the empire proved easier than getting the empire out of Israel. Israel’s pursuit of justice for all was derailed as the nation adopted notions of power and kingship from the surrounding nations. David and Solomon failed by a large margin to represent the best insights of Israel’s prophetic tradition, and according to Mark’s gospel, Jesus took great pains to separate himself from the Davidic kingship. While he was passionate for justice and liberation, Jesus did not use the power of violence based on a model of Israel’s failed kingship to implement justice.

We live in a world marked by monstrous injustices, as divergent as the yawning gap between the rich and the poor and the denial of basic human rights of “homosexual” individuals. The task of joining in God’s work of advocacy for the oppressed stands squarely before the church today. The words of Jesus stand as a permanent challenge to God’s people: “How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right [justice] prevail; they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6 NEB). Justice, a central theme of the Bible, reflects not only God’s pursuit but also God’s insistent call to people to join in that pursuit.

The cry for justice, to which God’s ears are so attentive, expresses one of the greatest crises of our time. Global and local injustice, from the heartless crush of the planetary market economy to the aching hungers of homelessness and unemployment, calls for the most dedicated efforts of humanity and the church in today’s world. People and congregations who hunger to see right prevail touch a heartstring of God. They see the bigger picture and give their energy to it. Lesbian and gay people bring essential gifts to this task, too.

4. Peacemaking

Another major scriptural theme is peacemaking, or the power of nonviolence. The Radical Reformation was radical in part because Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and others insisted that no opponent, whether morally wrong or a physical threat, may be harmed or killed. They learned this principle directly from Jesus whose teaching was simple and unequivocal: “Love your enemies.” For Anabaptists, nonviolence and love of enemies applied across the board, from the personal and individual to the state and national levels.

Writers in this series do not in any way see the lesbian and gay members of society or their advocates as “the enemy,” and we are grieved and saddened when some people regard them as such. However, because there are people who view “homosexuals” as other, as morally depraved, or as enemies of God and society, it is necessary to remind our readers of what Jesus and the Scriptures teach about dealing with enemies.

If Mennonites were to reaffirm their historic stance that all homicide is forbidden (recall Jesus’ question in Mark 3, “Is it lawful to save life or to kill?”), they would take a giant first step away from strident, condemnatory, and coercive voices on “homosexuality.” There would be a redefinition of power. Power would be understood to work by truth and love, taking the form of servanthood. Rediscovering this would help Mennonites identify more clearly the truly big offenses against God’s will in the world.

The tradition of nonviolence is minimally but dramatically present as one of the voices in the Hebrew scriptures. The drowning of Egyptian troops is not the only or the last word on how to deal with people or institutions perceived as threat, or other, or enemy. Elisha’s feast spread for Israel’s Aramean enemies depicts another way. (Our Sunday Schools have not taught this story from 2 Kings 6 as faithfully as some others, such as the story of David and Goliath.) The Psalms that plead with and trust in God for deliverance from enemies, and the Prophets-especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel, who counsel nonviolent resistance to enemies-are additional strands of an Old Testament peacemaking tradition. Eventually, Jesus lifted this strand to a place of centrality as he repudiated the voices that called for the isolation or destruction of the outsider, the other, or the enemy.

Jesus made the love of enemies, which had been exceptional and episodic in the Old Testament, the standard daily way of life for himself and his disciples. This was a revolution of epic proportions, a revision in the model of power for dealing with the other/enemy and for facing the insecurity that others may induce. Jesus’ model had two parts: first, nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice committed by one’s enemies; and second, nonretaliation to evils inflicted by an enemy. This way of life courageously risked the threat of suffering through nonretaliation. The mission of the church, as the body of Christ, calls believers to embody the life and teachings of Jesus in the world and to die if necessary so that the church may live. Resurrection is not simply a miracle that proves the deity of Christ, but it is also the destiny of those who pour out their lives as Christ poured out his. This power by which God transformed the world is manifest through people who accept the way of the cross-people who say yes to Jesus with their lives as well as their lips.

Through the theme of peacemaking, I have identified the strand of biblical truth that culminates in the cross. Here we have reached the basic foundation of the Christian way. The cross is at the center. Atonement (at-one-ment) implies peacemaking. In the cross, Jesus has revealed God’s power and method for the reconciliation of the world. The church is invited to embrace both the inclusive scope and the nonviolent power of that reconciliation. The church to show by its words and deeds that God is saving the world by giving life instead of retaliating against that which threatens life (John 3:16, 17).

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, peacemaking competes with justice as the most transgressed of God’s purposes for the world. War still constitutes the biggest business of capitalist economies. Selling weapons is a massive trade in death, and in this the United States is Number One. So-called conventional weapons-automatic rifles, planes, helicopters, tanks, missiles, and land mines-kill and destroy by the tens and hundreds rather than the thousands and millions. Cumulatively, however, the results of these weapons are little different from what would result from using the “Big Ones.” But beyond these conventional weapons are the weapons of mass destruction-chemical, biological, and nuclear-which are produced and stockpiled as mountains of homicidal crime waiting to be unleashed. All of this is done with the tacit-and often explicit-approval of the churches themselves, not to mention the citizenry at large.

Resistance to treaties that would control and turn around the arms race flows too often directly from the churches to the powers in Washington, D.C. The culpability of Christian leaders in America for their complicity in this incredible assault on peace in the present, and on the very future of the world, shocks the conscience. Their silence in the face of this assault while they rail against “homosexuality,” is an affront to God and an abject denial of the Jesus they claim to worship. Moreover, these Christian leaders often go beyond silence to outright advocacy for “military strength” and “credible threat.” All sense of proportion is lost in diatribes that scapegoat and finger-point at “homosexuals.” The biblical call to repentance and invitation to peacemaking is clearly focused within the household of God itself, where transgression of revealed truth is most egregious and blameworthy. Peacemaking is a central purpose of God and a basic theme of Scripture. Beside it, undue attention to “homosexuality” pales in comparison.

5. Hearing God’s Word in Creation

In addition to these four themes of the faith, any discussion of diversity in gender attraction must include the important role of modern science. To cast one’s eye over the historic church’s resistance to the observations of science through the centuries is to encounter a sobering record of preferring dogma to truth. From Cecco (the earth is spherical, not flat); to Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo (the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe); to Bacon, Barillon, and Dominius (seeing too much in time, chemicals, and light), the church has hounded, persecuted, and executed people who observed more accurately than was customary what God had made. These people were listening, like many of the biblical writers, to God’s word in creation. This record of persecution has not enhanced the evangelical mission of the church, and sadly, all too often, it has seriously eroded the church’s credibility in many times and places.

However, with respect to the issue of “homosexuality,” is the past continuing to be repeated? Perhaps as many as forty percent of the adults in the United States still believe that “homosexuality” is nothing but a chosen behavior or lifestyle for the two to five percent of persons with same-gender affection. The biological factors in same-gender affection appear far more decisive in most cases than the traditional view is willing to grant. This is not science as a godless belief system, but science as seeing what is there and owning it as an explanation for how the world works. In spite of what some “creationist” and similar theologies assert, Christian faith is not enhanced in proportion to the number of beliefs it maintains in opposition to the evident truths of geology, biology, or genetics.

In summary, the major themes of faith, the evident truths of science, and commonsense observations have profound implications for any open and honest discussion of the issues included under the general rubric of “homosexuality.” In the perspective of history and the Bible, we have a duty to be precise in our language dealing with same-gender affectional persons, to accept an inclusive vision of salvation, to understand the changing definitions of sin, to advocate justice for the excluded, to portray our love of enemies, and to accept knowledge available from science.

Christians have a duty to use language about lesbian and gay people far more carefully than does our society. We are called to remember the long and profound biblical trend toward including all people and all of creation itself in the expanding circle of salvation. We cannot ignore the checkered history of an evolving definition of sin. We are called to pursue justice for all people, especially those demeaned or excluded by society and its powers. We are called to the way of nonviolence and the love of our enemies, which Jesus placed at the center of his life and message by taking the way of the cross. And finally, we resist to our peril the observations and insights of science, for the lack of which the biblical writers cannot be blamed, but for the ignorance of which we cannot be excused. I believe that where these themes are found, the presence of God cannot be far away. To set aside these central themes of Scripture and the knowledge of science is to condemn our discussion of diversity in gender affection to the confines of a self-imposed distortion. If we fail to lift up what we believe is central to our faith, we will inevitably be weighed down by what is peripheral. We believe that an adequate perspective on gay and lesbian individuals and church membership will require considered attention to these foundational facts.

God’s Purposes, Human Behavior, and Same-gender Attraction

We can connect these major themes of God’s purpose and ways in history directly to the question of same-gender attraction by asking, “What kind of human behavior is consistent with and contributes toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes?” Questions dealing with same-gender expressions of intimacy come naturally under this grid of examination.

Human gender and sexuality are fundamental and natural elements of God’s creation. On the psychological or spiritual side of humanity, there is a powerful longing for uniting two into one. This hunger for companionship and community arises from the sense of aloneness and even inadequacy that the individual feels in isolation from others. To be sure, we recognize that the biological, or physical, aspect of our humanity also includes a drive toward uniting two into one. In the realm of the physical, I know of scarcely any stronger drive, partly because when union takes place it is rewarded with one of the most ecstatic physical experiences of which humans are capable, and partly because it is also rewarded with the reproduction of the race. These are strong reasons for coming together, and many benefit from responding to these basic biological urges. The combination of these spiritual and physical drives toward union is what I have called the “unitive impulse.” How remarkable that there is such a strong physical correspondence to a strong spiritual need. We see the hand of God in this.

Every union of two persons in a covenanted relationship expresses in microcosm the wisdom of God that is moving the whole universe toward oneness in Christ (Ephesians and Colossians). As such, covenanted unions are experiences of grace and pointers toward a larger grace. They represent human behavior that mirrors the highest purposes of God.

Lesbian and gay individuals are no different from others in their endowment with the unitive impulse. I believe that homosexual persons have the same needs for companionship as do heterosexual persons. Their desire for a partner with whom to share life, face challenges, experience joys, exchange ideas, and serve others is as real as that of heterosexual persons. So the question persists: How might same-gender-affectional persons deal with the unitive impulse in their lives?

In considering this question an anomaly or strangeness comes into the equation when the biological unitive impulse attracts one person toward another of the same gender. In such cases the physical aspects of the body do not have the kind of complementarity we experience in heterosexual matings. Certainly any possibility of reproduction is absent. Nevertheless possibilities for expressing intimacy and experiencing unity are still present. Indeed, intimacy and unity recur in the relationships of committed same-gender couples. Given this fact, why should their impulse toward covenanted union be denied? Do they therein sin? If so, on what basis?

Let us do a thought experiment. For every substantially identified and persistently named sin in the biblical tradition one can demonstrate, without great imagination, the harm that sin does to an individual and society. Genuine sin, in other words, does not arise from the violation of some arbitrary rule set down by God, but from the violation of that which is good for people. Where the voice or word of God consistently names something as sin, God’s voice confirms that harm is being done to people.

Viewed in this perspective, the practice of same-gender intimacy in a covenanted relationship is remarkably resistant to any demonstration of harmful effects on the individual or society. Sexually transmitted diseases, which are sometimes presented as evidence of harm resulting from homosexual relationships, will not serve this purpose. They are equally relevant (or irrelevant) as proof that heterosexual relationships are wrong. If HIV/AIDS is God’s judgment on such unions, then obviously the whole spectrum of venereal diseases is God’s judgment on the formation of heterosexual unions.

The supposed threat to the family posed by same-gender unions is far more easily asserted than demonstrated. The formation and maintenance of marriages that generate and nurture children is not threatened by same-gender unions, which do not themselves reproduce, any more than people who eat with their right hand are threatened by people who eat with their left. To be sure, such unions will be seen as a threat to certain assumptions of male superiority and domination because the male is not “obviously” dominant in the relationship. This, as has already been pointed out, will generate resistance where patriarchal dominance is assumed as a basic right. However, such resistance is no proof of a threat to the family. So the question remains: Wherein lies sin in a committed monogamous same-sex union?

Human behaviors that express love and fulfill God’s unitive purposes for humanity should be affirmed and supported. I have concluded that same-gender monogamous unions should be affirmed. I am not making a case for promiscuity. It is not difficult to demonstrate the deleterious effects of promiscuous relationships on both individuals and societies, whether these are heterosexual or homosexual. I believe that the same cannot be said of committed monogamous relationships. I hope that the church will see the difference.

Our Embodied Sexuality, Source of Power for Justice and Peace

The church’s confession of the lordship of Christ, its existence in the world as the body of Christ, its affirmation of the reign of God, and its assault on the domination system of the world are all made flesh in the living bodies of individual members and in the life of the church as a whole. By the evidence of Scripture, God seeks and calls all people, without exception, to enlarge the circle of salvation, to work for justice, and to make peace by the nonviolent power of the cross. Same-gender-affectional single or partnered persons who are engaged in this mission are doing God’s work in history. They are doing what Jesus called “the will of God,” and by this they are part of what Jesus called his family (Mark 3). Surely, then, we must ask: By what moral right should they be excluded from the fellowship of the church?

Certain questions, visions, and possibilities follow naturally. What if the church were to evaluate the integrity of people by their engagement in the tasks defined by the central themes of Scripture identified in this essay? What if the church membership questions were based on whether individuals give themselves to doing the will of God as defined by loving enemies, seeking justice, and making peace? Why would the church not accept into membership and baptize such individuals into the will and way of Jesus? Is this not the challenge that we face? What if the church disciplined those congregations that fail to make loving enemies, seeking justice, and making peace the tests of membership? Surely these, rather than tedious examinations of covenanted partnerships between loving people, are the questions that should occupy the church.

Let me state it forthrightly: A contemporary understanding of salvation, justice, and peacemaking revolves around issues of power. I ask nothing less than Who and What is strong enough to save the world? (John 3:16, 17). What kind of power is available to establish justice in place of oppression? What form of power can make peace between people, tribes, and nations? What model of power is able to overthrow the power of the domination system that we all know and have experienced? The New Testament and Anabaptist theology make these claims: the paradigm of suffering love as revealed by the cross of Christ defines the power by which justice and peace are established; the reign of God comes; and the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. The power of the cross is the power to end war. So my question to the church is: Why cannot the church adopt the confession of love and peacemaking as the litmus test of membership?

The churches of Christendom, as well as Mennonites, have generally framed the question of “homosexuality” as a choice between truth and love, or law and grace. I believe that an important advance may lie in the direction of shifting the paradigm fromtruth versus love to data new understanding of power*.

Power for humans is inseparable from life in the body. We are creatures of flesh as well as spirit; this involves our sexuality. In the words of Marvin Ellison, “Sexuality is our human capacity for intimacy and human connection and, therefore, intrinsic to our humanity. … [T]his marvelously embodied desire for connection and communication is also integral to the moral nudges we humans experience, deep in our souls, as hunger and thirst for right relations.”4 This capacity for intimacy and hunger for right relations (justice), rooted in our bodies, is a powerful motivation for action. Part of this motivation, clearly and unashamedly, is the pleasure and joy that we feel when human intimacy and right relations are experienced.

Our embodied sexuality, then, is not fundamentally a snare or enemy to our calling to do justice and make peace. It is rather an ally. Our embodied sexuality is the incarnation of God’s will toward the uniting of all things in Christ. But this sexual power must be expressed (as must all power) according to the cross/paradigm of Jesus, in terms of mutuality in partnership rather than as domination over. Where patriarchal notions of sexual power as male domination prevail, the energizing, positive force of sexuality is diverted from its proper service for the promotion of human intimacy and the struggle for justice and peacemaking. Patriarchal dominating power corrupts the energy of sexuality, wasting it in gender competition and games (which can range all the way from spouse abuse and homophobia, to war and rape).

Individuals and congregations who join God’s mission of so loving the world that they give their lives to save it-doing justice for the oppressed and making peace in the midst of the present global warring madness-are signs and symbols of the possibility of change. They have been gripped by truth and love in such a way that they no longer are what they once were. They have looked, as I said at the outset of this essay, at the critical need for change and at the difficulty of welcoming the necessary change. They have embarked on a path of becoming what they can and should be, which is something intimately consonant with their deepest being, but not something to be taken for granted in the face of the tremendous pressures and the freedom to refuse to change.

Mennonites face a choice between dividing over “homosexuality” or uniting over peacemaking. There is no inevitability in this. It is our choice. The church at large, and Mennonites in particular, might say the right thing about same-gender affection without saying the right thing about homicide (war). It is possible, but not likely. Society’s paradigm of dominating male power in sexual relationships is intimately linked to its paradigm of military domination. If Mennonites abandon what they have known for centuries about the sin of the abuse of power in war, they will most likely not be able to recognize the abuse of power in gender relationships.

If Mennonites decide to make the prohibition of selective homosexual behavior an absolute standard of church membership, but the prohibition of selective homicidal behavior an optional standard of church membership, that difference in the perception of human and biblical priorities will not be lost on the world.

The perspective and proposal of this essay is nothing less than this: The church’s vocation for peacemaking could be rediscovered and its life renewed through the struggle to understand same-gender- affectional persons. The energy for change is available in a redeemed concept of power. The invitation is before us. The facts are clear: the power to change transforms people who embrace the truth of God’s ever-expanding circle of salvation, adopt a mature understanding of sin, hunger and thirst to see justice prevail, and accept the model of the cross as the form and shape of God’s saving power. The church can, in fact, accept the diversity of human beings that God has created. The church can embrace, and indeed it must seek and welcome, God’s sexual minorities so that they can bring their gifts into our campaign to end war and expedite God’s reign on earth as in heaven.

But considerable courage is called for, and this quality remains one of our most pressing challenges. Old ways are comfortable, and old thoughts are reassuring. Yet our Lord’s message looks to the future: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent [change] and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).


  1. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992).

  2. Francis Mark Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 3.

  3. Marvin Ellison, “Ethical Eroticism as a Call to Love Fearlessly: Reimaging Sexuality as Our Passion for Justice,” in the ISTI Sun (July 1998): 4, published by the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute. See also Lin Garber “Homosexuality” 49, booklet #2 in this series.

  4. Ibid., 1.

John Stoner works for world peace from his home in Akron, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in 1967 and says that in his lifetime he has probably spent more time studying the Bible than most people his age have spent eating. He pastored Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church for eight years, and was executive secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee US Peace Section for twelve years. He is part-time coordinator of New Call to Peacemaking, and teaches part-time in the Bible and Religion Department at Messiah College. He serves on the boards of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and KAIROS School of Spiritual Formation. He and his wife Janet have five children (two adopted) and eight grandchildren. He enjoys parenting and grandparenting, reading, bird watching, gardening, hiking, and watching God’s purposes unfold in history.
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