Gays and Lesbians in the Mennonite Church: An Ethical Perspective

Melvin D. Schmidt

« Previous | Next »

This is an attempt to articulate a position on the issue of gays and lesbians in the church. The goal of this position paper is to affirm the foundational beliefs of the church regarding the family, while at the same time encouraging the fellowship of believers in the Mennonite Church to love and accept gays and lesbians who live among them.

Assumptions

Our first assumption is that the church has the right and the responsibility to make statements regarding sexuality, as is the case with any ethical problem. Such statements are meant to reflect the current consensus within the church community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and they seek to describe what is considered normative ethical (in this case sexual) behavior, based on the best current theological and biblical understandings.

Pursuant to the first assumption, it is hereby recognized that at present the church is on record as stating that ‘sexual intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in marriage and…that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital and homosexual sexual activity.’ (Saskatoon Resolution # 3) As will be seen, by ‘sexual activity’ we assume that the statement means genital to genital contact.

Behaviors on Which the Church is Silent

The church has not chosen to make pronouncements on a whole range of ‘sexual activity’ such as voyeurism, masturbation, sex with animals, oral sex, petting to orgasm, consumption of pornography and internet or telephone sex. This does not mean that the church has been silent on such behaviors. These behaviors and others have all been dealt with pastorally or through judicatory procedures in response to sexual misconduct of church members and/or leaders. However, one should expect a great diversity of opinion among church people as to the rightness, wrongness or appropriateness of these various behaviors, and to what extent the church should be involved in disciplinary action. As a body of believers, we are continually changing our attitudes and response toward such behaviors. For example, masturbation was taught to be an ‘abomination’ in previous generations but is now generally accepted as harmless or even helpful, unless practiced obsessively. Furthermore, we must recognize a continuum of possible responses ranging from totally unacceptable to benignly neglected, depending on the specific situation or person involved.

Diversity of Belief and Practice in the Mennonite Church

There is likewise a wide range of opinion and feeling among Mennonites regarding the sexual contact between gays with each other and lesbians with each other. There are those who consider such contacts as an abomination, and others who consider them in the same category as masturbation and oral sex: they are matters on which the church does not want to make pronouncements. It is assumed by this position paper that masturbation, oral sex and petting to orgasm, while they are ‘unnatural’ in the sense that they do not conform to normative sexual intercourse, are nevertheless widely practiced in the Mennonite church. However, these sexual activities have never become matters of church pronouncements and rarely, if ever, church discipline.

The clear meaning of the Saskatoon and Purdue statement would seem to be that anything ‘sexual’ other than that between male and female within the bond of marriage is ‘precluded.’ Left unsaid, however, is how the church is prepared to deal with a whole range of specific sexual and ‘presexual’ behaviors as noted in the previous two paragraphs.

Moreover, we assume that there are varying degrees of immorality in all sexual behaviors. A married person who commits adultery is breaking the marriage covenant, which brings a totally different response from the church than does sexual intercourse between a mature man and woman who anticipate marrying and who might consent with each other to begin sexual intercourse covenantally before the actual marriage ceremony. This behavior, along with premarital cohabitation is common among Mennonites, but has yet to become a matter of discussion in a church conference. In some cases it is hard to argue that a serious sin has occurred, even though these behaviors are not what the church teaches or wants to encourage.

Diversity in Practice-Uniformity in Acceptance

The church seeks to be a redemptive community even for those who flagrantly violate its teachings. Our denomination has struggled with other issues such as divorce, which in the past was a cause for expulsion from membership. Now divorced persons are accepted as church leaders. Also, the presence of persons who have chosen a military career has caused anguish in some congregations because such persons are clearly practicing a lifestyle that is not in accordance with what the church affirms and teaches. A military career would be ‘precluded’ in the light of Mennonite teachings, yet our church has not become fractured over this issue. Thus, if the ‘preclusions’ of the Saskatoon and Purdue statement are intended to refer to such activities as masturbation, oral sex, internet and telephone sex, or petting to orgasm, our gay brothers and lesbian sisters have a strong case against the church for being unjustly singled out for special punishment.

The Bible lists sodomy along with other sinful behaviors such as murder, lying, slave trading, and perjury (I Timothy 1: 10). The most explicit proscription of same sex activity occurs in Romans 1: 26-27 where both male and female ‘unnatural intercourse’ with members of the same sex is seen as ‘degrading’ behavior that turns people away from God. However, it is hard to equate the sexual exploitation described in Romans 1:26-27 with the caring, monogamous relationships that we observe among the gay brothers and lesbian sisters in our churches today. The question then arises: Why has the church been able to receive and love military careerists and divorcees but has such difficulty accepting monogamous gay brothers and lesbian sisters? Also, if the church indeed intended to ‘preclude all sexual activity except sexual intercourse between a man and a woman united in marriage,’ why has nothing been said about masturbation, oral sex, and petting to orgasm?

Teaching of Norms in the Midst of Diversity of Practice

The assumption of this paper is that the church wants to teach ‘natural’ sexual intercourse which means, bluntly stated, that penises belong in vaginas within the covenant of marriage. It is further assumed that other sexual acts such as masturbation and oral sex are benignly regarded even while they are not considered to be within the realm of ‘normative sexual behavior.’ Persons who practice sex acts such as oral sex and/or masturbation should not expect the church to support such behavior in its teaching or in its official statements. It is hoped that the same could apply to gay and lesbian sexual activity.

It must, however, be recognized that there are wholesome and unwholesome ways of practicing behaviors which the church does not teach. If, for example, a gay or lesbian person compels groups or persons within the church to deal with his or her sexuality, it would appear that the sexual issue has become a form of group control, which causes resentment among those who do not wish to be constantly confronted with another person’s struggle in the area of sexuality. Masturbation can become a marital problem if practiced to excess by one of the marital partners.

Indeed, normative male to female sex within a marriage is itself subject to abuse. A common marital problem that presents itself in marital counseling is that of unwanted sex on the part of the female spouse, along with the concomitant feeling of sexual deprivation on the part of the male, leading to a history of coerced sex within the marriage relationship. Any enforced sexual contact should be considered rape. Within a marriage, coerced sex is difficult to assess and prosecute. The Saskatoon and Purdue statements recognize these realities by stating that any sexual behavior, including normative male-female sexual activity within a marriage, can become abusive if such behavior violates ‘the sanctity of the marriage covenant.’

The Church as a Redemptive Community

The purpose of the church as a redemptive community is to help people grow toward wholesome relationships and behaviors. Gay brothers and lesbian sisters expect to be loved and accepted within the church even while they recognize that they may be practicing sexual behaviors that the church does not want to promote. Within the church it should be recognized, with a measure of humility, that probably no Christian in the world practices everything according to what the church teaches.

However, expectations cause concern. As in the case of military officers and divorcees, gay brothers and lesbian sisters should not expect the church to teach that their practice is normative, at least not until the church, in its discernment, changes its teachings. While gay brothers and lesbian sisters expect to be accepted by pastors and others of the church they should also expect that promiscuity and serial same sex relationships will not be accepted, as is true for any person who fails to maintain monogamy without promiscuity. While gay brothers and lesbian sisters expect openness toward them, it is problematic for the church to give them a ceremony, to bless their union as if it were analogous to a marriage between a man and a woman, for a foundational belief of the church endorses the creation and maintenance of the traditional family.

Even with its commitment to “the sanctity of marriage,” can the church deny gay brothers and lesbian sisters the right to adopt children and create nonbiological families? Such a denial has not been made toward single persons who have chosen to become adoptive parents. If gay and lesbian couples were to succeed in becoming adoptive parents, surely the church could not then withhold its blessing from those children on “child dedication Sunday.”

A possible helpful analogy appears in Luke 3, where John the Baptist is asked by tax collectors and soldiers about the meaning of repentance. He tells the tax collectors to practice honesty in the collection of taxes and the soldiers to refrain from threats and extortions. Both the soldiers and tax collectors were clearly practicing lifestyles abhorrent to the Jewish community of their day. However, in this case, repentance meant keeping one’s integrity as a soldier or tax collector. The church could adopt a similar message for its gay brothers and lesbian sisters: ‘Practice integrity within a relationship that the church does not affirm.’

Sexual Abstinence for Gays and Lesbians

It has often been voiced, even by theologically conservative church leaders, that the presence of gays and lesbians in the church is no problem so long as they are ‘sexually abstinent’ or ‘nonpracticing.’ Indeed, as heard in the 1999 St.Louis convention, the cry has been ‘Homosexuals, yes. Homosexual practice, no.’ This perspective should be thoroughly examined and tested. In the light of Anabaptist history, the introduction of sexual abstinence raises theological questions. Many of the early Anabaptist leaders left the celibate priesthood, and this fact may have colored the subsequent history of our church. Neither celibacy nor its corollary, sexual abstinence has ever been a hallmark of Mennonite teaching. It has only occasionally been the practice in isolated situations, such as the ‘sisters’ in Kansas, Nebraska and Ohio who ran hospitals. The opening sentence in the Saskatoon and Purdue statement in fact affirms that ‘sexuality is a good and beautiful gift of God, a gift of identity and a way of being in the world as male and female.’

Thus, the introduction of sexual abstinence for gays and lesbians brings a new way of being in the Mennonite church. We are ill prepared for celibate gays and lesbians among us. We have no ceremonies or church wide affirmations that apply to this situation. We have no analogous vows of ‘chastity’ for anyone else in the church.

How then will sexual abstinence for gay brothers and lesbian sisters be enacted or enforced? First of all, what constitutes sufficient ‘proof’ of abstinence? A simple verbal statement? A written affidavit? It can hardly be imagined how the church would have the desire or the resources to monitor the bedroom activity of such relationships. How, for example, would the church respond toward a gay or lesbian couple that joins the church in good faith, (perhaps with an affidavit certifying that there relationship includes is no genital activity) who with the passing of time, however, find themselves becoming more and more intimate sexually? Who would with (or be “qualified”) to monitor such relationships? Where is an acceptable line drawn and by whom?

Other troublesome questions arise if the church insists on abstinence among gays and lesbians. Why should the sexual behavior of certain people be posed for scrutiny, while a blind eye is turned toward other questionable behaviors such as oral sex, masturbation, internet sex, pornography? If the church demands abstinence of gays and lesbians, then fairness would demand that all sexual practices should come in for review so that all “precluded” behaviors could be disciplined.

“Orientation” vs. “Practice”

Much of the argument regarding gays and lesbians has centered on “orientation” and “practice,” assuming that “orientation” is of genetic or early childhood origin. Thus, one argument asserts, it is a “natural” trait which cannot be denied; therefore its “practice” should not be forbidden. “Practice,” on the other hand, is understood to be volitional. It has been generally assumed in some scientific circles that ten percent of the human race is born with a genetic predisposition toward gayness or lesbianism, although recent studies suggest a rate closer to one percent. Gay brothers and lesbian sisters should not expect the church to accept their practice on the basis that any given percentage of the human race is born with a genetic predisposition toward a given behavior. Within the context of the moral community called the church, genetic predisposition toward any behavior cannot be invoked as grounds for the acceptability of the said behavior. This is because the Bible does not accept ‘natural inclinations’ as normative, but teaches instead that the ‘natural’ forces within a person must be brought under the control of ethical norms. The Bible in fact teaches that one hundred percent of the human race has an inborn addiction to selfishness which must be overcome.

To offer an analogy, neither the church nor society accepts provable inherited body chemistry as a justification for alcohol addiction. The addiction must be brought under moral and spiritual control. Other examples could be adduced, such as the examples of slavery and warfare, both of which have been thought and taught by the church to be ‘natural’ conditions of the human race, and therefore ineradicable. In the biblical perspective, precisely certain natural inclinations must be overcome because the human creature is a ‘fallen’ creature with natural tendencies toward sin rather than goodness. We do not mean to imply by the use of these analogies that inherited gayness and lesbianism is inherently evil, as is slavery or that gayness and lesbianism is a destructive disease like alcohol addiction. Perhaps more to the point is the suggestion, supported by recent research, that many, if not most males would tend to have sex with a variety of partners if they were not committed to monogamous relationships. The purpose here is to assert that biological and environmental factors should not be accepted as determinative. In fact, it is becoming more and more difficult to argue that genetic factors are determinative while our society spends trillions of dollars on medical research to change genetic disorders. How will the church respond if and when the geneticists find a way to ‘fix’ the problem bin utero*? Are we prepared to accept the enormous risks of such human engineering or do we prepare ourselves for the less godlike task of welcoming human diversity without needing to know about origins?

Case Studies

  1. Jane and Susan lived together in an informal covenantal relationship. They bought a house together and supported each other in times of unemployment. They were both active leaders in their local Mennonite congregation and held conference positions at various times. When Jane died, Susan wrote a beautiful tribute, speaking of Jane as her lover. This statement was read at the memorial service by their pastor.
    No mention was ever made of any need to bring Jane or Susan to discipline, even though some folks knew that Jane was a lesbian. Jane had entered into a heterosexual marriage with a man who had many friends in the congregation, but she had annulled the marriage within a week because she admitted to being a lesbian. Jane and Susan both taught Sunday School, sang in the church choir and held many offices in the church. No questions ever arose. Neither of them ever asked for their lifestyle to be discussed or affirmed in the church. It was not known, nor did a question ever arise, as to whether Jane and Susan in fact had a sexual relationship at all. They lived together, shared property, and were actively involved in the church.
  2. John had a long history of difficulty in his sexual identity, going back to his high school years. He had married and produced children, hoping to change his sexual identity. When he was in his thirties he began having clandestine encounters with other men. The matter became a serious marital problem. The pastor with whom he worked as an associate assured him that so long as he was “working on it,” his struggles in the sexual area would not become a problem between them. The pastor understood John to be an individual who was struggling to overcome his problematic behavior. An important aspect in the pastor’s support of John was the fact that John’s wife was also supportive and committed to overcoming the problem and saving the marriage.
    When, after several years, John revealed his gayness to several persons in the congregation, the situation changed drastically. Every person and group to whom John revealed his sexual identity problem reported to the pastor that they no longer wanted John involved with them because they were not willing to make John’s sexual identity an issue or agenda item for their groups. They were still willing to have him as associate pastor, but they did not want to be forced to deal with “his problem” at every turn. The pastor told John that if he kept on bringing this issue into the discussion, he, the pastor, could not be expected to deflect criticism from John or to defend him because by then the matter intruded into John’s work. The pastor also told John that the problem must be resolved quickly, that if it could not be solved by a certain date six months hence, one of them would have to resign. The pastor said that he could not work with an associate whose problem with sexuality adversely affected his work in the church. The pastor offered to be the person to resign and leave. John felt betrayed by the pastor, blamed him for being homophobic, and asked him to go to therapy with him. The pastor replied that he had been willing to work with John for four years, but was not willing to go on because he did not own the problem. In his view, the matter was no longer a personal problem being struggled with privately, but was becoming the agenda of the church. The resulting impasse led to John’s resignation.
  3. Ted asked to join a Mennonite Church after he had been asked to leave another Mennonite congregation because of his being openly gay. He was received into the second congregation, but problems arose because of his advocacy of gays and their issues. He urged the congregation to become involved in public displays of support for gays and lesbians. After some months he was asked by another gay person within the congregation to cease his advocacy because people were becoming tired of it. The motivation for asking Ted to “cool it” had to do with the perception that while a majority of people in the congregation accepted gays and lesbians, being faced with such open advocacy whenever they came to church was a problem for some. Ted stopped attending and later left the church.
  4. A Mennonite father of a large family gathered his teenage sons one evening to discuss with them ‘the facts of life.’ He began by saying that sexual intercourse is sinful unless it is done for the purpose of procreation. He claimed to have had intercourse eight times with their mother. Hence, they had eight children. There had been one miscarriage, but the next pregnancy had yielded twins. God had made sure they had a child for each experience of intercourse. He then went on to explain and describe the “other ways” to “have sex,” without having intercourse. The behaviors he described fall into the category of sexual behaviors that the church does not promote.

Generalizations

In drawing some generalizations from these case histories, we note that while John and Ted left their respective congregations because they felt alienated from them, in both cases, church members who were involved denied that their sexuality was the causal issue. In John’s case, a number of church members expressed that they felt manipulated by having to deal with John’s issue every time he showed up at a meeting. They were willing to have him continue his job as associate pastor if he could keep his personal sexual issues out of it.

In Ted’s case, his continued advocacy came to be experienced as a haranguing of the congregation. This led to his alienation after he was advised by a gay brother to “tone things down.”

In the case of Jane and Susan, no mention was ever made of Jane’s admitted lesbianism, either by her or anybody else in the congregation. Jane and Susan were loved and respected members over a number of years, active in many programs. Their expertise and talents were greatly valued and used.

Do the foregoing case studies, all actual Mennonite experiences, indicate that the church has already adopted the stance of ‘don’t ask and don’t tell?’ Should questions have been raised about Jane and Susan, and if so, by whom and when? When Jane and Susan bought a house together, they asked their pastor for a character reference which he gladly gave. Should he have asked them whether they had “anything sexual” going on between them before giving them his “blessing” in the form of a character reference? Such procedure would indeed be inferred by the adoption of an “abstinence” stance described previously in this paper. Seemingly such a stance could raise serious civil rights questions, with the issue of fair housing would coming into play.

The issues of “acceptance vs. advocacy” are also inherent in the case studies given here. Mennonite congregations that have taken a public stance on the issue, becoming advocates for gays and lesbians, have gotten into great difficulty while some other congregations that have quietly accepted gays and lesbians, encouraging them to exercise their gifts within the congregation, have not been disciplined.

Conclusions and Implications

The deep ambiguity of the Mennonite Church in its stance toward gays and lesbians in the church is recognized. Efforts toward less ambiguity will be difficult at best. Sexual behaviors that until now have remained in the private realm (e.g. case study No. 4) will need to be addressed. Ambiguity of pronouncement and practice is what we seem to be capable of at the moment.

It would seem to be an exercise in futility to seek any substantial change in the Saskatoon and Purdue statements because they reflect what the church wants to teach about sexuality, i.e., “sexual intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in marriage and…that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital and homosexual sexual activity.” Just as futile as seeking a change in the statement, would be effort to clarify the church’s stance on what is meant by “sexual activity.” This issue is presently most conflictual for the church. The more we flail away at seeking clarity, the more besmudged we ourselves become.

Many constituents who voted in favor of the Saskatoon and Purdue statement did so in the spirit of confession and covenant, not church edict. Even the contested sentence about ‘sexual activity’ is stated as a part of what we understand the Bible to teach, and the context in which it is placed asks the church to ‘covenant with each other to study the Bible together and expand our insight into the biblical teachings relating to sexuality.’ The statement is ambiguous enough (perhaps intentionally so) that to understand it as a law to be enforced is difficult. The statement goes on to say that “we covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ.”

As we have tried to show, the church has dealt with ambiguity in other areas of its life. The days are past when the church dropped from its membership list the names of those who enlisted in the armed forces. We no longer expel persons who experience the tragedy of a divorce.

This position paper has sought to make the case for inclusion of monogamous and committed gay brothers and lesbian sisters in the church family, all the while recognizing that the church seeks to remain faithful to how it has always understood the biblical teachings relating to sexuality. Inclusion of monogamous, committed gay brothers and lesbian sisters does not imply a change in the traditional teachings of the church. This may not sound or feel like inclusion to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who wish to be rid of the stigma they have borne for too long. However, I would argue that there is room in the church for “non-stigmatized” acceptance of those who for whatever reason do not practice what the church wishes to teach. As already noted, we seem to be able to be an inclusive church in other behavioral areas. The same latitude that is given to couples who engage in sexual intercourse before marriage should be extended to gays and lesbians who also engage in sex acts outside of heterosexual marriage. In both cases the parties involved are not practicing what the church teaches about sexuality. In fact, I might argue that the New Testament is more forthright on the issue of fornication than on homosexuality, yet the church has chosen a benign response to fornication rather than an aggressive response. Furthermore, the acknowledgment that there is practice of sexual activity that the church does not promote, even by the most pious families among us, hopefully will help the church to practice grace toward its gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

(This position paper is a work in progress and was written for discussion purposes within the church. It has been in process for nearly ten years with the consultations of many Mennonite brothers and sisters in the academic and theological communities, both gay and straight, liberal and conservative. These collaborative efforts are hereby gratefully acknowledged. This paper is not meant for publication or dissemination without the express permission of the author, Melvin D. Schmidt, 4212 Longfellow St. Hyattsville, Maryland 20781-1650 Phone (301) 927-0420 (Fax, same but call first). Ninth revision, April 4, 2000.)

« Previous | Next »