Discerning, dividing over the Bible and sexuality
The largest Mennonite denomination approaches a crossroads
Bethel Mennonite Church of Inman, Kan., first began meeting in an adobe building just outside of town in 1875. The congregation survived two fires, 25 years apart, that leveled its buildings.
More recently, the church has weathered difficult decisions to withdraw from the Mennonite Church (MC) USA, which formed in 2002 from the merger of two older denominations, and to break ties with a local conference over the issue of same-sex marriage. Now, Bethel is at a crossroads again with the new regional conference it joined.
The MC USA’s laissez-faire approach to same-sex marriage and LGBT pastors has some congregations and conferences questioning whether they can stay connected to the denomination without compromising their fidelity to Scripture. Its loose requirements have caused division and confusion on the local level.
“There has been way too much leeway for every congregation and conference to do what they want, basically,” Bethel Pastor Bob Yates said. “There seems to be no standard.”
The Mennonites have a long history of schisms over issues of tradition and modern life. They first arrived in the United States from Germany in 1683 with roots in the 16th-century Anabaptist tradition. MC USA has membership guidelines that set expectations for the behavior of individuals, pastors, and congregations. The guidelines are based on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which outlines church doctrine and considers homosexuality a sin and marriage as between one man and one woman for life. It also prohibits pastors from performing same-sex marriages.
But congregations and regional conferences may decide whether they adhere to membership guidelines, and the MC USA does not actively enforce them. In 2015, the denomination passed a resolution calling for forbearance on issues related to human sexuality since “there is currently not a consensus within [MC USA] on whether it is appropriate to bless Christians who are in same-sex covenanted unions.” Last month, it indicated it could retire the guidelines at its July 2021 biennial meeting.
Pastors and congregations have already grouped themselves into conferences based on their beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Four MC USA conferences have credentialed leaders who identify as LGBT, according to the MC USA.
“I am surprised that some 20 years later, LGBTQ inclusion is still such a big deal,” Glen Guyton, executive director of MC USA, wrote in a September blog post. He told me the membership guidelines require “communal discernment,” and the confession statement provides “a framework for what we believe, but we don’t have a punitive aspect for folks that don’t follow every line of it.”
Citing MC USA’s stance on marriage and sexuality, the denomination’s largest conference, the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, withdrew in 2018. That conference included 179 congregations and more than 70,000 members across New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
MC USA’s membership declined from 100,000 in 2014 to 60,000 now. The denomination dropped from 21 area conferences and 900 congregations in 2014 to its current 16 conferences and 600 churches.
South Central Conference, which Bethel in Inman, Kan., belongs to, represents about 35 of those churches. Bethel already disaffiliated from the MC USA and another conference, but has kept its ties to the South Central group for the community and accountability it offers. The conference is currently in a “discovery process” to determine whether it will stay connected to the national Mennonite group.
“The crux of the issue is … how we interpret what the Bible says,” the conference’s network chair Gary Wolfer said.
At Bethel, Yates agreed the issue is bigger than same-sex marriage: “We question the direction MC USA is headed … in addressing what sin is, whether the Bible is true, how we’re called to live, and who defines that.”
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