You know that times are tough when even the Mennonites are fighting.
As is almost always the case, reporters who dig deep will find that they are dealing with a conflict that is rooted in theology, not politics (as defined in the actual James Davison Hunter “Culture Wars” book).
Yes, as is almost always the case, we are talking about another doctrinal dispute about the Sexual Revolution — LGBTQ issues to be specific. That brings us to an important Religion News Service update on the Mennonite wars.
Pay close attention to this story’s reference to the “consensus” decision-making traditions in this flock and its attempts to live in peace, despite clashes over doctrines rooted in centuries of Christian tradition. After all, we are talking about some of the freest of all “free church” believers. We will come back to that. Here is the overture:
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) — The 80 or so people who gather on Sunday at the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, like many other members of the Mennonite Church USA, are accustomed to singing hymns a cappella in four-part harmony and making decisions by consensus.
It was by consensus more than two years ago that the congregation decided, after a year of study, to welcome LGBTQ people into the full life of the church — a decision that led its pastor perform a same-sex wedding between two women. That wedding tested core Mennonite tenets about sexuality and hastened a growing realignment in this denomination that traces its roots to the 16th-century Anabaptists.
The response from Chapel Hill’s regional body was swift: The Virginia Mennonite Conference immediately suspended pastor Isaac Villegas’ ordination credentials and put off any review or resolution.
In response, the congregation transferred its membership this summer to a conference of Midwestern churches in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The Central District, with its headquarters in Goshen, Ind., not only admitted the North Carolina congregation into full membership; last month it also restored Villegas’ ordination credentials.
If you have followed the Sexual Revolution wars in oldline liberal Protestantism, you will recognize what is happening here. It’s called the “local option” approach to doctrine. That’s when a denomination is divided up by zip codes, with clashing doctrinal standards affirmed in different parts of the country or even the world.
Think Anglicans vs. Episcopalians. Or think about the challenges facing United Methodists in the very near future, in which doctrinal divisions that have existed in the denomination for decades (as in the classic study called “The Seven Churches of Methodism”) may or may not exist to a legal schism.
So, United Methodists, read this next long passage carefully. Does any of this sound familiar?
The Mennonite realignment — at least on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion — cuts both ways: Conservative as well as liberal congregations are breaking away and coming together in new ways.
Since its creation in 2002 as the merger of two older denominations, the Mennonite Church USA has seen significant changes. Three of its 21 regional conferences have left the denomination, including the largest and most traditional, the Lancaster (Pa.) Conference. The national body now has 69,000 members in 625 churches and remains the largest Mennonite organization.
But the realignment is far from over. Several of its LGBTQ-welcoming churches are clustering in three conferences that have declared themselves affirming of LGBTQ Christians. The Central District Conference, to which the Chapel Hill church now belongs, already includes churches from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. Meanwhile, the conservative Southeast Conference is considering leaving.
What about the actual doctrinal details in this fight?
Article 19 of the Mennonites’ “Confession of Faith” states: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” But the church also passed a resolution in 2015 on “forbearance in the midst of differences” in which it vowed “to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”
In other words, the Mennonites are already exploring what it means to build a denomination on a doctrinal foundation that attempts to find a safe compromise between small-o Christian orthodoxy and the demands of the Sexual Revolution.
What do conservative Mennonites think about all of this?
Well, it’s hard to know since the RNS story doesn’t include a single paragraph of content from believers on that side of the divide. This is, you see, the heartwarming story of Villegas and his supporters and that is that. Maybe there will be a follow-up story to cover the other half of this journalistic equation?
In conclusion, let me note one other angle in this story.
If you follow Mennonite news, then you noticed the headlines three years ago when these same issues surfaced at Eastern Mennonite University, where leaders decided to embrace LGBTQ faculty members who were in same-sex marriages or living as celibates. For a moment, it appeared that this might create a fault line inside the global Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. In the end, EMU (and another school) left the CCCU.
Now, Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles — a major evangelical school — has decided to modify its stance on some key LGBTQ issues, while saying that it has not changed its doctrinal stance on sex outside of marriage. We will see how that works out.
What ties all of this together? There are two key questions that will affect many other stories:
(1) Is it possible to find a safe, compromise position between ancient doctrines on marriage and sex (in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) and the legal changes sought by LGBTQ groups?
(2) In "free church” Christian flocks, who gets to decide which doctrines are changed and which doctrines stay the same?
It’s hard to decide, when the church tradition is that there is no church tradition. Big news hook here: Millions of evangelicals worship in “free church” settings of this kind.
Of course, we are also seeing similar fights among Roman Catholics, especially in educational institutions (as well as among United Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.). People fight about the contents of ancient traditions, too.
So stay tuned. To say the least.