Relations Reporting on marriage, family, and sexuality

Discerning, dividing over the Bible and sexuality

Society | The largest Mennonite denomination approaches a crossroads
by Mary Jackson
Posted 10/16/20, 05:01 pm

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.”

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow her on Twitter @mbjackson77.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/17/2020 10:30 am

    If the issue was solely on the same-sex marriage issue, then that would well justify them separating from the larger denomination! It is sad to see the world's morality working into the church where we need a bigger issue than same-sex marriage to decide to separate from a denomination.  If our congregations cannot see this, then we have really lost the battle.  Looking at the statistics of the views about homosexuality in the Evangelical church among the youth, 80% under 35 believe that homosexuality is not a sin. Given this confusion, it is no wonder that Evangelicals cannot unite on politics like we used to do in the 80's and 90's. If we don't know how to read our bibles and apply them then we will be confused.

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Sat, 10/17/2020 10:01 pm

    Makes me wonder what they're teaching these young Evangelicals. Or more to the point, WHO's been teaching them.

    Still, the LORD has reserved to Himself 7000 whose knees haven't bowed to Baal and whose mouths haven't kissed him.

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Sat, 10/17/2020 06:27 pm

    I have always admired the Mennonites for their strong adherence to the teachings of Jesus, including nonviolence.
    However, I suggest that loving one's neighbor, as Jesus adds in when asked what the greatest commandment is, has to come under the rubric of first loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind. To love God foremost is to follow His creation order and its precepts, and then out of that, one loves his or her neighbor rightly.  In other words, if God says that something, such as homosexual practice, is sin, then to love one's neighbor is to not indulge that neighbor's sinful conduct.

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Sat, 10/17/2020 10:12 pm

    I agree Allen. It all starts with loving God and loving God starts with obeying God:

    "If you love Me, keep My commandments."  John 14:15 NKJV

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/17/2020 10:32 pm

    Well said both of you! Thanks! 

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Mon, 10/19/2020 11:19 am

    It would seem to me that the issue is not whether or not homosexuality is a sin, but whether or not church discipline is a sin.

    If individual churches are free to do whatever they want, with no accountability from the denomination, why even have a denomination?  And I think the (decline in) numbers reflected in this article tell you all you need to know about what the people think about this lack of accountability. 

  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 10/20/2020 10:08 am

    The leaders at the “demonized” HQ want to keep the cash flowing into their pockets from all the member churches. That is easiest if you relax Biblical standards. The only problem is that eventually a few of the real Bible following churches wake up and push back. 

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Tue, 10/20/2020 06:38 pm

    There is no ambiguity in the Bible over sexuality.  There are only two sexes: male and female and one form of acceptable sexuality between them: marriage.  Jesus said so.

    It is surprising that the Mennonites who revere "tradition" would become so biblically and sexually confused.

  • Leeper
    Posted: Wed, 10/21/2020 07:45 am

    The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of God is forever. 

  • JM
    Posted: Wed, 10/21/2020 05:55 pm

    I am a member of an even older rural congregation, which was the first Mennonite Church in our county. The congregation left the MC USA years ago. We later removed the word "Mennonite" from our name. In the past year, with a new pastor, the membership of our congregation is now on the rise. Younger couples with children are the growth. These families are conservative and local. Therefore I would suggest that not all the younger set are buying liberal idea.