Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Can our disagreements about sexuality be solved with the Bible?

October 22, 2014

Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education and director of the AMBS Church Leadership Center.

Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education and director of the AMBS Church Leadership Center.

I am pleased to post this piece from Dr. Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education and director of the AMBS Church Leadership Center. Her recent presentations to the Constituency Leaders Council of Mennonite Church USA (which are linked at the end) received widespread and heartfelt appreciation. - Sara Wenger Shenk

Since our founding, we Mennonites have claimed the Bible as the central source of authority for our faith and life. The Bible, we have said, is how we learn about God, and most importantly, about Jesus Christ, the One whom we together seek to follow.

Yet these days it seems many of us are not spending a whole lot of time with the Bible. “The estrangement of many North American Mennonite Christians from the Bible—their sense that they know the book, that it’s over-familiar or irrelevant, and their captivity to American ills of individualism, consumerism and over-busyness—all of these make it hard to indwell the ancient text and make it life-giving today,” writes Alan Kreider.

And when it comes to difficult conversations like we’re having about sexuality, some among us have little hope that Scripture can be our guide. Because the Scripture has been misused and co-opted for political purposes and made into a tool of oppression, they say we should steer clear of it in discerning difficult matters.

Others among us are quick to claim the Bible is on their side in the sexuality debates. They quote the Bible readily. They will tell you something like, “I go with the Bible on this one.” This is code for, “There will be no discussion of inclusion or same sex covenants in my church. I know what the Bible says. Case closed.”

Who, really, is studying the Bible?

My question is, when and with whom are we actually studying the Bible? When are we engaging in in-depth Bible study in our own congregations? In what settings are we looking not at just one issue or one set of texts, but many texts, or better yet, whole biblical books, over extended periods of time? In what contexts are we taking advantage of the many scholarly tools of interpretation now available to pastors and lay people alike, tools that can shed a great deal of light on Scripture?

And where are we doing this in congregational contexts that are politically, theologically, and culturally diverse, like the real body of Christ? Where are we coming together, week in and week out, to keep on listening and talking, challenging and understanding, the Scripture and each other? Are most of us not doing this at all or even semi-regularly, as recent studies suggest?

“The Bible provides the stories that have always given identity to the Christian community,” writes Frederick Borsch. “These stories and related materials are the base data and primary theological core of Christian community…. It is the one ‘language’ shared by Christians of different races, cultures, and economic backgrounds.”

Following Borsch I would suggest that when we can no longer speak to each other from the Bible, we cease to share a common Christian identity. We lose our shared foundation—our shared theological core—and our conversations go in circles. In fact, our conversations largely take place only within our own carefully constructed social circles, not within the theologically diverse body that is the church. We find ourselves unable to speak across our conservative-liberal divides because we are no longer speaking a common language.

Might it be possible that the language of the Bible is the language we must learn to speak together again?

What if more of us found ourselves in communities of engagement around Scripture, all around the Mennonite church? What if we found ourselves meeting regularly to study the Bible with well-prepared teachers, who would lead us into in-depth grappling with the Scripture and its many contexts, marinating in God’s Story together over time? What if we kept on listening and talking, challenging and persuading, until we could articulate not only our own, but each other’s perspectives on what the Scripture is saying to the church?

Would this guarantee we would all come out at the same place on sexuality issues? Probably not, since we already know that there are biblical preachers and scholars and writers who have arrived at different viewpoints on questions related to sexuality. If different people speak from their sincere but alternative understandings of Scripture, can we, at the very least, listen to what they have to say as we study the Bible together?

New guidelines for membership

Perhaps membership in the Mennonite church should be based not on our beliefs about sexual ethics, but on our willingness to commit to participate in in-depth weekly Bible study in our own congregations. I would very much like to be part of a church where studying the Bible is more central to our identity than our conservative-liberal labels.

I have no doubt that studying the Bible together would be stretching for all of us. That’s because the goal of Bible study is to facilitate a conversation between God and God’s people today. The deep engagement with Scripture our parents and grandparents and Anabaptist forbearers experienced was hugely important for their time and their place. But this is our time, and our opportunity to grapple with Scripture in light of the questions and experiences and stories of our time. We cannot rely on their study, and their spiritual practices, and their experience. We have to experience Scripture for ourselves.

How can we make Bible study and effective teaching a priority? How can we learn to dig deep together, so that we might begin to truly know and love the one thing that can unite us? That is, so that we can know and love the Story of God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and given to us in the pages of the Bible.

Download a file with an extended exploration of Jewel’s call for in-depth biblical study in AMBS's resources for sexuality conversations area.

Tags: sexuality

“Patient Vigor” for interesting times

September 15, 2014

Big Ben. London, England, United Kingdom. Credit: Misterzee (Wikimedia Commons)

Big Ben. London, England, United Kingdom. Credit: Misterzee (Wikimedia Commons)

I love my job. I often awaken with gratitude welling up—this despite enormous stress throughout “our industry”: theological education.

Two years into the job, I sought out a spiritual director who wouldn’t hesitate to ask me tough questions. I figured I might be overlooking unexamined issues or unacknowledged angst.

But gratitude persists—and has been remarkably constant for four years as the prevailing energy that informs my life of prayer. Even so, it continues to surprise me—particularly in the dark times when tasks overwhelm, self-doubt looms or family and global crises invade.

One of the reasons gratitude pervades is that I am blessed to work in a mature, non-anxious community of faith. I am surrounded by colleagues whose patience, wisdom, love, devotion to God, creativity, kindness and peaceableness is profound.

Did I say patience? Yes. Patience!

Patience isn’t a quality I’m accustomed to reflect on much. It is listed among the fruit of the Spirit—but not one that stands out. Yet, according to church historian Alan Kreider, patience is at the heart of the early Christians’ missional and social strategy.

In a faculty conversation about the current tensions swirling around how we regard persons of same sex orientation, a colleague spoke of the need for “patient vigor.”

Patient vigor (as I understand it) means a willingness to listen calmly to each other, to the Scriptures, and to God’s Spirit rather than getting riled up by the polarizing, raucous clamor of the culture wars.

Patient vigor means listening to the full counsel of what is needed so that “every part is working properly, [promoting] the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:16).

Patient vigor means courageously acting for justice and lovingly speaking the truth in the face of vicious attacks and mean spirited spurning of brothers and sisters.

Patient vigor means fearlessly living with unresolved questions even as we actively engage in compassionate hospitality and mission everywhere we live and work.

AMBS’s mission of reconciliation includes a readiness to resource the whole church during this time of intense, prayerful discernment. We recognize that as a church, we’ve allowed competing claims about what the Bible says to divide rather than unite us.

AMBS faculty have a profound respect for the Scripture’s power to reveal God in Christ to us—scriptures we must listen to over and over again, with vigorous patience, to discern the mind of Christ for these “interesting times.” The faculty have begun to provide resources that call us with patient vigor to:

  • Re-learn the spiritual disciplines necessary to hear God’s gracious Spirit in Scripture and in each other.
  • Listen to the full-orbed witness of Scripture with the best available skills of interpretation.
  • Prayerfully adopt a confessional posture in the midst of conflict.
  • Commit to pray for the well-being of our enemies, including those with whom we most vehemently disagree.
  • Be teachable—ready even to be broken open to receive a previously unrecognized word from the Lord: “You have heard it said… But I say to you….”
  • Locate our own stories within the arc of God’s Shalom Story.

As an Anabaptist learning community, we are unafraid of the hard questions. Instead, we are exhilarated by them—believing that the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit will unite our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

I am grateful for faith communities who are learning that the Spirit’s precious and sweet fruit of patience is indispensable for discerning the mind of Christ—Christ “who has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 1:14).

Sexuality conversation resources from the AMBS faculty are available in the Publishing and Research area.

Tags: sexuality

Called to practice reconciliation

September 02, 2014

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Loavesofbread

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Loavesofbread

“Go…. So that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-3).
“Go.” Leave what is known… for some place that is not yet known.

The call of Abraham is an ancient story. Some 4000 years ancient. What it preserves for us is a glimpse of one man’s encounter with God; an encounter that dramatically changed human history.

The call of Abraham is one of those classic texts that brings everything into sharp focus.

God calls persons. It’s that simple. God called Abraham, and God called many others whose stories are told in Scripture and throughout church history.

God calls each of us—in some fashion. Perhaps in ways we’ve only partially named and are still discovering.

A call is a mysterious thing, laden with wonderment, doubt, many testings over time.

There are calls that set a trajectory—and deeply form a way of life. There are calls that come in the moment—to which we can respond because of a baptismal calling that has shaped us over time.

Three recent stories come quickly to mind:

Journalist James Foley's brutal execution by the Islamic State stunned the world. At a mass in his home Catholic parish, Rev. Paul Gausse offered a prayer for the perpetrators of James’ killing. “We are not just praying for us and the Foley family, but praying for those who have perpetrated this kind of evil,” he said. “James felt compelled to be a witness to people in conflict. This was his mission.” And James’ mother Diane Foley added. “[James] died for that compassion and that love, and I pray that he can be remembered that way and that he [will] not have died in vain.” And to Rev. Gausse she added: “Father, pray for me that I don’t become bitter. I don’t want to hate.”

Protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer. Rev. Willis Johnson, a local Ferguson pastor, felt called into the fray. A photo in the Washington Post showed the pastor in a powerful embrace with protester 18 year-old Joshua Wilson. In an NPR interview later about what was happening in that photo, Pastor Johnson said that as police were ordering protesters to move aside, he was trying to keep Wilson out of harm's way. "If anything” he said, “[my embrace of Wilson] was to affirm him — and to affirm both of us — because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed. We were being told ... that what we were doing was wrong, and it was not wrong."

The New York Times carried the story last week of Josephine Finda Sellu, a deputy nurse matron in Sierra Leone. After 15 of her nurses died from Ebola, she thought about quitting herself. “It has been a nightmare,” she said. “Since the whole thing started, I have cried a lot…. I am a senior nurse. All the junior nurses look up to me. If I left,” she said, “the whole thing would collapse…. There are times when I say, Oh my God, I should have chosen secretarial.” But her job as a healer, she said “is the calling of God.”

However a call of God comes, those testified to by God’s people, by followers of Jesus throughout the generations, often include some resemblance to Abram’s call:

There is an initiative by God; an invitation—or even a command.

  • Go to a land I will show you.
  • Leave your nets.
  • Witness to people in conflict.
  • Take a stand for justice.
  • Be a healer.
  • Come, follow me.

The call is personal. Abram. Moses. Esther. James. Willis. Josephine. But in a profound and ultimate way, it isn’t about any one of us.

  • “So that you will be a blessing”….
  • “So that all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

This is where a call keeps shifting in and out of focus. It’s about me—each of us. But it isn’t about any one of us. It’s about aligning our lives with the magnificent reconciling mission of God in the world.

Tags: leaders , practicing reconciliation

Spiritual Smuggery

July 18, 2014

The preacher talked about being “spiritually smug” in the sermon and something went ping in my head. None of us would want to think of ourselves as high on the spiritual smugness scale. I surely wouldn’t. And yet I think it’s an affliction that infects us more than we care to admit.

Any one of us who professes strong convictions is vulnerable to spiritual smuggery. Jesus called persons who purported to know best how God expected others to behave “hypocrites.” How, I wonder, do those hypocrites differ from the rest of us motivated by prophetic fervor, by righteous indignation, by a zealous desire to be faithful to God’s law?

For my part, I think Mennonites in general are afflicted with an oversized case of spiritual smuggery. We’re Jesus’ favorites after all. We get Jesus like few others do. We’re big on discipleship, loving our neighbors, and even loving our enemies. We often separate ourselves off in communities that intentionally stay away from big world problems or mainstream popular culture, thinking that will make it possible to attain a pure life. If we try a little harder or separate a little more decisively from those who’ve compromised, we feel even better about ourselves.

All of us who strive to be good and faithful servants are in danger of registering high on the scale of spiritual smugness. Seminaries are not immune. Academics have been known to demonstrate disdainful arrogance and intellectual snobbishness. Congregations who refuse to associate with other congregations are not immune. Persons who categorically stigmatize others for their race, gender, or sexual orientation are not immune.

Whenever we set ourselves up as better than others—whoever they may be—we stand in stark contrast to Jesus.

Jesus has harsh words for spiritually smug persons:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I’m attracted to humble people—persons who are so in touch with their own need for mercy that they readily extend it to others. Any impulse to disdain or to distance themselves from others is foreign to them. They live in grateful wonder for mercy that is wide and forgiving. They exude kindness and generosity. Their quiet joy is infectious because they know in every cell of their being that nothing can separate them from the love of God. How do they know that? They have been broken open by pain, loss, profound suffering. They have also been broken open to the beauty and mystery of a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.”


Tags: faithfulness

Avoiding Avoidance

May 29, 2014

Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics

Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics

Dr. Malinda Berry is joining the AMBS faculty this July. I am pleased to post her recent piece from Mennonite Life in the series, "On Teaching John Howard Yoder," as a guest on Practicing Reconciliation." The piece was commissioned for the summer 2014 issue. Welcome, Malinda, to the conversation!

Avoiding Avoidance: Why I Assigned Body Politics this Spring

This semester, my co-teacher colleague and I decided to put Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World on the assigned reading list for an upper-level course in ecclesiology. This was the first time that I assigned a book-length work by John Howard Yoder in any of the courses that I have taught in my eight years of putting together syllabi in undergraduate and seminary settings. I have avoided assigning Yoder’s work because I did not know how to talk about Yoder’s discipline process with students in a place as public as a classroom. In private conversation, I knew how to talk about this stuff. And when it comes to my own scholarship, I have chosen to ground myself in Mennonite sources and voices that reflect the fullness of our community rather than relying solely, or even primarily, on Yoder’s corpus.

So what changed? At a communal level, a lot has changed. With Mennonite Church USA embarking upon this most recent discernment and listening process, we have brought years and layers of hidden conversation out into the open. In the clear air and bright light of this new day, some of us are holding our breath as some of us exhale deeply; all of us are blinking as our eyes adjust in this new atmosphere. At a personal level, not that much has changed. I still find it difficult to know what to say about Yoder to my students. Rather than avoiding this complexity, yet again, I determined to speak forthrightly about the conflict I have with assigning Yoder’s works, indeed with Yoder himself.

We have all heard that the Chinese character for conflict comprises the characters for crisis and opportunity. Whether this is popular folk wisdom or true, it describes how I approached my conflict with Yoder this semester. I agreed to assign Body Politics because I would have felt academically irresponsible to exclude Yoder’s voice and perspective from our course where Anabaptist perspectives on the church are central. And it is this same work that afforded me the opportunity to speak about the crisis our denomination has experienced because of Yoder’s actions.

Body Politics, like many of Yoder’s works, is a collection of essays. This particular collection arrived on bookshelves in the late Spring of 1992, about the time two others things were happening. First was a Believers Church conference held at Goshen College in May, which Yoder helped plan. The conference theme? Church discipline, one of the practices Yoder discusses in Body Politics. Second, in June came the culmination of an 11-month investigation by two Mennonite Church panels into allegations presented in testimony by eight women that ended with the announcement that Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference was suspending Yoder’s ministerial credentials. [Tom Price, “Theologian Cited in Sex Inquiry,” Elkhart Truth, June 29, 1992.] All at once, Yoder was Mennonites’ Doktorvater, teaching us how to think about the church’s theological significance in the world and he was systematically avoiding one of the church’s defining practices. How is it that Yoder was able to occupy two paradoxical spaces at the same time?

My colleague and I did not hide this paradox from our students. We chose to name this dilemma and integrate it into how we taught the material, citing—and putting at students’ fingertips—the numerous reputable online resources for peeling back the layers of complexity that surround Body Politics. When all was said and done, pedagogically, it was much easier to name the conflict surrounding Yoder than I expected it to be. Where the conflict remains alive for me is in the spaces where the interpersonal and the intellectual intermingle.

First is the interpersonal. I come from a family with deep ties to Yoder. My mother and aunts grew up with John Howard and his sister Mary Ellen at the Oak Grove congregation in Smithville, Ohio. Whenever I meet the Yoders’ daughter Martha at church conferences, we find it all too easy to talk about our lives and concerns, losing track of the time. I was honored to enjoy fondue with Leonard and Irene Gross one December evening, where we were joined, among others, by Anne Guth Yoder. It had been ten years since John Howard had died. We remembered him, listening to an old tape that included a recording of Yoder accompanying himself on the piano as he sang Deep River. I grew up being told that he had a beautiful singing voice, and it is true.

And then there is the intellectual. Methodologically speaking, I am a systematic and constructive theologian. I chose these specialities because I believe that our ecclesial community has been too reliant on John Howard Yoder for our theological perspective. Yoder is rarely one of my conversational partners because another major dimension of my method comes from woman-centered theologies (i.e., feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies) that deconstruct race, class, and patriarchy. My interest is in understanding how we describe nonviolence — a creative force of goodness, love, and justice — theologically based on the interplay of Anabaptist tradition, scriptural interpretation, individual and corporate experience, and ethical reasoning. Yoder’s work and identity were invested in making pacifism intellectually respectable, and I respect him for all he gave to that project. However, unlike many of my teachers and mentors, I do not feel myself intellectually indebted or bound to Yoder. My view is that, alone, Yoder’s work does not offer us a sufficient analysis of power that helps us understand what is happening theologically in faith communities where we perpetuate cycles of violence and injustice. Rather, Yoder becomes an example of how we have perpetuated these things. Defending and/or excusing Yoder, like avoiding him altogether, are some of the things that contribute to this cycle, a cycle that we are now able to say needs to end.

So what happens when I let these things get all mixed up within me? I believe there is a way to be honest about Yoder’s failings, the pain and violation others felt because of his actions, and the struggle of the communities that he participated in. Collectively, we failed over and over to enact justice and we can learn from our mistakes. Here are three things I have learned.

  1. Authentic reconciliation involves reparation, not just redemption. We often fasten our gaze on reconciliation and redemption, but I have learned that the humbling, and even humiliating, work of repairing the breach has to be part of the equation lest we gloss over the depth of others’ anger and rage.
  2. Valuing conscientious objection to war does not mean we have not experienced other kinds of violence and warfare. John Howard Yoder is our collective, metaphorical unremoved shrapnel. How we remove it is just as important as understanding how the injury occurred and why we have lived with the embedded fragments for so long.
  3. Using or not using Yoder’s work should not be the litmus test for how authentically Mennonite or Anabaptist we are. Instead of convincing one another to (not) use Yoder’s work in our own work, we are better off trusting that each of us is doing our best to speak and share the understanding of Christian faith that God is growing in us. To do this is to honor and call forth integrity.

So I will include Yoder’s work in my teaching from time to time, but my choice is one that I commit to sharing with openness and honesty because every body has politics.

Tags: john howard yoder

This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.