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

The DNA of Unity and Diversity in God’s Image

February 24, 2014

Credit: Nevit Dilmen. Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Nevit Dilmen. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long said I wish as a church we could open our hands to receive the irreconcilable dilemma we’re faced with around sexual orientation, as a gift from God. Am I out of my mind to say this? Maybe. But I do not assert this glibly. As a 60 year old, I know the crucible events in my life—as wracked with pain as they are—drive me deeper into the love of God. Break my heart open. Make me more humble. And perhaps a tad wiser.

I believe enough in the good providence of God to ask—why has this conflict—a conflict that tears us down the middle in families, congregations, denominations, nations—why has this conflict shown up with such ferocity? What does God want us to learn as a people? What does God want to teach us? I am energized by the questions and therefore receive the monumental dilemma about how to be faithful Christ-followers with our sexuality as a gift. God is calling us to grow in faith and faithfulness.

How are we being asked to grow? To read our Bibles with new, intense questions. To do the messy, marvelous theological work that is required to understand what the unsettling Spirit is calling us toward in this day. To fulfill the law to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves.

As the church is wracked with painful conflict (and yes, it is horrible what we’re doing to each other in social media), the educator part of me thinks of this as a developmental stage. Groups have stages, as do individuals. Any one of us who has been a teenager or parent stumbling around to negotiate differences, knows about the difficult work of differentiation. It seems our default setting as Mennonites is to cut off relationships and withdraw into a “pure” enclave of the like minded, heaping vitriol on the other side. This is classic sectarian immaturity. Experience has shown that the differences follow us into the enclaves and only fragment us further.

When received as a gift, as an essential part of healthy development, the wrestling eventuates in an amazing kind of growing up together—where parents and teenagers grow wiser and more able to embrace varying degrees of difference within the family.

The theologian part of me asks again—how might we open our hands and hearts at this moment to discover the gifts of God’s grace within our irreconcilable differences? Rather than threatening, accusing, and demeaning each other—how might we receive this conflict as God’s invitation to meet at the foot of the cross?

AMBS New Testament professor Mary Schertz writes that taking the cross of Jesus seriously means that suffering love is to be played out in the arena of discernment around difficult issues, as in all other areas of our common life. There can be no holier, compassionate work than to engage in the difficult conversations we currently find ourselves within.

Being honestly transparent with each other is humbling, hard work and yet that is when we come to know how gracious is the love of Christ “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Our hearts will be tugged (painfully) wider and wider open as we hold together what seems irreconcilable. Isn’t this after all what is so astonishing, that we serve a Lord in whom “all things hold together” and through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”?

Jesus taught us that the fulfillment of the law is all about loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. The fulfillment of the law is all about the integrity of life—where internal affections and external actions harmonize. The fulfillment of the law is about putting our desire for God above all other desires and judging all human desire in light of our desire for God.

So yes, we can open our hands and receive the irreconcilable dilemma we’re faced with around sexual orientation as a gift from God. Why? Because we are made in the image of God. Every one of us. The image of God is our most fundamental DNA.

As persons who bear God’s indelible, grace-filled imprint, we can learn to discern together—even grow in wisdom and maturity together. With the illuminating Spirit as guide, we can teach each other about the diverse ways we fulfill the law by putting our desire for God above all other desires; our love for God above all loves.

“God so loved the world ….” Clearly God has hope in humankind and in the church. God hasn’t given up on us. And so, we live in hope.

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Comments that contribute to the focus of this post are welcome. Comments that in our view demean or disrespect persons will not be posted.

Tags: pastors , sexuality

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.