For Mennonites, Question Of LGBT Membership Yields Few Easy Answers

Jun 29, 2015
Originally published on June 28, 2015 5:55 pm

The Mennonite church encompasses an incredibly diverse group of people, including a small minority that still use a horse and buggy to get around. The largest organization in the faith — Mennonite Church USA — has nearly 100,000 members. Still, whatever the variety of its members, the church is known foremost for two things: pacifism and justice work.

Lately, though, the Mennonite church has been facing a split over how to interpret that ideal of justice — and how it applies to the question of gay and lesbian membership and marriage.

"I'm passionate about peace and justice, and I think that means justice for all, regardless of your sexual orientation," says Ben Wideman, a campus minister for University Mennonite Church in State College, Pa. "So having a church behind me that believes that's important as well means that I can engage students."

Earlier this year, Wideman's church overwhelmingly voted to accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, and to officiate same-sex marriages.

"After a year of many conversations, and prayerful discernment, we felt really good about the response in terms of folks here being more or less on the same page," says Marv Friesen, the church's pastor.

The official stance of Mennonite Church USA, however, is that homosexual activity is a sin, and that marriage is between a man and a woman.

"I don't want to do some of the things the Bible says sometimes, lot of times — but I still have to do it," says Steve Olivieri, the pastor at Cornerstone Fellowship of Mill Run in Altoona, Pa. He says that his church is more literal about Scripture.

"We understand that whenever a passage says, 'The following shall not inherit the kingdom of God,' and it lists homosexuals, we believe that's a lifestyle choice that you make," he says.

The State College church is not the first to allow gay members. One Mennonite church in a suburb of Washington, D.C., was sanctioned 10 years ago by its regional conference for accepting gay and lesbian members; only a few months ago was it welcomed back.

Because of that reinstatement, Olivieri's church — which had been part of the same conference — voted to pull out of the conference and Mennonite Church USA.

"We are in a sense not really leaving," he says. "They are the ones that essentially have left true biblical Christianity in this respect."

Donald Kraybill, who studies Anabaptist religions at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, says that one of the biggest reasons for divisions within all faiths is the quickness with which same-sex marriage is becoming legal.

"Typically when you have social change, it may occur over one or two generations," he says, "and to put it in a fast track and to try to make decisions about it in a matter of two or three years can be very dangerous for the health of a community."

At an upcoming Mennonite Church USA conference, delegates will vote on a resolution that's crafted to please both sides. It proposes recommitting to current guidelines barring LGBT membership, while still asking for "Christian forbearance" on disagreements.

Friesen says that he's hoping for clarifications, but that his congregation won't be quick to break away.

"Within my own extended family, we would not agree on this topic. That doesn't mean that we cut each other loose or walk away from each other," he says. "It means that there's something more important, significant in the relationship that makes it worthwhile for us to hang in there with each other."

If the resolution passes, Friesen says that his congregation will likely remain welcoming to LGBT members — and see just how far that Christian forbearance can stretch.

Copyright 2015 Penn State Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.wpsu.psu.edu.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The Mennonite church is divided over the question of gay and lesbian membership and marriage. The national organization, Mennonite Church USA, will vote this week on whether to continue its current ban on LGBT members. From member station WPSU in State College, Emily Freddie reports.

EMILY REDDY: Mennonites are known for their justice work and pacifism.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

REDDY: After a church service, Mennonite congregants gather outside to watch a blacksmith hammer flat the heated metal barrel of a handgun.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MENNONITES: (Singing) Praise God from whom all blessings grow.

REDDY: Ben Wideman organized the event based on the Bible passage about making swords into plowshares. He’s a campus minister for University Mennonite Church in State College.

BEN WIDEMAN: I’m passionate about peace and justice, and I think that means justice for all, regardless of your sexual orientation. So having a church behind me that believes that’s important as well means that I can engage students.

REDDY: Earlier this year, Wideman’s church overwhelmingly voted to accept LGBT members and officiate same-sex marriages. Marv Friesen is the pastor at the church.

MARV FRIESEN: After a year of many conversations and prayerful discernment, we felt really good about the response in terms of our folks here being more or less on the same page.

REDDY: Mennonites are incredibly diverse, including a small minority that still use a horse and buggy. The largest group, Mennonite Church USA, has nearly 100,000 members. It says homosexual activity is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman.

STEVE OLIVIERI: I don’t want to do some of the things the Bible says sometimes - a lot of times - but I still have to do it.

REDDY: Steve Olivieri is the pastor at Cornerstone Fellowship of Mill Run in Altoona, Pa. He says his church is more literal about scripture.

OLIVIERI: We understand that whenever a passage says the following shall not inherit the kingdom of God and it lists homosexuals, we believe that’s a lifestyle choice that you make.

REDDY: The State College church is not the first to allow gay members. One Mennonite church in suburban Washington was sanctioned 10 years ago for accepting gay and lesbian members but has recently been welcomed back by its regional conference. Because of that reinstatement, Olivieri’s church has voted to pull out of the conference and Mennonite Church USA.

OLIVIERI: We are in a sense not really leaving. They are the ones that essentially have left true biblical Christianity in this respect.

REDDY: Donald Kraybill studies Anabaptists religions at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College. He says one of the biggest reasons for divisions within all faiths is how quickly same-sex marriage is becoming legal.

DONAL KRAYBILL: Typically, when you have social change, it may occur over one or two generations. To put it in a fast track and to try to make decisions about it, you know, in a matter of two or three years can be very dangerous for the health of a community.

REDDY: At the upcoming Mennonite Church USA conference, delegates will vote on a resolution that’s crafted to please both sides. It proposes recommitting to current guidelines barring LGBT membership, but asks for Christian forbearance on disagreements. Friesen says he’s hoping for clarifications but that his congregation won’t be quick to break away.

FRIESEN: Within my own extended family we would not agree on this topic. That doesn't mean that we cut each other loose or walk away from each other. It means that there's something more important, significant in the relationship that makes it worthwhile for us to hang in there with each other.

REDDY: If the resolution passes, Friesen says his congregation will likely remain welcoming to LGBT members and see just how far that Christian forbearance can stretch. For NPR News, I’m Emily Reddy in State College, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.