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Goshen-area church's move from Mennonite conference underscores division on same-sex marriage

Some churches affirm such unions, others maintain that Mennonite standards sanction only heterosexual unions.

Posted on July 25, 2014 at 12:46 p.m.

The decision by a Goshen-area Mennonite church to leave a Mennonite church coalition in part over the same-sex marriage issue didn’t happen in a vacuum.

There is a mix of conflicting views on the controversial subject within Mennonite Church USA congregations, a national denomination that has a strong presence in Elkhart County. And it’s got some talking about the need to somehow bring clarity and possibly reconciliation to the issue.

"It’s obviously a very difficult place to be, and it stretches relations,“ said Dan Miller, pastor at the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, based in Goshen. ”The conversations can get pretty intense.“

A notable presence
The Mennonite church has a notable presence in Elkhart County.

Thirteen churches here are affiliated with the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, according to the Goshen-based group’s website. A map at the Mennonite Church USA website indicates around 30 Mennonite churches in Elkhart County.

The Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference is one of many groupings of congregations under Mennonite Church USA.

Clinton Frame ranks among the larger of the Mennonite churches here, with typical Sunday attendance of around 400.

Clinton Frame Mennonite Church east of Goshen announced Wednesday that it had left the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, one of many groupings under the denominational umbrella of Mennonite Church USA.

Pastor Terry Diener said the same-sex marriage issue figured big in the decision, though it wasn’t the only factor. He contrasted the support for same-sex unions by some within the conference — without naming names — and the official Mennonite Church USA view, backed by Clinton Frame, that marriage should be the union of one man and one woman.

”There are pastors within the Mennonite church that have made past statements affirming same-sex marriage and the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community,“ Diener said.

Though the denomination formally backs heterosexual unions, “it’s not an upheld position,” he lamented. He thinks church leadership could be more outspoken in defending traditional marriage, per the official stance.

More broadly, he said “we would believe that scripture does not condone homosexual practices.”

Following the move to leave the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, Clinton Frame will seek membership in a different Mennonite Church USA conference. Whatever the case, the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference stance is the same as Mennonite Church USA’s and Clinton Frame’s, according to Miller — marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

Nancy Kauffmann, denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA out of its Elkhart offices, said other churches, like Clinton Frame, have moved to new conferences over the same-sex marriage issue. Some have even left Mennonite Church USA altogether.

"It is a major conversation,“ she said.

Some church officials view accepting same-sex relationships as a justice issue, others view such unions as sin. As such, she suspects the issue will be a major focus of discussion among church delegates at the next national assembly of Mennonite Church USA in 2015 at Kansas City, Mo.

Delegates from each congregation and conference help shape church policy, and many are praying for guidance on how to sort through the controversial issue. ”Where it’s going to go, I don’t know,“ Kauffmann said.

NEED TO REVISIT, RETHINK

Neither Miller nor Diener would identify local Mennonite churches favoring same-sex marriage. Asked if any local Mennonite churches have officiated same-sex marriages, Diener — while stating that Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference pastors aren’t supposed to be doing such ceremonies — demurred.

An issue at Goshen College, too
Same-sex relationships have also emerged as an issue at Goshen College, part of Mennonite Church USA as well.

A librarian at the college resigned in May in part due to the college’s employment standards, per religious guidelines, that say sex should be reserved for married heterosexual couples.
Some students decry the position.

"I’m not going to answer that,” he said. There were a flurry of same-sex marriage ceremonies in Elkhart County and elsewhere in Indiana following the June 25 court ruling striking the Indiana law prohibiting such unions, a decision that was stayed two days later, bringing the marriages to a halt.

Whatever the case, the Clinton Frame announcement is hardly the only local indication of division among Mennonites over homosexuality and LGBTQ issues. The debate over same-sex marriage is “a pretty big conversation in the country, and I don’t think we are going to be any exception to that,” Miller said.

At least two Elkhart County Mennonite churches belong to the Supportive Communities Network, or SCN — Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen and Southside Fellowship of Elkhart. SCN, a program of the Minneapolis, Minn.-based Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests, or BMC, is a grouping of churches “publicly affirming of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual members,” according to its website.

"We don’t all agree on the issues, but we are open to discussion and conversation with everyone,“ said Dave Moser, the Southside pastor. Southside, part of the Central District Conference within Mennonite Church USA, would be open to performing ”blessing“ ceremonies of same-sex unions, though the Elkhart church hasn’t done any during Moser’s eight years there.

The formal Mennonite position
The document outlining the Mennonite stance pertaining to same-sex marriage is in Article 19 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith. It reads, in part:

"We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship. Marriage is meant for sexual intimacy, companionship and the birth and nurture of children.

As Moser sees it, the document outlining the Mennonite Church USA stance on marriage, Article 19 of the Mennonite Confession of Faith, published in 1995, is ”descriptive of where the church was at a certain point,“ not prescriptive. Accordingly, the issue needs to be addressed anew.

"I’m of the mindset we need to get back to square one and have a wider discussion about human sexuality,” he said. “We need to revisit these documents at a denominational level and rethink some of these issues... Our thinking has changed tremendously.”

No one from Assembly Mennonite Church, part of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and the Central District Conference, immediately returned calls seeking comment.

Carol Wise, executive director of BMC and the SCN coordinator, said churches affirming of same-sex relationships and the LGBTQ community may be guilty of “ecclesiastical disobedience,” but nothing more. She sees more and more Mennonite churches opening their doors to the LGBTQ community.

“I think they’re totally obedient to the Mennonite tradition, the biblical interpretation and the gospel,” Wise said.

Still, Miller, like Kauffmann, didn’t give any indication of an easy resolution.

"That’s a good question,“ he said, asked what the mechanism would be to alter the denominational position on the matter and sort the controversy out. ”I don’t have a clear answer for that at this point.“

More on religion and same-sex marriage, from the archives:

 

 

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.




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