The Mennonite church, like many churches, is struggling, questioning, and fracturing over if and how to include gays and lesbians in our common life. Recalling this past week’s Gospel lesson I find myself longing to be present with the disciples when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Oh, to be able to sit and ask Jesus my questions, to bring to him the current debate within our church. Oh, to let him set these things right.
But as I read further in my Bible I am reminded that it took only a couple decades before the disciples are once again mired in conflict over Scriptural interpretation, justice, inclusion, ethics, and freedom. The questions at hand had to do with the Gentiles. Would Gentiles be included as they were? Or would they be required to submit to a conversion to Judaism first, becoming circumcised and eating clean foods? It is to the apostles gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 15 that my thoughts turn as I see the divisions occurring in our church.
I would have been one of those apostles on the fence over the Gentile question. I’m careful, and a rule-follower. And I care deeply about interpretation of the biblical text. What often gets portrayed in moments of church conflict like the one we face now are two drastically different convictions bracketing a spectrum of ambivalence. But what if, instead, the conversation was much richer, more nuanced?
I am concerned by some of the arguments I hear from progressive brothers and sisters. I am concerned when the Old Testament is dismissed outright, when I hear the citation of restrictions on tattoos or shell fish. Following Jesus, I want a hermeneutic that takes seriously that not one jot or tittle has been lost from the law (Matt 5:18). Even though the New Testament has more to say about money than sex, I want to bring both of these facets of my life in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I want others to help me read Scripture in a way that helps me to think about and live faithfully even when it goes against my human nature to, say, protect my children or my own life at any cost.
When I hear my traditionalist sisters and brothers I am concerned. I am concerned about “plain text readings” that fail to acknowledge inconsistencies between Pauline epistles, or between Jesus and Paul. I am concerned that we often overlook God’s tactic approval of polygamous relationships in the Old Testament, the theological problems with Paul’s appeal to the natural, or the revival of Scriptural arguments that have been used exclude women, children, and black/brown Christians. I am troubled that despite our core conviction of following Jesus’ teachings of non-violence, our church is rising up over the membership of gays and lesbians while for decades we have remained silent over the membership of active members of the military.
I am troubled when any of us fails to recognize how deeply our readings of Scriptures are formed by prejudice, relationships, personal experiences, communities, and institutions. In a recent conversation at my church on how we read the Bible on sexuality someone in my small group honestly confessed that they didn’t think much about it. Same-sex relationships were an everyday part of his reality and it didn’t make sense to him to go back and look at Scripture to figure them out.
I appreciated this honesty. Most of us are not ready to say that we lead from our experience. Some of us think we can “get outside” these influences rather than doing the hard work of naming and assessing what we bring to our reading of Scripture. We may ignore that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through some of these influences, and that others need to be confronted as counter to the life of Jesus.
I call the Mennonite church home because it is a church committed to one cry – “Jesus is Lord.” The rest of the work is ours. During my first round of graduate school I, like many students who grew up in evangelicalism, felt a draw to two radically different denominations – the Roman Catholic Church and the Mennonite church. Looking back I can see that both churches offered vastly different answers to the same question as to how we grapple with the complexity of Scripture. Some of my friends put their faith in the Holy Spirit’s working through the Magisterium, the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Others, like me, found the Spirit at work in the church on the ground, through the messy, difficult discernment of people gathered together.
I believe, and still believe, that God is present here. I need others who think differently than me to help me see what I cannot see from where I stand. I need others to ask the hard questions. I need a community in whom to put my trust, to help me know how and when to act even though questions and complexity remain.
This week I find myself longing to speak not only to Jesus but also to Paul and Silas. I want to ask them how they decided that a couple verses from Amos held more authority than the entire Levitical code (Acts 15). I want to know how Peter held together his vision of the sheet with unclean food with his rigorous training in Torah (Acts 10). I want to know what was said or done to evaluate that “consent of the whole church” had occurred. I want to know how the church mourned those who left, those who could not accept the radical new work of God grafting the Gentiles into Israel.
I want these answers. I want clarity and explanation. But I also know this is not what we’ve been given. Instead, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit, an Advocate. And we’ve been given one another.