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2013-01-01 issue:

The confession of faith and marriage

Opinion: Perspectives from readers

by Ted Grimsrud

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Many in Mennonite Church USA understand the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective to provide a clear basis for a negative view of intimate same-sex relationships. This is not surprising, since denominational statements cite it as doing so.

However, a careful reading of the CofF itself raises questions of such an assumption.

The term “teaching position” came into prominence with the publication of the “Membership Guidelines for the Formation of the Mennonite Church USA” in 2001.

Section III focused on “issues related to homosexuality and membership” and affirmed the CofF, quoting its statement: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life” (Article 19).

The Confession of Faith on marriage
This citation, quoted without explanation, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear teaching against homosexuality. However, the actual CofF does not in fact mention homosexuality.

Article 19 addresses “Family, Singleness and Marriage.” At the end of the sentence quoted above, a footnote refers to two biblical texts.

The first text is Mark 10:9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” This verse is part of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (in Mark, Jesus rejects divorce without qualification) and remarriage (which Jesus names as adultery, i.e., “sin” [Mark 10:11-12]).

The CofF cites Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching; it does not cite the slightly more relaxed account in Matthew 19:9 that does allow for divorce in the case of the infidelity of the partner.

The second text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” The CofF ends the citation at verse 11 and does not include the “exception” of an unbeliever leaving a believing spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15).

As this footnote shows, Article 19 focuses on the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce and remarriage. Not only does it not speak directly of homosexuality, the one place that may allude to homosexuality (the definition of marriage as “one man, one woman, for life”) has in mind a different issue—divorce and remarriage.

In addition, the commentary on this article speaks to divorce and says nothing about homosexuality. “Today’s church needs to uphold the permanency of marriage and help couples in conflict move toward reconciliation. At the same time, the church, as a reconciling and forgiving community, offers healing and new beginnings. The church is to bring strength and healing to individuals and families.” ‪(Emphasis added).‬

Pastoral concern in the CofF
The commentary and Scripture citations make it clear that the quoted sentence from Article 19 of the CofF is being misused when it is construed as a basis for an official “teaching position” concerning homosexuality. As well, notice another point the CofF makes.

The commentary softens the strictness of the CofF article and the two New Testament texts cited. “At the same time” the church is a place of welcome and forgiveness. This comment does not spell out a more nuanced approach to divorce and remarriage, but it does open the door for such. One could draw from this commentary a basis for accepting divorced and remarried people as full members of Mennonite congregations (as Mennonite churches increasingly do).

The CofF makes a strong statement about the importance of Christian marriage, but implicitly allows for exceptions in the case of divorce and remarriage—exceptions that need not negate the theological affirmation of the marriage covenant as a lifelong commitment. More important than absolute fidelity to the ideal is that churches “bring strength and healing to individuals and families”—including welcoming people who are divorced and remarried.

Could such an approach also be applied to people in same-sex covenanted partnerships? The CofF may be read to imply a “yes” to this question—if indeed the churches’ highest priorities would be on bringing “strength and healing.” It is true, such a reading and application would stand in tension with the Membership Guidelines’ use of the CofF. However, there is no reason, based on what the CofF itself actually says, to read it as expressing rejection of same-sex marriage—certainly less reason than reading it as expressing rejection of remarriage after divorce.

Ted Grimsrud is a member of Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Va.

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