It Doesn’t Work: Mennonite Church USA
By Aaron Vriesman
LGBTQ ideology has divided one church after another: Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Mennonite Church USA, United Methodist Church, Church of the Brethren, Reformed Church in America.
In this series, we will look at some of their stories. Each one shows how legitimizing alternative sexualities in the church is a mix of oil and water. It simply does not work. Another case in point: Mennonite Church USA.
When Dutch Catholic priest Menno Simons joined the Radical Reformation, the new religious movement gained its most grounded thinker. His followers were known as Mennonites. They would continue through the centuries as the most prominent remnant of the Reformation-era Anabaptists. The Amish and the Brethren traditions owe their character to the Mennonites. Separation from the world, refusing to hold office, take oaths or bear arms, Mennonites are the largest existing stream of the peace churches.
While the Mennonites reject violence, they are no stranger to conflicts. A discipleship model of total transformation mixed with a concept of the church as a voluntary association based on a commitment to holy living has been a recipe for infighting. When faith is demonstrated by being unlike the world, the devil is in the details of what it means to be separate. In 1939, a new conference of Mennonites emerged when some began to purchase automobiles, but they painted over the chrome on the cars to avoid any notion of showiness. They were known as “black bumper” Mennonites.
As the twentieth century drew to a close, the two largest Mennonite groups in the United States were the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church.
Resolutions on Sexuality and Marriage
In 1986, the General Conference Mennonite Church 44th session in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan adopted “Resolution on Human Sexuality” stating that homosexual activity is sin: “We understand the Bible to teach that sexual intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in marriage and that violation of this teaching is a sin. It is our understanding that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital and homosexual sexual activity.”
The next year, the Mennonite Church 9th General Assembly at West Lafayette, IN adopted a remarkable statement: “We understand the Bible to teach that genital intercourse is reserved for a man and a woman united in a marriage covenant and that violation even within the relationship, i.e., wife battering, is a sin. It is our understanding that this teaching also precludes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual genital activity. We further understand the Bible to teach the sanctity of the marriage covenant and that any violation of this covenant is sin.”
In 1995, the two denominations held a joint assembly in Wichita, Kansas where they adopted the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Article 19 includes a specific definition of marriage: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” The same article delineates sexuality: “According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship.”
Just months before the 1995 joint assembly, the Mennonite Church had its first test of its sexuality position. Founded in 1683, the Germantown Mennonite Church was the oldest Mennonite congregation in North America. It was dual-affiliated with both of the largest Mennonite denominations. Germantown had an LGBTQ-affirming membership policy. In April of 1995, the Mennonite Church’s Franconia Conference voted to reduce the status of the historic congregation to an associate/non-voting member because of this affirming policy. In 1997, Franconia would completely expel the Germantown congregation. In 2002, the Eastern District of the General Conference Mennonite Church would also expel Germantown.
Mennonite Churches Merge
On February 1, 2002, the two largest Mennonite groups merged to become the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). Part of the Membership Guidelines read, "pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant."
As with all mergers, not all were satisfied with the merging terms. The Alliance of Mennonite Evangelical Congregations would form in September of the same year by those rejecting the merger. Despite the clear positions on marriage and sexuality, the new MC USA would not avoid controversy.
In 2011, Western District Conference pastor Joanna Harader performed a same-sex ceremony. After Illinois made same-sex marriage legal on July 1, 2011, Central District pastor Megan Ramer performed three such ceremonies.
In response, the denomination’s executive committee released a letter in June 2012, saying that these actions are out of line with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
“The board owns the understanding of our confession of faith that sexual union is to happen between one man and one woman who are committed to each other for life in holy marriage,” read the letter. “The board has no plans to suggest that the church should change its current understanding and commitments.”
But despite the breach of the shared confession, the executive committee also said it cannot intervene in decisions of area conferences on the matter. They explained, “Congregations decide on their members and conferences decide on member congregations. Ministerial credentials are held at the conference level and thus minister’s accountability is to the area conference rather than the national conference. We are aware that our polity creates some differences in the practice of church discipline from conference to conference.”
With the de facto local option, some of the MC USA regional conferences enforced the denomination’s confessional stance and others did not.
In 2014, the Mountain States Conference licensed the denomination’s first openly gay pastor. Theda Good, in a committed relationship with another woman, was ordained at First Mennonite Church of Denver on February 2.
Also in 2014, a 96-year-old retired minister and missionary had his credentials terminated. Chester Wenger officiated his son’s backyard wedding in June and had his credentials terminated by September. Wenger wrote his story for MC USA publication The Mennonite. "I know persons will accuse me for my transgression, but my act of love was done on behalf of the church I love, and my conscience is clear," he wrote.
The matter would come to a head at the 2015 General Convention.
“Forbearance” in 2015
Two key resolutions were on the agenda. First was the “Resolution on the Status of Membership Guidelines,” which would uphold the guidelines regarding church membership and forbidding same-sex marriages. According to the resolution, “the delegate assembly will not entertain changes to the membership guidelines for the next four years, in order to exercise forbearance on matters that divide us and to focus attention on the missional vision that unites us.” This resolution passed by 60 percent of the vote.
The other was the “Resolution on Forbearance in the Midst of Differences.” This resolution called for the denomination to "offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body" who conduct same-sex marriages. The forbearance resolution passed with 71 percent approval.
“We’ve heard credentialed leaders speak passionately from clearly different places,” said board member David Sutter. “Ultimately, there was no consensus. Many of us see no clear direction. We acknowledge that this is painfully hard for those who feel that this is clear. But as a whole, we do not.”
The official standards on sexuality and marriage remained the same but each conference was permitted to do as they pleased. As a result, both sides were unhappy. The affirming crowd lamented and the orthodox crowd departed.
Delegates heard statements of lament from parents, friends and other family members of the LGBTQ community. Joel Miller of Columbus, Ohio, asked everyone in the room with a friend or family member who is LGBTQ and who had been hurt by the delegate actions of this week to stand. Each speaker quoted a passage from the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and lamented the LGBTQ exclusion from the church.
After the 2015 General Convention, multiple conferences would leave altogether.
The same month of the General Convention, the Lancaster Conference Bishop Board sent a letter to all credentialed leaders announcing a proposal to withdraw from MC USA.
The North Central Mennonite Conference voted to leave before the month was out. Jesse Swiers, moderator of North Central Conference, expressed the struggle of separation from a body of people he loves and from people who have been his spiritual mentors. “The recommendation to leave is the only thing that would’ve kept us together,” he said about his conference. “If we would’ve stayed, there would’ve been four or five congregations left. After the decision, I felt a freedom that I can’t really express, even though my heart was breaking.”
Before the year ended, MC USA’s largest conference voted to leave. The Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) with 13,838 members – one-sixth of MC USA total membership – in 163 congregations voted with an 82 percent majority to split. Only 8 congregations would remain with MC USA. Samuel Lopez, a supervisor on the LMC bishop board and administrator of Concilio Hispano, the conference’s Spanish Mennonite Council of Churches, said the 22-church council was in 100 percent agreement about departing MC USA. “Mostly because of how we perceive the LGBTQ agenda has been influencing MC USA, and the passing of the forbearance resolution at the Kansas City convention” in July, Lopez said.
The following April, Franklin Conference voted 44-13 to withdraw. When asked about the driving factors behind the decision to leave, Moderator Ray Geigley wrote, “The pressure by several congregations [and] conferences in MC USA…to force acceptance of their rewriting [of] God’s creative intent and definition of marriage in order to validate sexual relationships between same-sex persons and to credential such persons into pastoral leadership roles. This is a direct violation of our agreed to ‘Confession of Faith’ and MC USA seems without authority or courage to confront such breaking of covenant with other MC USA conferences.”
By the following June, three of the denomination's 20 regional conferences voted to withdraw over what they view as sin. In addition, many individual congregations in other conferences also pulled out. MC USA membership fell 17 percent in one year.
In subsequent years, more conferences would depart. On Oct 5-6, 2018, the Southeast Conference votes to leave after a three-year discernment process. The reason for departure was the 2015 “forbearance resolution.”
The Lancaster Conference would accept many departing MC USA congregations. In 2017, the Franklin Conference voted to join LMC. In March 2018, LMC would rename itself as LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches. 54 new congregations were welcomed, 13 from the Franklin Conference and 14 from the Dominican Republic, bringing the total to 218 with 44% of them majority nonwhite.
In 2013, MC USA had 97,737 members in 839 congregations. By 2018, they went down to 69,223 members in 625 congregations.
Meanwhile, two more MC USA conferences moved in the affirming direction. The Central District Conference granted ministerial credentials to a gay man, while the Western Conference declared that its ministers could officiate same-sex weddings without fear of censure.
Forbearance led to more friction. In 2016, the Virginia Conference suspended the ministerial credentials of Rev. Isaac Villegas. As the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship he officiated a same-sex wedding. The Virginia Conference went beyond the usual language of “variance” to call it “misconduct.” In response, the congregation transferred in the summer of 2018 to the Central District Conference, which not only admitted the North Carolina congregation but also restored Villegas’ ordination credentials.
Without the orthodox wing, MC USA took a hard turn to the left. In May of 2022, MC USA held a special assembly in Kansas City where a landslide 83 percent of delegates repealed the same Membership Guidelines that were upheld in 2015. Delegates also approved a wide-ranging statement affirming LGBTQ inclusion and confessing that exclusion has caused harm. The “Repentance and Transformation” resolution was written by the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors group and passed with 56 percent of the vote. This resolution confesses harm, affirms the spiritual gifts of LGBTQ people and commits to inclusive actions. Specifically, the current MC USA policies “do violence to LGBTQIA people by failing to affirm their full, God-given identities.”
The MC USA still officially classifies homosexuality as sin and defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. In practice, this stance is moot. Most of those who stood for this stance have departed. Most likely, this stance will eventually be reversed, a formality that did not prove to carry any covenantal weight.
Villegas reflected on his peace church after transferring conferences within MC USA. “I worry that in terms of the health of our denomination, that this kind of realignment may mean that congregations that disagree with one another are no longer going to be bound together in intimate conversations or networks of relationships, so that hard conversations are no longer going to happen,” said Villegas. “We have a denominational commitment to agree and disagree in love. I worry about how we can continue that commitment the way things are going.”
MC USA is another casualty of forbearance on matters of sexuality and marriage. It doesn’t work.