Sex, Sanctions, and Overstepping Orthodoxy: Part 800 of Infinity on GLBTQ Conversations in the Mennonite Church

I can’t go on vacation for six days without missing a firestorm in the ongoing GLBTQ debates. In Part 800 of this series, it’s time to look at the survey MC USA distributed to convention delegates last week. Apparently, the pastor survey was so much fun they wanted to do it again, with more questions.

I’m only interested in one question today. The survey is already under fire for many things: re-asking the same questions to a broader audience; increasing polarization; asking people who have little knowledge of church polity to make decisions about polity. I’ve talked with two people who are separately annotating the survey–yes, you read that right. They’re creating a guide to the questions to explain what the questions are asking.

Aside: I’m not a delegate (I’m a youth sponsor–win!). The delegate body is like the House of Representatives. Each church gets delegates based on size. Some churches send their pastor as a delegate; many send laypeople. If you’re a delegate, my advice is to wait another week and reflect on the survey, see if the guide is released, and then complete the survey before Mar. 30 so that your results will be part of the survey presented to Executive Board at their April meeting.

Let’s zoom in on Question 17, which asks, essentially, how we punish deviant congregations. Right now, the delegate body–the capital-C Church–doesn’t have a way to punish regional conferences  who don’t follow the rules. Question 17–and this was not on the Credentialed Clergy Survey–asks if we should sanction groups at variance with Official Beliefs.

Find the eight things wrong in this picture.

Find the eight things wrong in this picture.

The point of this question is to learn how many congregations favor sanctioning others, and that might be useful information. But it comes at a greater cost: broadcasting the idea that the role of church is to sanction Right and Wrong. Writing moral absolutes is absolutely the work of the church. But in setting boundaries, we are tempted to set punishments, too. If we do that, the church becomes the arbiter of grace, measuring your sins against everybody else’s to decide if God’s love extends to your mistakes because God’s love is nothing if not conditional, right?

This isn’t a Mennonite conversation. American Evangelical churches have been losing to this demon for years, policing and ostracizing members who can’t follow the rules, telling everyone what they’re not and when they’re going to hell and generally ignoring the idea of grace. We are all intelligent adults here, and yet there are Christians advocating that the church become the parent of a teenager, grounding a child for not being who the parent wants him or her to be.

When we signed up for Christianity, we signed up not to police each other. To disagree, yes. To share our concerns for your well-being, yes. To give each other guidance on the journey, yes. But to tell you when you’ve crossed God’s line? No. We forget that Jesus never made a distinction between Sinner and Saint. There were voices crowding around him making that distinction, but Jesus saw each person as both sinner and saint, lost and lovable. Jesus critiqued the lives of rich and poor and disabled and able-bodied and Jew and Gentile, but he loved each one of them.

Jesus sanctioned no one for orthodoxy–for their failure to believe the right things. What he criticizes the temple priests and flips tables over is orthopraxy–actions that are done out of greed, not love.

The Mennonite Church has not, does not, never did, believe in a Central Power (beyond Jesus) who can punish individuals or groups for their variance. We don’t do it for our other core values. We don’t punish churches who have members in the military (they exist); we don’t punish those who are wealthy or live extravagantly; we don’t do it for churches that refuse female pastors; we don’t do it for those who take oaths. So why would we punish anyone for their orthodoxy about interpersonal, romantic love?

I know a rapper who says it this way:
I’ve got love for what we bring to the potluck
And what say we do not judge others for being not us?

This rapper is not Mennonite. He’s atheist. But he’s preaching our message. I’m not hearing our voices.

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