Church leaders welcome dialogue on sexuality

Study conference begins discussion about human sexuality, Oct. 16–18, 2013

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A study conference on human sexuality revealed the tension between long-standing biblical understandings and shifting societal attitudes toward sexual practices.

Human Sexuality: Honouring God with the Body was organized by the board of faith and life (BFL) of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC). It brought together more than 300 people from across Canada.

Participants included leaders and delegates from MB churches, students and faculty from Bible colleges, and others interested in the topic. Comments made during the discussion time indicated strong appreciation for the opportunity to engage in conversation and theological reflection on issues of sexuality that face the Christian church.

“Today is not the end – it is merely the beginning,” said BFL chair Brian Cooper at the end of the three-day conference which took place Oct. 16–18, 2013, at River West Christian Church, Edmonton.

Through teaching sessions, workshops, personal stories, and corporate worship, participants heard that the call to follow Jesus includes God-honouring sexual behaviour.

They were also reminded of God’s love, grace, and desire for reconciliation in the midst of brokenness and sin.

While acknowledging the need for guidance and resources to help church leaders and congregations deal with issues such as pornography, sexual abuse, and pre-marital and post-marital sex, the event also provided a safe place to discuss issues surrounding same-gender marriages and sexual relations.

The MB Confession of Faith states marriage is a covenant relationship intended to unite a woman and a man for life. God calls all people, single and married, to live sexually pure lives.

This message of God’s plan for only heterosexual marriages and sexual purity for all was affirmed by plenary speaker Robert A.J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh (Pa.) Theological Seminary.

Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice, described homosexual practices as sin. He encouraged churches to reach out in love to people involved in homosexual practices, but – as an act of love – remain clear that God does not condone this behaviour.

“It is not my job to proclaim exemption on what God condemns. The loving approach is not to tolerate sinful behaviour. If it is too hard for the church to do that, then become something else – become a Rotary Club.”

God wants transformed lives, and a person who continues in sinful behaviour is lost, Gagnon said. “What we wouldn’t want is a holier-than-thou attitude, but a desire for the person to inherit God’s kingdom – that is our sole interest.”

Summarizing the religious history of Canada, historian and theologian John Stackhouse said the rubric of Christianity was used as a moral guide for social attitudes and values within wider Canadian society from 1850–1950.

Although Canada is becoming increasingly secularized, the mentality of making decisions based on right or wrong remains. Just like there was no room for dissent when Christianity was the moral guide, today, as Canada is changing into a post-Christian society, there is no room for a dissenting Christian view.

When there are dissenting views, Stackhouse warned against self-righteousness. “Holding views firmly and contending for them is not self-righteousness…. Refusing to listen and refusing to submit to reality (God, the Bible, good arguments, other’s well-being, the greater good) is self-righteousness,” he said.

Retired pastor John Unger of Winnipeg suggested the tone of discussion on homosexuality will change when “the response is to a person, not an issue.”

He will never forget the telephone call from his daughter asking him to bless her and her same-gender partner at their wedding. “She says, ‘Dad, I need your blessing.’”

At the wedding, he described the blessing as a shade tree, a place of gathering. He also sees his family as a shade tree and finds ways to assure his daughter and her family there is room under the tree for them. “God blesses everyone and wants us to do the same,” he said.

Unger affirmed the MB Confession of Faith on marriage; however, through these and other experiences, he is ∀ learning to respect God’s processes and timelines in people’s lives.

“It’s like a flower – if you force the flower to open, it wrecks it,” he said. “It is God’s gentle spirit that opens them up.”

John Neufeld, pastor of The Meeting Place, Winnipeg, reminded participants that MB churches have a rich history providing spiritual counsel through balancing grace and truth.

Part of this history includes gradual theological shifts, which eventually released the church to offer compassionate support to families experiencing failed marriages, divorce, and remarriage.

“Jesus forgave freely, even before repentance was evident,” Neufeld said. “Jesus reserved his harshest words for the pious.”

—Gladys Terichow is the staff writer for the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

See also

“CCMBC’s annual general meeting heralds a new era in financial stewardship”

“2013 study conference photo essay”

“Study conference recommended reading”

and read blog posts on all the plenaries and workshop on the study conference website.

16 Comments on “Church leaders welcome dialogue on sexuality

  1. Wow, Richard, that does sound harsh. Maybe I am reading a different article than you but I think that John was blessing his daughter, as her father. The subtle but damaging twist that you make by restating the story as John “blessing his daughter’s same sex marriage” disturbs me. I didn’t see a blessing of same sex marriage in the story- only a father wrestling with a hard reality and doing it graciously. I admire his courage in telling the story publicly.

  2. I was surprised the moderators of the site allowed the comment through. Not only harsh, but disturbingly personal. IMO, it violates the terms of respectful online conversation. I hope it will be withdrawn or edited.

  3. I agree with Richard. What kind of “dialogue” are they going to have with God?
    Seems liberal theology has crept into the MB church even though the statement of faith doesn’t reveal that.

    • I am not challenging an honest discussion of the facts even if they are painful but twisting words is dishonest and dishonesty dealt with as harshly as any sin in the Bible. That should be sobering. That said, we all make mistakes and I await Richard’s response to my observation.

  4. I agree with you Richard, that you have not changed your meaning. And therefor you have not addressed my concerns for accuracy but continue to rephrase the story so that you can condemn John for blessing his daughter.
    I am thankful, however, that at a time when my father, like John, was faced with blessing or condemning me, he chose to bless. I had a father like John. Maybe that is why I admire John’s courage the way I do.
    Did my father deserve to have a large millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea? Is that what you are saying, Richard? Am I misunderstanding you? I sincerely hope so.

  5. So let me get this straight, a father gave his blessing to a homosexual union and not only that but says God blesses everyone and wants us to do the same? Whatever happened to sin no more?
    If there is an actual homosexual marriage performed one can assume the sin no more part is not being adhered to. God is going to bless that huh?
    You can use whatever flowery language you want to make it sound okay but the smell is not what you think it is.

  6. Well, my first two attempts at commenting have now been deleted. I’ll try a third time, using the same initial paragraph.

    The article says: “The MB Confession of Faith states marriage is a covenant relationship intended to unite a woman and a man for life. God calls all people, single and married, to live sexually pure lives. This message of God’s plan for only heterosexual marriages and sexual purity for all was affirmed by plenary speaker Robert A.J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh (Pa.) Theological Seminary. Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice, described homosexual practices as sin. He encouraged churches to reach out in love to people involved in homosexual practices, but – as an act of love – remain clear that God does not condone this behaviour.” — and I say Amen to all of that.

    The Bible uses a variety of negative, disapproving terms to describe God’s view of same-sex sexual activity: “detestable,” “defiling,” “sinful,” “impure,” “degrading,” “shameful,” “unnatural,” “indecent,” “perversion,” “wicked,” “lawbreaking,” “rebellious,” “ungodly,” “unholy,” “irreligious,” “immorality,” and “contrary to sound doctrine” (Leviticus 18:22,24-30; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:9-11; Jude 7).

    It’s true that Jesus never explicitly singled out same-sex sexual activity for disapprobation. He also never specifically mentioned incest or bestiality (all three of these sexual sins are prohibited in Leviticus 18). But Jesus did use the Greek word porneia — or an Aramaic equivalent — to condemn “sexual immorality” in general.

    Of course, there is forgiveness and cleansing for homosexuals who repent, just as — God be praised — there is forgiveness and cleansing for all of us sinners if we repent. But repentance means to forsake sin, not to justify lingering in it, and certainly not to formalize or celebrate it.

    What is a wedding? It is a formal recognition and celebration of a couple’s relationship, with the standard expectation that marriage includes physical sexual intimacy.

    A same-sex “wedding” is therefore a formality that recognizes and celebrates a relationship that includes sex — of a kind forbidden by God and condemned by him as wicked.

    That being the case, no Christ-follower should ever bless a same-sex “wedding,” or bless a participant within the context of such a “wedding,” or even attend such a “wedding,” if such involvement is understood to imply approval or condonation of sin — which, in general, it will be understood to imply. We are not our own, and we must not encourage that which offends our Creator, Redeemer, and Owner.

    Even if the laws of this country permit such a “wedding,” and even if one’s own child happens to be a participant in such a proceeding, it is not for us to treat as acceptable that which God calls sinful.

    • Richard – You ask ‘What is a wedding?’ and then answer your own question. I am finding that perhaps a wedding doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it might mean to my children.
      I was challenged in responding to my daughter’s boyfriend’s request for blessing when they moved in together – my response “I want nothing more than for you two to be a blessing to each other”… I was blessed by John’s courage and his fatherly response to his daughter… as I am blessed by my daughters in their growing processes and thankful to have open relationships with them. They don’t need to be perfect to retain my love. This is a call for less judgement & more mercy. More love & less fear. Nothing liberal about it – just unfailing love (ICor.13)

      • When people are involved in blatant, ongoing sin and they’re refusing to repent, the sort of love called for may have to be a very tough love. It may need to be the sort of love that challenges, warns, and encourages a healthy fear of the Lord.

        What may be best for them might be the sort of love that says, “I love you too much to allow you to continue on this self-destructive path that dishonours the one who created you and wants you to live a godly life.” We don’t necessarily help our children by being easy-going on them in situations such as the ones we’re talking about here.

        And “blessing” sinful conduct (or pronouncing a “blessing” within a context of sinful conduct) will surely send a confusing message to unrepentant sinners, to say the least.

        What ever happened to “discipline” as a key Anabaptist distinctive?

  7. What is wrong with this picture?!
    When I opened my paper copy of the Herald to read this article, I asked out loud, very loudly:
    “Where are the women?!”
    It is truly distressing to me. If there were no women Mennonite Brethren elders/leaders to invite to be part of this panel, then shame on us! It offers an unspoken/unwritten commentary on the MB Statement of Faith’s view of the “covenant relationship” of marriage, don’t you think?
    I’m fuming and sighing at the same time.

    • P.S. Come to think of it, the unspoken commentary is on a lot more than the MB view of “covenant marriage.” Interesting juxtaposition with Paul Cumin’s “Well Haggled” article, in which we see a Jesus-view on the capacity of a “woman” to “preach.”

    • Thank you Katharine. We made the same observation at our house. The panel lacked diversity.

    • While it’s true that none of the keynote speakers at the study conference were women, there were several female workshop hosts and testimony presenters, as well as a female MC.

      Laura Kalmar, editor

      • Recognizing that – a picture is still worth 1000 words. I was particularly pleased to see Elsie Goerzen’s workshop description.

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