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