In October 2013, the Canadian MB Conference gathered in Edmonton for a Study Conference on human sexuality. These were days of teaching, dialogue, worship, prayer, reflection, telling and hearing stories, conversation and eating together.
As an MB family, the Study Conference grappled with the challenges of bringing hope and healing to the sexually broken, and took steps toward greater biblical and theological clarity on the increasingly contentious contemporary issues surrounding human sexuality. We explored the challenge of issuing Jesus’ summons and invitation to the path of transforming discipleship within the Canadian context, where sexual freedom in all its forms is both celebrated and defended as a human right.
Our time together was marked by warmth, laughter and inspiration; and while the board of faith and life affirms the widespread support it observed around the Mennonite Brethren confessional position on human sexuality, the board also recognizes that there were disagreements during the Conference’s conversations. The disagreements arose from the reality that within our Mennonite Brethren family there is some diversity of conviction about sexuality – for example, about the underlying issues that inform and shape an understanding of human sexuality, and about lovingly truthful responses to people who experience sexual pain or brokenness.
The Board of Faith and Life is therefore writing the Mennonite Brethren churches of Canada this extended pastoral letter in order to reaffirm Mennonite Brethren convictions about sexuality, to lay a foundation for appropriate pastoral responses and to recommend resources for further learning and growth in these matters.
The fact that our Edmonton venue was packed for the Study Conference highlights that the topic being addressed was relevant and timely. We must continue learning how to address the issue of human sexuality and develop a faithful theology of human sexuality. Questions were raised that continue to merit our ongoing consideration. One pressing pastoral concern is how we identify and determine sexual norms.
Four criteria that Christians have used to shape a theological understanding and missional and pastoral responses to human sexuality are: experience (or intuition), reason, tradition and Scripture. However, science doesn’t work well as a moral arbiter. And in our pluralistic Canadian society, if we look to tradition, we must wrestle with which tradition or whose tradition. Our culture consistently appeals to intuition – “Everyone thinks that what feels good must be right” – when in the throes of sexual arousal.1 An intuitive or experiential hermeneutic is also fallible: “Whole societies have condoned or even blessed a wide range of sexual behaviours we would call repellant.” What we need instead is theology – “words explaining what God has said.”
As “people of the Book,” we as Mennonite Brethren look to the Bible for God’s plan and purpose for human sexuality; here we have “what God has said.” The Study Conference was conducted within the parameters of our commitment to the Word of God:
We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit guides the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture. The person, teaching and life of Jesus Christ bring continuity and clarity to both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ, and Christ is the one whom the New Testament proclaims. We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.2
Furthermore, the Study Conference was conducted within the parameters of our historical conviction and the commitment expressed within our MB Confession to live under the authority of the Scriptures. BFL calls on our churches to wrestle with the issues of human sexuality within this commitment, and to have Scripture, as God’s self-disclosure, guide and govern matters of belief and behaviour. BFL affirms the Bible as God’s Word and calls on our churches, leaders and teachers to expound the Word of God faithfully and to address the issues of sexual identity, sexual brokenness and sexual sin with grace and truth from the Scriptures.
Pastoral Missional Responses
Faithful biblical proclamation will confront the enemies of the gospel — moralism, self-righteousness and licence — and uphold the wisdom and power of the gospel. The apostle John states: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”3 We are called by God to uphold His timeless truth infused by grace and to be characterized by the hospitable love of Jesus in a broken and confused culture.
Like our Saviour and Master, we are to love without distinction — welcoming all people without affirming the sin in any of us. Our expression of the relentless and furious love of Christ must be married to a prophetic courage to call people to gospel-fuelled transformation. Our declaration of the gospel and invitation to transformation and discipleship require not only boldness but also humility. This humility comes from awareness that we are all, without distinction, broken and in need of God’s saving and sustaining grace. We need to echo the voice and tone expressed pastorally in this hymn:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.4
Similarly, an Ontario pastor from another denomination writes:
In short, the truth about “us” and “them” is that there is no “them.” There is only “us.” We are all beautiful and precious people, infinitely valued by God. We are also all sexually broken people to one degree or another, needing the healing of authentic community to live as Jesus calls us to live.5
The issue of how we address human sexuality and expressions of sexuality that deviate from the wisdom and design of the loving Creator flow from our understanding of several root issues. The list of sinful behaviours in 1 Corinthians 6:9–20 is by no means exhaustive but illustrates the need for theological rigour, missional faithfulness and pastoral sensitivity as we serve, reach, and disciple sexually confused and broken people – recognizing we ourselves are in need of the grace and healing that we extend in Jesus’ Name. The issue of human sexuality is really an issue of human identity and this must be viewed through the gospel lens of identity of Christ. Our understanding of discipleship, soteriology, the power of the gospel and the role of the church as transforming community all converge on how we address sexuality, sexual brokenness and sexual sin.
In the maze of moral confusion and sexual brokenness, we must proclaim the gospel with bold humility. The saving power of the gospel is for those who repent and believe. This repentance is multi-faceted and ongoing; however, it initially involves a turning from currently held convictions to the conviction that first acknowledges God’s supreme ownership and rulership over the universe and all the creatures it contains; and then acknowledges the individual’s moral bankruptcy apart from the saving grace of Christ. Such repentance and belief amount to nothing less than an absolute surrender to the will of God in the life of the newly born believer. Jesus lays claim to every sphere of life, and we must faithfully invite people to live under His liberating Lordship.
We must recover apostolic boldness in announcing the gospel and pointing people from every social sphere to the sufficiency and sovereignty of Jesus “who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”6 In light of God’s great mercy, and empowered by the grace of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we must heed the call to live for the glory of God and to honour God7 with our bodies.8
As the BFL, we continue to uphold and affirm our confession on marriage:
Marriage is a covenant relationship intended to unite a man and a woman for life. At creation, God designed marriage for companionship, sexual union, and the birth and nurture of children. Sexual intimacy rightfully takes place only within marriage. Marriage is to be characterized by mutual love, faithfulness and submission. A believer should not marry an unbeliever.
The community of faith blesses and nurtures marriage relationships and makes every effort to bring reconciliation to troubled marriages. Human sinfulness, however, may sometimes lead to divorce, a violation of God’s intention for marriage. With truth and compassion, the family of God offers hope and healing while continually upholding the biblical ideal of marital faithfulness9.
Our missional engagement and pastoral responses to sexual sin, sexual brokenness, and the cultural aspiration for sexual freedom must be framed within this confession. This requires the need for both courage and compassion as we serve, reach and disciple broken people in a sexualized culture. BFL calls on our churches and leaders to teach on sexuality, relationships, and marriage and to prayerfully seek creative redemptive responses to sexual brokenness. In her ongoing ministry, the church needs to include singles in her life and mission, honour celibacy as a God-honouring vocation, and invest in strengthening marriages. May God’s sustaining Spirit carry us as we journey together on the mission of our Lord Jesus.
By the time of Gathering 2014, the Board of Faith and Life expects to have a longer study guide available for individuals and churches who want to think further about their convictions and responses to various aspects of human sexuality. Also, in light of the most recent study conference, the Board is planning a 2015 study conference that will further the Mennonite Brethren conversation on human sexuality by focusing on pastoral responses in light of these convictions.
The Board also recommends the following tools & resources:
Butterfield, Rosaria C. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.
Cavey, Bruxy. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Third Way Approach,” 2005, 2013, www.themeetinghouse.com/resources/tmh/teaching_resources/Same_Sex_Marriage_Statement.pdf
Comiskey, Andrew. Strength in Weakness: Healing Sexual and Relational Brokenness.
Gagnon, Robert A.J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice.
Grenz, Stanley J. Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality.
Krabill Hershberger, Anne, ed. Sexuality: God’s Gift.
Living Waters Canada. livingwaterscanada.org
O’Donovan, Oliver. Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion.
Study Conference 2013 plenary session videos. vimeo.com/cdnmbconf
Board of Faith and Life of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches: Brian Cooper (chair), Paul Doerksen, Andrew Dyck, Terrance Froese, Ralph Gliege, Bill Hogg, Paul Lam, Richard Martens, Keith Poysti, Ingrid Reichard, Stéphane Rhéaume, Willy Reimer, Rob Thiessen, John Willems, Ed Willms.
1 John Stackhouse, CCCMB Study Conference Plenary: “Sex, Freedom & Sexual Freedom: Understanding How We Got To Where We Are,” Edmonton, Oct 16, 2013.
4 Augustus Toplady (1740–1778), Rock of Ages.
5 Bruxy Cavey, The Meeting House, “Same-Sex Marriage: A Third Way Approach,” 2005, 2013, http://www.themeetinghouse.com/resources/tmh/teaching_resources/Same_Sex_Marriage_Statement.pdf