Our current distress is not over typical Anabaptist issues such as nonviolence, believers' baptism, or a simple lifestyle, but over the issue of how to define marriage.
This very important question is one that's threatening to divide conferences, congregations and individual families within the church. And I for one am deeply grieved at the thought of one more issue leading to one more series of divisions in our already sadly splintered denomination.
There have been numerous other church changes in my lifetime that have threatened to wedge us apart, but in most cases we seem to have been able, for better or worse, to be elastic enough to stay together and keep working at our differences--and to practice forbearance toward each other as we do so.
For example, over the past several decades we've absorbed a small percentage of members, I'll guess 3-5%, who are either members of the military or who would strongly advocate for our giving up our long standing opposition to taking part in warfare.
Historically, peaceful Anabaptists have been consistently opposed to supporting armed conflict, based on our understanding of Jesus' and the early church's life and teaching, and in keeping with our 1995 Confession of Faith, which clearly states, "As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service." (Article 22)
For many of us, any compromise on this issue is of deep concern, since the disease of militarism appears to be highly infectious (witness how quickly German Mennonites succumbed to it under the influence of the Nazi regime). My fear is that we are in danger of losing a distinctive and much needed witness as one as one of the historic peace churches (along with Quakers and Brethren).
We have also seen, especially in recent decades, a growing percentage of Mennonites who live in ever larger and more lavish homes and who make no apologies for choosing a luxurious consumer-driven lifestyle. I will make an estimate of some 30-50% of us being guilty of this, and we are all more or less infected by the rapidly spreading epidemic of "affluenza" in our culture.
Many of us agree that Jesus is unmistakably clear on this issue as well, warning us in no uncertain terms about the dangers of accumulating ever more consumer wealth here on earth. And our Confession of Faith clearly reflects and supports that perspective, stating that "As stewards of money and possessions, we are to live simply, practice mutual aid within the church, uphold economic justice and give generously and cheerfully." (Article 21)
So materialism, like militarism, should be a special concern because it has also proven to be highly infectious (witness how rapidly well-to-do Dutch and later Russian Mennonites succumbed to it). Here, too, we are in danger of losing any distinctive witness in our lifestyles in just a generation or two.
Yet amid growing signs of our weakened stand against the twin threats of militarism and materialism we somehow do not appear to be dividing over either of them. Is that a good thing or not?
But what is bringing us to the brink of major schism is the question of whether a minority with a different gender orientation and who are committed to faithfulness in a same sex relationship can ever, under any circumstance, be members of our churches. Or whether we can remain in fellowship with other congregations who receive such as members.
Not surprisingly, it seems clear to most of us Mennonites that the Bible nowhere affirms such unions. In fact, Jesus himself models outright celibacy (remaining unmarried for the Kingdom's sake), and the apostle Paul likewise encourages believers, all of them, to remain single if they can, although both he and Jesus encourage and support marriage for those who do not have the gift or calling of celibacy.
And our current Confession of Faith clearly affirms that "We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life" (Article 19). And without a doubt this was meant to include the 3-5% of our members and potential members who are differently gendered from the majority of us.
Yet when it comes to dividing versus staying together we seem to be strongly invested in splitting up over this latter issue.
This seems curious in light of the fact that compared to materialism and militarism, same sex attraction is not infectious, and doesn't spread like these other viruses. Which means we are not likely to have any more individuals who are even remotely interested in same sex unions in the future as we have now, and will also likely have exactly the same percentage of people who are absolutely repulsed by the idea of being intimate with someone of the same sex. This seems to be so because of growing evidence that our gender orientation is a part of us from birth, much as some are born left handed rather than right handed. We need to offer all members welcome and warm acceptance, including supporting them in their practice of celibacy if that is their calling.
Meanwhile 100% of us will have to deal with issues like sexual promiscuity, couples living together without being legally married, and couples divorcing and remarrying for a dismaying variety of reasons. And all of those conditions are especially dangerous because they can so easily go viral. But the percentage of same sex unions, even if permitted, would likely never rise above 3-5% of our members at most.
This is demonstrably not true of the infectious diseases of militarism and materialism. Like an aggressive form of cancer they could destroy our church as far as it being recognizable as a community of faithful followers of Jesus.