by Paul Schrag and Clarence Rempel

Can the church hold together while its members talk about homosexuality? Western District Conference (WDC) tested that question Oct. 26, and those who took part saw signs of hope. More than 130 people gathered at Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan., for a symposium on “The Church and Homosexuality: A Conversation That Can Hold Us Together.”

The goal of the event, planned and led by WDC’s Human Sexuality Discernment Task Force, was that Christians with profound ethical disagreement would engage each other in respectful conversation and theological reflection. Evaluations indicated that this was indeed the experience for most participants.

One described the symposium as modeling vigorous discussion in an atmosphere of deep listening and respect while representing a variety of viewpoints. Many noted that other sexual matters also need the church’s attention, including pornography, the exploitation of sex, premarital sex, rape, and healing ministries for those wounded by sexual violence.

The main presenters were Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible, religion and philosophy at Goshen (Ind.) College, and David Boshart, executive conference minister of Central Plains Conference.

Boshart had been asked to give the rationale for Mennonite Church USA’s position. He advocated welcoming gay and lesbian people in the church while not supporting same-sex marriage as a ministry of the church. “We do not find scriptural affirmation for sexual intimacy between two people of the same gender from a plain reading of the text,” he said.

For guidance on same-sex relationships, Boshart said, we should look to Jesus, who understood marriage as a unique relationship between a man and a woman. “Because God makes marriage, we cannot simply choose to apply ‘marriage’ to whatever other socially constructed relationships we want. Jesus practiced radical hospitality but not radical inclusion,” Boshart said, “and the church should do the same. Jesus was always welcoming but not unconditionally affirming.”

Graber Miller argued that same-sex relationships can be loving, pure, just and fruitful and that the church should bless and honor them. He said there is no evidence that biblical writers knew of genuine same-sex orientation. He said they condemned abusive acts but did not address loving relationships. When the Bible addresses homosexual acts, “in every case the context suggests idolatry, violent rape, lust, unnatural behaviors or exploitation.”

The church has long acknowledged the reality of same-sex orientation, Graber Miller said. “Would it not be good to channel those orientations into loving, God-blessed commitments marked by monogamy and fidelity, supported and held accountable by bodies of believers?” he asked.

Graber Miller called for living with “the grace of uncertainty” — because we all see through a glass darkly, it is best to offer our views with a measure of humility.

Four people gave responses to Boshart and Graber Miller: a theologian, a pastor, a lesbian and a woman who has renounced same-sex attraction and is married to a man.

The presenters answered questions from participants, who were grateful for the open, honest conversation. Many hoped for this kind of dialogue in their congregations.