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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 195–199 

A Response from Quebec

Richard Lougheed and David Miller

The Janzen and Sumner study has helpfully indicated certain trends and influences. After experiencing the complications of dealing with those who challenged the Confession of Faith, I (Richard) was hesitant to agree to participate in the proposed study. However, as I became more involved in the study, I was impressed with the seeming consensus on approach, questions, and conclusions despite considerable theological diversity. That made me surprisingly hopeful that Mennonite Brethren (MB) background might provide greater understanding to help reconcile theological diversity. Admittedly, we were not working at proposing solutions.

The lack of familiarity with the Confession reflects the Quebec reality that many members and some pastors have come to the MB Church from other church backgrounds. It is hard in Quebec to describe to newcomers how Protestantism differs from Catholicism and then the unique characteristics of Evangelicalism before finally getting to Anabaptism and MB distinctives. So the Confession (translated into French, of course) mostly operates in the background. Pastors, on the other hand, must be accredited and thus must know the Confession, at least to some degree, and at present all seem to regard it positively. Obviously, each pastor emphasizes different aspects based on their experience and the current issues they face. Diversity exists in Quebec (linguistic, ethnic, class, urban-suburban, C2C-Anabaptist, religious backgrounds), but age and education seem to be the most problematic diversities. Each is a challenge for the small Quebec Conference of MB Churches, which makes its home in a very secular society. {196}

We can learn from the historical and current trends in other Christian denominations. In virtually all of them, the most challenging issue in recent decades is tied to sexuality and, in particular, to same-sex relationships. For the churches, this has meant reflection and debate concerning the understanding of marriage and leadership eligibility.

In North American denominations, conservative confessional statements related to sexuality have been increasingly challenged either by individual congregations or seminary professors. Often, denominational staff with pastoral or social justice responsibilities lead efforts for change. At the same time individuals in congregations, sometimes in leadership, announce their orientation and request that the congregation support their stance. Eventually it becomes clear that the congregation and denomination need to position themselves. As they do so, certain individuals and congregations announce that they will leave if the denomination changes its stance, while others announce that they will leave if the denomination does not. For the Canadian MB community, three main options are available.

One option, chosen by the Mennonite Church of Canada, is to keep the existing conservative statement on sexuality but exempt those who contravene it from church discipline. This effectively allows all parties to “win.” It provides for a kind of peace in the short term, slowing conflict and putting the accent on unity and sustained conversation. However, even with this tolerant approach, some congregations have left the Mennonite Church. It is also likely that ambiguity on this issue will result in tension until a new statement is adopted. From a theological perspective rooted in Anabaptist convictions, it is problematic to adhere to the biblical message when it comes to understanding how we receive the call of Jesus but to set it aside when it comes to understanding and living out our sexuality. An Anabaptist perspective locates our unity in our common commitment to follow and recognize Christ as Lord in every area of life.

The more commonly chosen option has been to declare one view the official view and encourage dissenters to leave (United Church, Anglican Church, Lutherans, Presbyterians on the one side and the Canadian Baptists, Pentecostals, Missionary Alliance, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and Anglican Network on the other side). Some believe that a more liberal view will attract younger members. To date, the opposite seems to be true in the aging mainline churches. In addition, their decisions on sexuality set the tone for decisions on virtually all other ethical issues in that they simply follow secular trends.

A third option is the more peaceful Methodist solution of dividing into two denominations, each holding either a liberal or conservative {197} viewpoint on sexuality and Scripture. This step is often taken after the liberal proposals of denominational leaders are repeatedly defeated by the rank and file. Dividing property and other church assets between them typically involves lengthy negotiations between two more or less equally sized groups.

It is true that from the point of view of the Canadian MB National Faith and Life Team (NFLT) questions and critiques by “progressives” can be helpful in identifying neglected elements, especially as they relate to how we walk with one another in love and in truth. How do we make same-sex-oriented people and others feel welcome to worship with us? Are we honest in expressing welcome? What would Jesus do? Do we listen to their stories of negative experiences? Do we speak out against harassment or against the criminalization of non-heterosexual relationships in other countries? Are celibate same-sex-attracted persons eligible for leadership? Are we looking at all relevant Scripture passages? Are we convincing our own youth of the validity of the Confession on this issue? Are there transparent, democratic ways of revising the Confession? Are dissident pastors treated fairly? But like Marxism’s proposed remedies for social injustice, the solutions proposed here seem to us to be incompatible with basic evangelical principles.

It does appear that dissidents are concentrating on the issue of welcoming the marginalized, as Jesus did. If the marginalized do not feel welcome, the church is deemed to be at fault. So we must welcome them as they are. That is essential for newcomers. The Confession, however, reflects the strong Anabaptist conviction that evangelism must be followed by discipleship. Following Jesus involves honoring God with all our life, obediently resisting harmful natural impulses and turning away from worldly attitudes and actions that dishonor Jesus. He liberates us not from a self-discipline that controls our impulses but for the joy of following him. The response to many sexuality issues seems to be to express affirmation without emphasizing the accompanying goal of transformation through Christ; grace but not accompanying discipline. Grace, of course, is the first step for newcomers, but church life without discipline is simply a context of the free-for-all of Judges 21:25. Today, newcomers seem to demand that any related discipline or transformation or expectation of spiritual healing be flatly rejected.

Willard Swartley and Jon Isaak have been helpful to me (Richard) in pointing out how “worldly actions” have been interpreted differently over the years among MBs and other denominations. There are parallels with changing attitudes and even confessions on slavery, clothing, movies, dances, divorce, and women’s roles. Previous decisions can be erroneous and need revisiting. We do not, however, open the process of {198} revising articles in the Confession related to the Trinity just because the leaders of ten congregations dissent.

The provincial Faith and Life Teams are responsible for discerning consensus as to whether revision of the Confession or at least discussion of a related question is required. Still the Confession is neither congregational nor provincial. A widespread and national consensus in favor of re-evaluation would need to exist in order to proceed down this path. The high bar demands widespread discernment or community hermeneutics, including the wisdom of the past found in the Confession. It does not block change but slows it down so that consensus can be discerned and promoted. At the same time in a more individualistic age, disinclined to respect tradition and institutions, consensus is increasingly unlikely.

Is it not the case, in the present structure, that voices calling into question aspects of the Confession will be heard and responded to at the provincial level in an initial conversation? We then need explicit criteria that help churches and leaders to follow and to submit to a process that guides conversations and calls for confessional revision.

The summary of the Janzen and Sumner study points out that silos of information are rapidly distancing us from each other. Frustrations are building and we no longer turn to the Confession to resolve issues. Even a shorter Confession would not likely enable true unity when preferred hermeneutical principles are so different. The subjects of discord are almost always over actions, and usually freedom is affirmed against wider church decisions, or the past is affirmed against the future.

There is clear generational diversity among MBs across Canada on sexual issues. Lately, most criticism of the Confession has been directed at its stance on issues of sexuality. From my experience, older leaders are making decisions and guiding the national and provincial Faith and Life Teams based on Scripture and tradition while the opinions of many younger members are reflecting generally secular views based on reason and experience. It is a major challenge to promote discussion of real questions before issues explode and the authority of the Confession is contested. Trouble is at hand when outsiders and even some church media urge their supporters to challenge traditional views, while church members on both sides of the debate refuse to compromise because they see the issue as crucial to Christian faith. Both sides insist that their position must be affirmed to demonstrate greater love for LGBTQ+ people. It reminds me of the question of baptism in Zurich in 1525. But unlike sixteenth-century Zurich, when one side had all the power, today both sides have power: the threat of internal church discipline on the one side and the harsh judgment of the press and social media on the other. {199}

Can MBs find a new solution that pleases all? Surely we can do better in clarifying processes for confessional change, discipline procedures, what statements are acceptable on congregational websites, and the consequences for church assets if the Confession is rejected. Congregational welcome statements seem to be the primary point of disagreement. It would be much better to consult with Conference representatives before publishing such statements. Once public, there is little going back. Other MB members or congregations will insist on swift discipline. Calm, rational discussion becomes nearly impossible at this point.

There has been an attempt in MB circles to share stories of harm done to LBGTQ+ persons. We have found these helpful for understanding aspects of the issues but there was no dialogue, and those who found that their own LBGTQ+ experiences harmed their Christian discipleship did not share their experiences. So again, this sharing did not facilitate broad discussion nor did it help us get out of our “silos.”

Richard Lougheed, PhD, serves as assistant librarian at L’École de Théologie Évangélique du Québec in Montréal. David Miller is Director of the school’s Centre for Studies in Service, Peace and Reconciliation.

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