Unity Around What? What Does Consensus About Human Sexuality Mean for Christians?

I’m passing on a couple of links I saw posted on Twitter a while back. The Mennonite is the denominational newsletter of the Mennonite Church USA, and it mentioned that faculty from AMBS in Elkhart IN were producing materials to resource the MCUSA discussion on human sexuality. Interesting to read through and see the nature of the conversation in MCUSA.

I scanned some of the materials quickly, and the focus seemed to be on the need for good bible study and also healthy relational attitudes in church. I found it telling that aside from repeated affirmations about the authority of Scripture, there was no attempt to distill what Scripture might or might not be saying. Because Scripture had been used to polarize past conversations, no one wanted to try to represent a consensus view of what the biblical text says, or means. Also, it appeared from what the faculty have written on the topic that the gap between what the Bible says and what people interpret it to mean — or, from what the Bible means to what the Bible means to me — has grown from an ugly ditch to an impassible gulf. The role of Scripture has significance only in what the interpreting community discerns that it means. This allows interpreting communities to appeal to biblical authority while acknowledging only their own in practice. What remains is an impossible commitment to both text and congregation, each of which is leading in a different direction.

In relation to the touchstone issue, this statement seemed to me to be particularly telling: “Perhaps membership in Mennonite Church USA should be based, not on our beliefs about sexual ethics, but on our willingness to commit to participate in in-depth weekly Bible study in our own congregations.” — Jewel Gingerich Longenecker

Questions of hermeneutics are vitally important to theological conversations, and any attempt at consensus-building will have to come to grips with the diversity of perspectives that shape biblical interpretation in congregations and denominations. But what I see operative in the MCUSA discussion, among others, is a willingness to relinquish consensus-building as a major goal of Bible study. This seems both organizationally impossible and theologically problematic. If biblical texts are expected to have a formative influence in our Christian communities, this must happen at least as much on their terms as on ours. And in light of this, we need to wrestle with the substantive implications of Ephesians 4:3 (NIV) — “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Unity implies unity around something, or else it means nothing. Fellowship and community follow closely behind.

What does this mean, beyond more difficult conversations? Time will tell. But a resolve to live our common life in light of Scripture cannot elude us. Faithfulness to Christ knows no other course.

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