Reporting about Teaching “Bible and Sexuality” at Goshen College, 1980-1996
Chapter appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020
The title of this article repeats the title of a fine book edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. 1 Not available as a book until the final semesters that I taught the elective course “Bible and Sexuality” at Goshen College, I highly recommend it. The twenty-eight chapters had all appeared during the 1980s and ‘90s. Quoting from a brief review that I submitted to the Reformed Review, the book expresses two convictions: 1. that sexuality is far more comprehensive and fundamental than genital sex, and 2. that sexuality is intended by God to be neither incidental nor detrimental to a fully integrated spirituality. Here, I discuss some details from teaching the course, a chapel talk that I was invited to present at Goshen College, and more general insight into the specific subject of sexual orientation that prompted controversy in churches and education settings during those decades.
The privilege was mine to teach “Bible and Sexuality” during nine semesters between 1981 and 1996 (nearly every other year).2 Diane MacDonald had taught a course with the same title previously; Keith Graber Miller of the Bible department has continued to offer a related course on campus. Always a two-and-a-half-hour, evening course, enrollment grew from nine to thirty-seven over the years. More women than men enrolled, in part because this course was part of Women’s Studies in addition to being a Bible department offering. To interact with college age students and their relational concerns during those years fit in well with my ongoing efforts for Women’s agenda in church and society. During those years, campus physician Dr. Willard Krabill, known also within the broader Mennonite church through writing about sexuality,3 taught a very popular course on Human Sexuality begun in 1974.
During the 1980s a core group of activist women faculty—like Anna Bowman, Ruth Krall, Judith Davis, Mary Linton, and Alta Hertzler—offered rich options for a budding Women’s Studies department. Social Work professor Anna Bowman provided me with solid mentoring and librarian Kathy Kauffman was invaluable in supplying current resources for students and faculty. The Women’s Studies minor at GC, a program within the Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology, required eighteen credit hours. Basic understanding of women’s roles, issues, problems, and relationships were to be gained through interdisciplinary courses. For that broad exposure, attention to biblical content and church experience mattered.
My course gave serious attention to scripture interpretation along with themes that varied each semester. Experience focused on Naming and Claiming our Sexuality; Human Creation; Friendship (Singleness, Marriage, Family); To Celebrate or Violate the Body; God (Personal and Metaphor); Jesus’ scandal of Inclusion; Early Church and Paul; Being Marginal and Controversial; Relationship and Power; Being Open Cross Culturally. Advertised as a course that intentionally values feminist thought, readings drew from a variety of books like Swidler’s Affirmation of Woman, Nelson’s Between Two Gardens and The Intimate Connection, Nelson & Longfellow’s Sexuality and the Sacred, Johnson’s She Who Is, Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk, Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her, or Carmody’s Biblical Woman.4 Writing assignments found students probe new questions on topics that intrigued them. To read their writing inspired me.
Addressing issues related to women at Goshen College was not surfacing for the first time in the ‘70s-80s. Already in 1947 Home Economics professor Olive Wyse wrote to the College board chairman C. F. Yake to address discrepancy in faculty salaries between women and men.5 During the 1973-74 winter term I created an informal chart about teaching and administrative women faculty prior to Sister Knoerle’s scheduled talk on “Women in Higher Education.” Information noted women’s rank and involvement in the seven academic divisions. Concern centered on women students’ need for female models as achievers, for men students’ observing father rights among male faculty, for both sexes to commend women’s intelligence and depth of experience beyond being liberally educated housewives and mothers. Observations called for GC to produce more Mary Oyers, Benders, and Royers; to nudge more strong women toward the physical sciences; to expect men and women students to excel in graduate programs so that those who return enhance a better balance within faculty rank.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s College events and publicity stressed women’s development as did courses like “Bible and Sexuality” within Women’s Studies and the Bible/Religion departments. More women writers and more articles about women’s experience, including history, appeared in The Record (the campus newspaper) as in a special section in January 1977.6 The September 25, 1981 Record includes editor Val Brubacher’s “The right to respect: an immense challenge” along with “Subtle Sexism pervades” by Mark Gibbel and “Drama, lectures, workshops consider the issues” by Jay Nissley. The latter details the campus week of emphasis on women’s history, talents, problems and goals planned by the Goshen Student Women’s Association.
The March 1982 issue of the alumni publication Goshen College Bulletin is titled “Herstory—Perspectives on Mennonite Sisterhood.” Acting editor John D. Yoder reflects on women’s activism at the 1981 General Assembly of the Mennonite Church held at Bowling Green, Ohio. Articles among those that followed were: “Women’s Movement Brings Frustration and Hope” by Ruth Krall; “What The Computer Didn’t Know (About the Women Graduates of 1942)” by Miriam Sieber Lind; “Faculty Members Consider Role Models, Options, Careers” by Olive Wyse, Rosemary Wyse, Phyllis Imhoff Wulliman, and Linda Richer; and “Waste of People Concerns Oyer” by Mary Oyer.
Details could follow about the College’s multiple years of organizing a Women’s Emphasis or Sexuality Week; opinion board comments accompanied them. Special chapels and distinct workshops addressed issues. Titles and speakers reflect issues: “Myths of Women’s Depression” by Anna Bowman; “Sexist Language” by Gloria Kaufman from Indiana University at South Bend; “Theology of Feminism” by Notre Dame professor Josephine Ford; and “Context of Sexuality” by Bob Birkey.” Nancy Lapp led students with “Let the Women Speak,” and Willard Krabill presented “The Last Word” addressing ‘graffiti’ from students. I presented a chapel talk titled “Bible, Bishops, and Bombs.” To convey how content about sexuality was presented with college students decades ago, to emphasize that women’s experience, not primarily men’s, needs also to shape understanding, my talk follows.7
“Bible, Bishops, and Bombs”
What, besides alliteration, brings ‘bible, bishops, and bombs’ together? What would have prompted this week’s planning committee to combine them in the context of campus male-female relationships? I observe first their connection with authority. People extend to the bible, bishops, and decision makers about bombing considerable authority—often unlimited and uncritical authority. A second commonality is male control over with each term.
Men have been the primary writers, translators, and interpreters of scripture. Their experience and perspective, often to the neglect of women, have shaped religious thought. Of course, Priscilla might have written the New Testament book of Hebrews.
Men have been bishops. What bishops declare determines how others reflect and act. However, Methodists now have a woman bishop. And Joan of Arc preceded the WACS and WAVES.
Men, also, have been the primary promoters of bombs—from the scientists designing equipment, to officers who depend on making their authority known, to armed individuals who enlist to destroy a real or imagined enemy. But patterns of male aggression inherent in authority and control, as they have evolved, have taken a heavy toll.
What I think underlies, or proves to be the key or cornerstone of bible, bishops, and bombs is patriarchy—“the rule of the fathers.” The term patriarchy comes from pater, meaning “to own.” It originally referred to the “power of the fathers, to a community of dependents.”8 While initially family, clan, or household oriented, it has come to mean “the ability of one group to establish power over another.”9
We all live within this system that expects men to maintain power over women. We either condone or resist “father rule.” I do not wish therein to fault or blame only men. Women have supported the system. To the extent that women cooperate with, conform to, and comfort all who cause and affect injustice for others, we too err. To the extent that women do not question knowledge enmeshed in male bias, we contribute to limited knowing.
To look more directly at Bible: we note examples of biased interpretations of scripture like:
Man was created first and therefore is superior to woman.
Woman was primarily responsible for sin; she is, therefore, more evil than man.
God gave man the right to rule over woman.
These and similar distortions about human creation have been supported in order to reinforce the patriarchal norm of male/female relationships. They are not true to the original text. But most interpreters have not really wanted to be accountable to the demands and freedom of genuine, reciprocal relating.
While some scripture definitely critiques patriarchal dependence on inequality, other texts describe and support it without judgment. Old Testament accounts of rape fail to counter patriarchal dependency on seeing woman as mere property of men. Statutes strengthened the barriers. The wrong to be righted from adultery was that a man’s property had been abused while the raped woman, owned like cattle, could be totally overlooked.
Need we be surprised by present-day reflections of abusive patterns in relationships? No and Yes. No, because too few really desire the complete overthrow of patriarchy. Yes, the surprise exists in how we can with such inconsistency say that we know or follow Jesus the Liberator while ignoring his basic precepts of justice and wholeness for all people. We err also in valuing authentic Pauline thought about women and men over Jesus’ teaching and example, when they clearly contradict each other. Why? Because we have socialized scripture to verify the inequalities that we wish to perpetuate, the inequities inherent in “father rule.”
Inquiring about a Ms. or Mr. “average student” profile for Goshen College students is difficult, if not impossible. So, respond for yourself to the following:
Do you prefer traditional patterns of men initiating relationships?
Do you expect women to give more attention to physical appearance? Why?
Do you credit male professors as more reliable informants than female—whether in analyzing literature, defining sexuality, or integrating science and religion?
Do you hold mostly negative or positive feelings toward feminist women and men on campus?
Do you think that you have a lot to offer another, to enrich her or his life?
Is biblical content that critiques patriarchy and calls for wholeness and justice a meaningful resource for you in both general and more intimate friendship?
Concerning the second category—bishops: We Mennonites may feel that we are exempt from their influence. Our present leadership structure minimizes this role, but a residue persists. While few of our congregations or conferences now authorize bishops, some individuals function as bishops, without the title. In many respects we are fortunate to have escaped reading repeatedly most Roman Catholic Church Fathers and bishops’ thought about women and men. But, then again, have we escaped? Or, have we instead simply depended on Protestant men? Have we not fooled ourselves into thinking that we turn to or depend on Scripture, whereas in essence male opinion of scripture or being human results? Have we not fooled ourselves even more seriously in equating God’s Word with what is essentially male experience and understanding?
Whether fact or fiction, the authoritative word of bishops, rather than administrative duties, has influenced us through time. Words such as these from Thomas Aquinas: “It was necessary for woman to be made. . . a help in the work of generation, but in all other work man can be more efficiently helped by another man.”10 Or, from Tertullian: Each woman is an Eve. You are the one who opened the door to the Devil. . . All too easily, you destroyed the image of God, man.”11 Or, from third century Bishop Dionysius the Great: “A menstruant, being impure, should not be so rash as to approach the communion table.”
We are reminded by Church Fathers and churchmen that Hebrew family life centered in control by men—from father, to husband, to son. “A wife was not a person but a possession.”12 Marriage meant ownership. Girls received no sign of membership within the religious community as did boys with circumcision. Are we surprised, offended, or gladdened by Paul’s comment in I Cor. 11:7 “A man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man?”
What we if semi-freed of the office of bishop need to acknowledge is that the mentality and experience of male hierarchy and polar complementarity still pervade our structure and relationships. I quote from theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether:
Only when men and women are peers in the church can we create human relationships that express authentic communication and exorcise the evil spirits of injustice and dehumanization that turn women and all oppressed people into fantasized symbols of the negative self.13
What then, thirdly of bombs? I take the liberty to think of this not in the narrow sense of atomic or nuclear bombs, but in the broader military/violence context. Militarism presents a subtle irony for Mennonites with a history of advocating pacifism, separation of church and state, and peaceful reconciliation. We have, I fear, within that history blinded ourselves to our own injustices. We say we will not kill but, often motivated by fear, we proceed to destroy another’s reputation. We might hesitate to physically rape a woman, but how free have we been to cause emotional rape, to force another to doubt or minimize her own worth? We presume that we are not violent in our families, but how many wives have been obligated to forego personal development in order to care for the family, freeing a husband to pursue professional growth?
The patriarchal/military system expresses itself as every five minutes a woman is physically raped. That one third of American women will be raped during their lifetime affects all of us. Statistics reflect that somewhere between every 18 seconds and three minutes a woman is physically beaten by her male partner. The mentality that forces or even invites another to doubt her own insight or to accept male conclusions uncritically violates or beats healthy self-development.
I do not wish to suggest that only men are capable of doing this to women. Either sex can violate their own or the other sex. But within patriarchy—the rule of the fathers—some are more prone to violence because of what has been excused as “norm.”Every ten minutes a little girl is molested. Now, if she’s a big girl, is molesting not still a reinforcement that women are property? If women are thought of as “owned” and to be controlled, violence is done to their personal respect and autonomy. And what is seldom noted is the violence done to the violator’s development. The person dependent on violating others in order to define the self does not understand liberation.14
Old Testament material abounds with violent action. Wherever it surfaces in the New Testament, something of Jesus’ radical new way is overlooked. Jesus’ receiving, rather than rejecting, the woman “caught” in adultery absolutely counters violence. Legal expectations approved the woman’s being stoned. Jesus knew that those ready to throw stones were equally guilty of sin. Charging only her—when a man had to be part of the incident—was injustice par excellence.
If peace people wish to achieve a nonviolent revolution, they must commit themselves to overthrowing patriarchy: the basic system that destroys us all, the system that opposes wholeness for human friendship. Just as the military effort accomplishes many of its goals through concentrated, uncriticized, ownership mentality, so too has patriarchy’s violence infiltrated our male-female relationships.
You perhaps know the military slogan: “This is my rifle. This is my gun. (slap crotch) One is for killing; the other’s for fun.” To mock violence and call it ‘fun’ should alert us to the issue. I do not wish to imply that the metaphor for gun used here is by nature violent. But I do think that it has contributed unduly to understandings of the self and others.
Predominantly men have analyzed and told both women and men who we are sexually. Toward that type of bias, I am suspicious. I think that women definitely need opportunity to think together and shape a feminist understanding of sexuality. Numerous dimensions of our being sexual have been relegated to marginal significance while male-female intercourse has received excessive attention. What connection might there be to the rape-violence mentality, I ask?
I always feel a tinge of sadness on knowing that unmarried women are increasingly on “the pill.” I wonder if this fact represents another instance of women’s “buying into” the system that defines sexuality and the relational primarily through the physical. Does such cooperation reinforce that genital intimacy is the ultimate expression of human sexuality, and that if not experienced, one is somehow incomplete?
If a woman and man need to know in advance of marriage whether either has potential complications with physical intimacy, I only hope that their concern is equally great for knowing that neither will assume to develop professionally in disproportion to the other, that neither will limit the other’s sense of self-worth, that each will contribute to the other’s growth in skills and the capacity to nurture.
Balance of power, balance of opportunity, clarity of self-definition, and being rid of dualism like dominate and submissive are essential to friendship. I mainly covet for our general and intimate friendship concerted care to avoid violating the breadth of another person. None of us succeeds totally. But being consistent and authentically present help build bridges. Relationships depend on our desire and ability to “dismantle the mental weaponry as well as the military.”
Dismantling the weaponry and reconstructing relationship can be thought of as one effort. Neither will be totally accomplished without the other. The power of reconstructing grows out of the pain of dismantling. I suggest two expressions of this process of change:
dismantle domination/submission patterns and reconstruct through egalitarianism;
dismantle fears and reconstruct friendship.
Let’s think about the fears via questions.
Do you fear sharing yourself? Or having another disclose deep, personal self-insight?
Do you trust or mistrust your own feelings, your own capacity to evaluate situations?
Do you catch yourself when you act artificially and then analyze the fears that trigger it?
What enters into your feelings of rejection within general friendship?
Do you cater to the beauty cult for women—a little, a lot?
Men: Does equality for women need to threaten men?
Do you associate women with body and therefore fear or need to control or use her?
Do you need to have a woman friend be dependent on you, rather than be self-assured?
Stated as a positive alternative, let us think of reconstructing general friendship on the following fifteen bases:
Each person’s self-worth will be substantial enough to value the other’s being similarly strong.
Each respects the breadth of being human and works toward personal and other nurturing of the spiritual and political, the physical and emotional, the intellectual and social—through healthy balanced attention.
Each honestly contributes to efforts in relating and benefits through rewards of the venture.
Each strives for authenticity, being present, attending and receiving attention.
Each builds multiple, significant relationships, with same and other sex people, so that no one person depends primarily on one alone.
Each offers the other a blend of closeness and distance, neither threatening a sense of self.
Each intends to grow in understanding of, loyalty to, and solidarity with the other, without taking possession of the other in either general or intimate friendship.
Each is serious about shaping a world view, a deepening religious dimension that makes present living meaningful and accountable.
Each is open to periodically evaluate the dynamics of a friendship.
Each knows comparable power within the relationship, knowing that authority is authentic only when returned or exchanged with the giver.
Each nudges the other to increase self-confidence or autonomy and to develop additional skills, balancing the assertive and nurturing in each.
Each gives serious consideration to both celibacy and marriage before deciding as an adult for either general friendship or intimate relationship.
Each credits the other as subject, rather than reducing another to being an object.
Each appreciates multiple life styles, countering prejudice, injustice, and biased norms.
Each seeks a relationship controlled not primarily by physical dimensions of sexuality, but by friendship.
My task for today has been to help focus one component—religious thought—and its influence in shaping our attitudes about being woman and man. Other disciplines could have been examined. I basically contend that because of patriarchy, all fields of study offer all of us less than adequate understanding. Where scripture critiques patriarchy—its double standard, its sanctioning of barriers, its injustice—the text is prophetic. But let us recognize that considerable emphasis on wholeness and justice have been overlooked precisely because interpreters have been too enmeshed in patriarchy to be self-critical.
Male/female relationships do have options other than the “rule of the father.” When we internalize radical Good News, our friendships reflect what is appropriate.
Let’s think together in prayer.
God of the Past and Present, we trust you for our Future.
God: thanks for designing sexuality, for its being profoundly good;
thanks for creating us female and male;
thanks for creating us to communicate in a variety of ways.
We acknowledge our mistakes:
We have allowed domination and submission to have their damaging way.
We have exploited or taken undue advantage and forgotten how that fact destroyed us too.
We have controlled others intended to be our equals;
we have depended on others to control us.
We have, as a result, been fearful, dreading You and our neighbor.
Friend of ours:
Forgive us—You know for what.
Be present as we relate, as we know aloneness.
Nudge us when we take risks toward friendship based on wholeness and justice. Amen.
We return specifically to the course “Bible and Sexuality” taught over a span of years. Part of teaching college students involves observing how they engage with course content, for example with scripture; their emerging questions and comments dependent on past or present experience; their diverse skills with personal expression, in class discussion or on paper. They naturally begin with bias or limited expectations as well as openness to change in views. Since they are enrolled in diverse courses at one time, some resent lengthy, required reading assignments while others eagerly process views that stretch their minds or assist their own self-understanding as a sexual being.
The majority of major papers written for the course always impressed me—serious effort in research and writing, personal purpose for writing on a chosen topic combined with scripture, attention to mixed voices that interpret texts with links to an aspect of human sexuality. With the first reading, I would note features of writing that might benefit from attention. If ideas from authors read were misstated, I might suggest a re-view of what that writer conveyed. My second reading paid more attention to the content’s flow or development. With either read, I might ask questions of the student, to encourage thinking further about statements made or to mention another source. Research topics ranged from human creation to particular characters like Herodias and Salome, incest or other types of violence, God language, Jesus’ relation with the woman ‘caught’ in adultery, or aspects of homosexuality. For a student to be empowered through a course is the goal—improving their self-confidence and expression as a sexual being; growth in understanding what they believe about self, other and scripture; or enhancing the ability to engage sensitively with diverse views as they broaden or clarify their own conviction about human relating.
Religious content that includes belief or faith has potential for controversy, with students or College constituency. From extensive course evaluations completed at a course’s end, a teacher hears both positive and negative comment. Resistance to feminism surfaces (as often among older adults). It can prompt men to face or deny traditional male advantage. For some students, this was the first, most concentrated exposure to feminist approach to biblical content. (Scholar Leonard Swidler defines feminism as “personalism extended to women.”) Most students had absorbed parental ideas, Sunday school teaching, or sermons about scripture. On hearing new translations or perspective, they might pause or counter or rejoice. During one semester five women students happened to be daughters of Mennonite pastors. More than one asked “Why haven’t we heard this before? (feminist insight into scriptures about women) A number of students seriously asked me, “Why do you stay in the church?”
Students deserve honest responses, perspective that values their exploring and enables their answering “Why?” they believe as they do about sexuality, church, and scripture. Examples of student discontent or how biblical accounts address current sexuality issues helps to understand their general comments.
One fellow enrolled was asked by a friend: “Don’t you as a man feel threatened by this course?”
“The course focuses too much on the Bible and not enough on contemporary issues.”
“This class is simply not radical enough.”
“To hear more about biblical women than usual, especially if I feel stretched uncomfortably, makes me deny what scriptural attention is given to men in class or I overlook the high percentage of assignments written by men that can influence me.”
“Not only has more content been about Bible women, we have evaluated biblical men differently: Rather than Boaz being emphasized as the “savior” figure, Naomi and Ruth’s personal strength and control of their story was noted.” How do I assess myself as a result?
Not only is Abraham named “the father of a nation,” Sarah was called by the same God to be “the mother of the same nation.” Need such truth affect how I see friends not of my sex?
To name God is serious, personal, and a justice issue that affects us as women and men.
Without my knowing it, one slightly older-than-college-age fellow audited the class, a “plant” from his southern Michigan Mennonite church’s group of Elders. Audits did not need to complete all assignments though they were expected to read for each theme. At the course’s end, I learned that he had given regular “reports” of content that had been engaged during class time. His biased reports failed to always convey truth, I learned. Accompanied by a College official, I met with the Elders group to respond to their concerns, like “Why did you not deal with the Virgin Birth?” “How could you caution addressing God solely as “Father’?” “Why did you engage a lesbian guest but not someone strongly opposed to her?”
For a faculty member to be asked to explain why they teach what and how they do raises issues of trust, especially when a constituency member inquires of a College President or when donation threats emerge. With frequent discord surrounding discussion of sexual orientation within the broader church and students wishing for a “gay/lesbian” support group on campus, course action mattered. A guest lecturer always presented to my class from personal experience on the theme. I gave hours to writing an eight-page response (“Homosexuality: Factors to Consider”) to letters received. One letter stated: “Our congregation is interested in knowing how Scriptures such as Gen. 19:4-6, Judges 19:1-20:35 and Rom. 1:24-27 are presented in Bible classes at Goshen College. Is the revisionist approach presented by the professor as an acceptable option of understanding these scriptures?”
A campus Director of Church Relations wrote to a few faculty members: Attending conference sessions, I become aware of the depth of conviction, concern and pain the issue of homosexuality generates in the church. . . the minority on the one side consider homosexuality as sin and call for disciplinary action toward known homosexuals. The minority at the other end . . . and the majority in the middle see the debate over homosexuality in the church as more than a difference in biblical interpretation. . . with two underlying concerns: are we in the church undercutting the authority of scripture and the power of the gospel to change lives/actions?
Did administration convey support to faculty members who took risks for students?
With churchwide attention to and conflicting perspectives generated, disciplined research into the change process deserves eventually to be recorded. Supportive groups of adults met in diverse Mennonite communities. I engaged with a “Welcome Committee” to get into print from February to June, 2001, six issues of “Welcome to Dialogue Series A Search for Inclusiveness.” Local Goshen efforts for the series were led by Willis (Bill) Breckbill with Ruth Conrad Liechty manager for tasks of printing, advertising, and distribution while I edited all papers for the series. Writers represented diversity: women and men, supporting parents of gay or lesbian youth, heterosexual and homosexual people, pastors and ‘lay’ members, and scientists.15 Series themes appeared titled: Sharing Personal Convictions, Historical Perspectives, Discerning Church Membership, On Biblical Interpretation, Biological and Psychological Perspective, and Discerning Church Membership Part II.
Excerpts of a random sampling of Mennonite writing on the subject appear.16
No topic titled “homosexuality” appears in the four-volume Mennonite Encyclopedia published in 1959. In volume V published in 1990 physician Willard S. Krabill refers to it within the broader topic of sexuality. Between those dates, from late in the 1970s on, Mennonites addressed dimensions of sexual orientation in conferences and articles. Considerable time and attention engaged the theme: meeting papers, letters to editors, strong opinions for and against. Many people suffered; many left churches. To describe Mennonites as “embroiled” or all-consumed with the topic, in contrast to other potential subjects reflects truth. What is conveyed here reflects but a window into exchange through the 1980s and ‘90s. To teach a college course with “Sexuality” in the title, alongside broader church frenzy, must bring to the surface a “litmus test.” Examples from broader Mennonite experience follow.
Papers from a 1978 “Symposium on Human Sexuality,” sponsored by the Mennonite Medical Assoc., held in Harrisonburg, VA, include nurse and professor Ruth Krall’s discussion of how homosexuality is misunderstood and a paper by theologian John Howard Yoder titled: “Is Homosexuality Sin? How Not to Work at a Question.”
During several days of mid-March, 1982, the community of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries engaged in a study series on “Homosexuality and the Church” (that included addresses by faculty, personal stories by guests, workshops, and worship). . . Professor David Augsburger cited responses from a sixteen-item survey of fifty persons among Church of the Brethren and Mennonite pastors, therapists, and gay or lesbian persons. . . . a decade later faculty denied admission into the Master of Divinity program to a gay male who, while in Elkhart, had begun a relationship with another gay male—having deemed the relationship to be counter to the denominational statements approved in 1986-87. (Mennonite Reporter, June 15, 1992)
When teacher of a popular course “Human Sexuality” at Goshen College, physician Willard Krabill addressed a forum on homosexuality for Western District Conference (Hutchinson, KS) committing himself to “sensitivity, humility and compassion.” Among his papers that appeared: In Search, June/July/Aug 1986 and Resource Packet for Congregational Discernment, 1995.
Between the General Conference Mennonite meeting in Saskatoon and the Mennonite Church Assembly in Purdue, where discussion was “intense and divided” around homosexuality, the Mennonite Reporter printed two articles for the debate (June 22, 1987), one by theologian Jim Reimer of Waterloo and the other by a teacher of psychiatry and pastor in Pennsylvania Enos B. Martin. . . . Eight informal response letters followed, the majority wishing to counter segments of Reimer’s biblical work. A few responses also followed Wilma Derksen’s sensitive feature story of Mennonite Greg Klassen’s “coming out of the closet.” (Mennonite Reporter, Sept, 12, 1988)
A Mennonite who graciously has written about his experience as a sexual minority, John Linscheid, wrote “Our Story in God’s Story,” (The Other Side, 1990) “More than any other weapon, the Bible has been used to beat us down. Yet many of us grew up loving the Bible and found it gave life meaning.” Trained at AMBS, he ever-reads the Bible through gay eyes.
Six writers (one woman) contributed to a forum on homosexuality in The Mennonite (Feb. 12, 1992). Over twenty-five people’s “letters” appeared after that; more may have been sent.
A librarian at North Park College and Theological Seminary, Chicago, Norma Goertzen’s contribution to a related forum invites readers to understand that “Jesus’ life and teachings call us to accept the outcast.”
Eastern Mennonite College professor Edward Stoltzfus risked leading a seminar at the1991 Mennonite Church General Assembly in Oregon titled “Biblical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues of Homosexuality,” within the Bible’s central theme—the redemption of all things.
For the Gospel Herald, Mennonite Church leader Ivan Kauffmann wrote a treatise around thirteen themes within the topic “How Should the Church Respond to Christians Who are Homosexual?”
Lynette Youndt Meck compiled Report No. 139 of the MCC Women’s Concerns Report (July-August 1998) titled “Lesbians in the church: experience and response.” Writers included: Lois Kenagy, Martha Pepper, Sharon Heath, Marlene & Stan Smucker, Jewel Showalter, Ardelle Brown and Donella Clemens.
In a lecture to a congregation for study in 1994, I invited hearers to look at personal attitudes as seriously as to biblical texts. Those who wish first to charge others with sin often resent such self-discipline. Those who depend on a few scriptures to condemn sexual minorities often hold to a more literal view of texts or expect an “authority figure” to determine textual meaning for them. Those who decide that individuals who love people of the same sex are unworthy to be loved by God may fail to comprehend (or wish to limit) God’s compassion. . . A quote from noted preacher Peter Gomes worthy to ponder: “Gay people are victims, not of the bible, not of religion, not of the church, but of the people who use these things to deny and deform those whom they neither ignore nor convert.”
Why give considerable attention here to this one aspect of human sexuality? To make clear how it has engaged campus and church. To express regret for the pain caused especially to LGBTQ students and those who supported them. To admit patterns of interpreting scripture that have justified bias or not been faithful to text segments. Self and other understanding for both women and men, for those negated for who they are within sexual orientations, have been damaged by patriarchy’s influence.
While controversy continues, an editorial and article from Mennonite Church officials appeared in the February 10, 2020 Mennonite World Review, the article titled “MC USA report confesses harm to LGBTQ people.” To observe what results from “statements of regret, confession, and grief for harm done to LGBTQ people” will be our opportunity. “Mennonite Church USA policies ‘have done violence to the personhood of LGBTQ people’ says the report released January 27.” Paul Schrag’s editorial expands on Goshen College President Rebecca Stoltzfus’s recent apology to alumnus Katie Sowers for the College’s “denying her a volunteer coaching position in 2009” because of her being lesbian. He explains that church officials now confess the harm done through the Membership Guidelines Advisory Group and note a three-step process needed to change policy. They further admit the unsatisfactory resolution attempt toward “Forbearance in the Midst of Differences” of 2015. Both traditionalists and progressives (especially youth) have left the denomination. Officials will now “end restrictions based on sexual identity, gender orientation or marital status in denominational ministries” and “invite congregations and conferences to join in the healing practice of nondiscrimination.” They “acknowledge and celebrate the resiliency of the LGBTQ Mennonite community in their contributions and gifts to the body of Christ.”
The editorial notes that “Colleges stand in the forefront of generational change. The values of tolerance, diversity and inclusion have become articles of faith for a generation of youth. At Mennonite colleges, LGBTQ students expect to be affirmed for who they are. Their friends will accept nothing less for them.” If the recommendation “to affirm the full status and worth of LGBTQ people” is adopted, the potential “to set MC USA on a path toward a better future, one with less conflict, loss, harm and pain” is established. May the vision evolve!