Photo: Participants at the study conference on human sexuality spend time together in corporate prayer. (Photo by Leslie P.)
A study conference on human sexuality revealed the tension between long standing biblical understandings and shifting societal attitudes towards sexual practices.
Honouring God with the Body: a Study on Human Sexuality, was organized by the Board of Faith and Life (BFL) of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC). It brought together more than 300 people from across Canada.
Participants included church leaders, students and faculty from Bible colleges and others interested in the topic. Comments made during the discussion time indicated strong appreciation for the opportunity to engage in conversation and theological reflection on issues of sexuality that face the Christian church.
“Today is not the end—it is merely the beginning,” says BFL chair, Brian Cooper, at the end of the three-day conference which took place Oct. 16-18 at River West Christian Church in Edmonton.
Through teaching sessions, workshops, personal stories and worship services, participants heard that the call to follow Jesus includes God-honouring sexual behaviour.
They were also reminded of God’s love, grace and desire for reconciliation in the midst of brokenness and sin.
While acknowledging the need for guidance and resources to help church leaders and congregations deal with issues such as pornography, sexual abuse and pre-marital and post-marital sex, it was also a safe place to discuss issues surrounding same-gender marriages and sexual relations.
The confession of faith adopted by CCMBC states marriage is a covenant relationship intended to unite a woman and a man for life. It also states that God calls all people, single and married, to live sexually pure lives.
This message of God’s plan for only heterosexual marriages and sexual purity for all was affirmed by plenary speaker, Robert A.J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Gagnon, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice, describes homosexual practices as sin. He encourages churches to reach out in love to people involved in homosexual practices but in showing love, remain clear that God does not condone this behaviour.
“It is not my job to proclaim exemption on what God condemns. The loving approach is not to tolerate sinful behaviour. If it is too hard for the church to do that, then become something else—become a rotary club.”
God, he says, wants transformed lives and a person who continues in sinful behaviour is lost. “What we wouldn’t want is a holier than thou attitude but a desire for the person to inherit God’s kingdom—that is our sole interest,” he says.
Summarizing the religious history of Canada, historian and theologian, John Stackhouse, says between 1850 and 1950 the rubric of Christianity was used as a moral guide for social attitudes and values of the wider Canadian society.
Although Canada is becoming increasingly secularized, the mentality of making decisions based on whether they are right or wrong remains. Just like there was no room for dissent when Christianity was the moral guide, today, as Canada is changing into a post–Christian society, there is no room for a dissenting Christian view.
When there are dissenting views, Stackhouse warns against self-righteousness. “Holding views firmly and contending for them is not self-righteousness. Refusing to listen and refusing to submit to reality (God, the Bible, good arguments, other’s wellness, the greater good) is self-righteousness,” he says.
Retired pastor, John Unger of Winnipeg, suggests the tone of discussion on homosexuality changes when “the response is to a person, not an issue.”
He will never forget the telephone call from his daughter asking him to bless her and her same-gender partner at their wedding. “She says, dad, I need your blessing,” he recalls.
At the wedding, he had described the blessing as a shade tree, a place of gathering. He also sees his family as a shade tree and finds ways to assure his daughter and her family there is room in the family’s shade tree for them. “God blesses everyone and wants us to do the same,” he says.
He affirms the MB confession of faith on marriage and does not see same-gender relationships as God’s intent. However, through these and other experiences, he is learning to respect God’s processes and timelines in people’s lives.
“It’s like a flower—if you force the flower to open, it wrecks it,” he says. “It is God’s gentle spirit that opens them up.”
John Neufeld, pastor of The Meeting Place in Winnipeg, reminded participants that MB churches have a rich history providing spiritual counsel through balancing grace and truth.
Part of this history includes the theological shifts over the years to provide compassionate support for families experiencing failed marriages, divorce and remarriage.
“Jesus forgave freely, even before repentance was evident,” he says. “Jesus reserved his harshest words for the pious.”
Click studyconference.mennonitebrethren.ca for podcasts and more reports from the conference.
Gladys Terichow is the staff writer for the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches