Sunday, April 9, 2023

Reflection: When it comes to LGBTQ+ welcome, inclusion and affirmation, for Mennonite Brethren in Canada it's not all in the family


One of the main metaphors used by people who support LGBTQ+ welcome, inclusion and affirmation in the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC) has been that of family. 

For them, the Mennonite Brethren Conference in Canada is a family. And families don’t kick members out when they disagree. Once a member, always a member. That's what families do. 

But recent votes in Ontario and Manitoba showed that not to be the case, what with Southridge. FreeChurch and Jubilee being removed from membership in their respective conferences. 

Those decisions were made at a provincial conference level. Now the national conference seems to have affirmed those decisions and provided them with theological and biblical justification through an article in the latest MB Herald Digest. 

The article, titled "All In The Family?" is by Brian Cooper, who teaches theology at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Abbotsford, B.C. 

In the article, Cooper acknowledges how often the word “family” has been used to describe Mennonite Brethren in Canada, noting there are biological, ethnic, cultural and historical ties that have caused people in the Conference to feel they belong together in that way. 

These ties have “blurred the distinction between biological and cultural family connections and spiritual/theological family connections, much to the detriment of our denominational fellowship,” he says. 

The way "biological and cultural connections had overshadowed theological connections" would, he feared, one day cause trouble. 

Well, that trouble has come, he says, in the form of conversations about LGBTQ+. The
"elephant in the room,” as he put it.

Those conversations “have revealed that the different ways of considering one another family have dramatically complicated an already difficult conversation topic.” 

Through the article, he seeks to uncomplicate that notion by reflecting “theologically on what it means to be family, because understanding what this means can help orient us in the right direction.” 

He does this by quoting the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34 about not coming to bring peace but a sword. 

That is, he says, “a stark reminder to me that the call of discipleship is not always friendly to the expectations and demands of being part of a biological or cultural family.” 

The call to discipleship in the Gospels, he goes on to say, “is not unclear in its requirement of total commitment to Jesus first, before any other loyalty. Jesus presciently saw that this call would turn family members against one another, would demand awful self-sacrifice, and would cost some people their lives.” 

He notes Jesus’ words in Mark about who is his family: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” 

Says Cooper: “In one swift blow, Jesus knocks down any misapprehensions we might harbor in which we confuse the relative importance of biological family and spiritual family. For Jesus, spiritual family necessarily comes first.” 

He then asks: “So what’s the takeaway for Mennonite Brethren? 

For him, “this is where it gets real, and where it becomes truly difficult . . . but also vital. As hard as it is to say no to parents, children, siblings, cousins—those we love dearly, the call to say yes to Jesus takes precedence. The call to uphold what we believe our faith in Christ demands, necessitates that we prioritize the unity of the spiritual family even ahead of those beloved biological family members we would like to affirm. This is profoundly hard. It may seem like exclusion, but it is not. It is faithfulness.” 

That doesn’t mean “complete and utter dissociation,” Cooper says. 

“Conversations may continue. Friendships may persist, and should. Most of the time, biological and cultural connections are to be enjoyed and celebrated. But theological divisions that arise cannot be subsumed beneath calls to maintain the unity of the family. Theological connections are the measure of true family. Membership in the body, the sign of formal theological affirmation, is connected to theological unity rather than historic connections.” 

It is painful, he says, “to see fellow believers with whom we have many years of history articulate theological commitments that take them beyond the limits of the convictions that we have long confessed together. We want to think of them as family; who could countenance not viewing them in this way? But on the other hand, what do our theological convictions mean if we are willing to surrender them in times of challenge?” 

He concludes: “In the context of the Kingdom, we are not a family if we are not a spiritual one. We are united not simply in a common commitment to Jesus, but in a common understanding of what that commitment entails . . . knowing when and why to part ways can be a sign of theological maturity rather than theological failure. And it can remind us what it means to be a family. For the right reasons.” 

To be sure I understood the point Cooper was trying to make, I asked him: “Am I correct in assuming you are saying that, when it comes to issues like LGBTQ+, theology trumps family and relationships? That it is better to part ways with someone who views that topic differently from you?” 

Cooper replied: "Yes, you are correct. Parting ways is difficult, but sometimes necessary. And theology does take priority over family and relationships." 

It’s important to note the article isn’t an official CCMBC document. But by being published in the MB Herald Digest it does very strongly suggest that it reflects the position of the Conference on the topic of LGBTQ+ welcome, inclusion and affirmation. And also what kind of family Mennonite Brethren in Canada actually want to be.

Read the full article in the MB Herald Digest.



  1. While it’s discussing church family this logic will be applied to some MB households. Our queer kids will pay for this.

  2. I appreciated Brian Cooper's recent article, "All In The Family?" It reminded me of a book, Messy Truth by Caleb Kaltenbach that I recently read. With the wisdom of personal experience (being raised by 3 gay parents), the author shows the reader how to love and to listen well to others despite our differences while still maintaining our convictions.

    With that in mind, I have a few questions to ask. How is it that those of us who are staying faithful to our convictions and yet still desire to show empathy to the LGBTQ community and beyond are being denounced for not affirming same-sex marriage? If I don't affirm someone's lifestyle (no matter what kind it is) does it mean that I don't love them or care about them enough to walk alongside them, no matter what it looks like or what kind of journey they are going through?

    Will the people within the MB conference who affirm same-sex marriage and the gay lifestyle still respect me for my views and beliefs on this matter? I am thankful for our MB conference leaders and stand behind them wholeheartedly on this issue. I believe we need to respect them for their beliefs and convictions. It's not about being kicked out of the denomination if you don't agree with the MB Confession of Faith. Perhaps for those who are pushing an agenda and approach to same-sex marriage that is contradictory to conference beliefs, maybe it IS best to gracefully part ways. Isn't that how it is with any organization? Why the fight? Can a house divided still stand?

    I believe this could be a wake up call for all of us as an MB denomination as well as the broader Church. Could it be, perhaps that God is calling us all to repentance for how we have mistreated people and have not listened well. Can we extend grace and forgiveness, and show love and respect for others who we don't necessarily agree with? May God help us!

  3. Matthew 10:34-36 could be seen as a prescriptive to exclude those who disagree with us theologically (as in Brian Cooper’s interpretation?) or this passage could be seen as descriptive of what happens when “we are deprived of sacrificial safeguards” (Rene Girard). Jesus is not intending to bring separation within families (close relationships), but Jesus is describing what will happen unless . . .

    1. . . . unless we choose to not separate from each other - a choice can be made.

  4. Years ago I walked with a mother who, together with her husband, acting on the advice they received from a church elder, had decided to have nothing to do with their gay son. Her heart was broken. Every birthday, Easter, Christmas, was agony. I constantly tried to encourage her to get in touch with him. Toward the end of her life she did that. Both of their lives could have been so different had they tried to understand each other, reach out to talk, to listen, come to some kind of agreement rather than cutting the ties that bind!

  5. Brian Cooper's article reminds me of Maximus the Confessor, an interesting case from church history. The Bishop of Constantinople and Maximus stood on different sides of an issue concerning Jesus' identity: did Jesus have one or two natures? The inscrutability of this issue is relevant - how many centuries did it take the church to work on this and "land" on a conclusion? The two men battled it out in public. Maximus was a terrific orator and seemed to gain the upper hand. So the Bishop imprisoned him. But people came to the prison to hear Maximus - so the Bishop cut off his tongue. Maximus then put his erudite thoughts to paper and people collected his writings. So the Bishop cut off his hand. Ultimately the Bishop determined that Maximus was a heretic and exiled him to present-day Georgia where he died. Only 20 years later a major church council reviewed his case and declared him "not a heretic but a saint"!!

    The current CCMBC leadership, as expressed in Cooper's article, seems happy to declare pro-inclusion Mennonite Brethren people "heretics" - ie worthy of excommunication, though "we'll still talk to you as the black sheep of the family." This on a far less important matter than Jesus' identity! Note that "heretic" has the same etymology as "cohere". So a "heretic" isn't coherent with the group. This is about unity and the effort to maintain the "unity of the Holy Spirit".

    Based on Cooper's argument and my experience in recent years I think CCMBC leadership are too "trigger happy" and don't desire to put the effort needed into figuring out "coherence" on this complex issue. The Equip Conference with David Fitch was all about taking the time to work through the major issues that confront us. Cooper, CCMBC and the National Faith and Life Team don't seem at all interested in adhering to the valuable insights of Fitch on this.

    I also submit CCMBC has not been consistent in its application of the Confession of Faith to the challenge of "being family". In the past on at least 2 Confessional matters we have given a great deal of time and room for churches to innovate outside the confessional bounds. For about 20 years in the 1970-80s churches permitted non-baptized Christians to take the Lord's Supper (This was aimed at newcomers as a way to help them feel like they belonged). This breach of the Confession never brought on dismissals of churches or pastors' credentials. In the early 1990s the Conference changed the Confession to accommodate, recognizing we were breaking with not only our 100 year old tradition but the 2000 year tradition of the church! In the 1990s and early 2000s churches were baptizing people with the option of membership - also a breach of the Confession. Article 8 was rewritten to accommodate that quite recently.

    Throughout these scenarios the "family" metaphor surely prevailed, but in an unspoken way. Today, though, we seem to be troubled by it. Something has changed - and not for the better.

    Finally, it is possible to push an analogy too far. Delbert Wiens, formerly of Fresno Pacific College (MB school) said when we push even a biblical analogy too far, we can cross a line into heresy. While I would never accuse Brian Cooper himself of being a "heretic" I feel he may have pushed the family analogy into territory where the family metaphor no longer coheres.

    And thus his article should be taken with a "grain of salt."

  6. Well said, David. Thank you.

  7. I am saddened that an article that calls us to prioritize "the unity of the spiritual family even ahead of those beloved biological family members we would like to affirm" in the context of theological differences regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion would not include an acknowledgment of the tragic reality that LGBTQ+ youth from evangelical families are at greater risk of family rejection and homelessness than other youth. Surely the position that spiritual family "takes precedence" over biological family has contributed to Christian parents rejecting their LGBTQ+ children. Family rejection is one of the two leading risk factors for LGBTQ+ teen suicide. As I learned from the BCMB-promoted Posture Shift seminar, 42% of youth in evangelical families fear being disowned by their parents. 9% are kicked out of their homes. 85% feel uncomfortable coming out to their parents. 81% fear being seen as disgusting by their parents and they are 8 times more vulnerable to suicide if family rejection occurs.

    While the author admits that this difficult form of "faithfulness," does not mean "complete and utter dissociation" and that "most of the time biological...connections are to be enjoyed and celebrated" it seems insensitive, if not irresponsible, and certainly out of step with the pastoral concern encouraged by Posture Shift to fail to acknowledge the suffering that the rejection of biological and spiritual family members has caused and continues to cause LGBTQ+ people. I wonder how this conversation about prioritizing spiritual family over biological family shifts when such prioritization contributes to harming the vulnerable members of our churches and wider society.

    In the early church, when people's belief in Jesus ostracized them from their biological family, the new Christian spiritual family went to great lengths to welcome many of these new believers – many of whom were women and were particularly vulnerable in a patriarchal society when detached from their biological family. The contemporary North American Christian evangelically influenced church has largely amputated vulnerable LGBTQ+ believers from their spiritual body and many of those who do stay experience harm as churches are sadly often a haven of ignorance, misinformation, and bigotry. Surely we cannot bracket the reality of harm out of a discussion about the ramifications of prioritizing the spiritual family over the biological.

    I do appreciate the article's call to not "anathematize those who differ." However, the comment causes me to wonder why I was referred to as a ''false teacher" by a BCMB leader in front of over a hundred people even when no evidence was ever produced of me publicly teaching anything contrary to the CoF. That certainly felt anathematizing. While I was hoping my departure from the BCMB could have been seen as akin to what Andrew describes as "parting company over significant differences" the PMC's investigation of me as a potential "false teacher" was a hurtful approach that exacerbated conflict in my former congregation.

    Lastly, I wonder what exactly "substantial consensus" means. If it simply means a majority, I'm not sure "consensus" is the right word. Furthermore, a majority is not hard to maintain when you simply kick out dissenting voices. Also, historically when it comes to discerning social/theological issues such as the enslavement of people and women in leadership, the majority was wrong for long periods of time while the vocal minority has often embodied the prophetic role of condemning injustice and advocating for reform.

    1. Amen and amen. Thank you

      In Brian’s reply to the discourse he writes… “I agree that simplistic appeals to biblical texts are not appropriate ways to resolve conflicts such as this, and I agree that Scripture is intended not as an end in itself. It is intended to draw us to Jesus. But we have no reliable knowledge of Jesus apart from Scripture illuminated by the Spirit…”

      Similarly to your comment about majority. Who’s human authority is it to say that *they* are the ones operating under the guidings of the spirit…the majority? Naw I don’t think so. In fact, Jesus has a few things to say about that and the law makers…

  8. Donald Peters, WinnipegApril 12, 2023 at 3:15 PM

    Brian Cooper’s reflections provide a good explanation of why the Mennonite world is so replete with denominations. If we make his reflections prescriptive, we’ll have even more.

    Cooper states: “Theological connections are the measure of the true [spiritual] family.” Might it also be true that in the spiritual family, theological connections are strong enough to allow for different, even contrary theological views among members?

    Cooper states: “Knowing when and why to part ways can be a sign of theological maturity rather than theological failure.” Might it also be true that a decision to part ways can be a sign of theological immaturity and theological failure?

    All families, be they biological, cultural, theological, or spiritual, benefit from healthy doses of patience and humility.

  9. Hello, I could not find a better way to write my post, but my name is José Arrais and I just want to say that recently I was able to attend a group of LGBTQ+ that had gay people and parents of gay members. Not going very further all I can say is this - I was very very impacted with the stories I've eard, I felt loved how I was received has an outsider, and it just confirmed my feeling that more and more we need to be inclusive!!! I actually have in my family gay people, I have friends that are gay, my children also have gay friends and...we all love them has they are...we will never point their gender, but we will call their names and how they can bring assets to our christian communities!!!