The largest conference of churches within the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is leaving the fold over changing views on homosexuality.
The Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) is returning to independence after 40 years of denominational membership based on fears that the MC USA is loosening its views on same sex marriage.
In 2016, there were about 78,000 members of the MC USA.
SEEDS OF DIVISION
The MC USA officially views homosexual activity as a sin and defines marriage as between one man and one woman, but several pastors in the denomination have performed same-sex marriages and been censured or resigned and smaller regional conferences that affirm LGBT relationships have departed.
The denomination has voted down attempts to affirm same-sex marriage, but in 2015, adopted a resolution to extend “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”
That same year, two schools affiliated with MC USA, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, adopted policies to protect faculty in same-sex relationships. Months later, they voluntarily withdrew from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities as a result.
It was in November of 2015 that congregations within the Lancaster Conference formally voted to withdraw from the umbrella organization. The decision was finalized on January 1, 2018.
In a Mennonite World Review editorial written last November, Paul Schrag summed up the schism this way, “MC USA proved to be a place where congregations and conferences did what their own majorities believed was right and not what anyone else wished they would do. Lancaster desired more unity of belief and practice.”
Lancaster Mennonite Conference moderator Keith Weaver told LancasterOnline,
“Rather than an inward focus of self-preservation, congregations are cultivating an outward focus in which attending to the material and spiritual needs of the neighborhood becomes the mission.”
He said the conference will focus on three things:
— The theological center “that keeps the lordship of Jesus Christ in focus,” which is summarized in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, published in 1995.
— Adherence to the church’s core values to aspire to “radical allegiance to God’s Kingdom and authentic obedience to Jesus Christ.”
— The missional vision “in which Jesus…will reign over the Earth through a new order in which swords will be beat into plowshares, lions and lambs will lie together in peace and the Shalom of God will finally be realized.”
DEPARTURES IN BOTH DIRECTIONS
There are 179 congregations in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and the departure will reduce the size of the MC USA by about 14 percent. But the decision is also causing changes within the LMC. Since 2015, when the conference announced its intention to leave MC USA, 13 new congregations have joined Lancaster Mennonite Conference but eight others are leaving to join the Atlantic Coast Conference of the Mennonite Church USA.
Merv Stoltzfus, executive conference minister for the Atlantic Coast Conference, told LancasterOnline that there is a strong belief among the 36 congregations in his conference that “we need to engage and invite this marginalized group of people (LGBT) into an opportunity to worship with us and others are not comfortable with that.”
He added that the churches that joined his conference “were immensely loyal to Lancaster Conference and for many of them it was difficult processing, but they wanted to stay with Mennonite Church USA.”
Both Weaver and Stoltzfus said the split has been amicable and Stoltzfus said he anticipates congregations from both local conferences will continue to work on projects in which they have a shared interest.