An OTM @ EMU on university as a parachurch organization

EMU is already functioning as a Mennonite-founded parachurch organization.

I ended my last posting with this controversial claim. So, I should explain why I say that.

I used the following definition of parachurch organizations with the phrase that is most likely to concern some of my colleagues at EMU highlighted.

Parachurch organizations are Christian faith-based organizations that usually carry out their mission independent of church oversight. The prefix para, is Greek for beside, or alongside. Most parachurch organizations, at least those normally called parachurch, are Protestant and Evangelical.

My colleague Roman Miller wrote in the Weathervane, “As a parachurch organization, I believe EMU should walk along with the church and not make a premature decision which will enhance division and mar the body of Christ.”

The question is, which church is he talking about?  I think Roman means MCUSA. That might make sense, except that parachurch organizations are not related to a single denomination. An organization related to a single denomination is a church agency, not a parachurch organization. Much as Roman might want to avoid enhancing the divisions in the Christian community and in MCUSA, the reality is we (Christians) are already divided on this issue. And we will be for quite some time, I think. Just as we have been (are) divided on the role of women in church life, divorce and remarriage, and a variety of other issues.

If we are a parachurch organization, the question is, “How can we live with our divisions while working together on other goals — such as providing a high-quality, Anabaptist-influenced education (EMU) or relieving poverty (e.g., World Vision)?”

World Vision as a Parachurch Organization: A Lesson in What NOT to DO

In the midst of our listening process, World Vision (WV) went through a tumultuous experience around the issue of hiring individuals in committed same-sex relationships. On March 24, 2014 WV (the U.S. branch) announced they would not be discriminating against employees in same sex committed relationships.

World Vision’s American branch will no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.

Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule. But a policy change announced Monday [March 24] will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed at one of America’s largest Christian charities.  (Christianity Today)

The reasons given for the change were interesting. WV, as a parachurch organization, opted to sidestep any role of “ruling” on theological issues. They noted that as an ecumenical organization they had support from and employed individuals from many denominations, including those who ban and condemn same-sex marriage and those who perform same-sex marriages. In order to promote Christian unity around the goal of providing relief and development, WV was not going to use its policies to make a ruling on the issue. Rather, they were going to respect the diversity that exists among Christians by leaving this issue to individual employees.

I think it is not exaggerating much to say “All hell broke loose” in the blogosphere and on the WV web site. It was incredibly ugly to watch. I am not in any way saying this is the norm for those who oppose recognizing committed same-sex relationships, but some who hold those views withdrew their support for children and their families. Many spewed hate speech. If this had happened on a playground, we would have called it bullying.

Clearly WV did not have its Board in agreement for this change, because two days later, WV announced it was rescinding the policy. And, importantly, it did not say the reversal of the policy was due to pressure or finances or because they were focusing on meeting the needs of the communities they serve. In other words, they refuted any idea that they were bullied into reversing their policy. Instead, the President said:

“Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.” “We listened to [our] friends, we listened to their counsel. They tried to point out in loving ways that the conduct policy change was simply not consistent … with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives.” (Christianity Today, 26 March 2014)

While many of us really think this was a clear case of bullying, let’s take the WV leaders at their word. They were convinced of the error their ways and opted to NOT defer to a minority interpretation of scripture. In other words, they went from not taking a side or position to clearly taking a side. And,they elevated the issue of sexuality and marriage to a level of a central teaching of Christian faith.

“Yes, we will certainly defer on many issues that are not so central to our understanding of the Christian faith,” he said. “But on the authority of Scripture in our organization’s work [and employee conduct] … and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs. We cannot defer on things that are that central to the faith.” (Christianity Today, 26 March 2014)

Is unity on issues of gender relations, family structure and same-sex marriage CORE to being Mennonite?

If EMU is a Mennonite-founded parachurch organization, does it have to enforce uniformity of thinking/acting around these issues in order to achieve its core mission? Or can we agree to disagree on this issue (as we do on divorce and remarriage and the ordination of women) while focusing on our mission of providing an Anabaptist-influenced education to students of all faiths (and no faith)?

Speaking as an OTM, I did not come to EMU 13 years ago because I agreed with the MCUSA stated beliefs about marriage and same-sex relationships. I came because EMU is providing a high quality education that prepares leaders who care passionately about promoting peace with justice. THOSE are the most important CORE Anabaptist principles that draw people like me to work here, study here, and donate financially to the university. I have worked at EMU all these years in spite of its exclusionary policies that go against my own commitments to the Church as a place that accepts everyone as they are.


About Jayne Seminare Docherty

I am Program Director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) and a professor in the graduate program at CJP. I am also a mother and a grandmother, and I want to leave a positive legacy for all of the children of the world.
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3 Responses to An OTM @ EMU on university as a parachurch organization

  1. Thanks. I don’t think anyone is saying LGBT faculty/staff could not date. They would be held to the same standards everyone else is held to regarding sex outside of marriage. I dated and married since joining the faculty. I would hold the same standards to those in same-sex relationships.

    I AM SORRY. I AM NEW TO THIS. I deleted the comment to which I was replying accidentally while working on my “smart” phone and now I can’t find it. It was from Ken (whose name I don’t recall). Ken, if you see this, please feel free to post your comment again and/or reply. Sorry!


    • Sure Jayne….here it is again. “This does not make sense as an HR policy. To only hire gays in a “committed relationship” begs the question how does one get into such a relationship? The answer is by dating. Are you going to require everyone to be married? If you hire straight individuals who are dating around but only hire gays who are in “committed” relationships then that is discrimination. If you stand for traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman some will say you are discriminating BUT you are doing so based upon long held interpretation of Scripture. The authority of Scripture is a core Anabaptist principal. ‘Thy Word is Truth'”. By way of introduction I am a minister who has also been a CEO of a large nonprofit agency and former Commissioner with 2 law enforcement agencies. EMC/EMS alumni. Good luck with that “smart phone”. My grand kids do a whole lot better with my IPAD than I do!


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