Artisan Church and BC Mennonite Brethren part ways over LGBTQ issues

Nelson Boschman spoke about Artisan’s split from the BCMB during his May 2 sermon. YouTube image

Just 11 years ago, Artisan Church was planted as part of the BC Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (BCMB).

Earlier this month the church and denomination parted ways over issues relating to same sex marriage and the participation of LGBTQ+ members in leadership.

Artisan is a thriving church planted by Nelson and Terri Boschman at the Vancouver Public Library. It went through a number of changes before settling at the Japanese Hall on Alexander Street in the Downtown Eastside.

The BCMB is a dynamic denomination of more than 100 churches throughout the province. It continues to be very committed to church planting and includes some of the largest churches in the area (Willingdon, Westside, Christ City, Gracepoint, North Langley, Northview).

Both Artisan’s pastor of spiritual formation Nelson Boschman and BCMB expressed sadness and distress over the rupture, given the strong, long-lasting personal and institutional relationships.

Unique start

Ever since it was planted in the downtown core of Vancouver, Artisan has had to be particularly attuned to its cultural milieu. Frank Stirk interviewed Boschman for his book, Streams in the Negev: Stories of How God is Starting to Redeem Vancouver.

Most of their early participants, according to Boschman, were actors, musicians, visual artists, website and video game developers, dancers and writers in their 20s and 30s – as a jazz pianist, he hoped to build a home for creative types. Though membership broadened over time, Artisan has never been a traditional congregation.

Stirk wrote:

Most of those who began showing up were, [Boschman] says, “people who were on their way back to Church” – people who “had found the Church was less than a safe place for them to be in process, to have a bunch of questions, to see things as more gray than black or white, and stuff like that.”

Stirk’s final chapter told stories of 10 ‘hidden churches’ which “began appearing in the Downtown peninsula from 2008 to 2014.” Though some have not lasted and others have moved (sometimes not far, as with Artisan), book was hopeful overall about the growth of the church in the centre of Vancouver.

BCMB statement

The BCMB monthly newsletter, posted May 6, addressed Artisan’s departure:

A Moment for Clarity
At this year’s BCMB convention [May 1] the community clarified the implications of our convictions on marriage, sexual expression and gender identity in a crucial decision. The affirmation of Artisan’s request for release was a difficult and painful process. There are deep relationships affected by this conversation and we recognize that clarity must be expressed with compassion if it is to be kind.

As part of its Milestone Statement the Artisan community declared itself committed to celebrating same sex marriages and to removing any leadership restrictions within the church for those living in LGBTQ+ relationships.

This statement contradicts our understanding of Scripture and our Confession of Faith (COF). The BCMB engagement with Artisan since the release of its Milestone statement in 2021 has been difficult and imperfect; however we are grateful that Artisan leaders recognized that they were departing from our COF and withdrew with that understanding.

We have sought a respectful and open path to closure to the degree that it is possible. The BCMB Executive Board is committed to a careful review in the coming months. But for this moment you are invited to reflect on how you as a leader are called to offer the kindness of clarity to the church you serve.

Go here for the full statement and suggested resources.

As of May 12, the Beliefs section on the Artisan website still included this statement:

We hold to the authority of the Christian Scriptures, the essential orthodox Christian beliefs as expressed in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as the MB Confession of Faith.

The MB Confession of Faith includes this, under Marriage, Singleness & Family:

Marriage is a covenant relationship intended to unite a man and a woman for life. At creation, God designed marriage for companionship, sexual union, and the birth and nurture of children.

A March 12 article by John Longhurst on Anabaptist World described Artisan’s Milestone Statement:

In the eight-page document, a product of four years of discernment by church leadership, the church says “we suspect God is leading us to a place that is neither ‘open and affirming’ nor ‘traditional’ but a third way: an alternative place of radical acceptance and inclusion rarely seen in this world.”

This third way is leading the church to “embrace and include” all LGBTQ and same-sex attracted people and also those who “hold more traditional views.”

For Artisan this means the church will “practice full inclusion” at “every level of leadership.” No one, the church states, “will be excluded from any form of leadership due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, nor related convictions and relationships.”

The church says it will also “celebrate LGBTQ+ covenantal marriages” and will “commit to always having someone on our staff who will perform marriages for any and all couples who are rooted in the life of our church according to the same discernment process afforded straight cisgendered couples.”

An update just four days later noted that the BCMB “is recommending that Artisan Church in Vancouver be released from membership.”

Boschman’s response

Nelson Boschman addressed the separation during his May 2 sermon (“not really a sermon, more of a share”), now available as a podcast and on YouTube. He said:

The Third Way posture that we recently adopted with regard to the inclusion of our LGBTQ+ siblings placed us outside the MB Confession of Faith. So when we realized this, our leadership agreed to formally request a release from membership within the MBs.

He continued with an extended and heartfelt appreciation of his MB heritage and experience, reflecting on what he had said a month before, during a “goodbye meeting” with several people from BCMB’s pastoral ministries committee, “to exchange gratitude for the years of mutual connection within the MB world.”

Wiping away tears at times, Boschman said, “I was born and raised in the Mennonite Brethren Church.” He referred to his father (Merv), his uncle (Ed) and his grandfather (Rudy): “each of them have been well known and respected MB pastors and leaders.”

There’s been a big part of me that simply assumed I’d always be MB. We use different language for what the MBs are – a denomination, a conference, a tribe, a family of churches mutually surrendered to the lordship of Christ. . . . If we stick with family, though, I’ll just say it’s weird and painful to ask to leave your family.

He has fond memories of many MB-related communities – playing at Columbia Bible Camp (now Stillwood), taking part in the early days of Northview Community Church, attending Mennonite Educational Institute (where he played trombone for Larry Nickel, “under whose tutelage the first sparks of my love for jazz were kindled”), attending and teaching at Columbia Bible College, church experiences at Fraser Heights, North Langley, Bakerview, Mountain Park, serving on the BCMB Worship Commission, growing Artisan with the C2C Network and more:

There are few corners of my life that haven’t been touched in some way by my connection to, and experience within, the MB world. I’m grateful for all these experiences, and at this point, I have few, if any, regrets.

The MB family has made an indelible imprint on my life, and I want to honour you as leaders for facilitating an environment where I could be shaped and play a part in shaping others. These memories will always be with me and will continue to shape who I am becoming, even as we part ways.

In short, he and Artisan Church left gracefully.

But . . .

Boschman did not hesitate, during the goodbye meeting, to spell out what he felt compelled Artisan to leave. Despite the depth and strength of loyalty to the MB family, he said:

But there are other deeper, wider, broader allegiances that I’m coming to feel more all the time. One is to the family that consists of everyone who calls Jesus Lord . . . Another is the wider human family; every human person on the planet made in the image of the divine and called very good . . .

He added his own family and the family of churches in the Downtown Eastside.

Boschman then preached briefly on John 17:20-23, on Jesus’ prayer for unity, which concludes, “I in them, and You in Me, so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me, and have loved them even as You have loved Me.”

He said:

According to Jesus, in this prayer, unity is paramount. It’s what he explicitly asks the Father for, that those who follow Christ would be one. . . .

He then spelled out Artisan’s take on unity, with an implicit critique of the BCMB’s approach:

. . . One heart, one mind, that they would be woven together in a unity that does not depend on agreement in all things, but on a shared commitment to the way of Jesus – and to agree to love and bless each other when we do inevitably disagree.

The unity Jesus desires for his church is the essence of the third way we are seeking to walk out. as a community of faith.

So a big part of the sadness of our untethering from the MBs is that, as Peter Mogan [Artisan’s moderator] put it so well yesterday, right before the vote, “This is not a unity moment.” . . .

In my story I mentioned missions trips. The planting of Artisan was driven by a deep desire to join God in God’s mission of the renewal of all things. MBs have always had a heart to share the good news we’ve received. This has been a huge emphasis historically, and a big part of yesterday’s convention, yet again, was to rally enthusiasm and commitment around evangelism and mission.

At no point did anyone mention the unity of the church as a key ingredient for successful mission in the world. . .

It seems to me that Jesus sees unity not just as the key ingredient for mission; it’s nothing less than the silver bullet of the missional impulse. I can’t help wonder what would happen if we all took Jesus’ prayer seriously enough to stop treating the unity of the church as an optional extra.

Testing unity

Boschman used the final portion of his May 2 sermon make a plea for unity, but that quality will be hard to find out in the wider Christian world.

Roman Catholic liberals are incensed that Pope Francis affirmed in March that priests may not affirm same-sex blessings, and priests at more than 100 German churches are defying the pope on that very point this week.

Anglicans worldwide continue to disagree vehemently over gay-related issues as Lambeth 2022 looms.

Several denominations are facing major confrontations on the issue in the near future. Headlines like this one from The Washington Post were all over the media early last year: ‘United Methodists expected to split over gay marriage.’ Only the pandemic has prevented the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States from dividing over the issue.

The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America are also facing division.

What is unity?

The great majority of the church believes – and has always believed – that marriage is between one man and one woman. The question for Artisan is how they can make the case that they are seeking unity by leaving a denomination which follows those teachings.

The BCMB’s ‘Moment for Clarity’ statement includes these words:

The Foundation for Clarity
Our understanding of what is good and ethical, what is true about us and the world in which we live, is defined by God’s Word. (2 Timothy 3:16 COF #2) This includes clarity about human sexuality, gender identity and sexual morality. Our Confession holds that God created male and female in His image. (Genesis 1-3 COF #3) We believe and see across the scripture that our relationships as image bearers are integral to God’s good purpose for us. Sexuality and gender relationships have been profoundly impacted by the fall. (Romans 1 COF #4) But God in Christ is redeeming us and sanctifying our sexuality. (1 Cor 6:19 COF #10) Jesus and the witness of the Apostles elevate both the dignity and calling of celibacy, and covenantal intimacy between husband and wife. (1 Cor 7:32 & Eph 5:32 COF #11)

A Humble Clarity
Our understanding is in part and our obedience to Christ is a work in progress. We have much to learn of living with compassion and gentleness, of practicing justice and generosity in a society where wealth is hoarded, poverty is marginalized and privilege – our privilege – is protected. (COF #10) So our posture to the LGBTQ+ seekers of God must be filled with grace to listen and a humble willingness to kneel with them at the cross and then walk with them together in obedience to Jesus and all that he commanded.

The Kindness of Clarity
The Christian call to sexual purity is increasingly seen by society as an impossible burden and a source of harm and judgement. But this is the age-old lie that God’s commands are withholding life from us rather than showing us the pathway of His good design. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. (12:10) It is imperative that the truth about God’s good and wise purpose for our sexuality is communicated clearly and kindly to your community on a regular basis. Every day we are being bombarded with a message of sexual freedom and autonomy by the media we consume. Therefore, starting with the young, right through to our seniors, teaching from scripture, with personal testimony and with clear application, let’s bring the life-giving word of God about sex, gender and identity to our people.

These words are challenging for everyone, and particularly for churches seeking to engage culturally aware, creative and sometimes alienated-from-church younger people – as in the centre of Vancouver. But they offer a strong basis for moving ahead in unity, for those who will heed them.

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1 comment for “Artisan Church and BC Mennonite Brethren part ways over LGBTQ issues

  1. Homosexuality is not about sex. It is about attraction to other human beings, whether same or different gender. There is no doubt a proclivity for hedonistic sexual activity among the gay community just as there is in the straight community. That is a human problem.

    But if the church sees itself as the arbiter of who people can love and desire to spend their lives with, then it is no longer the church of Christ, but the strong arm of human prejudice and homophobia.

    I know Nelson. He does not take this decision lightly. The MB conference may wash their hands of him and Artisan church, but I believe God takes a different view. He is the Father of us all. That much is certain.

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