Lately the rhetoric filling social media and “holy conferencing” in the United Methodist Church has gotten unusually heated and angry. We’ve been having this global family discussion about sex. It came to a peak at the February, 2019, called session of General Conference in St. Louis, MO, during which votes from traditionalists were in the majority, allowing the “traditional plan” to pass, keeping the church’s long-standing sexual ethics policies (especially in regard to homosexuality) in place and adding specific consequences for those who teach and practice things contrary to those policies, as well as allowing churches to leave under certain conditions if they could not bear to abide by these rules.
The heated discussions have given way to several meetings sponsored by the progressives within the church who are talking about creating a new expression of the church that would suit their views on this subject as well as continuing to resist the will of General Conference by more acts of defiance against the policies so named. This has resulted in several US annual conferences ordaining persons who describe themselves as “openly gay” or homosexual, with no retribution from the general church (as well as the continuation of an acknowledged openly lesbian, partnered woman serving as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction since 2016). This global family squabble has captured media attention and drawn sharp rebuke as well as praise from numerous quarters both within and without the Church.
I’ve been reflecting on all this. I’m in my thirtieth year in full time ministry. I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church since September of 1978 when I was baptized at my home church and went with water dripping off my head to the piano where I played the Doxology to accompany the congregation’s singing. Through the years I’ve had many discussions in College, Seminary and in Church Life concerning these issues and how to be faithful to the scripture without hurting people who are struggling with same-sex attraction.
It isn’t easy to get the mind and heart around all this. I was raised in a family that took hospitality seriously. I learned through the table practice of our family that it doesn’t really matter what ideas people hold, every is welcome at the table regardless. We all have to eat to live. So, especially in my maternal grandparents’ home, meal time was shared by anyone present. My grandparents were stalwart members of the Methodist Church in Morrison City, TN (a little community in West Carter’s Valley, just north of Kingsport, near the Virginia state line). They believed their faith led them to see that everybody was a child of God, and that God was served by our witness of inviting people into the yard, on the porch, in the house, to the table. Now you might get an earful about what was right or wrong, but it was done in gentleness, sometimes in silence, but always with faithful regard to the principles laid out in scripture.
It was in school that I first encountered people who were homosexual. I naively tried to ignore that about them only to find out how hasrshly others treated them and how oftentimes you would get treated for associating with them. It wasn’t fair, but no discrimination is. At times I fell into a bit of discriminatory behavior myself, which I grew to see as wrong-headed. At the same time I was learning to deal with these realities, I was growing in love with the Bible as God’s Word. I had been given my own Bible at Christmas when I was about 10 years old. A King James Version, with the words of Christ in red print, this Bible is still a treasure, with it’s zipped cover and leather-like binding.
I’ve struggled with other issues I have had to get my mind around, like the ordination of women as pastors in the church. There are plenty of verses in the Bible that talk about women keeping silence, and having “no authority” over a man, yet there are others that talk of “sons and daughters” prophesying, of Deborah in the role of “judge” in the Old Testament, of females being sent with the 70 Jesus commissioned to go and preach the good news in Luke’s gospel, of women being at the tomb on the first Easter and being bearers of the glad tidings of Jesus’ resurrection. In that struggle, I grew to accept women in the role of pastor, and even though women are just as sinful as men, and often fail just as elaborately, some have risen to unique places of leadership excellence and effectiveness. Fruit of ministry is the sign of God’s blessing upon anyone’s leadership.
As I struggle with what to do with LGBTQ+ issues as related to scripture, I have both identified and dismissed from the argument the strongest prohibitions. In fact I’ve done Bible study in regard to the wholeness of scripture, trying to understand from the most positive constructs what God has said about human interactions and family and sexual expression. Looking beyond Leviticus and Romans 1 I’ve found that the biblical record continues to uphold the created order of male and female as being complimentary and necessary to one another.
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27, NRSV).
God gives humankind a mission: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. 1: 28)
In the second account of creation, as God is fulfilling the need of Adam to not be alone, he creates for Adam a “partner” saying: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Gen. 2: 18). So then God brings the animals to Adam to be named, and as they are named, they come under Adam’s dominion and care. At the end of this task of naming, God causes a deep sleep to come upon Adam and while he is asleep, God takes a rib from Adam and uses it as a basis upon which to create woman.
“And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” (Gen. 2: 22-23).
Then, in the next verse, the Bible defines marriage for all time: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2: 24). Jesus quotes this passage in Matthew 19: 5, and Paul quotes it in Ephesians 5: 31. These aren’t the only places it’s used.
It seems inconceivable to me that a faith founded in scripture would be able to support gay marriage. I’m not saying that to batter anyone or combat anyone who thinks otherwise, but support for that just isn’t in the book. Christian tradition does not support it either. There are certainly exceptions in history, but the teaching of non-heretical Christian theologians through the centuries gives heterosexual marriage as the only option. Paul asks Christians of his time to not be married at all, due to the urgency of the Christian mission and marriage would complicate that, but he relents and allows Christians to marry if they find themselves “burning with passion.” (I Corinthians 7: 9).
Then in letters to leaders of the early church, the apostle Paul defines leadership qualifications by saying that those in leadership should be people who give attention to their own households, and that they should be married “to one woman.” While this passage is seen as sexist and archaic to some today, it can be interpreted to mean leaders (both male and female) should be persons who practice marital fidelity within the context of heterosexual marriage, and who keep their households “in order.”
Well, the world presses in hard against the teachings of centuries of Christianity. Many denominations have succumbed to the pressure of advocacy groups and accepted homosexual marriage and homosexual ordination. Yet there is no biblical precedent to do this, and they are innovating beyond the teaching of centuries of Christian tradition. The “progressive” movement within the United Methodist Church would change our teaching to honor this same trend.
Personally, I am immoveable on these changes. I cannot abide in a church that denies the scripture and the continuity of Christian tradition around this issue. I believe our prohibitive language could be made clearer, and perhaps the “incompatibility” statement could be changed to reflect a clearer understanding of the modern definition of homosexuality. The words we used in that statement reflect an understanding that homosexual lifestyle is a choice, and the general understanding today is that people are born that way. Maybe there’s a way to fashion a statement that keeps us in line with biblical teaching and Christian tradition without battering the souls of those who feel they are oriented toward same-sex attraction as a genetic definition of who they are. I’m willing that the church should struggle with that. But we can’t turn our back on our primary source of theological inquiry (scripture) in order to come out with an answer we prefer.
The angry, hostile reaction of the progressives, and even several centrists within the United Methodist Church reflects some of the worst of human sin. Traditionalists have been described as a “virus” upon the church for not giving in to the LGBTQ agenda. African members are held in complete disdain by Centrist pastors like Adam Hamilton (who pastors the largest church in the UMC) because of their support for the traditional stance. Hamilton has urged progressives and centrists to stop supporting ministries that support the church on the continent of Africa (where the church is growing faster than anywhere else on the globe). This “tit-for-tat” behavior is unbecoming of people of faith. But this is a sign of the depth of division within the denomination, especially within the US. Along with a reactionary round of annual conferences this summer who elected much more left-leaning delegations to the next General Conference (in 2020), it threatens to split and possibly kill the denomination.
But the old ritual of the United Methodist Church for receiving new members into the church reminds us: “The Church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of grace which it alone supplies.”