In Defense of a Middle Way: Homosexuality and The United Methodist Church

May 19th, 2014

It is difficult to be a United Methodist and not know that the issue of homosexuality is controversial for our church. I’m even aware that there is continued and sustained talk about a denominational split, as some of our sister denominations have done already. But I am convinced that the one thing we cannot do is abandon the conversation to extremists on either side, because they are happy to take aim and shoot their opponents using us as their cover and then turn around and express their regret to us, their collateral damage. What I propose instead is a middle way, a path to the healing of our divisions, albeit uneasy, a peace to preserve our unity.

What is at stake? The unity of the UMC, but, more important, what our unity means: fruitful Christian witness and mission throughout the world. There is no doubt, that together as one Church, we are more effective. For those of us who are fond of C. S. Lewis. He says that after he became a Christian, he was amazed how much time Christians spent arguing about their differences. He was much more interested with what we have in common. I invite United Methodists to be of a similar mind.

What do we risk if we splinter as a denomination? Aside from the obvious practicalities of who gets the pension board and who gets the publishing house, we risk losing the talent and commitment of some of our most gifted and Spirit-led members, because there are gifted and Spirit-led people on both sides.

How can this be? How can it be that there are Spirit-led people on both sides? Because that is the way it always happens. The church has always been fond of labeling people it disagrees with as heretics. Sometimes church officials excommunicated; sometimes they elected to burn people at the stake. Perhaps we would all benefit from rereading church history. Who were some of those who left their church? Martin Luther, John Calvin, and, oh yes, John Wesley. These left a church that was too enamored of its doctrine and polity—their church law, their tradition, their direct pipeline from God.

But what about Scripture? Didn’t these reformers take up the banner and follow Scripture? Wasn’t John Wesley a “man of one book”? Doesn’t Scripture anchor our reason, tradition, and experience? Yes, but more important, Wesley, like Luther and Calvin, followed Jesus Christ into his world. Didn’t they care about church order and adherence to discipline? Yes, of course, but they also saw that legalism spelled death.

So what do we do? What should we do as a denomination? The way forward is difficult, but Christians throughout history have not hesitated to walk through fire if their faith and trust in God was strong enough. Should we quit or shake hands and turn our backs on our friends and colleagues who disagree on this one thing alone? Are we so arrogant to think that we know enough to divide Christ’s church over sexuality? We are not talking about grand debates about the nature of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. We are not even talking about the Real Presence in Communion. People shed blood and died over those issues. We are talking about something that is quintessentially human. So will we divide Christ’s church because of our own limitations, our own concupiscence? The world is watching.

Now, to substance, because once we agree that conversation is necessary, we have to begin.

As you may know, there have been a small number of pastors brought up on charges for performing same-sex weddings/unions. In the recent case of Dr. Tom Ogletree, the charges were, essentially, dropped. Bishop Martin McLee publicly stated his intention to approach the matter of marriage equality in a nonjuridical manner and “offer a process of theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastical reflection.”

As Bishop McLee points out, trials produce no winners. Yes, let’s stop the church trials as a first step toward healing. After all, they only appear to the public like witch hunts and inquisitions, making the unchurched even more resistant. Stopping the trials does not, however, mean that the problems should or will simply go away. But trials do speak to the urgency of our engaging each other in nonpolemical conversation.

First, is this possible? Is it possible to have a nonpolemical conversation? The issues around homosexuality have become so politicized that civil discourse hardly seems possible. And we have the witness of the tragic Arab-Israeli conflict to show us an example of what that is like. Frankly, I’m not sure civil conversation is even possible, but that alone points to the fact that we need to step back and take an accounting of what we believe and profess as a church. Because as Methodists, our method has always actualized what we believe. How we discuss and debate and how we live and argue are embodiments of our spiritual practice. This commitment to living out our faith in the world is one of Methodism’s historic strengths.

Second, what about the Bible? Most United Methodists would at least agree that we believe in God’s Word. While we do not worship the Bible, we do regard it as authoritative for our lives. And despite fancy hermeneutics, admittedly, the Bible condemns homosexuality. But we must remember that the homosexuality of our day with committed, loving adults, was unknown during biblical times. But even so, the Bible does not lift up same-sex sexual relationships as something to aspire to. All societies have laws governing human and divine relationships. So let us look at the concept of the law—something the Apostle Paul writes about extensively, especially in Romans.

Paul writes about the relationship between Christ and the law, and, of course, you will also find this view in the Gospels, especially Matthew. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law. When we conform to Christ, that is, God’s intent of the law, we conform to what God intended by giving the law in the first place: shalom—healing, wholeness, agape, peace. Jesus also made this distinction. He did not conform to the letter of the law, much to the criticism and dismay of the legal experts of his day. In fact, Jesus’s nonconformity to the letter of the law helped pave the way for his crucifixion. When talking about and sorting through issues related to homosexuality, we must keep in mind that our standard is Christ who embodies God’s intent of the law, which is agape love. What does it mean that Jesus fulfills the law? It means that our relationship to the law is substantially changed because of Jesus. We are freed from blindly obeying the letter of the law, and we are charged not to use the law to our own advantage. Look at Luke 11:42, where Jesus accused those who tithed mint and rue and all manner of herbs, but passed over judgment and the love of God. We are freed for joyful obedience. We are no long slaves of God, but beloved children of the Living God. And this applies to all Christians.

Third, we must ask a serious theological question. Does a person’s homosexuality bar him or her from salvation? Because homosexuals can be baptized and become members of the church, The United Methodist Church says, no. Homosexuality does not keep a person out of heaven. Are we willing to split our church over something that is irrelevant to salvation?

Fourth, we must confront our hypocrisy. For years our church has operated under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality. Believe me when I say that we have homosexual clergy and have homosexual clergy who have preformed homosexual unions for years, often under the radar but sometimes with the silent approval of the bishop. Whatever the denomination decides, this uneasiness will continue. And we must know that some of these clergy have also been productive and standard bearers for the UMC, some serving vital congregations. Like it or not.

Fifth, we United Methodists are often accused of touting the Discipline as our law. We have boards of ordained ministry to help keep clergy accountable to the laws of the Church and those on the path toward ordination abreast of those requirements. When clergy are ordained, they are asked if they agree with our Discipline, and the correct answer is yes if they want the bishop to continue the ceremony. But when we as United Methodists talk about our Discipline, we must remember that it is not the living Christ, who alone garners our complete loyalty. It is a book of rules. It represents a tradition that continues to morph over time and change with the needs of the community of faith and God’s mission for us. Even John Wesley edited the Anglican Articles of Religion to his own liking. As United Methodists we recognize that just as we are on the road to perfection, so is our denomination.

Sixth, as United Methodists we should be experienced at reconciling divisions rather than promoting them. All congregations have disagreements, but they remain one church. We are a body of believers who, in my experience, represent a range of beliefs on most everything. We may want to agree on the essentials, but sometimes even that is impossible. There was a much-loved Sunday school teacher in one of our former congregations. In her heart of hearts, she believed in double predestination. In this, she was a Calvinist through and through, but she was a member of The United Methodist Church. Because beside that belief about God’s sovereignty, resided another—God’s gracious and extravagant love for us and God’s intent that we love and serve unselfishly. But given a UM theology litmus test, most likely she would fail.

There are many people in our denomination who are tolerant of homosexuality or approve of a homosexual lifestyle. Many have children or other family members who are gay or lesbian. Some may be surprised to know that their church has homosexuals on the membership role. What about our witness to them? What do we say? That is what we have to decide as a denomination. Because at the end of the day, we’re not really talking about abstractions or principles, we are talking about the messy lives of people who have decided to follow Jesus the best they can. The church’s role is not to be a hindrance or obstruct their view of God’s mission.

Here is an imperfect analogy. When couples marry, they vow “death till us part.” Marriage cements a couple’s commitment, in the presence of the community of faith, to work through their differences and, if need be, fight for their marriage. Knowing that there is mutual commitment helps couples feel safe in the midst of conflict. They both know that leaving the marriage is the last option, not the first. When we join The United Methodist Church, we vow to support our church with all of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. We may disagree with each other, but we commit to working through our differences. If we cannot disagree and yet remain one body, what kind of witness do we give? What kind of witness do we give to those outside of the church?

The people of our world suffer from a multitude of insolvable problems and from a propensity for war. Are we not called to bring hope as a church? Who really benefits if we split as a denomination and splinter our ministry and mission? Surely not the kingdom of God. As uncomfortable as it may be for some, let us take the middle way and work toward the healing and wholeness of our denomination—not its division. 

comments powered by Disqus