February 1st, 2015

I confess dismay when I observe the denomination we love gripped at all levels by the issue of same-gender relationships. Often the tone and content of the arguments that are made on all sides of the issue of same-gender relationships are far from being compatible with Christian teaching. For over forty years we have observed and often par­ticipated in this strident approach to finding a fair, just, civil, loving, honest, and effective way of dealing with different sexual orientation and same-gender relationships.

The arguments for censure, threats of division, and immediate punishment reflect a commitment to law over grace or truth over love, which is contrary to what Jesus taught and lived. When Jesus healed the blind man in John 9, he was lifted up as an example of why “faithfulness to the grace and truth available in Jesus, not faithfulness to the law, is the decisive mark of true discipleship” (Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995], vol. 9, comment on John 9).

Why do we find it so difficult to follow Jesus, who emptied himself to be faithful? Why have we chosen to reject the way of our redeemer, our teacher, and our leader? Why do we turn away from the call of the one who died for our salvation? If we are not willing to find a faithful way forward, which way shall we go? In our thoughtful moments we know that the path we are on will not bring us closer to God in Christ, does not reflect God’s kingdom, for which we pray, and is really unworthy of us who want to be followers of Jesus. Among many others, I believe there is a better way that is faithful to our tradition and faithful to all who are concerned about this issue that has so long divided us.

At the next General Conference, all decisions of polity, rules, language, and budget will be discussed, presented, and decided. Our Book of Discipline is more than 800 pages long and covers our origins, history, constitution, theology, rights, and responsibilities. It is our principal guide on who we are and how we live together as a denomination. It is a complex document created over a long period of time and subject to revision every four years.

As one would expect over this long period and in a document of over 800 pages, some paragraphs and rules seem to be in conflict. One of those areas of conflict seems to be between our Constitution and some of the language about gender issues involved in our current discussions. Our Constitution begins with this affirmation in the preamble: “The prayers and intentions of The United Methodist Church and its predecessors, The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church, have been and are for obedience to the will of our Lord that his people be one, in humility for the present brokenness of the Church and in gratitude that opportunities for reunion have been given. Therefore, The United Methodist Church has adopted and amended the following Constitution” (Discipline, p. 23).

Then Article IV of our Constitution declares that the church is inclusive, which appears to be in conflict with much of our debate about gender issues. It reads as follows:

“Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church—The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.” (Discipline, ¶4)

Between General Conference sessions bishops have the responsibility to rule on any issues of law that may arise. These decisions are all subject to review and approval or rejection by the Judicial Council.

This is no ordinary time in the life of our church, and this is no ordinary conflict. Therefore we cannot seek a remedy in the ordinary way that has led to generations of deepening division and distrust. This is not a time to wait and see what happens. It is a time for a radically new approach. That approach is to place our trust in God and seek God’s direction until together we discern a way forward.

Discernment is not a call to “just pray about it.” Rather it is a call to radical, risky, and complete trust in God rather than trust in our own ingenuity or rhetoric. The way of discernment will not be easy to accomplish, although it will be easy to dismiss. Can we do this? Of course we can. But only with God’s help! However, somewhere along the way, we seem to have stopped really listening to the radical call and promise of Jesus. Did it happen so slowly that we did not know that we were being taken in by the empty promise that we could have it all? Did we really believe we were intelligent enough and had the ability to solve any problem or reconcile any conflict on our own? Or did we become so entangled with our busy lives and our busy churches that we just slowly drifted out to sea and did not even notice that we had left the land of promise where with God all things are possible?

Or after forty-two years of trying to find our way on our own, does it really matter how we got where we are? Because we all know we are at an unhealthy place and a place we do not want to be. Today we are deeply pained to find ourselves in a church we dearly love that is severely wounded, divided, politicized, and draining energy and resources in our struggle over same-gender relationships to the neglect of our witness for Jesus Christ.

Can we find a way forward that leads us closer to God’s kingdom for which we pray? A way forward that mirrors the life of Jesus? A way that binds us ever closer to God in Christ? A way that is closer to rather than farther away from the way of Jesus? Is there such a way forward? Jesus says there is, but we cannot do it on our own. We cannot buy our way there with the wealth of our affluence, and we cannot find our way there with the wealth of our intelligence, our propaganda, or our masterful communication skills.

Three basic steps

To give up the gods we have made will require deep humility, an incredible trust in God, and the courage to lose everything and die to everything else for what is the primary call of our lives. This proposal is worked out in three basic steps:

The first step:

Immediately stop the propaganda.

The second step:

Declare a moratorium on celebrations and trials regarding same-gender unions.

The third step:

Begin a practice of prayer and discernment that leaves our preferences outside as we enter this extended period of seeking only God’s direction.

Are we strong enough to seek this way forward? Or are we too much in the grasp of the lesser gods of this world to follow the God who is loving creator, faithful redeemer, and reliable sustainer of all that there is? Only you and I can decide. And the good news is that we do not do this alone. The one whom we have promised to follow has promised us, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you” (John 14:26 CEB).

This article is excerpted from “Finding Our Way” from Abingdon Press.

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