The church and homosexuality: Finding a way forward

June 18th, 2015

The months leading up to General Conference are sure to see a raft of proposals on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church. Being a centrist denomination by inclination many of these will seek to scratch out ground for compromise. This article does not. I rather suggest, as a sort of theological conservative, how liberals on this topic ought to argue to try and convince someone like me. In short, the argument “Who cares about Christ, Scripture or fidelity? We need inclusivity!” is doomed to fail from the start and should. An argument that says “lifelong monogamous fidelity between two people is difficult, beautiful, and could be something the Holy Spirit is asking us to bless between two people of the same gender” is an argument I have to respect, and might even agree with.

We all know the stakes are high. Some years ago the pastors of the 100 largest United Methodist churches wrote a letter suggesting they’d prefer to split off from the UMC. These churches provide a disproportionate amount of the money to the denomination. They can’t do it, our rules are clear, or they’d have to leave behind the property and the money. We are unusual in being a mainline liberal denomination that hasn’t made provision for gay and lesbian ministers or weddings. And it’s because of our polity — parishes can’t choose their own ministers. Other denominations can say “If you don’t want a gay minister, just don’t hire one.” No one planned for this fluke of our polity to have this effect on how we discuss this issue. But maybe it’s a gift from God. Churches should not get to pout and get their way just because they are large and influential. The whole church should do what God wants, however risky. On that we should all be agreed.

Some initial observations: Tony Campolo used to say he didn’t want to argue with anybody on this topic who was unable to admit they might be wrong. This issue is really difficult. If a schism somehow erupts in our denomination, the newly conservative break-off will have to keep discussing it exhaustively. What can gay people do or not do? Attend? Join? Teach Sunday School?

Conservatives in the church on this question need to hear something. They’re not necessarily mean or bigoted; they’re trying to live their faith and love the Bible, which is what we’re here for. Liberals in the church on this question need to hear something. Their desire to be accepting and inclusive is not anti-biblical a priori. They’re trying to embrace those whom others most reject, which is precisely what Jesus does.

Our worst nightmare as a denomination is breaking up such that individual congregations have to decide, via some ghastly vote, on which Methodist group to join. This would split my vibrant and wonderful congregation right down the middle. But certain activists on this issue don’t care that they’d be ripping apart local churches on their way to some blessed future of getting what they want.

Talk of schism is really about conservatives in our denomination not getting their way enough. Each vote in the last several quadrennia has been more conservative than the last. The right is winning in our church, though it’s losing in broader American culture. This is the side I’m more sympathetic with, so I can ask, why are we behaving this way? The UMC is growing in places like Côte d’Ivoire and shrinking in places like California. Every UM on the planet has equal representation at General Conference, and with growth in conservative areas, like the Southeast, and shrinkage in liberal areas, like New England and the Midwest, our votes are tilting to the right. Yet some liberal judicatories are ignoring this church law and have done so for some time. Conservatives are tired of fighting for it and of being painted as bigots. In our broader culture it’s becoming impossible to be a conservative on this question without being considered a bigot. And Methodists aren’t good at being out of step with our broader culture. Especially in tall steeple settings like Boone Methodist. We tend to go with the broader flow of our society. This is good in some ways — we’re a church for our town. It’s awful in others — we failed on slavery and Civil Rights. The left in our denomination is afraid we’re not on the right side of history. I often tell conservatives on the gay question their best way forward is enthusiastically to do ministry among non-white populations and to promote talented women toward ordination. Otherwise it looks like we’re just fighting the civil rights movement over. There is no extra credit with Jesus just for being conservative.

It’s important to remember this “issue” is not just an “issue.” It’s about people whom you and I had better love. And then it’s appropriately hard. The question is this: Does a Christ-follower need to agree only to celibacy or to lifelong monogamous fidelity to someone of the opposite sex, or can homosexual relationships of lifelong monogamous fidelity also be pleasing to God? The answer is made complicated by fact that we shrug at divorce (which Jesus says a lot more about than the zero he says on this. Careful, liberals — Jewish law is authoritative when it is deferred to, not just when it’s referred to.) I’m guessing there’s no appetite for congregations like my former one to crack down on divorcees in the name of biblical faithfulness.

The arguments for inclusion of gays and lesbians without required celibacy include these: Homosexuality is only mentioned in some seven verses depending on how you count, this is a new version of the civil rights movement, gay people report to having always felt this way, and science increasingly suggests they are right biologically. A conservative argument has to respond this way. The seven verses may not be impressive by themselves. But the argument from Paul that says male/female marriage reflects Christ’s marriage to the church is more impressive. That’s where my own tilting toward conservativism comes from. What has worked for Israel and the church for millennia shouldn’t be changed in 10 minutes. The burden of proof is always on those who want to make a major change in morals or doctrine. If God wants us to change on this, we will eventually. What’s the big hurry? I suspect it’s analogous to race. But modern racism is so horrible we have to root out every vestige of it and repent in full of white supremacy. On homosexuality we will never say, “Oops, our preference for heterosexuality was dangerously wrong, we all repent out of it.” We might say that the benefits and rigors of opposite-gender marriage might be extended also to same-sex couples. And as for the analogy, 400 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow doesn’t equal the inability to get married in the state of Alabama. This is not the “same” as the civil rights movement. Every analogy limps, the writer says, and this analogy limps more than most.

One more conservative argument I respect is this: Being born with an inclination does not make one act upon it and does not make it morally acceptable. Christianity is cross-bearing. It is supposed to be difficult. We are all born with sin woven into our nature, and rooting it out is difficult and painful. Being Christian will require self-denial. If I acted on everything I wanted, sexually or otherwise, I’d be in jail. And people can change quite fundamental things about themselves, as every recovered alcoholic shows. This is easy for me to say I realize, because this not being my particular cross to bear.

In Protestantism having no celibacy vows among priests or monks or nuns hurts us. Protestantism’s way of constantly splintering into tiny factions is a constant counter-witness to the unity of the church for which Christ is praying for now (John 17). Schism is disobedience. Talk of leaving and splitting and going alone is just regenerating Protestantism, with its claim to be “purer” than whoever it leaves behind. It’s why the North Carolina mountains have a Baptist church in every holler. The end of this absurd way is a church of one person, whose liturgy says ‘I’m better than everyone else,’ with no need for Jesus.

I find I spend a lot of my time trying to push liberals to argue better. This is not civil rights, we can’t dismiss the Bible as dumb or retrograde and expect conservatives even to listen. How do we talk about it then? I suggest two ways borrowed from gay theologians I admire. These are not arguments that necessarily convince me — they’re arguments I respect and would have to listen to. Conservatives are really thinking of leaving because liberals seem to hate what they love — Jesus and Scripture and salvation. These are arguments that love Jesus and Scripture and salvation.

One, drawing on Eugene Rogers’ work in “Sexuality and the Christian Body,” we Gentiles are by nature unclean. We are far from God, foreigners, without hope in the world. Until Christ makes us clean. In Paul’s imagery Israel is the tree, and Christ grafts us in as unnatural branches. Certainly homosexual acts are unclean in themselves, as are all Gentiles. But in Christ, unclean things are made clean in ways that seem initially repugnant to God’s people but which we then come to realize are grace-filled. This is taking Paul to a place Paul did not go (his arguments in Romans 1 make that clear to me), but it is a biblically informed argument with a central place for Christ’s saving work, so I admire it.

Two, drawing on James Alison’s work, which draws on Rene Girard’s: We human beings know who we are by whom we scapegoat (think here of the junior high playground or locker room — that’s just humanity in all our ugliness). We gang up and kick someone out, exclude or murder them, and so cement our societies. In Christ, God enters this scapegoating mechanism … as the scapegoat. The victim at our hands returns to us not with the vengeance as we might expect but with grace, which explodes the entire system of scapegoating. We know ourselves now not by violence but by recognizing with horror and then gratitude that our victim is our God and forgives and loves us. As God undoes scapegoating we recognize the way we do it and repent of it. And this repentance should mark Christians’ interactions with gays and lesbians.

These are terribly short versions of really complex arguments. I suspect they’re stronger together than they are individually. They add up to a place that says something like this: We recognize marriage as that between a male and a female because in that difference we see the grace-filled difference between Christ and his church. What of these long-committed gay or lesbian couples whose relationship surprisingly also witnesses to that difference? We might say, “Well, that’s surprising, these two teach the rest of us about Christ and church, the Holy Spirit must be asking us to bless their relationship also.” It’ll be a caveat, an asterisk, an exception to our norm of opposite-gender marriage. It won’t be a new rule, we will not repent of “heterosexism” or whatever, this is not an analogy to civil rights or racism (if it were we would have to repent of all opposite-sex attraction). It is a surprise, one that says “Huh, we didn’t expect this, but God seems to want us to bless these relationships also, because God has blessed them.”

I know this satisfies no one. Conservatives want a clearer rejection of gay practice. Liberals want a clearer acceptance. But we Gentiles are an asterisk. A surprise. On our own we’re not Israel, not clean, not God’s people. In Christ we have been made acceptable, God’s people. That’s weird and surprising. We call it grace, and are glad to offer it to others.

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