Human sexuality and global Christianity

May 12th, 2016

I spent a portion of my morning today in the United Methodist General Conference press room watching the plenary session dealing with the controversial Rule 44. Rule 44 was envisioned as an alternative to the standard parliamentary procedure used to conduct business at General Conference. According to those who were championing its adoption, Rule 44 would have been a better way to discuss some of the more controversial issues that are addressed every quadrennium by United Methodism’s highest legislative body (and the only one that can officially speak for the denomination as a whole.)

But after three days of discussion and maneuvering, Rule 44 was defeated. And it wasn’t even close.

One of the delegates who spoke in favor of Rule 44 said “If we do what we’ve always done, we’re going to get what we’ve always got.” Presumably, that delegate was referring to the ongoing sexuality debate in the UMC and the language in the denomination’s Book of Discipline stating that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Under current church law, the United Methodist Church does not recognize or conduct same-sex marriages and doesn’t ordain clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And with the more liberal U.S. church shrinking and the more conservative international church growing, the numbers needed to change those stances don’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon.

So it’s understandable that many who disagree have turned their focus from persuasion to changing structure and procedure to get things to go their way.

But if this morning is any indication, that’s not working either.

These kinds of issues are nothing new. When the early church was trying to figure out how it was going to deal with the influx of Gentile converts in Acts 15, the decision was made to keep behavorial requirements to a minimum. Delegates were sent to Antioch with a letter that stated “The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, blood, the meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29)

The church has always reserved the right to set standards for sexual morality. But what makes things more complicated now is our culture’s tendency to connect our very identity with our sexuality. So if I don’t agree with something someone does sexually, the perception is that I’m rejecting them. And that’s one reason there are such strong feelings on both sides of the sexuality debate. Unfortunately we’ve allowed upholding sexual morality to be pitted against welcoming all into God’s kingdom.

But sexuality was important enough to the early church to be a dealbreaker, and for the vast majority of Christians in the world today, that continues to be the case. The fact is, Western mainline Christianity is not an indicator of what’s to come regarding the universal church's views on sexuality; it’s an anomaly.

And changing procedure or the way we have discussions won’t change where the UMC is on these issues as a global denomination.

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