Does the UMC Have a Way Forward? The Problem with Outdated Arguments

July 31st, 2018

I grew up conservative Baptist and came to the United Methodist Church in my mid-adult years. Thus, it’s fascinating to watch ecclesial dynamics play out in the UMC as it debates sexuality. For those unfamiliar with what is happening, the UMC is reaching peak fatigue in the debate on LGBTQ people and same-sex relationships (the denomination currently prohibits marriage for same-sex couples). After haggling for decades, everyone is burnt out and desperate for resolution. Normally, the UMC General Conference meets every four years, but in 2016, the Council of Bishops appointed a special committee called Commission on the Way Forward to study the matter and make proposals that will be voted upon at a special General Conference held in February 2019. That is coming up quick.

The Commission announced three proposed options: Traditionalist (keep Book of Discipline the same), One Church (give the local church autonomy to determine their stance on same-sex relationships based on ministerial context), and Connectional (UMC would have conferences/dioceses based on sexual ethics rather than current geographic location; churches could join the conference that aligns with their view on same-sex relationships). The Bishops are sending all three proposals to February’s meeting, along with additional proposals sent in by congregations. However, the Bishops recommend the One Church approach as the best option.

Recently, Dr. Ben Witherington III, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary (a Methodist school) denounced the One Church (or “local option”) for several reasons. The One Church plan is more Baptist than Methodist in ecclesial structure. Given my Baptist background, I am not alarmed by local congregational autonomy, but I can understand why some Methodists would be. But, what I want to discuss in this post is Witherington’s other reasons for rejecting the One Church model. He wants the UMC to remain entirely and unequivocally traditionalist and makes several arguments in support of his view. I am troubled by some of the outdated information he uses to make his case. The UMC needs to make decisions based on the best data. Thus, I engage with Witherington’s points in hopes of bringing more clarity to the conversation. 

Claim #1a. Witherington argues that people are not born gay or lesbian because “no one has discovered such a gene, though perhaps someday scientists may do so.” He then attempts to use a book by geneticist Francis Collins to claim that the “notion of hardwiring from birth in a gay or lesbian way is false, so far as the evidence we now have indicates. Inclinations are not predeterminations.”

Problem: Witherington is fighting a straw man. Back in the 1990s, popular media distorted Simon LaVey’s and Dean Hamer’s research by proclaiming a “gay gene.” Conservatives have been reacting to this outdated tabloid distortion ever since. In other words, affirming scholars are not making simplistic claims of a gay gene. Twin studies do show mild genetic influence (about 20%), but the best research is actually in the area of prenatal hormonal factors, which Witherington does not address. The “no gay gene” rebuttal is outdated. He also misuses Francis Collins’ book. Collins has publicly and repeatedly denounced this misuse of his statements — and first did so ten years ago (!).

Argument He Needs to Address: Witherington and other traditionalists will benefit from catching up on the current scientific research (here is a good start). For example, replicated studies demonstrate that some men are gay as a result of the Fraternal-Birth-Order-Effect. Men with older biological brothers are more likely to be gay, the percentage increasing with each older brother. A study published in the past year offers preliminary confirmation of a long standing hypothesis for why this is: antibodies in the mother that react to male fetal proteins during pregnancy.

Claim #1b. “Sometimes we forget that the major essential purpose of intercourse is so the species can ‘be fruitful and multiply’. It is of course not the only important function of intercourse, but it is from a biological point of view the most essential function of that act.”

Problem: Most conservative Christians allow infertile people to marry, as well as permit couples past childbearing age to have sex. It should be pointed out that many church fathers did exhort married men and women to live in celibate unions, believing sex was only legitimate if procreation was the purpose. Does Witherington agree? If not, why not?

"Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships" (Eerdmans, 2018). Order here:

Argument He Needs to Address: How is it that “the major essential purpose of intercourse” and “the most essential function of that act” is waived for infertile couples? If procreative potential is truly “essential,” why the exception? This suggests traditionalists recognize the hardship of inflicting life-long celibacy on infertile people. To make their case, traditionalists need to show why gay and lesbian people are excluded from the “infertile waiver.”  Witherington might reply that infertile couples have physical complementarity, but if so, his argument is not actually based on procreation as the factor that must define marriage. Rather, he has to argue why physical complementarity by itself is so important as to outweigh the significant human needs that normally lead traditionalists to make a compassionate exception for infertile people.

Claim #2: “Many people are born with all sorts of birth defects, some genetic, some of other sorts. You simply cannot assume that because one is born this way, it must be a good thing and of God.”

Problem: Even if something is deemed the result of the fall, we normally take measures to respond compassionately to such conditions. Conservatives have shown only limited care for gay people. This is not unlike how people used to disregard those with mental illness, believing it to be a spiritual problem or choice. Witherington and other conservatives don’t adequately address the practical and pastoral implications of someone who is born gay.

Argument He Needs to Address: Given that studies show most gay people know they are gay by 10 or 11 years old, how do we realistically prepare these youth and young adults to never date, marry, or have a family of their own? A small minority attempt mixed orientation marriages, but these have higher rates of divorce. Most gay people cannot function in a heterosexual marriage. The result of the traditionalist view is mandatory celibacy for most gay people. If you looked at your church college group, what percentage of these 18- or 19-year olds could realistically succeed in making a lifetime vow of celibacy? Young evangelicals struggle to avoid sex for just a few years before they marry. The truth is, no evidence exists that lifelong celibacy is possible for every person who attempts it. I hope Witherington and others will read this evangelical family’s story and think hard about how we should approach same-sex relationships if a same-sex orientation is a birth defect (or a natural variation in human sexual development).

Claim #3: “Christian marriage is not a right, it’s a privilege. One must first be a Christian in order to qualify for the possibility of having a Christian wedding and a Christian marriage. And the only kind of marriage clearly endorsed in the NT is heterosexual monogamy.”

Problem: I don’t see any language in Scripture that defines marriage as a “privilege.” In much of the Bible, marriage is an expectation. The New Testament offers celibacy as an alternative to marriage (a drastic change from traditional Jewish perspectives on marriage). But offering an alternative is quite different from declaring marriage a privilege. In fact, Paul, despite his affinity for celibacy, expects people to marry if they cannot remain chaste (1 Cor 7).

Argument He Needs to Address: There is no Scriptural evidence to define marriage as a “privilege.” He will need to do more here to make his case. Moreover, he needs to wrestle with Paul’s acknowledgement that not all people can live celibate lives, as well as Paul’s expectation that marriage is the solution for promiscuity. What would Witherington advise a gay person who can’t pull off life-long celibacy?

Claim #4: “The real question is — all other things being equal, is it better and important that a child have a birth father and birth mother who loves them?” Witherington rejects same-sex relationships because children should be raised with both a mother and father.

Problem: Not every gay person wants to have children. In this case, the argument is irrelevant. Second, he is arguing against a straw man. Most people, conservative or progressive, agree that it’s optimal for children to be raised by their biological parents (if no abuse, etc). That is not really the issue. Rather the question is whether gay people should be allowed to care for the world’s orphans along with everyone else. There is a difference between intentionally causing a child to lose a parent versus taking redemptive action to help children in need. He might have a case against straight and gay people using sperm/egg donors for IVF, but not against adoption.

Argument He Needs to Address: Is Witherington suggesting that gay people stand by and do nothing to help orphans? How is that ethical? Second, is he arguing that single people should also be barred from adopting? Some heroes of the faith like Amy Carmichael have raised multiple children without a father figure. Carmichael was single and partnered with other women to provide that care. Would Witherington oppose Carmichael and others like her because the children were raised by mother figures? Traditionalists need to reckon with the number of orphans. Every year in the U.S. 23,000 children age out of the foster care system without ever being adopted. Around the globe, there are approximately 153 million children who have lost at least one parent. Of these, about 15-23 million have lost both parents. Aren’t we all responsible as human beings to care for those who need help? Witherington is proposing an argument based on an ideal world that doesn’t exist. This side of heaven we will always have orphans and they need all the help we can give them. This is a global humanitarian concern, not just the responsibility of intact father/mother Christian households (which themselves are unstable and subject to loss of a parent at any time via death, etc).


For UMC churches to make the most informed decision come voting time, we need to have the most accurate information. Witherington’s arguments are either outdated or don’t address the real issues at hand. I have offered suggestions for what he and other traditionalists need to address. But, my hope is not to elicit a knee jerk reaction in a competition to “win” the debate. I offer these reflections in all seriousness as these are issues the UMC needs to wrestle with. The answer is not as simple and clear as it is often been made out to be.

Note: I have addressed similar concerns and much more, including biblical arguments in my upcoming book Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans).

"Does the UMC Have a Way Forward? The Problem with Outdated Arguments" originally appeared at Reprinted with permission. 

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