Random Thoughts on The UMC and Sexuality 3/8/17
“While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexual are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. UMC 2016 Book of Discipline
This italicized and bold print sentence continues to be at the heart of 40+ years of controversy over human sexuality in the UMC. This past year’s journey has been particularly painful for many of us, like myself, who take seriously the Bible as the authoritative Word of God and its admonitions about sexual immorality, including homosexuality. We had hoped that the 2016 General Conference would, once and for all, finally settle the question of language in the Discipline and we’d be done with the divisiveness, the defiant acts, the name calling, etc. And that those who refused to accept it would take their complaints and start their own church.
Regardless of how the culture has embraced the LBGQT agenda, we cannot get past the reality that, for some of us, homosexuality is specifically and repeatedly called “sexual immorality” in the Bible. To have our church leadership fail to enforce the Discipline’s and, more importantly, the Bible’s position on homosexuality has left us grieving what is increasingly the realization that we, the “traditional” and “conservative” element are being painted as the problem by those social activists intent on making the Bible irrelevant in the discussion. There seems to be agreement that the bottom line is not about homosexuality or any other sexual practice. It is about the authority of Scripture. We on the conservative and traditional “right” will strive to be faithful to its call to holy living, as a church, as individuals, as leaders.
I believe that lifelong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is God’s best plan for humanity. That said, other practices like divorce, serial “hook ups”, promiscuity, co-habitation, pornography, adultery, etc are also contrary, I believe, to God’s best choice for us in our sexuality. But, as Jesus noted, because of the hard hearts of people, Moses acquiesced to the practice of divorce and provided examples of circumstances in which it was allowed in the ancient Hebrew community. The sexual revolution since the mid-20th century has made divorce and all of those things that were previously pursued quietly, secretively, and with generally accepted awareness of their being a violation of God’s best for us to become boldly front and center and with demands by activist practitioners of such behaviors that those of us with continued commitment to pursuing God’s best choice in regard to human sexuality and marriage get over ourselves and embrace whatever others desire to be or do as being as socially acceptable as anything else. However, we are still left with the reality that social acceptance still does not translate into God’s approval.
With regard to the sentence in the Discipline that appears to be most objectionable to the progressive, sexually liberated “left” of the church, I have to say, I’ve come to see the way in which it chafes.
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” There is, it seems to me, nothing that is “incompatible” with Christian teaching. Christian teaching is Christian teaching and everything about our lives is on the table with regard to how we live out our call to holy living. I really don’t think there was any topic that Christ would be averse to addressing head on. Now WHAT Christians teach about any particular topic or practice is another thing altogether. We can’t simply make individuals or behaviors invisible to the church, dismissing people as irrelevant or unworthy because of their particular sin. Sin is sin. Denying it doesn’t make it otherwise.
When it comes to sexual sin, why should homosexuality be any different than adultery or pornography or anything else? They are all sexual immorality. Practicing any of them is a violation of the spirit, if not always explicitly the letter of biblical authority. (i.e., I don’t know that pornography is specifically mentioned in the Bible and some might argue for the harmlessness of it to those who view it, but lust certainly is a violation of the letter of the law and pornography seems to assuredly foster that, as well as other spirit-of- the- law violations and letter-of-the-law violations….like demeaning and objectifying those who are being taken advantage of in the production of it and the pain it causes to those family relationships that are being destroyed by it.)
There are things that some, in recognition of the brokenness of humanity, will excuse or overlook or shrug about when it comes to fellow sinners in the congregation……and all of these practices probably are among those things. But in excusing or overlooking their presence in our midst, we are not denying that such practices are sins. We are acknowledging that sin exists, even among people who profess faith in Christ. We simply hope and pray that by continuing to be in fellowship with our sinning brothers and sisters, we can love them and in doing so hope that they will come to an awareness of their sin, repent, and be transformed. However, when demands are made to declassify such practices as “sin” and reclassify them as “not sin”, as “normal”, “celebrated”, and “necessary” to meet a standard of politically correct tolerance, diversity and unity and it is required to be accepted by all people everywhere, some of us are not willing to go that far. It now comes squarely to the point of simply throwing away any standard for moral character in leadership, teaching, setting an example, and equipping the church in keeping with the authority of Scripture and the call to holiness. There are some boundaries that many of us will not breech, and being dragged across the lines of those boundaries by those who will not accept or respect any boundary is “a bridge too far.” Ordaining gay clergy and legitimizing homosexual marriage is where many have drawn the line. Many on the traditional end of the spectrum are ready to say “enough is enough with this.” If the defiant and willfully unrepentant among us will not cease and desist their insistence that we take their position lock, stock, and barrel or risk being vilified as bigoted, unchristian phobic ignoramuses, we will have little choice but to walk away from such defiant and unrepentant conduct.
In the same way, having seen the heartbreak of unwanted pregnancy some have overlooked or excused abortion done quietly, discreetly, and safely. But with the growing reality of the callous cruelty of late term abortion, the casual availability of abortifacient medications, apparent lack of care in preventing unwanted pregnancy, separation of birth control from any pretense of moral decision-making with regard to sexual promiscuity, and the sale of fetal body parts, overlooking and being understanding of the difficult spot of some women has morphed into horror and disgust. There are limits to the tolerance for increasing degrees of sin, at least in the eyes of most humans. We recognize that, even though we may fail from time to time in some ways, God is holy and demands the same standard of holiness for his people.
Can wording be changed to remove what progressives view as the affront to personhood in Christ that “incompatible with Christian teaching” suggests? I think so. First of all, stating what appears in Scripture to be God’s best choice for humanity – lifelong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman- is simply what it is. To accept less or to participate in less than God’s best choice in sexuality and marriage is to acknowledge that there are situations in which people are going to choose to violate God’s best choice for them. And there are legal limits on how that can be accomplished so as to limit the harm to individuals and society. That doesn’t justify it, excuse it, or make it worthy of celebration. It simply acknowledges the brokenness of humanity and puts restraints on the consequences of the brokenness to others.
To elevate practices that violate God’s best choice in sexuality and marriage to equal and celebrated status with God’s best choice in sexuality and marriage is not acceptable. If one is not in leadership and chooses to do it and is not violating legal restrictions against such practices, then we can do little to prevent them from continuing to do so and still coming to church and having them pretend otherwise. That is their choice and it is between them and God. They can worship, participate, perhaps even join the fellowship, if the church so decides. But for those ordained, appointed, and consecrated for leadership who have taken vows to uphold the doctrines of the church and mandates of the Discipline, it is like having pornography displayed and celebrated in the sanctuary, or an adulterous choir director boldly proclaiming his right to do so, or a youth minister co-habitating and setting an example that is inappropriate.
Since the line has been drawn and there are significant numbers of people who will not accept or respect the boundary demanded by others of us, it seems clear that a parting of the ways is coming. The split has been present and growing for at least the last three or four quadrennia. The only thing to resolve in the mind of many is, how shall it be done? Can both groups continue to be in communion with one another otherwise? How can language be put in place to respect the personhood and choices of each group without condemnation by the other? I believe such linquistic gymnastics can be done. And if it can be done, God will eventually bring his truth to bear and resolve the issues in God’s own time and way. can And, like the full communion agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the UMC a decade ago, we agree on the things we can agree on and we leave this matter to each party to resolve according to their interpretation of Scripture and preferences. But for the churches that choose the traditional route, can we be left alone without the name calling and persecution? And can we do the same for those who choose the progressive route. Live and let live. Dual, parallel universes…..one celebrating homosexuality as a freedom and normalized way of life. The other maintaining its biblical belief that such practice is sexual immorality and unacceptable for church leadership. When the division is legitimized, If one or the other group is going to persist in pursuing judicial demands for elimination of the other, then there will be no peace or unity.
It seems that some within the 2016 General Conference were unwilling to let it come to a split without the terms being in place for doing so and at least making an effort at maintaining a UMC communion based on the same standards that allowed the ELCA-UMC communion.
I believe God is going to help us work through this, not necessarily to full unity, but at least to peaceful co-existence. But both sides have to accept that all of us are loved by God and that God is not so much concerned with the “how” of our sin but with how we continue to live in fellowship with one another in the midst of the continuing presence of sin in the world. We are all guilty, every one of us, of sinfulness. God desires that we would pursue holiness. Can the standard for holiness be different for different groups of people? Yes. People have always attempted to define it in different ways (although God’s standard will continue to be Christ). And when the differing interpretations of what constitutes holiness became irreconcilable, a split had to occur. We will be responsible for the consequences of our choices. We already have the precedent in place with the ELCA-UMC communion for being separate, yet connected. It’s up to the leadership to acknowledge that the split occurred decades ago and has been widening with every Annual and General Conference and unaddressed act of defiance of the Discipline to promote homosexual acceptance, unions and ordination. We’ve just been refusing to deal with it in a realistic manner. Some members and even whole congregations have now said that they will have no patience for kicking the can down the road further or refusing to deal with the defiance and divisiveness and remain one.