Category Archives: The United Methodist Church

All things related to the United Methodist Church.

The Bible Condemns My Divorce, Second Marriage and Fitness for Ministry

I am a heterosexual male, legally married to one woman. We were married by an ordained pastor in a church. I made a vow to God and to my wife to remain her faithful husband until we are parted by death. Nearly 12 years later, I have honored and kept this vow.

Nevertheless, the Bible clearly condemns my marriage and fitness for ministry as a pastor of Christ’s church. This is something we should all take quite seriously and soberly.

In May of 2006, after a two-year separation from the woman who is now my ex-wife, I filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce. There was no adultery or abuse committed by her or me. In the legal language stated in our divorce decree, the grounds were “irreconcilable differences.”

Some time after that, my (current) wife Blairlee filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce from her now ex-husband. They had been separated for well over 4 years, and the legal grounds for their divorce were similar to my own.

The Bible has some explicit things to say to people like us about our choices, the consequences of our choices, the condition of our lives, and my ministry.

In regards to those serving as priests/clergy,

“ ‘The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people,’ ‭

Leviticus 21:13-14

As to the harm of divorce,

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”

Malachi 2:16

The above verse from Malachi can also be translated this way:

“For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel…

Malachi 2:16 (NRSV)

As for the grounds of divorce and remarriage, Jesus said,

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 5:32

Yet in another place, Jesus said,

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Mark 10:11-12

Pertaining to a church’s overseer [clergy],

“Now a bishop [overseer] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,”

1 Timothy 3:2 (NRSV)

These are just a handful of the 33 times divorce is mentioned in the Bible. While the Bible has a number of things to say about divorce, and at times metaphorically uses divorce to depict God’s relationship with his people, divorce is never cast in a positive light. At worst, divorce is flatly condemned as a God-hated practice and at best offered as a concession to human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8).

Yet just a cursory reading of the Bible verses I’ve cited above would lead us to the following conclusions about my life, marriage, and ministry:

  • By divorcing my ex-wife, I have done violence to her while also, by biblical implication, having demonstrated some degree of hate.
  • God hates our divorces.
  • Because my ex-wife did not commit adultery, I have made her a victim of adultery.
  • My wife Blairlee has committed adultery by divorcing her ex-husband, making him a victim of adultery.
  • By marrying my current wife under the grounds of our divorces, we are living in adultery.
  • Since my wife— if I could even call her my wife under these circumstances!— and I are living in adultery, we are not legitimately married in the eyes of God, which means our son Jacob was conceived and born out of biblical wedlock, making him, in the eyes of God, illegitimate.
  • As a pastor, I am expressly forbidden from marrying a divorced woman.
  • As a pastor/overseer of the church, I am only allowed one wife. (I have had two.)

For these reasons, it is clear that the Bible condemns not only my divorce, but the legitimacy of my marriage and my ordination.

Other than the personal anguish from enduring a separation and divorce (which Blairlee and I will never face again), do you know how many consequences I have faced as a result of being divorced and remarried to a divorced woman? Zero consequences.

Let me say it again: the church, specifically the United Methodist Church, has not condemned me for my divorce and remarriage to a divorced woman. My divorce did not disqualify me from being remarried in a United Methodist Church by a United Methodist pastor, and there was no prohibition in place to prevent me from marrying a divorced woman. The church has not barred me from being ordained a Full Elder. No church I have served has ever refused to receive me, a divorced man married to a divorced woman, as their pastor. In fact, I have never been interviewed, questioned, or interrogated over my divorce and remarriage by any Staff Parish Relations Committee, District Superintendent, Bishop, or Board of Ordained Ministry.

There’s one simple reason for all this. While the UMC discourages divorce, calling it “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness,” there is nothing in our Book of Discipline that forbids me from getting a divorce, remarrying a divorced woman or being ordained, even though, biblically speaking, my divorce and remarriage are clearly “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Where does that leave me?

If we were to fully adhere to clear biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, then one must conclude that I am unrepentant, living in abject rebellion and sin, deserving to have a millstone tied around my neck and drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6). For I am leading others into sin through my sinful example and tacit endorsement of divorce, remarrying a divorced person, and living in adultery… with an illegitimate child, too! In fact, why not condemn and drown the whole United Methodist Church in the depths of the sea for allowing and condoning sin that God has quite emphatically said he hates?

***********

So, to my sisters and brothers who vigorously argue, based on six biblical passages, that the “practice” of homosexuality is a sin, while condemning same-sex marriages and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming clergy, I ask you to be just as vigorous and as intellectually and morally consistent in your condemnation of my divorce, remarriage, and ordination.

Furthermore, I ask you to submit to our 2020 General Conference:

  1. …a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy or laity to divorce, unless it can be absolutely verified that there was sexual immorality or adultery. (Keep in mind, however, that this would still violate the Mark 10:11-12 prohibition on divorce. I’m not sure how you would settle this discrepancy except to prohibit divorce for any reason.)
  2. …a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy to marry people who have been divorced for any reason.
  3. …a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for a clergy person to marry a divorced person.
  4. …a petition that would bar divorced persons from being received as candidates, licensed, recommended, commissioned and ordained as Elders or Deacons, or consecrated as Bishops.
  5. …a petition setting the penalty for violating any of the above restrictions as a year of suspension without pay for first offenses, and a termination of conference membership and revocation of credentials for licensing, ordination, or consecration for second offenses.

If you are not willing to exercise due diligence in submitting these petitions, then I ask that you withdraw your support for maintaining our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language concerning homosexuality.

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And So, We Press On: A Post-General Conference Reflection

The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church has just concluded. I think it’s fair to say that no one is walking away from St. Louis with a resounding victory for their respective cause. Yet I can’t bring myself to conclude that General Conference was a total waste of time and energy (I’ll say more about that later.)

So, just in case you’re still wondering what’s going on, the purpose of this gathering was to somehow move through our glaring differences over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church at this point is nearly divided in half between traditionalists/conservatives who uphold our current restrictions on marrying and ordaining lesbian and gay persons and moderates/progressives who want to make room for their full inclusion along with all LGBTQ people.

I had a hunch before this General Conference session that nothing certain and decisive would be accomplished. Why? It’s because we have been gridlocked in this debate now for 47 years. Our inner dynamics have not changed enough to make room for anything substantially new or different. Even though the Traditionalist Plan passed, basically keeping our current restrictive language on homosexuality while tightening the enforcement of our rules, our future is far from certain.

Now that said, there are two major narratives coming out of General Conference, and I believe neither of them are altogether true or helpful.
The first and most passionate narrative says that the United Methodist Church is now dead. We have closed the doors on LGBTQ people. We have turned away and turned off an entire generation of young people who fully embrace LGBTQ people. In so doing, we have set our church backwards, pushing it headlong into its grave.

In response, let me say that I too am feeling the brokenness, anger, bitterness, and despair with those of us who have wanted— and still want!— a fully inclusive church. Some who have been in this struggle a lot longer than I have are understandably devastated. What happened is not at all right. It’s unjust. It’s not righteous, loving, or Christlike. And I would say, it is blatantly unbiblical to be this discriminatory against our LGBTQ neighbors. I make no apologies for being that blunt. We are living under bad church law. Period.

BUT, I am not sounding the death knell of the United Methodist Church. Not yet. I’ll say more about that after dispelling the second narrative that is coming out of General Conference.

The second narrative, especially promulgated by the press, is that the United Methodist Church is now a far more conservative church who has severely tightened our grip on the ban of same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian ordinations. One headline I just saw says that conservatives have retaken the United Methodist Church!

This, too is not at all accurate. While it’s true that the Traditional Plan won the day, it has major flaws that could very well be struck down by our Judicial Council (the UM equivalent of the Supreme Court). So, this may result in one of two possible outcomes. The Judicial Council will either gut what was passed, leaving a badly truncated plan without much substance, or the Judicial Council could rule the entire plan out-of-order, leaving us where we started. In either case, it’s widely believed that at that point, the conservative bloc of the United Methodist Church will leave and begin a new denomination.

So what then?

If for nothing else, General Conference was a much-needed exercise in showing ourselves and the world, once and for all, who we are, who we aren’t, and what we’re we’re committed to. It was a sober reality check. For many people, including myself, it has given us stronger resolve to be the church in these trying days.

In summary, nothing right now is for absolute certain.
77BFB3B8-A7FD-4C03-9C09-3AC311E487DEWell… nothing except for one crucial thing: we will press on to be the church of Jesus Christ. I find myself now in the same place I was before, perhaps more so. I am and I will be a shepherd of a church who fully embraces and includes all people, no matter their race, nation of origin, gender, age, ability or disability, sexual orientation or identity, economic status, or legal status. I make room for all people at my table, committed to nurturing them into the beloved children of God they are. And there is nothing— no denominational standard, no scare headlines, or dire warnings of doom— that will stop that mission. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. It’s the way he lived his life. And until the day he returns in glory, or I die and meet him in Paradise, I will walk in his footsteps.

As I mentioned yesterday, we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that expanse between cold, hard reality and the hopeful future we know is possible. Right now, that gap is feeling especially tragic. Yet I will stand in it, push ahead, and join hands with all people of goodwill who share my heart. Together, we will be the church for and with all people.

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What Kind of United Methodist Church Will We Be? (A Late Hour Reflection)

This is the question haunting my beloved United Methodist Church: what kind of church will we be? As the delegates from our worldwide UMC connection meet as a General Conference over the next four days in St. Louis, MO, this is surely the question of the hour. After their work is through, what kind of church will we be?
D9BABDA2-CC60-4699-BD58-718795795AAB

It’s almost too painfully cliché to ask this question, let alone write (yet another!) blog post on it. So why bother?

Well, I am still stunned— in awe, really— that the most compelling visions for what the United Methodist Church can be and should be are so incredibly disparate. Many are struggling for a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people, in marriage and ordination, especially. Many others are struggling for a church that upholds biblical authority, particularly as it pertains to traditional understandings of human sexuality. These are two different visions from two very different starting places of concern.

And yet, I find a glaring irony behind these disparate visions: we would be loath to find any General Conference delegate who does not cherish both an inclusive church and a church formed under biblical authority, no matter their starting assumptions! That may seem incredibly obvious to all who have been deep in the conversation, but it’s clear from the pre-General Conference rhetoric I’ve seen that many of us still don’t really appreciate that about each other. One group believes that they possess the most genuine vision of what real inclusiveness is all about. Meanwhile, another group claims to have the true, faithful grasp on the Bible’s teaching regarding human sexuality, that they are the ones who truly uphold biblical authority. Yet we all claim to walk as inclusive, biblical Christians, obviously with varying understandings of what this means!

So it’s now a tug-of-war between which vision of inclusiveness and biblical authority will garner the most votes. And again, as it has been since 1972, this fight will result in winners and losers, all equally claiming to be in the right, on God’s side, of course. Except this time, there is the strong gumption, on both the progressive and the conservative wings of the church, to part ways, if their respective vision of “what kind of church we will be” does not prevail.

It’s deeply troubling for me to even imagine splitting apart like that.

I have to confess, I do not know what will come of things, and that has me feeling quite anxious right now. I know I’m not alone in harboring this kind of fear. If you’re still reading this and have a stake in what’s happening, you’ve probably got some share of the anxiety bug, too. Just admit it!

So I offer both myself and you a biblical thought that just might ease off the anxiety and lead to the best future for the United Methodist Church, come what may.

“…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
‭‭1 John‬ ‭4:16-18‬

John Wesley quoted from the biblical book of 1 John a lot, especially when talking about being perfected in love. Deeply profound passages like this one certainly explain why.

We all know it, and yet we easily forget it. At the end of the day, and in the great Right Now of our lives, it all really does boil down to love, or a lack of it. If we want to understand love, then go deeper in God. If we want to understand God, then go deeper in love. Daring to surrender ourselves to this intimate power of Love, a Love we all hunger for, forces our shadows of fear, judgment, and rejection to simply fade away into the nothingness they really are. All that’s left is the bond of God, made known in God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for one another, gathered within the sacred “love dance” of the Triune God.

The presence of fear, suspicion, anger, accusations, side-taking, ideological banner-waving, and self-righteous crusading, is the conspicuous absence of love. I know that sounds so naïvely obvious. Yet for Christ’s sake and ours, could we not pause long enough to call out all this shadowy behavior for what it is— the rejection of Love for the expediency of power— and reclaim God who is Love, and Love who is God? Could we claim Love to effectively exorcise our demonic tendencies to glorify our positions, stances, and political tactics to the detriment of our brothers and sisters? Let’s try it.

Looking at things again as I bring myself back down from my lofty “love” perch for just a moment, it may very well be that a unified church is simply not possible. If we’re honest, we don’t have a “United” Methodist Church now. I have desperately wanted us to remain one united church. I still do. I’ve prayed and worked for it.

If it’s simply not possible, we may be forced to painfully admit it and own up to our failure. It may very well be a sober admission of “it is what it is.”

But no matter where we find ourselves, even between the most gaping ideological divides, we still have the opportunity to be the living incarnation of Love towards one another. If that alone could happen— if we could truly grasp the depths of Love for one another— it would be a powerful witness. And then, the crucified Christ who embodies our collective sin and failure could be glorified in our midst, even if his Body is still broken on the cross of our shortcomings.

If we simply let it all go, rest in Love, and unconditionally give this gift to one another… If we could put flesh to the presence of God who is Love among us, then maybe… just maybe… we could all discover the glimpses of a compelling vision for what the whole Church could be, no matter what becomes of our beloved United Methodist Church.

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A Broken Christ for a Broken Annual Conference

This year, 2018 marks 18 Annual Conferences I have attended with my Baltimore-Washington Conference. (That number seems like a lot to me, but it’s meager compared to a whole lot of other people!).

Without a doubt, this year’s 234th Annual Conference is certainly the heaviest I have ever felt.

At the center of our time together has been a full display of our division and discord over human sexuality and specifically two people, both married to someone of the same gender, who have been seeking commissioning and ordination as clergy within our Conference. Serving as a backdrop to all our proceedings has been the theme of our Conference sessions— “We are One Beneath the Cross” It has been a constant reminder of the tragically ironic tension in our midst: in a Christological sense we are one, but in many ways, with our differences over human sexuality and the looming threat of denominational schism, we are clearly not one.

After our Clergy Executive Session on Wednesday, in which these two siblings in Christ were not recommended for commissioning and ordination, I have tried to take a collective pulse of our Conference. That’s been hard to do. I sense much fear for our future, frustration, deep sorrow, betrayal, anger, disillusionment, numbness, and yes, some hope, too.
Yet one thing most of us can agree on: our Annual Conference is broken. As Bishop Easterling just wrote to us, there were no winners as a result of our deliberations over human sexuality and our gay and lesbian brother and sister in Christ.

So I wonder, in all of our deliberations, why has no one asked, “What would Jesus do?”

Sure, over the last several days, the question has been hinted at and perhaps included in some more theologically nuanced statements and questions. But I’ve not heard anyone ask, and repeatedly ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Well, given our diversity and divisions, undoubtedly there would be no consensus around an answer to that question! What would Jesus do? Lob that onto the Conference floor and settle in for a very long, tedious, painful debate.
2F6BE56C-7C77-4933-9A6D-1E1145D1050E

But perhaps there is a way to answer this simple question, and the answer has been expressing itself within a major symbol on the Conference floor stage: the cross.

Whenever Jesus taught his disciples how to follow him and to be like him, the cross always loomed large, shaping his entire outlook on what it means to live, love, and die. He said it most emphatically like this:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭9:23‬

There it is. What would Jesus do? Take up his cross. And ultimately that means surrender. In his surrender, Jesus became crucified and broken for the brokenness of all humanity, for all time.

Back to our brokenness as a Conference… I believe it is a broken, crucified Jesus who speaks most deeply and powerfully into our brokenness and failure. This broken Jesus speaks, simply by offering us his wounds— wounds from his crucifixion, wounds he suffered to directly address and heal our wounds.

What would Jesus have us do?

First, gazing at his cross, we can admit to our utter brokenness and failure. We can weep and mourn. We can stop the denial game and come to grips fully with our inability to be the church united in purpose, vision, and spirit.

And then, in our brokenness, Jesus invites us to be crucified with him. We can learn what it means to surrender our wills, our wants, the things we fight and strive for, and the blistering battles we have won or failed to win. In Christ, we can learn what it means to crucify all of that and to finally lay down our lives for God and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The bleak nadir of our brokenness and failure, with the cross in the middle of it all, can be a new birthplace for us to rise up together into a uniquely humble, shared cruciform life, a life unapologetically surrendered to God and for the welfare of one another, all for the sake of Christ. No agendas. No fights. No more cold proceedings and rules to determine our collective fate. Only love.

Love. That sounds just as profoundly naive as “What would Jesus do?” And yet, didn’t Jesus also tell us that his newest and greatest command is to love one another? Note: he gave no qualifiers to muck up and complicate the simple profundity of this command.

So what does all this look like for me?

Personally, I am terribly hurt, upset, and angry over our inability to commission and ordain people like T.C. Morrow and Joey Heath-Mason. I have wanted a church that allows clergy, congregations, and Conferences to discern their ministry context and to follow their conscious as to matters of inclusiveness and human sexuality. And I have wanted a church that fully embraces the gifts and call of all people.

However, for the sake of the cross, the church, and the world, I am surrendering my wants and desires. I’m crucifying the urge within me to fight for what I want. Instead, I am offering my life wholly to God, asking that God would use me only as God wills, come what may. I want to do this daily as Jesus commanded. And I want to lay down my life for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to bless each of them, love them dearly, passionately and unconditionally, supporting the call and life of each of them, with no agenda except blessing them in real, live-giving ways.

That may sound… naive, simplistic, irresponsible, dangerous, and even heretical. But isn’t that what Jesus did? And the ones who crucified him called him all those things.
One beneath the cross. That will truly happen when we embrace these words of the Apostle Paul:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
‭‭Galatians‬ ‭2:20‬

Let it be so in me, and in all of us. That’s what a broken Jesus did and continues to do within our brokenness and failure.

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Why I Stand with T.C. Morrow

Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.

Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?

In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.

Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.

But there’s just one thing…

T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”

Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.

Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.

I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.

Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.

Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”

I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.

Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.

Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?
Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.

Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,

Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
‭Isaiah‬ ‭56:3-7‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.
And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.

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Filed under Bible, Church Culture and Leadership, Human Sexuality, The United Methodist Church

Unity Can’t Be Manufactured

Unity! We are one! We are brothers and sisters! We are connected in covenant! We are connected in Christ! One God- one people!
These are some of the phrases from this year’s annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our theme this year is “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.” We have a great logo emblazoned on all of our Annual Conference stuff. Our worship has lifted up unity, at times more than God. Every speaker has dutifully used the unity tag-line in their presentations.

It’s usually an accurate assumption that when something is overemphasized to the fevered pitch of of cult-like refrains, that same something is glaringly absent. On the one hand, I get it. Our United Methodist Church’s near schism over the issue of human sexuality is something we must address. Most of us want to move through our impasse on whether or not to fully include LGBTQI+ persons while holding our church together. So let’s do all we can to lift up our desire for unity. But on the other hand, it all sounds so contrived. It’s manufactured unity. It has sounded and felt forced.

I’m saddened by the fact that we sing the songs of unity but so far have not adequately demonstrated that we know how to unify ourselves. We caucus ourselves based on ideology. We clothe ourselves based on ideology, i.e. wearing a rainbow-colored stole or not, and what it may mean if we wear one or refuse. In our huddles, we talk about “them” and what “they” are doing to the church. We have a hard time fully respecting those whose views are different from our own. Many are afraid to openly express their views for fear of social and even professional repercussions. Just in what I’ve observed over the last couple of days, I see and hear so many examples of folks writing off others, making snide remarks, or making disparaging comments about a speaker.

If unity is going be a reality beyond a spiffy conference logo and lovey dovey liturgy, we need to change our behavior. I’d like to passionately suggest to my brothers and sisters of the Baltimore-Washington Conference that unity could look like this:

  • Respect one another. I know many people on either side of the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people. They are deeply committed to Jesus. They champion his gospel. They are people of high integrity and deep theological, biblical understanding. They are worthy of my respect and the respect of those who differ with them. That said, if we truly respect them and at the same time desire unity, we must make room for these folks to be who they are in Christ and to be in ministry in the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads them.
  • Listen to one another. Listening springs from a desire to understand. A desire to understand comes from a place of humble love. And that leads to a third thing needed for unity…
  • Hold a humble love for all. When we choose to love in humility, we recognize that our side of the story is not the only side. We’re teachable and moldable. We’re flexible and practical, even when we stand on core principles. We desire to be servants, not victors in an ideological struggle. Even when we strive for justice and righteousness, we can do that with a desire to embrace our sisters and brothers whose vision of justice and righteousness is different from our own.

As I read what I just wrote, I’m struck by how unoriginal these ideas are. In fact, they sound like variations of lessons I learned in kindergarten. Treat others with respect. Be a good listener. Be a good learner. Learn how to get along with everyone. Don’t be a bully.

Yet somehow our adult big ideas and firm principles have mingled with unresolved fear and have overridden our childlike abilities to respect, listen, and humbly love.

So… what if we put aside our fears, took on Jesus’ heart, and build true, short bridges between one another? Then, we might have a unity worth celebrating and not just fabricating.

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An Open Letter from a LGBTQ Candidate for Ministry

imageAt this past Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, we had a very emotional debate about approving a woman married to another woman as a Provisional Deacon. (For my non-United Methodist friends, a Deacon in the UMC is a service-oriented kind of ordained ministry. Deacons are pastors who teach and preach with the church while dedicating their lives to a specific, specialized kind of service. Provisional status is the last step towards being fully ordained.) T.C. Morrow had passed through all the steps towards being commissioned, but failed to get the required two-thirds majority of our clergy.

Ms. Morrow was not commissioned. A long process including seminary and a rigorous ordination process has been halted for now.

As you can imagine, the reactions to T.C.’s denial of commissioning as a Provisional Deacon were quite emotional. Some rested assured that our denomination’s standards on human sexuality, specifically our ban on self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination, were upheld. Some saw this is a grave injustice, even an act of spiritual violence. Others were disheartened by the reminder that we are bitterly divided over how we understand and include people who are LGBTQ.

In the aftermath of all this, I received an unusual request. This past Thursday on the day after the vote was taken, I was given an anonymous letter to read to the entire Conference. The letter is from an LGBTQ candidate for ministry reacting to the news about T.C. Morrow. I was specifically asked to read it.

Keep in mind that I am not an active advocate for either side of the LGBTQ debate. My role has been to bring people together for dialogue and discernment about how we as the whole church can move forward together without suffering a devastating split over human sexuality matters. I have my own views, yes, which don’t fit neatly into either camp. I enjoy solid relationships and endure suspicious glances from both sides of the debate.
Unfortunately, I was not able to share this person’s letter due to time constraints. However, I am sharing it here on my blog. (I have all the time and space I want right here, and I can’t be ruled out of order.)

This is not necessarily a plea on this person’s behalf. However, I do believe that in a debate of this intensity, all voices must be heard and respected. I believe it an act of of grace and humility when we strive to understand and empathize with every voice, most especially when it’s a voice with which we do not agree. The later is truly Christ-like.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I am writing you today as one of your own. I am a pastor who is doing my best to faithfully serve the church and this conference and to live out the calling that God has placed on my life. It is our church that raised me in the faith from my birth to my baptism to my confirmation to the day I felt my heart warmed for the first time and I knew God in my life. I am writing you today because I love you church and I love in particular this the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. I can remember the first time I attended annual conference and feeling like I had finally found my home, a place where I belonged, a place where I could bring all of me, a place where the spirit moved me to answer my call to ministry.

Sadly, I have begun to question whether I can continue to serve among you because, as a gay person, I am wondering whether the welcome I originally felt was intended for me. I am wondering because we seem to have mostly ignored that an injustice occurred right here on the floor of conference. We have denied a candidate approved by the BOOM her rightful place as a clergy member of this conference. We denied her because she happens to be married to another woman. In doing this, we have failed to recognize one of the most gifted persons for ministry I have ever met and we are lesser for it.

To be clear, however, I am not writing just about this one candidate. I am writing as one of you who is hurting because we did this terrible thing and then moved right along like nothing had happened. We have continued on with our business as if what we have done is ok. It is not.

We have sinned and we need to seek forgiveness for the harm we have done, for the message we are sending to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers who are watching and who are gathered right in this room. The message that says you are a not really welcome here unless you are seated and quiet about who you are and who you love. We can do better. We must do better.

Signed,
Your gay sibling in Christ

Thank you for taking the time to read and truly listen to another voice. If you did, you have just made our church a little bit better, even if you don’t agree.

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I Volunteer to Serve on the Council of Bishops’ Special Commission on Human Sexuality

HandsBy this act of presumption, I have probably just disqualified myself from consideration. Bishops generally frown upon clergy who attempt to appoint themselves to things- and for good reason. But since we find ourselves in unprecedented times, why not try an unorthodox approach and see what happens, especially as the fate of my beloved United Methodist Church hangs in the balance? Believe me, I will offer myself to anything that keeps us united and focused on our mission.
Yesterday, the General Conference voted to follow our Council of Bishops’ recommendation to select a special commission to review all of the language in our Book of Discipline dealing with human sexuality, and if necessary rewrite it all. The results of this commission’s work will come before a special gathering of General Conference for their vote in 2 to 3 years’ time.

Bishops, just in case you’re still reading, and aren’t totally put off by my effort to volunteer myself, let me tell you why someone like yours truly would be a good choice for such a commission.

For far too long, we have done the same thing over and over again, only to find ourselves in a worse predicament. Yesterday, Rev. Jeremy Smith reminded us that this would the the sixth attempt at a special commission or study on human sexuality. So while I applaud your leadership and the General Conference’s trust in your leadership, how would this latest go around finally do the trick?

Some have attempted to argue that this time, things are different. In America at least, we’re at a different ideological place than we were before. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land. Therefore, the circumstances for us are much more dire now. The stakes are higher. And this would be the most hands-on that our Bishops have ever been with a commission like this.

A whole new ball game? I’m not entirely convinced.

Undeniable fact: no matter what this commission comes up with, it will still have to survive an entrenched, bitterly divided General Conference who are not of one mind about even staying together!

The only variable that could make a difference- perhaps, and a long shot at that- would be the kinds of people the bishops select to be on this new commission. And that’s where someone like me comes in.

I’m new blood. I’m not a General Conference delegate. I have been spending 10 years attempting to mediate a solution that would include everyone at the same table of grace- no matter their views on what the Bible says or doesn’t say on human sexuality. I haven’t been elected as a delegate, but I certainly do all I can to voice my vision.

I have my own understandings, yes, but I’m not so entrenched that I can’t stretch to embrace a creative view or approach that could bridge a divide. I’m not in this thing to make sure my stance on human sexuality becomes the prevailing one. I’m in it to keep our church unified around Jesus Christ and his mission to advance the kingdom of God in the world.

So, Bishops of the United Methodist Church, if you’ve hung in here this long, but you’re still not accepting my offer to serve on your commission, let me offer some ideas on who would be the most ideal kinds of people to serve:

  • I fully trust that you’ll make the commission diverse. So there’s no need to say more on that.
  • Pick some new blood. If all you do is selected General Conference delegates, there is much higher risk of merely getting the same kinds of results. After all, we seem to be electing the same people or the same kinds of people to General Conference each quadenium. Shake things up. Get some fresh energy, creativity, and perspective in the mix.
  • Pick some younger people and give them leadership roles. Our LGBTQI members and our young people are the ones hurting the most from this debate. Young people see things differently than prior generations, so it is their kind of outlook and leadership we need to trust now if we expect to have a future with fruit and relevance.
  • Pick people who are moderate in their approach. I’m not saying that participants need to be moderate in their viewpoints. They can be passionately progressive or conservative. But one can also be moderate in how they live and advance their views. Moderate folks are open to listen, flexible, and don’t have to have everything their way or else. They are passionate, but not rigid.
  • Pick people who like to think and act in unorthodox ways. Alongside people who uphold and play by the rules, select a few mavericks. These are people who aren’t always bound to follow and uphold every rule. They like to push the envelope and chart new waters. They are entrepreneurs. They are apostles. They are the John Wesleys, Richard Strawbridges and Sojourner Truths of our time. Where would we be without faithful people like these?

Again, my offer is still there to serve, and I would do it gladly and faithfully. But just in case our bishops are not inclined to pick me, I have one request:

Please, for the sake of Christ and his church, fastidiously avoid any concession to make status quo choices.

Dare to be bold!

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General Conference, Blessed Are the Peacemakers

He climbed to the top of a mountain and sat down. His disciples took their usual places around him. If they had wanted to be alone, no one would ever know because right after they arrived, the crowds of people who had been following them around Galilee made their way up the mountain to listen, too. Then Jesus began to teach.

Surely the significance of this scene wasn’t lost on those gathered there. Burned into their collective memory is the story of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. God’s voice thundered the commandments. And now, Israel was gathered once more to hear the Word of God speaking in a new age.

Jesus began to teach with blessing. Who are blessed? The blessed ones Jesus lifts up are the people who are most often cursed. They’re forgotten, pushed aside, and stomped on. Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Blessed are the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful and pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness and because of Christ.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Hands around seedlingUntil I attempted it, I never knew how painfully difficult peacemaking can be. While people applaud the efforts of peacemakers, it’s a lonely business. It’s almost always a misunderstood business.

In 2005, I began my journey of being a peacemaker in the midst of the LGBTQI debate in the United Methodist Church. Instead of taking and advocating for a firm stance- either affirming the Discipline‘s language or advocating to reverse it- I chose to be in the process of bringing people together from very disparate points of view to build and rebuild new community. Hopefully… prayerfully… efforts like this would keep our church from splitting apart. I have always had my own views and still do, but I’ve chosen to keep them in the background, working instead to be a reconciler.

It sounds like glamorous work, but it’s not. It’s not sexy. I have a lot of cheerleaders but very few helpers.

Meanwhile, I am often unfairly labeled by the very same people I’m trying to rally. I’ve been called a fundamentalist. (I’m not). I’ve been labeled a liberal. (Heck no.) People have accused me of abandoning the Bible. (I strive to live my life harmoniously with the inspired Word of God, thank you very much.)

And the worst label of all- a moderate. (These days that’s code for wishy-washy, weak, and ideologically confused. A sell out.)

Aside from being misunderstood, there are two major challenges to peacemaking: getting people to the table, and helping people to see how similar they really are. Especially in today’s debate over LGBTQI, people are well beyond talking. For conservatives, it’s a settled issue; sin is sin and has no place in the church. Period. For progressives, the time is now to once and for all put exclusion and bigotry behind us and to fully include, marry, and ordain people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, and intrasex.

Both sides know what they want, are bent on it, and will tolerate an exodus or a split in the church if that’s what it comes down to.

Then there are people like me in the midst of the storm trying to advocate for different options to keep us all together as one Body of Christ. I do recognize that our different viewpoints are simply incompatible. However I also recognize that if we split or exit, we’ll all be weaker for it. United Methodism is a connectional church, relying on all of us together to fulfill the Great Commission and advance the kingdom of God. Apart from one another, we will each walk away with much less than we have now, greatly truncating our collective effort to fulfill the Great Commission and build the kingdom of God. Still not convinced of that? See 1 Corinthians 12.

Reading all this, you might conclude that I’m playing the martyr:

O woe is me, that my all-too-righteous efforts go unappreciated by the stiff-necked masses bent on their own destruction!

Well… I confess to complaining a little. (But Hey, Jeremiah complained a lot more than I am! He even accused God of being a deceptive brook run dry.)
More importantly, I’m inviting you into the blessedness of peacemaking. It’s hard work, but it is blessed work. Jesus says it is. There’s a price to pay for it, but the gift from God is a powerful vision of the peaceable kingdom to come, which all of God’s children will inherit. We all know that at present we live in a bitterly polarized time which unfortunately our church reflects. However, we peacemakers have the audacity to believe that it doesn’t have to be that way- that it won’t be that way for too much longer.

General Conferences will come and go. Sometimes even denominations come and go. Still, if the peacemakers rise up and dare to fill the gap, we can bring more people together into a community which is a foretaste of much better things to come. Thanks be to God for that blessing!

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Live Report: St. Paul Delivers a Speech at General Conference Addressing the LGBTQI Debate

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”

Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written:

‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.

Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7. This is an edit of a previous post.)

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