Tag Archives: homosexuality

St. Paul Addresses the LGBT Debate at the 2016 General Conference of the UMC

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. One look at him, and anyone could sense that he didn’t quite belong there. 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 in the 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?

Every quadrenium the resolutions pour in, demonstrations are rallied, and delegates are asked to decide which “side” will hold the day for at least another four years. And they know full well that whatever they decide will deeply impact the ministry of the United Methodist Church and how well they can remain united as one body. One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law.

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 she 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 to unilaterally suspend these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I offer 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 growing clamor, Paul begins to speak 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 monogamous, covenanted same-sex and heterosexual 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. He would never be seen or heard from again.
Once more the hall was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted amen. 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, 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)

22 Comments

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

Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: We Must Do Better

Since 1972, whenever the General Conference of the United Methodist Church convenes for their quadrennial gathering, the issue of homosexuality has taken a quite visible, central place. We live in a strong tension between those who press our our church to fully recognize and bless gay and lesbian relationships and those who believe that homosexuality is not in keeping with a biblical understanding of love and marriage.  Equally pressing is the debate over whether or not openly gay and lesbian people can serve as pastors and if pastors and congregations can conduct and host same-sex weddings.

For the past 40 years, the United Methodist Church has maintained these basic standards in our Book of Discipline:

  • All people are of sacred worth and that we must not reject or exclude gay and lesbian people. Nevertheless…
  • …the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
  • Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained or accepted as candidates for ordained ministry.
  • Pastors are prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings, and churches cannot host them. These are chargeable offenses.

Just this week, the General Conference voted to maintain our current denominational stances for at least another four years. But that wasn’t without lots of demonstration, advocacy, an attempt at dialogue and numerous petitions to change the UMC’s stances and policies.

I have heard church leaders predict that the General Conference’s decision could very well lead to a split in the UMC or to the exodus of deeply disappointed laity and clergy. Only time will tell, of course. This issue has certainly created similar schisms in other Christian traditions.

Now, I don’t want to use this post to debate the issues. I have already laid out my thoughts and reflections on homosexuality in previous posts. But in the confines of a nutshell, I hold a carefully considered, nuanced understanding that homosexual relationships are outside of God’s will and intent for human sexuality. I derive this from my reading of Scripture as God’s Word, informed by tradition, reason, and experience. I believe this while also passionately including gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, family members, and church members.

So you might easily assume that I am overjoyed and relieved by the General Conference’s decision to maintain our current language and policies on homosexuality. You would assume wrongly.

You might assume that I want gay and lesbian people and and others who want to change our church’s position  to cease and desist– to shut up and conform, or get out. Again, you would assume wrongly.

By now, my conservative brothers and sisters might be assuming that I’ve “caved in to a liberal, pro-gay” point of view. Once again, they would assume wrongly.

However, as I stated yesterday in a Facebook update, I am deeply torn by the General Conference’s handling of this issue.  I wasn’t there, but from what I gather, all of this was handled quite badly by “both sides” of the homosexuality debate. Once again, the same debate played out like a bad rerun. One side passionately battled to move our church away from current stances and policies. The other kept their ground, fighting to further solidify the church’s current position. At their core, both sides operate out of an  all-or-nothing approach. Each side is highly reluctant to fairly and openly understand the convictions of the other or to even slightly concede that perhaps there is a degree of credibility and integrity with both positions that might lead to an alternative way forward which upholds both Scriptural teaching on sexuality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people.

From what I can see, several things went wrong this year.

First, just as in years past, there were several gay and lesbian advocacy groups on hand to demonstrate, hand out literature, and in general to be a visible proponent for change. As delegates went in and out of General Conference sessions, they had to move through groups of people singing, praying, and donning signs, clothing, and stoles advocating change. They were by no means violent or invasive. But they were quite vocal and at times purposefully disruptive to the sessions. At one point yesterday all non-delegates were asked to leave because of all the disruptions. In years past, there have even been arrests when protesters refused to abide by Conference rules.

I believe these folks have a right to be there– to be heard and seen. They stood for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot ignore them or their message. They sought to do no harm to anyone.
However, while their presence posed no threat, their approach was not at all helpful. Let’s face it, most people’s hearts and minds are not changed by loud, forceful demonstrations. For folks who don’t hold a strong opinion, approaches like that can come across as intimidating and overly-zealous. For people who do hold a strong opposing belief,  these demonstrations only calcify their position.

Earlier in the week, there was an attempt at “holy conversation” on homosexuality between people of opposing views. All delegates were divided into large groups presided over by a bishop and were encouraged to dialogue. I very much applaud the effort. But I also know from hard experience that genuine, sincere dialogue is an extraordinarily delicate form of remedial communication. It doesn’t happen easily. If dialogue is forced, rushed, or if folks insist on using the dialogue table as a subtle form of advocacy, then dialogue quickly falls apart.

And fell apart it did… badly. These holy conversation sessions were delayed and shortened because preceding legislative sessions went longer than anticipated. I also suspect that participants were not adequately prepared for how to dialogue and what to expect. As a result, some groups’ dialogue devolved into debate. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that both sides say hurtful, unfair things. As a result, these “holy conversations” left many participants feeling wounded.

Then through the legislative process there were some high profile attempts to change or add to the language on homosexuality by stating that as a denomination, we are divided on our understanding of homosexuality and that we agree to disagree. No one seriously doubts that reality! But for various reasons, that was also voted down by the Conference.
So, in the end nothing was changed. In the coming years, we’ll see what was lost or gained.
But I am torn by the fact that nothing was offered to guide our church through this great divide on human sexuality. We badly need that! I grieve for those who feel hurt and betrayed by the General Conference’s decisions, even if I cannot fully embrace their positions. I grieve that as denomination we are no closer to building unity on this issue, even in our diversity. That is everyone’s responsibility, not one side or the other.

I am dismayed that once again battle-hardened positions on homosexuality yielded very little wiggle room for other, more subtle ways to approach this very complex issue of homosexuality. Bumper sticker slogans and one or two sentence policy positions don’t cut it. This is going to take extensive, open conversation and a willingness to embrace perhaps an entirely new paradigm of thinking concerning homosexuality that takes into account the primacy of the Bible and the very real experiences of gay and lesbian Christians. We need both, not one or the other.

I just pray that it’s not too late, that God hasn’t already left us to our own vices of division and mutual exclusion. But until we know that for sure, let the peacemakers do their work with urgency and grace…

16 Comments

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

Christians and Homosexuality: A Personal Take

…a rough transcription of a sermon I shared at First United Methodist Church of Laurel, MD on February 20, 2011

[Disclaimer: For my friends and readers with passionately defined views regarding the nature of human sexuality, homosexuality in particular, no matter your views, you will most likely encounter things in this post that will offend, upset, or even shock you, i.e. “Wow, I didn’t know he thinks that way! How dare he!!” You’ve been warned now. Keep in mind, however, that I continue to listen and strive to love and respect both you and your perspective, even when we have serious points of disagreement. Having spent countless hours in learning, conversation and dialogue about LGBT sexuality, most especially with people who are LGBT, I have learned to tolerate the heat of disagreements I’ve encountered with both conservative and progressively minded folks. I have also come to see that we share far more in common than we often realize, even in the heat of our differences.]
Scripture: Romans 1:18-2:5
I had originally intended to share a message grappling with the topic of homosexuality in the last series of sermons I preached called “When Christians Get It Wrong… and How to Get It Right Again.” But then things like surgery got in the way. And of course, none of my stand-in speakers wanted to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole!

Yet God has a way of continually showing me that nothing is by accident, including this delayed sermon. In the time I was recovering from surgery, two dramatic things concerning homosexuality have happened. In light of these things, I think the time is particularly right for us as Christians to call on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, read up on Scripture, examine again the historic teachings of the Church and take an honest look at the present realities of gay and lesbian people, all so that we can get a grip on what we believe concerning homosexuality. Just as importantly, we need to understand how to live those beliefs with our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors.

The first dramatic thing to happen occurred at the beginning of this month– a statement of counsel prepared by 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church. They are asking for the removal of this statement from our Book of Discipline:

“…The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” ¶304.3

They understand this statement to be embarrassing, insensitive, and discriminatory towards gay and lesbian men and women who demonstrate the necessary graces, fruits, and abilities to be ordained clergy.

It’s important to understand a few things about this statement. Because it’s crafted by a group of bishops, it does carry a lot weight and importance. However, bishops cannot change our church’s stances and policies. That is left to our General Conference, a body of elected clergy and laity who meet every four years primarily to edit and update our denomination’s Book of Discipline, which alone articulates our policies, protocols, and procedures.

In the mean time, this statement’s gravity cannot and will not be ignored.
Then only a few weeks later, some historic legislation has been moving through Maryland’s state government. Just this past week, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings committee approved a bill for a Senate vote that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. Up until this point, the Maryland Senate had been one vote shy the filibuster-proof majority it would need to end the debate and vote. State Senator Jim Rosapepe, our state Senator, has agreed to be that deciding vote. That all but assures passage of this bill through the Senate. The House of Delegates is expected to pass the bill, and Governor O’Malley has promised to sign the bill into law. When that happens, Maryland would become the sixth state in our country to legalize same-sex marriage.

It almost goes without saying that this is a very, very emotionally charged issue. Why? It’s because we’re dealing with the fundamental aspects of our humanity: love, relationships, marriage, and family. For us Christians, we’re also talking the role of the Bible in defining sexuality, what is sin and not sin, and how the pages of Scripture might possibly speak to the experiences of gay and lesbian people.

When talking to Christians about homosexuality, especially when events such as I’ve mentioned unfold, there tend to be three distinct responses.

One Christian response strongly affirms the rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people. This response believes that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. They were born, at no fault of their own, with a propensity to be attracted to people of the same gender, something that is therefore not a sin but an essential make-up of their being, no less than heterosexual people. The most important aspect of the Bible to them is Jesus’ treatment of all people and the fact that he never condemns homosexual relations. In fact, he embraced and included people whom the religious community rejected for being sinful or unclean.

Another Christian response, just as passionate but very different, is condemnation of homosexuality– not of gay and lesbian people as people, but of homosexual attractions and relationships. They too affirm that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. Yet in reading the Bible, they see several passages, including the Romans passage above that denounce homosexual relations as an act of sin. They believe, based on their reading of Scripture, that God designed sexuality exclusively to be shared between a man and a woman.

Then there is a third Christian response that often goes under the radar. This response doesn’t really see this issue as all that important, or doesn’t quite know what to think about something as complicated and controversial as homosexuality. These Christians would be content to see that all people are loved and respected by one another, understanding that God loves each of us, especially when we fail to love God and others as we should.

Overall though, I believe that Christians have done a pretty terrible job dealing with the issue of homosexuality and our differences over this issue. We have been stuck in a fierce debate for close to 40 years. Each side as demonized the other for being unloving, ungodly, compromising the gospel, and causing division in the Church.

Not only that, but when young adults are asked to describe Christians and the Church, one statistic shows that 91% would describe us as anti-gay. The reality is, right or wrong, young people understand homosexuality much differently than their parents and grandparents do. In my personal experience, I know many people, young and old, who will have nothing to do with the Church primarily because they perceive us to be anti-gay.

In our church, I’ve talked to enough people to realize that we have very diverse opinions on homosexuality which encompass all three of the above Christian responses I just mentioned. So I realize that no matter what I teach regarding homosexuality, I risk upsetting some people. Therefore, I believe that we must commit to some critical things when dealing with this or any other hot-button topic: commit to listening, respecting, and loving each other through the differences we may have. We must continually affirm that the greatest common factor among us is never a conflict but rather Jesus Christ our Lord.

Switching gears, I thought that a good way to teach about homosexuality from my Christian point of view would be to share my own story of how I have arrived at my understandings of homosexuality. I don’t share this in order to ram anything down your throat. I share these things to give you a springboard to formulate your own biblical, Christ-centered views, realizing that at the end of the day, we will most likely remain diverse in our views.

Before coming into the church and becoming a Christian at the age of 18, I had no opinion one way or the other concerning the morality or acceptability of homosexuality. I lived in a world of stereotypes, especially of gay men, but that never formulated into any kind of strong view. Yet when I came into the church, I began to hear my pastor and many others teach and preach from the Bible that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. The Romans 1:18ff passage was certainly one of the main passages that was repeatedly quoted.

Hearing all of this, how could I argue with the Bible, especially if the Bible is God’s Word? So, I took as my point of view that the practice of homosexuality is sinful, and I took it quite stridently, too. I didn’t hate or look down upon gay or lesbian people, nor did I reject them. For me, it was a matter of upholding the authority of biblical standards, and in this case, biblical standards on human sexuality.

As I continued to grow and mature, I began to meet and get to know more and more gay and lesbian people. I began to see first-hand how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not a mere matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay. It also involves the question of how Christians relate to and minister with gay people.

I also began to listen to many, many stories, particularly from gay Christians who all shared that they grew up knowing that they were somehow different, that unlike most all their friends, they were attracted to people of the same gender. They prayed and prayed for God to take those feelings away and make them straight. Many even tried straight relationships, and some even married someone of the opposite gender, only to fail at their marriage. In other words, it didn’t seem to be their choice to be gay. In fact, given the choice, many would rather have been straight to avoid all the stigma and rejection from being gay. Finally, they came to accept themselves for who they are, recognizing that God loves and accepts them just as they are.

In reflection, I believe, based on how I read the Scriptures, that God designed sexuality to be shared between a man and a woman and that homosexual attractions and relationships, while not necessarily a conscious choice, is not within God’s plan and intention for human sexuality. The best biblical understanding I can derive comes from that same Romans passage in which Paul attributes homosexuality to be the result of a fallen humanity that has turned away from God. When it comes down to it, I cannot see Scripture affirming homosexuality, only condemning it as outside of God’s will.

However, I do not and I will not teach or preach this belief stridently or often at all. I prefer to get into it as little as possible. And that has been to the dismay of many church members I’ve worked with who would prefer that I become more ardently vocal against homosexuality. I will not.

The fact is, this is a deeply painful issue for me. I have very close family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay and lesbian. I trust and love them very, very much, and I always will. I have listened to many of their stories. As a result, I live every day in a tension between my biblical beliefs and the fact that most often those same beliefs stir up so much hurt within my gay and lesbian friends, family members, and neighbors. I just can’t relinquish my love and embrace of them or my love and embrace of God’s Word. Therefore I live in this constant, painful tension.

I’m also deeply conflicted over the nature of the debate concerning homosexuality. It can get particularly nasty and polarizing. While I vote my conscious whenever I’m asked to, I do not want to contribute to the divisive intensity of the debate. Furthermore, I do not tend to sign on to petitions or take strong public stances on homosexuality.
My God-given role has been to be a peacemaker by attempting to bring about dialogue and understanding between different points of view on homosexuality while seeking an alternative way forward for us Christians to take other than the disparate options offered by either side of the debate. Let me tell you, this has been every bit as difficult as taking a strong public stance on one side or the other. I have been treated as a traitor and a compromiser by some of my conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve been viewed as anti-gay and a bigot by some of my progressive/liberal friends and colleagues. I’ve been called out by both crowds for all the above on the same day, even! Peacemaking has not been an easy road to take… at all.

Yet, all in all, there is something I want you to hear loud and clear. As long as I am pastor of this church, I will not tolerate anyone being turned away, mistreated, demeaned, ostracized, or in any way unloved because of their sexual orientation. If you are gay or lesbian, I will always be your pastor, and this will always be your church as much as you allow us to be. I will always love you, and I will defend you in the face of any attitude that is less than fully loving or accepting of you as a child of God and my sister or brother in the Lord.

I will gently tell you what I believe the truth to be about human sexuality. We may wrestle through that, and sometimes we may both come out of it limping. But I will always embrace you as my brother or sister in Christ. If anything, I’ll learn to hold on to you more tightly and compassionately, as long as you allow me to.

So, how do we as a church get it right when understanding and relating to our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors?

First, we must always affirm our faith in the Bible as God’s Word and what it teaches while remaining open to listen to the Holy Spirit’s counsel, especially in the voices of others. We must respect the fact that while I believe the way I do, it may severely contradict they way you believe. I may firmly believe you’re wrong, and you may believe the same about me. Yet we must listen to each other. We must especially listen to understand not just what the other believes, but respectfully listen to why they believe what they believe. And who knows? We might actually learn something from the Holy Spirit that would impact our own views!

Secondly, we must live in an unconditional love towards others whose views are different from our own and towards those who are gay and lesbian. As for me, I know I’m doing this well when others who are different from me don’t perceive me as standoffish, guarded, close-minded, holier-than-thou or in any way unable to love and accept them. When I can fully identify myself with them and they sense that, then I know that I’m getting closer to Christ’s unconditional love.

Believe me, that’s not a compromise or a cop out. I’ve learned my methods from none other than Jesus himself. Do you remember when Jesus shared a meal at Matthew’s house? He was there with the notorious ragamuffins of his day: tax-collectors and “sinners”. And of course, the religious people were all over Jesus’ case for that! “Jesus, don’t you know who you’re eating with?” In Jesus day, you only shared a meal with those whom you closely identified as your trusted friends and family. Jesus ate with Matthew and his guests anyway, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sitting around arguing with the tax collectors about their unscrupulous tax collecting methods or calling out the sinners for their wrongs. He was simply being with them in an embracing love of God. And that love of God has the power to transform us all, gay or straight, sinners all, into God’s holy people, in God’s time and in God’s way.

In other words, in the turmoil and complexity of these tumultuous times and debates, it really does come down to asking that simple question, “What would Jesus do?” By God’s grace, we endeavor to do it, and we discover the abundance of life that comes from living like Jesus.

20 Comments

Filed under Human Sexuality