Please note— the contents of this post will elicit one of three responses from you: 1) “What a bunch of misguided garbage;” 2) “Thank you for saying that;” or possibly… 3) “I had never thought of it that way.” Reader’s discretion is advised.
Check this out:
Chris Owens says, “I love to wear sandals in the summer months. There’s something about the freedom of open air on my feet that gives me an extra boost.”
Now, you can isolate that first sentence and make some rather strange, false assumptions:
Chris Owens dislikes and condemns closed-toed shoes. (Untrue. I’m wearing some right now, since it’s really cold outside.)
Chris Owens prefers summer. (Untrue. In fact, I love snow and changing seasons.)
Chris Owens would be happier further south so he could wear sandals more often. (Well, maybe. But choosing to live further south would be for reasons other than living in a more sandal-friendly climate.)
You can see how pulling a statement out of context can lead to some far-out untruths. So consider this…
I have a very dear friend and colleague who recently quoted this verse on social media:
“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Reading that passage truly hurt me, and to others I know, it would have been an excruciating gut punch. On the surface, that may sound extreme or even ludicrous. But in this case, context and purpose is everything.
During our agonizing United Methodist Church General Conference session which centered on our 47-year debate over homosexuality, my friend quoted this verse. It’s been bantered around ad nauseam over the years. Knowing my friend, it was used to make an argument that God establishes marriage between only one woman and one man. Therefore, Jesus is upholding traditional marriage, which by proxy condemns homosexuality. Thus, the church should follow Jesus’ teaching and keep our ban on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and self-avowed “practicing” lesbian and gay Christians from ever becoming clergy.
Depending on your views on homosexuality, hearing a scripture quoted like that might rouse you to shout a hearty “Amen, Lord!”
Or, if you’re of a different mind, you might walk away wincing in pain.
So why on earth should a passage like Matthew 19:4-6 elicit a negative response? It’s the Bible, after all. It’s God’s Word! It’s God’s timeless truth! Don’t I believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?
Of course I do. In fact, I have joyfully read this passage while working with almost every couple I have ever married, inviting them to recognize and treasure the sanctity and permanence of their marriage vows.
But let’s take a more careful look at the passage in question. Remember, context is key. Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, the popular religious teachers of the day, whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. There were Jewish laws being codified, based on scripture (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), establishing that a Jewish man could divorce his wife under any circumstance, as long as he issued her a certificate of divorce.
(On a slightly tangential note, I had lunch yesterday with a very good rabbi friend of mine who reminded me that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud which establishes the stipulations and procedures for divorce. He told me this while sharing about an Orthodox Jewish friend of his who is about to be married for the fourth time, all in faithful observance of Torah. But I digress.)
So to the problem of an easy, no-fault divorce, Jesus went all the way back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to remind them that it is God who has created male and female for one another. In the sacred, mystical bond of marriage, God joins them together to make, in effect, a new creation— a man and woman who share in one flesh. Therefore, divorce is the destruction of God’s good creation.
That was Jesus’ point. He was not making an argument against homosexuality. He wasn’t even trying to establish a heteronormative standard for marriage. In the travesty of divorce, Jesus was upholding the holy, divine origin of the marital bond.
That’s why I was so hurt by the usage of this passage. It was being terribly misused to condemn the humanity and the relationships of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And by the way, if you think it’s over-the-top to say that condemning homosexuality is akin to condemning gay and lesbian humanity, then think more deeply about the nature of human sexuality. It is a core aspect of who we are. To condemn somoene’s full embrace of their sexual identity is to condemn a significant part of their personhood, since we are all created by God to love and be loved— sexual intimacy, both emotional and physical, being one of the most profound sharings in God’s wonderful gift of love.
Back to how we quote the Bible… We’ve talked about context. Now let’s mention purpose.
We Christians have a holy obligation to read and share the Bible’s message with profound humility. We must read Scripture in a spirit of self-emptying respect for God, all creation, and ourselves. We faithfully read the Bible with a constant openness of mind and heart, in ready expectation that as we study scripture, it’s for the primary purpose of changing ourselves, even when it hurts, and especially when scripture challenges our tightly-held attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.
Yet if any of us, conservative or progressive, open up the Bible simply to carve out self-justifying talking points or a handy sword to advance our causes, we are well on the road to spiritual blindness and deafness. We shut off the Holy Spirit’s guidance, “…having a form of godliness but denying its power…” (2 Timothy 3:5). At that point, our actions do great harm, especially when laced with our pet Bible verses.
Certainly, the Bible has been used quite prophetically to address evil and injustice. Some of our greatest leaders have lived and taught the scriptures in the heat of their struggles. The Bible has given definition and direction to the cause of life over death. Yet in all these cases, the Bible’s purpose was to bring the good news of liberation, freedom, justice, and righteousness for the greater good of our shared humanity. That’s a far cry from using the Bible to subjugate, exclude, condemn, and repress whole groups of people in the name of tribal, group-think “truth.”
I don’t believe my friend was attempting to harm anyone by quoting scripture. That was never the intent. That said, I think we all have a serious responsibility to pause and ask ourselves a few questions before quoting scripture:
1) Am I truly honoring the context and intended meaning of the verse I am quoting?
2) What kind of impact will I leave on those who hear my message? Will it do good or inflict harm? Will it bear any fruit?
3) How well am I mirroring the presence and love of Christ, even when confronting an evil?
4) What kind of accountability is in place to keep myself from self-deception?
It’s my firm belief that if more of us slowed down, calmed down, and exercised the James 1:29 principle— “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…”— we would do less harm to one another with our words, especially with God’s Word. God has always purposed his Word to be life-giving, not life-taking. That’s the nature of genuine, authentic Truth.
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.
Well… 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.
The late commentator Charles Krauthammer once said that in the newsroom there are always some favorite stories of historical figures that people love to tell, and everyone knows the origins of these tales may be somewhat apocryphal, but we dare not check! They’re that good.
The same is probably true of this famous quote often attributed to St. Augustine:
“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
It may be a misquote of something else Augustine said, or it could be totally apocryphal, but I dare not check. It’s that good… and timely, especially in this moment. (By the way, if you are more scholarly than I am and are tempted to dispel the myth, please don’t spoil it. At least not right now!)
It’s a timely reminder for me and for many fellow United Methodists as we watch the proceedings of a special General Conference Session that is focusing on THE major issue that threatens the future of our church’s unity: homosexuality. I’ve written about this elsewhere, just in case you’re not familiar with what the hubbub is all about.
For me, this season of the church’s life is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and demoralizing. Many of us, who make up almost half of the United Methodist Church, want to see a church in which all perspectives on homosexuality can be honored. Just as importantly, we want a church in which those who are LGBTQ could finally have a full seat at the Lord’s Table, especially in terms of marriage and ordination. At the same time, those of us who cannot accept that kind of inclusiveness would also have a full seat at the table. We want one United Methodist Church with enough room for all of us.
Well, the chances of this happening are not looking very good right now. From what I can surmise, we’re either looking at 1) a far more conservative-leaning church; 2) an ideological split, leading to separate denominations; or 3) no major decision of consequence leading to more angst, uncertainty, and a nasty splintering apart of the church.
Our problems are manifold and maddeningly cyclical:
People of different views are talking past each other, don’t really understand the other, and fundamentally don’t want to be associated with the other.
Ideological factions are fighting for the power to “own” the namesake, spirit, direction, and resources of the church. It’s truly a struggle over power.
We’re insane. We keep using the same means and tactics to solve our problems, each time expecting a different, elusive result.
I have to confess, I have given serious thought to throwing in the towel and giving up on the United Methodist Church for good. I’ve even had fleeting thoughts of giving up on church altogether, at least this manifestation of it. My reasoning: after spending all this time and money for nearly 47 years, all the while doing great harm to people who are LGBTQ, why bother anymore? Surely, I could offer my gifts and graces as a pastor to something that is more functional and less harmful to people I love.
Yet… yet… just tonight, I had three conversations with non-Christian friends and family members of mine. Amazingly, they all said the same thing:
Keep on keeping on.
Be the shepherd and mentor God has called you to be. Don’t give up.
Shine the greater light. Keep yourself open to truth and growth. It will serve you well.
Keep in mind, none of that came from the church. All of it was said by non-Christians, my wider “church family.”
So, I’ve consigned myself to that wonderful, perhaps apocalyptic reflection of St. Augustine: the church is a whore, but she is my mother.
The United Methodist Church, with all her ugly warts, terrible inefficiencies, and gross inadequacies is far removed from the kind of faithful church I want her to be. Yet she is my mother. Admittedly, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I’m far removed from the kind of faithful son of God I should be, too. Perhaps she’s a reflection of me, and I of her.
Still, the United Methodist Church is my mother. She is the church who birthed me through the waters of baptism when I was 18-years-old. God used her to call me into ministry. She’s nurtured that call and has had a huge hand in shaping me into the person I am today.
There have been times when being a disciple of Jesus has meant rejecting the aspects of this mother I can’t stand. On a few occasions, I’ve even had to shout a clear “Hell no!” (literally) to some of her tendencies, attitudes, and values.
But this mother of a church still loves me. (Now I really, really wish she loved some of my other siblings in Christ as much as much as she loves and makes room for me! However…) She’s still here. There’s lots of good in her. I can keep doing some real good with her. Even when she’s got her priorities and focus out of whack, she still does great things. Somehow, the world is a better place because of her.
Oh my Lord, she’s a whore! And yet the Lord knows that and still insists on calling her his bride. There’s no doubt about that. So yes, the United Methodist Church is my mother, and I’ll always be her child, even if that means the possibility of one day striking out in a different direction. But for now, I will continue to struggle with her, for her sake, mine, and for the sake of the world that Christ died to save.
At this moment we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that long expanse between cold reality and the desired future we know exists. In the end, when all is said and done, the struggle will have been well worth it. That’s God’s promise. And as hard as it is to say right now, she, this sordid church mother of mine, is worth it, too.
One of my Facebook friends asked a provocative question.
To place his question in context, in case you’ve not heard, the United Methodist Church is at a schismatic loggerheads over the issue of human sexuality, specifically on whether or not openly LGBTQ persons can be married in our churches by our clergy and licensed or ordained as ministers. We’ve been at this debate now for nearly 47 years, and in less than two weeks, delegates from our worldwide church will meet to (hopefully) decide our collective fate. In any case, we’re more than likely looking at some degree of fracturing over this issue.
So, my friend made an observation and asked me to comment on it:
Presumably you did not just one day decide that being a pastor would be a cool profession but believed that God called you to the vocation. Given that God has called you to that vocation, what is your response if the church tells you that you are not fit to be a pastor? The Bible is replete with references of God using what others might consider broken to do His work. Indeed, from God’s aspect, we could all be considered broken vessels.
Very good point. I’m assuming, hopefully not in error, that my friend is making the case that we are all imperfect, broken vessels, and God makes use of our lives anyway. I can certainly vouch for that. So, his case continues, why then would we single out someone’s sexual orientation as an absolute litmus test for ministerial fitness. (That’s presuming, of course, that a sexual orientation other than “straight” is an area of brokenness. I’ll address that below.)
In response to my friend, I wrote the following, and modified it a bit for this post: I know that nothing I say here will change anyone’s mind. The lines are clearly drawn and most everyone is well beyond reasonable dialogue. But since you asked…
I’m first and foremost a student of the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, and the written Word (our Bible). I discern truth by asking how Christ and the timeless truth of Scripture play themselves out through our long tradition, through the filter of sober reasoning, and within the scope of our experience. (That’s the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) I state all that to lay the groundwork for what follows.
You originally asked what I would do if the church told me I was not fit to be a pastor, even if I was called, gifted, and graced to serve the church in this role. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question because up until this point, the church has never invalidated me or my call. And if the church ever did negate my call or fitness for ministry, I’d have to evaluate those circumstances then.
However, I do know some folks who have been forced into this terrible dilemma. They are authentically Christ-like, gifted, graced, called people whom I would be honored to have as colleagues. But because of their sexual orientation, they are denied commissioning and ordination in the United Methodist Church, under our current code of church law. I know what the Bible says about sin and homosexuality, and I have made the case elsewhere that what the Bible condemns as sexual sin on the one hand, and the lives of our LGBTQ Christian brothers and sisters on the other hand, is NOT the same thing. I honor both the truth of Scripture and the personhood of these folks, without violating either one, at least in my mind and heart.
Some of these folks— a few are gay and a few are lesbian— have chosen to be ordained by another faith tradition that would honor their call. They are happily and effectively serving congregations who value their faith, graces and gifts. Praise God for that!
Other folks have chosen to stay with us as United Methodists and struggle on for change. They’re not angry zealots, at least the ones I know. They are patiently, persistently working towards change by sharing their living witness. I must say, rarely have I found their kind of graciousness and courage mirrored by most other Christians I know.
(As for the issue of same-sex marriage… I’m supportive of clergy celebrating them and churches hosting them per se, but I don’t think our progressive/liberal friends have done enough biblical and theological homework to demonstrate how marriage can be so radically redefined. The issue of same-sex marriage is far more than a matter of equal rights and equal access. We’re really talking about the redefinition of marriage as an entire institution, and I don’t feel that we have done nearly enough deeper, higher level biblical and theological work to understand same-sex marriage as a celebration or sacrament of the church. So far, we have been content to dig in to those tired, entrenched arguments— equal rights vs. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”— and fight it out. Not good.)
So… all this to say that yes, I’m in support of the One Church Plan, and firmly so. It’s our best option to move forward together. The One Church Plan would allow clergy, congregations, and Annual Conferences the latitude to decide for themselves how they will be in ministry with our LGBTQ neighbors, and would allow Annual Conferences to determine if they will or will not license and ordained LGBTQ persons for ministry. It recognizes that we are all United Methodists, and choose to remain together as one church while giving each other some contextual breathing room to be in ministry, in the ways we discern the Holy Spirit is leading us.
Some may stop me here and ask, “How can the Holy Spirit guide one group of people a certain way, and another group in a very different way? Isn’t that pneumatological confusion?”
Ultimately, God and God’s church is so much bigger and expansive than we try to make it. That’s always been the case. Look at how Jesus operated in the gospels, and you’ll see what I mean. Just as in Jesus’ circle there was room for Pharisee and sinner, zealot and tax collector, men and women, Samaritan and Jew, there’s room for all of us, conservative and liberal and all in between, because we all hold to Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5). Jesus and the ancient church never demanded uniform conformity on much of anything except in our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Christ. (Credal conformity was a much later development.)
Yet here we are, and tragically, we have elevated this issue of human sexuality to the forefront of everything else as the make or break item, and because we have, we are irreconcilable in our differences. The conservative and liberal extremes have brokered our church’s unity into an all or nothing paradigm, between biblical integrity and justice, as if one could ever be separable from the other. We need both things held in dynamic tension within one church. Too few, however, want to hold this tension for long, meaning that ultimately, in one way or another, we’re going to split.
And we’re all going to pay for it, no matter how “gracious” we intend to be while parting ways.
To the prospect of a split, I say without apology: shame on us. We’re only damaging ourselves, our witness, and our ability to live out the Great Commission. The ideological golden calves we have fashioned and worshipped for the past 47 years have distracted us from our worship and trust of the One God who has made us all, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, in his image. But one day, those golden calves will be burned and ground up, and we’ll be forced to repent by drinking the bitter water of our idolatry. Or we will cease to be the church.
That said, no matter what happens, the Church Universal will go on, and as a pastor of the Church, I will, too, in one way or another. And thankfully, no one has disqualified me from living out God’s call on my life… at least not yet.
Six years ago, I can’t imagine any of us would have predicted that the Supreme Court of the United States would issue a ruling involving a wedding cake (or lack thereof), but it’s a sign of the times in which we live. And in all times, often the most fundamental Constituitonal issues are decided within the scope of seemingly trivial, mundane, everyday things.
For example, six years ago, David Mullins and Charlie Craig went into Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado to order a cake for their upcoming wedding. Shop owner Jack Phillips refused to make the cake citing his particular Christian belief that does not recognize same-sex marriages. In his view, homosexuality and same-sex relationships are sinful, so he could not apply his craft to contribute to an event he found to be religiously objectionable. From there, complaints were filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and suddenly the case became a struggle between religious liberty/freedom of conscious vs. equal treatment/anti-discrimination, a struggle which made its way to Washington, D.C. and into the hall of the United States Supreme Court.
The Court ruled in a stunning 7-2 majority decision that Jack Phillips was in his right to refuse to make the cake, citing the First Amendment and freedom of religion. No governmental agency could compel him to act or produce something that violates his long-established religious beliefs. There was also some heavy consideration given to the fact that the same Colorado Civil Rights Commission which had upheld other cakemakers’ religious freedoms to not produce products that violated their beliefs declined Jack Phillips’ own religious objection, establishing a clear bias and disparity.
Understandably, the reaction has been swift and passionate. Some are celebrating a victory for conservative values and freedom of religion. Others are condeming a decision that upholds bigotry and economic discrimination under the guise of religious belief.
As for me, I’ve made the argumentmultiple times that the kind of biblical theology espoused by fellow Christians like Jack Phillips is a poor, shallow reading of the Bible that does incredible harm to people. I predict that the days of the church shutting its doors on the full inclusion of LGBTQ people will come to an end within my lifetime. When that finally happens, the church and the whole world will be so much better served with the good news of Jesus that affirms grace and redemptive love for all people. Period. No if’s, and’s, but’s, or fancy qualifiers.
In the meantime, however, there are Christians like Jack Phillips, and as much as I reject his reading of the Bible, he has every right to believe it and to do nothing that violates his conscious. That is the definition of religious freedom.
America was established to be a liberally generous nation, but we are living in quite illiberal times. People want freedom, but they don’t tolerate the freedoms of those whose speech and actions offend their their convictions and sensibilities. In a related though slightly tangential way, we’re seeing this same struggle playing out in the NFL with football players who have refused to stand for the National Anthem.
Let me stop right here and state as emphatically as I can that by no means am I placing Jack Phillips’ conservative views on same-sex marriage and black football players’ protest against racial injustice on the same moral plane. Not at all. But that’s not the point.
The point is that these are Americans exercising their freedom of conscious, freedoms which are deeply American and enshrined within our founding documents. (The NFL as an employer recently made its decisions, and we’ll see how well they play out economically, politically, and legally.)
For now though, we live in a three way tension between cultural tribalism (warring social and political tribes highly intolerant of views or people outside of their tightly defined ideological parameters), the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and religious freedom.
I think it is an absolute travesty that religious freedom and civil rights should ever be in tension with each other, as in the case of a wedding cake. But tragically that is the case.
I also firmly reject cultural tribalism. I will rejoice when we can find an end to this kind of destructive behavior.
For now, however, it is incumbent upon us to uphold both religious freedom for people like Jack Phillips and the struggle for civil rights for our neighbors of any minority group. We need both things, even if when they are at odds with each other. The moment our government denies any kind of religious freedom by dictating thought and behavior which violate one’s religious convictions, we’re living under tyranny. And just as important, it is the role of our government to protect the civil rights of all Americans, including our LGBTQ neighbors. Otherwise, we’re living with injustice.
Here’s the strange stew we find ourselves in. Gay and lesbian people have a protected right to marry. And as terrible as one’s religious beliefs may be, one can refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. Both are Constitutionally just. There’s always another cake store, and as our culture continues to shift towards the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, the Jack Phillips’ of the world will find themselves increasingly on the cultural and economic outs.
For today, we can all eat our cake. Our cake’s batter is made of good religion and bad religion, freedom of religion or no religion, freedom from government sanctioned religion, civil rights and the struggle for civil rights. The icing on this strange cake is our individual freedom to put our money into the businesses and organizations which match our values. Granted, it’s a peculiar cake recipe, and some are having a hard time stomaching it, but like it or not, this cake is oddly, painfully, and wonderfully American.
Hopefully over time, we can build upon and in some cases drastically improve the recipe!
[This a sermon I shared with Trinity UMC on Sunday May 13, 2018. The biblical text was Romans 1:18-2:5.
I’m sure some of us are asking why we are talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and issues on Mother’s Day of all days. Well, in some ways, it’s quite fitting. Ultimately we’re not just talking about issues, beliefs, and rules. We’re talking about people. And each of these people has a mother— a mother who has gone through on a much deeper level the struggle we all have of learning how to love, understand and include other people.
A Tale of Two Mothers
Today, I’d like to honor two mothers I know very well. (To safeguard their privacy, I’m keeping their names anonymous.) These mothers are very different women, yet they both have two things in common.
First, they both have a child who is homosexual. One has a daughter and one has a son. Here’s the second thing they have in common: they unconditionally love their children— one who is gay and one who is lesbian.
They have both been fully involved in their children’s lives and the lives of their respective partners. They’re proud of their children and fully support them. Indeed, these two children have wonderful mothers whom I would be privileged to have as a mother, too.
As I mentioned, these mothers are also quite different. One mother embraces her child’s sexuality with no condition and with full acceptance. The other mother has found her child’s sexuality to be unbiblical therefore sinful.
But here’s the beautiful thing: just watching these mothers unconditionally love their children, we would never know they had any kind of ideological difference between them. They are mothers who love, nurture, and fully support their children. They remind us that when it comes to loving and nurturing our children, ideology rarely comes into play.
What’s the Controversy All About?
So, back to the issues… A lot of people ask me what all the controversy is about. Why are we as a local church and denomination caught in a debate about LGBTQ people, homosexuality in particular?
Right now, the future unity of United Methodist Church sits on a knife’s edge directly over the matter of homosexuality and three questions in particular:
1) Is homosexuality sinful or not?
2) Can same-sex marriages be performed by our clergy and in our churches?
3) Can people who are LGBTQ be licensed and ordained as clergy?
The United Methodist Church has been locked in this debate since 1972. (Not to make you feel old, but that’s longer than I’ve been alive!) In 1972, the UMC took a stance on homosexuality, stating that it is incompatible with Christian teaching. Through the years the rules have gotten more specific, stating quite explicitly that self-avowed “practicing” homosexuals cannot be licensed or ordained as clergy and cannot be married in our churches or by our clergy.
The UMC has not clearly addressed how we understand people who are bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. This morning, I don’t have time to explore all of this here. Yet by and large the debate has been around homosexuality.
Ideologically, there are three main camps of people.
In one camp are those who want gay and lesbian people fully included in the church. They want to see marriage and ordination completely opened to people who are gay or lesbian.
To make their argument, they say several things. They state that all people are made in God’s image, and that some, for no fault of their own, have been born as gay or lesbian. That is their God-given identity. They state that Jesus never taught on homosexuality, and that Jesus challenged social norms that excluded groups of people from the faith community.
Furthermore, the few places where the Bible addresses homosexuality do not apply to people who are gay or lesbian living in covenanted relationships.
In the second camp are those who uphold and are striving to protect our Book of Discipline’s teachings and standards on homosexuality. They believe the Bible clearly teaches that all homosexuality is sinful. God made marriage for one man and one woman. Thus, people who are in homosexual relationships are living in sin and should not be married or ordained.
In the third camp are those who feel caught in the middle of this massive debate without strongly holding any particular ideological view. These people are more interested in loving and not judging, and they want to move on from the debate to just being the church.
As you can see, there is a lot of divergence on the issues related to homosexuality. And once again, it’s over a range of issues including biblical interpretation, the definition of marriage, and our standards for ordination.
From My Non-Religious Friends
So, once again I turned to my non-religious friends to get their reaction to Christians and the LGBTQ community. Let me tell you, I was not prepared for the Pandora’s Box of highly emotional responses I got. Clearly I touched a raw nerve within these friends.
Their response reminded me of studies conducted with non-religious young adults. When these young adults were asked what they think about the church, typically their top answers have been: hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay.
I’m going to share a few things folks said. In all fairness I’ve had to edit them quite a bit without losing the essence of their thoughts. As always, by hearing these folks, I’m not asking you to agree with them. I am asking you to listen and to try to understand them. We can offer that to anyone, regardless of how much we agree or not agree.
One friend who has a child who is transgender said,
The problem stems with the Bible. I realize that it’s Old Testament and a lot of folks discount much of what’s in the Old Testament, often touting the New Testament as being the kinder, gentler portion of the Bible. And while it’s often argued that “being gay isn’t the problem, acting gay is” … in other words, you can be gay as long as you act straight … that argument is idiotic. It’s a bit like telling a cat that it’s okay to be a cat, as long as you can bark like a dog.
And it leads to oppression and persecution, because it allows, or in fact, demands, that homosexuals, and other members of the LGBTQ community be persecuted. It is, to me, one of the most heinous parts of the Bible, and the Christian religion. And it’s unforgivable to me. I know those are very strong words, and I usually try to temper my words with as much understanding as I can. But this part stirs me up so much that I find myself being angry and resentful.
Another friend who identifies as queer— in other words, not having a definite sense of sexuality or even gender says,
I’m queer and there are many parts of this country I don’t feel safe in. If god created all things, then god created me and other LGBTQ people. Sadly the more Christian the environment the less safe I feel. I work at a suicide prevention hotline and we have many callers who have self harmed or have thought about killing themselves for something they have no control over. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of parents abandoning their children for being honest about who they are. You have not failed as a parent if your kid is LGBTQ. You have failed as a parent and as a Christian if you abandon your child for being who they are. People are literally dying because of the archaic views perpetuated by the church. Before you speak out and criticize someone for who they are, remember that what you say has an impact and can cost someone their life.
When I asked my friends what they would like to see the church do better, one friend replied,
In my rosiest day-dreaming, the churches would own up to what they have done and take a stand for change. “Just like scriptures were once used as an excuse for slavery,” they would say, “we have also used them to justify misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other despicable attitudes. No more! We must now admit that Jesus never spoke about sexual orientation, and that even Leviticus has so much more to say about drunkenness and food restrictions than about homosexuality. We should have not used these few words to ruin the lives of so many people. We are sorry and we will try, for the rest of our lives, to make up for our mistakes.
So… where do I personally sit with these issues regarding our LGBTQ neighbors?
First let me say that I have not addressed these issues very much with you because literally no one has ever asked me what I think. And I’ve been okay with that, actually. I have not wanted these issues to become a distraction for us. We have a mission to fulfill of becoming like Christ and sharing his gospel with the world. I don’t want anything to take our eyes off of Christ and the mission he has put us on.
I have not wanted— and I still don’t want anyone— to hear what I say and use it to justify and strengthen their own hardened position.
Worse yet, I have not wanted to share what I believe and have someone come to the conclusion that if I believed all that then they could no longer have me as their pastor and Trinity as their church, especially since there are far larger and more important things we do agree on.
I share with you today, asking that you receive what I say as my personal, biblical convictions. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I would like you all to take a step back and listen, not only to what I say, but also to why I say it.
To get at that, let me tell you a bit of my journey with these issues.
Before becoming a Christian when I 18-years-old, I had no opinion one way or another about gay and lesbian people, other than the typical stereotypes most of us had.
As I came into the church, I heard my pastor teach from the Bible showing quite emphatically that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. One of the main passages he used was our passage from Romans. So, I took that as my point of view, quite stridently. I didn’t hate gay or lesbian people. I did not reject them. For me, it was simply a matter of upholding the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God and upholding its teachings.
As I continued to grow, I began to meet and get to know gay and lesbian people. The first thing I began to see is how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not just a matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay and lesbian in first place. And it has to do with how we Christians relate to and minister with gay and lesbian people.
I also heard many, many stories of gay Christians who grew up knowing that they were somehow different. They prayed and prayed for God to make them straight and take away these feelings towards people of the same gender. Many even tried straight relationships. After causing immense pain to themselves and to others, they came to accept themselves for being gay. In other words, it was not a choice to be gay. While they would have rather been straight to avoid all the stigmas of being gay, they came to the conclusion that they are who they are. More importantly, they came to realize that God loves them for who they are.
I have spent countless hours reading Scripture and getting to know gay and lesbian people better. All along, my desire has been to be true to Christ and true to the Bible’s teachings. I have wanted do so in a way that meets the reality of the gay and lesbian people I know.
I believe the strongest, most applicable passage from the Bible that addresses homosexuality is the passage in Romans 1:18-32. In a nutshell, it says that the very humanity of people has become corroded and corrupted by our turning away from God.
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. Romans 1:18-19
Since we have turned away from God, Paul says,
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.
God’s punishment for turning away from God is to give us over to very worst of ourselves.
From there Paul gives a whole list of things that illustrate the worst of humanity turned away from God. He says,
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.
Then it gets worse. Paul says,
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.
In other words, we are made by God in God’s image. So when we purposefully turn away from God, we turn away from the source of our humanity. Then we become sub-human and animalistic. We even embody evil itself.
We see this kind of awful sub-humanity all the time, don’t we? We see it in the news. We see people we know acting this way. Sometimes we even see it in ourselves.
A prime manifestation of sub-human evil in Paul’s day was temple prostitution. Men and women would go in to pagan temples and do unspeakable, lust-filled things with both men and women, even when they were heterosexual. That’s what Paul means when he says that men and women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, lust-filled relations, all with the intent of merely using other people for their own desire and pleasure.
So the question is, does this awful picture of humanity describe all gay and lesbian people?
The answer for me, quite clearly, is NO!
There are certainly heterosexual and homosexual people who act out of lust and use other people for pleasure. Young people today call this “hooking up.” That is a terrible travesty of the gift of sexuality God has given us. Adultery, hooking up, one night stands, and any other kind of sexual activity outside the covenant of a firm, lifelong commitment between two people is always a degrading of our bodies. It degrades God’s gift of sexuality and is therefore sinful.
But this doesn’t at all describe the relationship between two people of the same gender who make a lifelong commitment to one another, and now within the bond of a legal marriage.
In other words, the kind of homosexuality the Bible condemns does not describe gay and lesbian people who are committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship. These people are not degrading, abusing, or lusting after each other. These folks are committed to mutually nurturing love, commitment, and respect, just like heterosexual couples.
I don’t understand same-sex orientation and attraction. Because you and I have been raised in a culture which has shunned and closeted same-sex relationships, it all does seem strange to me.
But I’ve come to learn two things: first, same-sex relationships are authentically loving and nurturing. Secondly, the kind of degrading, lustful, abusive, coercive homosexuality the Bible describes does not fit the gay and lesbian people I know.
There is certainly homosexuality and heterosexuality that is degrading, abusive, and lustful, but in the case of two people committed to a lifelong covenant of love, it is not.
So that said, doesn’t the Bible establish marriage and sexuality as between a man and a woman? The answer that is yes- most definitely, yes. In the beginning were Adam and Eve. From there, the Bible celebrates the love and commitment between a man and a woman.
Yet that does not necessarily exclude the loving fidelity and commitment between people of the same gender.
Surely then, with this kind of open-armed invitation, God makes room for gay and lesbian people who are striving to be God’s holy people.
I know many people who are gay and lesbian who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and are baptized and Holy Spirit-gifted. They clearly demonstrate Christ-like love, holiness and leadership. Their lives are exemplary. They often far exceed straight people in the their ability to offer grace and love.
To say that gay and lesbian people do not have an equal share at the table of Christ with us is a travesty to their humanity, an insult to their baptism, and a blatant denial of the fact that they are made in God’s image and are restored by grace, just like you and me.
So as a human being and as a pastor, I am committed to embracing and fully including my LGBTQ neighbors as fellow sinners along with me. They are just as much in need of God’s grace as I am- no more and no less.
I’d like to switch gears now and address three important questions some of you may be asking.
Some may be asking: “Do you or would you conduct same-sex marriages?”
The answer is no. Our Book of Discipline outlaws this. Purposefully going against the Book of Discipline is a very serious matter, and at this point, I have not felt convicted to break this critical standard of our church.
Some others may be asking: “Do you support someone who is gay or lesbian being ordained?” If they meet all of the qualifications set forth in the Discipline, if they exhibit outstanding Christian character and are single living in celibacy or faithful in marriage, then yes.
However, this is difficult, too. Our Discipline outlaws gay and lesbian people becoming clergy. As I just mentioned, intentionally breaking our church’s Discipline is a grave matter. It’s something I take very seriously.
Thirdly, some may be saying, “All my life I’ve been taught that homosexuality is sinful. Now you’re trying to tell me that it’s not?” I’ve tried to show us this morning that it’s not simple.
As I’ve said, there are forms of homosexuality that are every bit as sinful as some forms of heterosexual sex. (In fact, the Bible has far more to say about heterosexual sin than homosexual sin.)
But a covenanted monogamous relationship is not the kind of homosexual sin the Bible was talking about.
And just because we’ve been taught something all our lives doesn’t necessarily make it true.
For example, many, many people have been taught that Bible establishes black people as inferior to white people. People have used Genesis 9:25 to make their point. And from a very basic reading of the Bible, it would seem that over and over again the Bible upholds slavery.
But we know full well that slavery is evil. We know full well that black people and white people are intrinsically equal in every way.
So to read the Bible in a way that merely affirms our prejudices is bad biblical interpretation! Let me say that again: Reading the Bible in a way that merely re-affirms our prejudices and our stereotypes of people, especially our LGBTQ neighbors, is a terrible misreading of the Bible. Where Do We Go from Here?
Now, with all that said, where do we go from here?
I fully recognize that many of us here don’t see things the way I do. I want you to know, that’s okay.
This is a difficult issue. So, I do not look down on people who believe differently than me or read the Bible differently than I do on issues about human sexuality.
The simple fact is, there is an enormous amount we already do agree on- very important and more important things. As it says in book of Ephesians:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
That is just as true, no matter how we come down on issues of human sexuality.
Not only that, but right after Paul laid down that awful picture of humanity without God, he says to God’s own people,
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
In other words, when we judge and condemn other people for any reason, we judge and condemn ourselves. We forget that we are messed up sinners, too- people in need of continual repentance and forgiveness of our sin.
As a congregation we do not see the same on these issues. Many of us passionately believe different things about human sexuality. We are deeply conservative, very liberal, and everywhere in between.
I respect that because I respect you.
I do believe we can make room for each other because we’re all disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Christ laid down his life for each of us, we can put our differences aside to love and lay down our lives for each other.
We have our differences, yes. Yet you and I decide what to do with those differences.
If we allow our differences to divide and distract us, then we’re letting the devil have his way. The devil wants us to take sides, divide, fight, and walk away from each other.
But if we commit ourselves to humility, to respect and to Christ-like love, then we can continue on, committed to Christ’s mission of taking his good news to all people. After all, at the end of the day, everything I’ve mentioned here boils down to God and to people.
I worship a God who sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for all people. That means I am committed to loving, serving and including all people— all of you and all of our neighbors. I hope you’ll do the same for me, for each other, and for all of our neighbors, gay or straight.
In that way we will continue to crucify the unChristian tendencies within us to judge, make and choose sides, to exclude, to hate, to gossip and slander.
Then we become fully like Christ who died on the cross and was risen for us and for all people everywhere. Amen.
At 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.
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.