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.