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.
This is the question haunting my beloved United Methodist Church: what kind of church will we be? As the delegates from our worldwide UMC connection meet as a General Conference over the next four days in St. Louis, MO, this is surely the question of the hour. After their work is through, what kind of church will we be?
It’s almost too painfully cliché to ask this question, let alone write (yet another!) blog post on it. So why bother?
Well, I am still stunned— in awe, really— that the most compelling visions for what the United Methodist Church can be and should be are so incredibly disparate. Many are struggling for a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people, in marriage and ordination, especially. Many others are struggling for a church that upholds biblical authority, particularly as it pertains to traditional understandings of human sexuality. These are two different visions from two very different starting places of concern.
And yet, I find a glaring irony behind these disparate visions: we would be loath to find any General Conference delegate who does not cherish both an inclusive church and a church formed under biblical authority, no matter their starting assumptions! That may seem incredibly obvious to all who have been deep in the conversation, but it’s clear from the pre-General Conference rhetoric I’ve seen that many of us still don’t really appreciate that about each other. One group believes that they possess the most genuine vision of what real inclusiveness is all about. Meanwhile, another group claims to have thetrue, faithful grasp on the Bible’s teaching regarding human sexuality, that they are the ones who truly uphold biblical authority. Yet we all claim to walk as inclusive, biblical Christians, obviously with varying understandings of what this means!
So it’s now a tug-of-war between which vision of inclusiveness and biblical authority will garner the most votes. And again, as it has been since 1972, this fight will result in winners and losers, all equally claiming to be in the right, on God’s side, of course. Except this time, there is the strong gumption, on both the progressive and the conservative wings of the church, to part ways, if their respective vision of “what kind of church we will be” does not prevail.
It’s deeply troubling for me to even imagine splitting apart like that.
I have to confess, I do not know what will come of things, and that has me feeling quite anxious right now. I know I’m not alone in harboring this kind of fear. If you’re still reading this and have a stake in what’s happening, you’ve probably got some share of the anxiety bug, too. Just admit it!
So I offer both myself and you a biblical thought that just might ease off the anxiety and lead to the best future for the United Methodist Church, come what may.
“…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
1 John 4:16-18
John Wesley quoted from the biblical book of 1 John a lot, especially when talking about being perfected in love. Deeply profound passages like this one certainly explain why.
We all know it, and yet we easily forget it. At the end of the day, and in the great Right Now of our lives, it all really does boil down to love, or a lack of it. If we want to understand love, then go deeper in God. If we want to understand God, then go deeper in love. Daring to surrender ourselves to this intimate power of Love, a Love we all hunger for, forces our shadows of fear, judgment, and rejection to simply fade away into the nothingness they really are. All that’s left is the bond of God, made known in God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for one another, gathered within the sacred “love dance” of the Triune God.
The presence of fear, suspicion, anger, accusations, side-taking, ideological banner-waving, and self-righteous crusading, is the conspicuous absence of love. I know that sounds so naïvely obvious. Yet for Christ’s sake and ours, could we not pause long enough to call out all this shadowy behavior for what it is— the rejection of Love for the expediency of power— and reclaim God who is Love, and Love who is God? Could we claim Love to effectively exorcise our demonic tendencies to glorify our positions, stances, and political tactics to the detriment of our brothers and sisters? Let’s try it.
Looking at things again as I bring myself back down from my lofty “love” perch for just a moment, it may very well be that a unified church is simply not possible. If we’re honest, we don’t have a “United” Methodist Church now. I have desperately wanted us to remain one united church. I still do. I’ve prayed and worked for it.
If it’s simply not possible, we may be forced to painfully admit it and own up to our failure. It may very well be a sober admission of “it is what it is.”
But no matter where we find ourselves, even between the most gaping ideological divides, we still have the opportunity to be the living incarnation of Love towards one another. If that alone could happen— if we could truly grasp the depths of Love for one another— it would be a powerful witness. And then, the crucified Christ who embodies our collective sin and failure could be glorified in our midst, even if his Body is still broken on the cross of our shortcomings.
If we simply let it all go, rest in Love, and unconditionally give this gift to one another… If we could put flesh to the presence of God who is Love among us, then maybe… just maybe… we could all discover the glimpses of a compelling vision for what the whole Church could be, no matter what becomes of our beloved United Methodist Church.
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.
This year, 2018 marks 18 Annual Conferences I have attended with my Baltimore-Washington Conference. (That number seems like a lot to me, but it’s meager compared to a whole lot of other people!).
Without a doubt, this year’s 234th Annual Conference is certainly the heaviest I have ever felt.
At the center of our time together has been a full display of our division and discord over human sexuality and specifically two people, both married to someone of the same gender, who have been seeking commissioning and ordination as clergy within our Conference. Serving as a backdrop to all our proceedings has been the theme of our Conference sessions— “We are One Beneath the Cross” It has been a constant reminder of the tragically ironic tension in our midst: in a Christological sense we are one, but in many ways, with our differences over human sexuality and the looming threat of denominational schism, we are clearly not one.
After our Clergy Executive Session on Wednesday, in which these two siblings in Christ were not recommended for commissioning and ordination, I have tried to take a collective pulse of our Conference. That’s been hard to do. I sense much fear for our future, frustration, deep sorrow, betrayal, anger, disillusionment, numbness, and yes, some hope, too.
Yet one thing most of us can agree on: our Annual Conference is broken. As Bishop Easterling just wrote to us, there were no winners as a result of our deliberations over human sexuality and our gay and lesbian brother and sister in Christ.
So I wonder, in all of our deliberations, why has no one asked, “What would Jesus do?”
Sure, over the last several days, the question has been hinted at and perhaps included in some more theologically nuanced statements and questions. But I’ve not heard anyone ask, and repeatedly ask, “What would Jesus do?”
Well, given our diversity and divisions, undoubtedly there would be no consensus around an answer to that question! What would Jesus do? Lob that onto the Conference floor and settle in for a very long, tedious, painful debate.
But perhaps there is a way to answer this simple question, and the answer has been expressing itself within a major symbol on the Conference floor stage: the cross.
Whenever Jesus taught his disciples how to follow him and to be like him, the cross always loomed large, shaping his entire outlook on what it means to live, love, and die. He said it most emphatically like this:
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
There it is. What would Jesus do? Take up his cross. And ultimately that means surrender. In his surrender, Jesus became crucified and broken for the brokenness of all humanity, for all time.
Back to our brokenness as a Conference… I believe it is a broken, crucified Jesus who speaks most deeply and powerfully into our brokenness and failure. This broken Jesus speaks, simply by offering us his wounds— wounds from his crucifixion, wounds he suffered to directly address and heal our wounds.
What would Jesus have us do?
First, gazing at his cross, we can admit to our utter brokenness and failure. We can weep and mourn. We can stop the denial game and come to grips fully with our inability to be the church united in purpose, vision, and spirit.
And then, in our brokenness, Jesus invites us to be crucified with him. We can learn what it means to surrender our wills, our wants, the things we fight and strive for, and the blistering battles we have won or failed to win. In Christ, we can learn what it means to crucify all of that and to finally lay down our lives for God and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The bleak nadir of our brokenness and failure, with the cross in the middle of it all, can be a new birthplace for us to rise up together into a uniquely humble, shared cruciform life, a life unapologetically surrendered to God and for the welfare of one another, all for the sake of Christ. No agendas. No fights. No more cold proceedings and rules to determine our collective fate. Only love.
Love. That sounds just as profoundly naive as “What would Jesus do?” And yet, didn’t Jesus also tell us that his newest and greatest command is to love one another? Note: he gave no qualifiers to muck up and complicate the simple profundity of this command.
So what does all this look like for me?
Personally, I am terribly hurt, upset, and angry over our inability to commission and ordain people like T.C. Morrow and Joey Heath-Mason. I have wanted a church that allows clergy, congregations, and Conferences to discern their ministry context and to follow their conscious as to matters of inclusiveness and human sexuality. And I have wanted a church that fully embraces the gifts and call of all people.
However, for the sake of the cross, the church, and the world, I am surrendering my wants and desires. I’m crucifying the urge within me to fight for what I want. Instead, I am offering my life wholly to God, asking that God would use me only as God wills, come what may. I want to do this daily as Jesus commanded. And I want to lay down my life for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to bless each of them, love them dearly, passionately and unconditionally, supporting the call and life of each of them, with no agenda except blessing them in real, live-giving ways.
That may sound… naive, simplistic, irresponsible, dangerous, and even heretical. But isn’t that what Jesus did? And the ones who crucified him called him all those things.
One beneath the cross. That will truly happen when we embrace these words of the Apostle Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Let it be so in me, and in all of us. That’s what a broken Jesus did and continues to do within our brokenness and failure.
[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.
I was sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car and saw the oncoming vehicle quickly pull out into the intersection in front of us. There was no way to avoid hitting that car. All I could do was close my eyes and brace for the inevitable. CRASH! Even with my futile efforts to brace myself, I got pretty banged up and took an ambulance ride to the hospital. (My sister’s car was totaled, but thank God, no one in either car was seriously hurt.)
Last Tuesday I published a blog post giving my support to a sister-in-Christ, Tara “T.C.” Morrow, a woman married to another woman, who is seeking ordination as a Deacon in our United Methodist Church. I have not publicly shared my views on LGBTQI+ issues for at least four years, opting instead to be a voice for dialogue, mutual respect, and a way forward– work to which I am still strongly committed. But I felt a firm push from Holy Spirit to speak out for T.C., and so I did.
Then I braced myself for the inevitable crash. But then again, why put myself in this position at all?
After watching T.C. Morrow denied commissioning as a Provisional Deacon simply because she is a lesbian, I could not remain silent anymore. To block her path to fulfilling God’s call upon her life as a servant of the church is to depreciate her Christian character, her gifts, graces, her place in the church, and even the integrity of her relationship with Jesus Christ. That is a travesty which damages her and the whole Body of Christ, and it was time for me to say something about it.
In so doing, I knew there would be backlash. It didn’t come at first. In fact I was surprised by all the overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially from folks I didn’t expect to hear from. But then like a tsunami wave, the backlash hit. I’m sure there will be more surges to come.
In writing this post, I went back to re-read some of the comments from my conservative siblings in Christ. Here’s how they reacted to my post:
“…bending Scripture to suit… [your] desires”
“Pastors and church leaders will be held accountable for preaching false doctrine and misleading their ‘flocks'”.
“You are building a house on sand.”
“…teaching that lust is not a sin.”
“…calling sin something else and refusing to call people to holiness – that’s a serious problem.”
“May it never be said of me that I affirmed anyone in their sin. Do not be deceived.”
“There is no love in this. This is nothing but eisegesis.” [Eisegesis is expressing one’s own personal ideas instead of lifting up the meaning of the biblical text.]
And there have been other comments and inferences to the effect that I’ve thrown out, ignored, or perverted Scripture, that I’m accommodating societal sin, that I don’t understand true love, that I’ve been led astray, that I’m turning a blind eye to sin, calling evil good, blah, blah, blah…
Nobody has explicitly accused me of apostasy yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.
What gets to me about all the criticism, however, is that much of it is arguments in a vacuum. Folks are thinking and arguing for principles that do not intersect reality. Yet when confronted with reality, they hot-skip through it like bare feet on hot coals in order to stay put in their disembodied principle bubbles. This occurred to me after I read and re-read many carefully articulated arguments about how sinful homosexuality is, and about how folks like me are supposedly bending the Bible and church law to accommodate our agendas.
So let’s talk about accommodating agendas. That’s the first argument in a vacuum. It’s clear that at present the only agenda the United Methodist Church is accommodating is the conservative majority’s on this issue. Their attitude that ordaining someone like T.C. Morrow would be “accommodating” sin tragically misses the point. It ignores all of the gifts that people like her bring to the church. Anyone who does not know, refuses to know, or refuses to see all the blessings, gifts and graces that people like T.C. bring to the Christ’s Body, opting instead to throw her and other gifted and grace-filled gay and lesbian Christians into a garbage can category of “sexually sinful,” demonstrate the principle vacuum they choose to indwell.
That leads to the second argument vacuum of my critics- that all gays and lesbians in committed relationships are living in sin. I’ve tried to make the biblical argument that folks like T.C. Morrow are not “living in sin,” but let’s also look at the fruit of their lives, which is something my critics at times blatantly ignore. Living in sin blunts a person’s entire existence. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). I think we would all agree that sexual sin is so fundamentally damaging because sexuality is a key aspect of our humanity. Sexual sin or any other deeply ingrained sin affects the quality of our relationships with God and others and mars our psychological and emotional well-being, our self-worth, and our judgment. Denial and lies become second nature. Live with a lie long enough, and our whole lives become a deception designed to keep the lie of sin in darkness.
It’s hard to say emphatically enough that this does not at all describe so many gay and lesbian Christians I know! They are powerful disciples of Jesus, whole, emotionally and spiritually healthy, balanced, everyday people. Their lives exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no lie or denial. Granted, many have had to grapple with the emotional and spiritual pain of coming to grips with their sexuality, but that stems from being gay and lesbian in a larger world and church culture that is hostile to them. Aside from this very real struggle, gay and lesbian people are just as whole and healthy in Christ as straight people. To then turn around and say that these same folks are broken in sexual sin is a statement made from ignorance, plain and simple.
In my Facebook feed, one friend, a gay man in a committed relationship, went through great pains to share how balanced, happy, healthy and fulfilled he is, especially in how he applies Christ-like principles to his life and relationships. (I’m sure that’s not the first or the last time this man has had to prove that he’s “normal”- something us straight people will never have to experience.)
In response, one of my conservative friends replied, “This conversation isn’t about you. It’s about what the church teaches,” as in church law and doctrine. Say what??
I was totally flabbergasted by that comment! Is not the church a people of God? Is not the church called to be in ministry and community with real, live people? This rather callous response is a perfectly unfortunate example of someone choosing to insulate themselves within an impermeable principle bubble. No worthwhile missiology and ecclesiology can ignore the real life stories of everyday people, or write them off as rubbish. But for folks arguing in a principle vacuum, real people, their lives and experiences don’t matter as much as the convictions they desperately cling to, in this case their badly misinformed “biblical” belief that– despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary!– all gay and lesbian people in committed relationships are lost in sexual sin.
In closing, let me say that not all my critics are making arguments in a vacuum. Several have the humility and decency to remain open and to keep wrestling. I join them in their struggle, all the while striving to avoid my own potential argument vacuums, too. I want to join those who remain teachable, moldable, and open to the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit keeps us alive to the realities of our mission field while keeping us tightly tethered to the anchor of our faith, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.
Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.
Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?
In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.
Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.
But there’s just one thing…
T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”
Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.
Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.
I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.
Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.
Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”
I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.
Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.
Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?
Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.
Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.
And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.
Unity! We are one! We are brothers and sisters! We are connected in covenant! We are connected in Christ! One God- one people! These are some of the phrases from this year’s annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our theme this year is “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.” We have a great logo emblazoned on all of our Annual Conference stuff. Our worship has lifted up unity, at times more than God. Every speaker has dutifully used the unity tag-line in their presentations.
It’s usually an accurate assumption that when something is overemphasized to the fevered pitch of of cult-like refrains, that same something is glaringly absent. On the one hand, I get it. Our United Methodist Church’s near schism over the issue of human sexuality is something we must address. Most of us want to move through our impasse on whether or not to fully include LGBTQI+ persons while holding our church together. So let’s do all we can to lift up our desire for unity. But on the other hand, it all sounds so contrived. It’s manufactured unity. It has sounded and felt forced.
I’m saddened by the fact that we sing the songs of unity but so far have not adequately demonstrated that we know how to unify ourselves. We caucus ourselves based on ideology. We clothe ourselves based on ideology, i.e. wearing a rainbow-colored stole or not, and what it may mean if we wear one or refuse. In our huddles, we talk about “them” and what “they” are doing to the church. We have a hard time fully respecting those whose views are different from our own. Many are afraid to openly express their views for fear of social and even professional repercussions. Just in what I’ve observed over the last couple of days, I see and hear so many examples of folks writing off others, making snide remarks, or making disparaging comments about a speaker.
If unity is going be a reality beyond a spiffy conference logo and lovey dovey liturgy, we need to change our behavior. I’d like to passionately suggest to my brothers and sisters of the Baltimore-Washington Conference that unity could look like this:
Respect one another. I know many people on either side of the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people. They are deeply committed to Jesus. They champion his gospel. They are people of high integrity and deep theological, biblical understanding. They are worthy of my respect and the respect of those who differ with them. That said, if we truly respect them and at the same time desire unity, we must make room for these folks to be who they are in Christ and to be in ministry in the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads them.
Listen to one another. Listening springs from a desire to understand. A desire to understand comes from a place of humble love. And that leads to a third thing needed for unity…
Hold a humble love for all. When we choose to love in humility, we recognize that our side of the story is not the only side. We’re teachable and moldable. We’re flexible and practical, even when we stand on core principles. We desire to be servants, not victors in an ideological struggle. Even when we strive for justice and righteousness, we can do that with a desire to embrace our sisters and brothers whose vision of justice and righteousness is different from our own.
As I read what I just wrote, I’m struck by how unoriginal these ideas are. In fact, they sound like variations of lessons I learned in kindergarten. Treat others with respect. Be a good listener. Be a good learner. Learn how to get along with everyone. Don’t be a bully.
Yet somehow our adult big ideas and firm principles have mingled with unresolved fear and have overridden our childlike abilities to respect, listen, and humbly love.
So… what if we put aside our fears, took on Jesus’ heart, and build true, short bridges between one another? Then, we might have a unity worth celebrating and not just fabricating.