As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?
I have already surveyed some of the reasoning behind the essential nature of the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. Here are more thoughts on the matter.
Third, the affirmation of same-sex relations would undermine the theological importance of heterosexual marriage in the Bible. Theologically, marriage is used to represent the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Old Testament) and between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32, Revelation). God and God’s people are different from one another, not the same. It is that difference that is symbolized in the difference between male and female in marriage. Our understanding of the nature of God and how God relates with his covenant people is at stake—another essential matter.
Fourth, the New Testament emphasizes the importance of avoiding sexual immorality. As Paul puts it, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body … You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Corinthians 6:18-20). The term “sexual immorality” (Greek: porneia) describes all forms of sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage, including homosexuality. Its meaning in the New Testament world is informed by the list of sexual sins itemized in Leviticus 18.
As mentioned earlier, one of the few stipulations placed by the early church on Gentile believers was to avoid sexual immorality (Acts 15). Commands to avoid sexual immorality appear in at least ten New Testament letters out of 21. Such explicit commands also appear in Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Sexual immorality is mentioned at least as often as idolatry in the New Testament. As such, it seems to be a pretty essential concern for Christians, especially in a hedonistic, sex-saturated culture like ours that is so similar in that regard to biblical times.
Fifth, it makes no theological sense to say that behaviors that the Bible forbids can be legitimate Christian behaviors. Can you imagine saying that adultery is an acceptable practice for Christians? Or theft? Or slander? Or murder? Of course, Christians are guilty of all of these from time to time. We are all broken people and occasionally fall into sin. But we acknowledge it is sin. We don’t try to justify it by saying that God would approve of this behavior. There are times when the Church gets into trouble by trying to justify sinful behavior, like greed or many types of divorce or racism. But this is the Church being inconsistent with its own teachings and needing to be reformed and corrected. We have allowed the Church to be co-opted by the value system of the world frequently during our 2,000-year history. We should not allow it to happen again with regard to our sexual ethics.
Finally, the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is an essential issue because to do otherwise creates a damaging confusion in the minds of our people and those we want to reach with the Gospel. One United Methodist congregation will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of God’s good creation and ought to be embraced and affirmed by faithful Christian disciples. Another United Methodist congregation down the road will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of the brokenness of our sinful world and ought to be resisted by faithful Christian disciples. One congregation will perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor, while the congregation down the road believes that to perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor is contrary to God’s will. The message is contradictory and confusing to the community, as well as to the congregational members—what does your denomination really believe about this? This confusion will be a stumbling block to effective evangelism and discipleship.
What’s more, those who affirm same-sex relationships are hurt when fellow United Methodists say that such relationships are sinful, while those who believe same-sex relationships are inappropriate for Christians are hurt when fellow United Methodists insist that such relationships are blessed by God and consistent with Scripture. If we have opposite understandings of what a disciple of Jesus Christ acts like, how can we both be making disciples of Jesus Christ? We are working at cross purposes with each other and causing harm to each other.
It sounds hopeful to say that the church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics are not essential matters. We can agree to disagree and still function together in one church body. But for many reasons, such a compatibilist position is not theologically or practically realistic.
- To affirm same-sex relationships is to undermine the reliability and authority of Scripture, as well as to contravene our United Methodist doctrinal standards.
- To affirm same-sex relationships opens the door to further possible revisions to the Christian understanding of marriage, leading to further potential disregard for the teachings of Scripture and the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Christian Church.
- To affirm same-sex relationships undermines the theological significance of heterosexual, monogamous marriage in Scripture as a picture of God’s relationships with his people.
- To affirm same-sex relationships goes counter to the heavy emphasis in the New Testament on avoiding all types of sexual immorality, belying the importance that biblical writers gave to this question.
- To affirm same-sex relationships puts the church’s stamp of approval on a behavior that Scripture defines as inappropriate for Christians, injecting into church teaching a destructive accommodation to worldly values.
- To affirm same-sex relationships as a non-essential matter creates a Christian Church that is communicating mixed messages about marriage and sexuality, working at cross-purposes with itself, and causing confusion and harm to Christians and non-Christians alike.
I would like to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But that would open the door to further confusion, weaken biblical authority, deepen theological imprecision and uncertainty, and continue causing harm to one another within the church. That is not a recipe for enhancing the mission and vitality of The United Methodist Church. We would be better served by acknowledging reality and creating structural separation that would allow people to engage in ministry unhindered by continued conflict over an issue that many deem essential to the Christian faith.