The press release from the Methodist Federation for Social Action about a closed door meeting with the Commission on the General Conference provides an interesting way to compare how progressives and evangelicals view the current situation in our church. Good News president Rob Renfroe and I, along with Confessing Movement representatives Maxie Dunnam and Kim Reisman, also attended this meeting and shared in the conversation with the Commission and the LGBTQ representatives. It was good that the Commission wanted to hear from different parts of the church, as the Commission works to perfect the process to be used at the 2016 General Conference. Good News was glad to be part of that conversation.
The MFSA press release begins, “The issue of whether the United Methodist Church will continue to discriminate against LGBTQ people is of paramount importance to the future and viability of the church.” The LGBTQ narrative continues to be around the issues of “rights” and “discrimination” in the church. That narrative assumes that the sexual practices of LGBTQ persons are inherently morally neutral or even to be affirmed. If that were so, of course LGBTQ persons ought to be treated as if those sexual practices did not matter to the question of whether they could be married to same-gender persons in the church or be ordained to serve in ministry.
Traditionalists and evangelicals, however, do not agree with the basic premise – we believe, as the church teaches, that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. For Methodism, the narrative has always been about holiness and living in obedience to Christ’s commands, while at the same time supporting civil rights and opposing legal discrimination. The essence of Methodism is to “spread scriptural holiness across the land.” One aspect of that mission is to bring all of our sexual practices (whether we are same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted) into conformity with God’s will. The church therefore expressly supports sexual relations only within monogamous heterosexual marriage.
That LGBTQ activists declare this “issue” to be “of paramount importance to the future and viability of the church” is surprising, given that UM Communications’ recent survey put issues of homosexuality in eighth place on the list of important issues as seen by church members. Traditionalists and evangelicals are often accused of singling out homosexuality as the one issue of importance to the church, but it is in fact those advocating for change who have elevated this discussion to “paramount importance.”
For traditionalists and evangelicals, the crisis in the church is not caused by disagreements over homosexuality, but by the refusal of parts of the church to live by the covenant that governs the body or respect the discernment of the General Conference – the one body authorized to speak for the whole church. We would be perfectly willing to continue studying, discussing, and debating the church’s stance of ministry with LGBTQ persons indefinitely, seeking a consensus around God’s will on this question. But the inability of the church to command the loyalty of its leaders and members to the long-time policies of the church threatens to break apart the church body.
There are a couple things that traditionalists and evangelicals can agree on with LGBTQ activists.
- Preventing harm from occurring to LGBTQ people – there is no justification for demonizing LGBTQ people, calling them derogatory names, or otherwise verbally assaulting them. We are all human beings together, and all ought to be treated with dignity and respect.
- We agree that consideration, debate, and action on proposals around homosexuality should take place toward the beginning of the plenary week as a way of helping the General Conference deal with this question and move forward in a well-considered and positive way, not unduly constrained by the pressure of a fast-approaching deadline.
The MFSA statement insists that “in the context of discrimination and oppression true dialogue can never occur. Genuine dialogue requires equality, and in the UMC that equality does not exist.” We must prayerfully strive to recognize that all persons are inherently of equal and sacred worth. (For example, 85 percent of the language in the Social Principles paragraph on homosexuality is positive and affirming of the equal worth of LGBTQ persons.)
However, this complaint about the lack of equality making true dialogue impossible seems to be a way to “stack the deck” against the church’s teaching on homosexuality. It implies that true dialogue can only take place if the church changes its position and grants the demands of LGBTQ activists as a pre-condition for dialogue. Such a requirement makes no sense. It is perfectly possible for two groups to strive to understand each other and respect each other’s points of view, even if there is inequality in the relationship.
Finally, I was troubled by the MFSA statement’s announcement that its goal is “ending the oppression of queer people by the United Methodist Church.” It is difficult to know what the LGBTQ activists mean by “queer people.” Is this a blanket term to refer to all LGBT persons? Is it a general term for a variety of sexual inclinations and practices going beyond even LGBT? It seems the scope of LGBTQ activism keeps expanding, and the church needs to take care that we are not co-opted into endorsing all manner of sexual inclinations and practices under the guise of “ending oppression.”
It is hard for traditionalists and evangelicals to credit the notion that “queer people” are “oppressed” by the church. The church’s approach to sin is to teach biblical truth, call all persons to repentance and amendment of life, and offer mercy, forgiveness, and support in overcoming sin in one’s life. Regardless of the sin, that is the approach the church should take, recognizing that we are all guilty of sin and fall short of God’s standard – no one is better than anyone else in this regard. And it is perfectly legitimate for the church to expect that its members and leaders abide by church teaching in the carrying out of their ministry.
It is evident that LGBTQ activists see the current situation of the church very differently than do traditionalists and evangelicals. We can and should learn from each other’s perspectives. In the final analysis, however, it remains to be seen whether these two widely divergent world views can be reconciled within one church body.