When ‘Do No Harm’ Is Impossible

This past Saturday, 36 United Methodist pastors and 9 clergy of other denominations joined to do a service of holy union for two men in Philadelphia. Their action was an intentional and public violation of the stance of our church, which proclaims God’s love and the sacred worth of all persons, while maintaining that the practice of homosexuality is outside the boundaries of Christian teaching.

One of the arguments frequently made on behalf of same-sex marriage and the affirmation of same-sex behavior is that we are to “do no harm.” This is one of our three General Rules, developed by John Wesley to guide our understanding and practice of the Christian life as Methodists. Those supporting same-sex relationships believe the church is doing harm to gays and lesbians by refusing to condone their behavior as equal to heterosexual love and relationships. Therefore, they say, they are bound by conscience to disobey the church’s teaching and perform same-sex weddings or unions. (I disagree with the premise that refusing to condone homosexual behavior always does harm to gays and lesbians, but that is a subject for another post.)

However, it is becoming apparent that in their zeal to “do no harm,” same-sex supporters are in fact doing harm themselves. Their actions, while encouraging some United Methodists who agree with them, also disheartens other United Methodists who believe what the church teaches—that sexual relations belong solely within the bonds of heterosexual marriage. We get reports quite regularly in our office of strong, faithful Christians who leave United Methodist congregations because of what they perceive as unfaithfulness to the Scriptures and to the authority of the United Methodist Church.

The “trickling out” of faithful, orthodox United Methodists in turn hurts the congregations of which they were a part. Such members usually supported a disproportionate share of the church’s budget and leadership as volunteers. They provided much of the energy for mission and ministry in their local congregations. But they could not stand by and watch the Bible and the church be disrespected by the actions of a few.

The United Methodist Church is hurt in a larger way by same-sex supporters who defy church teaching with their actions. It is becoming quite clear that there is a deep theological divide within the UM Church that has been held in tension for many years. What is new is the determination to live outside the tension, to resolve the tension by taking matters into their own hands. Such actions deepen the sense of division in the church. These schismatic actions give the impression that the United Methodist Church is incapable of holding its pastors and leaders accountable to the policies and moral teachings of the church. This lack of accountability in turn erodes any sense of confidence that laity might have in the leadership and direction of our church.

Finally, the actions of same-sex supporters hurt the process by which we have agreed to make decisions in our church. For decades, same-sex supporters have been calling for “holy conferencing” as the means to settle debates in the church over human sexuality. Annual Conferences and the General Conference have engaged in unprecedented times of “holy conferencing” as a prayerful means of discernment of what the church should teach about human sexuality.

Consistently, these times of “holy conferencing” have led to the reaffirmation of the church’s core teaching that sexual relations belong within heterosexual marriage. Not satisfied with that answer, same-sex supporters have disregarded the results and gone ahead with their actions anyway. The integrity of our church’s process of decision-making through “holy conferencing” has thus been perhaps irreparably harmed. Why should United Methodists engage in “holy conferencing” if those who disagree are simply going to do what they want, if they don’t like the result that conferencing brings? Why should United Methodists who are faithful to the church’s teachings ever trust the “holy conferencing” process again?

What should Christians do when trying to “do no harm” to some means harming others? May I suggest that this dilemma demonstrates that making a decision based on the General Rule “do no harm” is not an adequate rationale for overturning the church’s teaching on human sexuality?

Comments

  1. R. Dennis Sturgill says:

    People call themselves Christians that don’t have a clue of what the mind of God is all about. Sound familiar? Ever since the beginning of time people have done what they feel is right in their own mind. The same is true today with people that loosely call themselves Christians. Homosexuality is biblically wrong. Any Christian that states that God told them that the union of two men or two women is supported by the Bible is a liar.

    The anti-Christ spirit is alive and well with many Methodist pastors and other clergy. This should not be a surprise to anyone that reads and studies the Bible.

  2. To do no harm cuts both ways
    It could be argued that those in favor of “full inclusion of GLBTQ persons “do great harm” to persons of GLBTQ persuasion.

    To reject the foundation UMC have historically held “does harm” to all members of the body and that foundation is explained in Article V- Of the Sufficiency of The Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
    Rejecting Article V “does harm“.
    Public displays against the authority of the church “does harm“.
    Outright disobedience and the breaking of oaths made and promised to “does harm”.
    Causing division in the church “does harm”
    Not following fair and just methods instituted by the UMC to settle disputes and then rejecting the rulings of the high court of the UMC“does harm”.
    Allowing the CC to wallow in in a maze of indecision and double minded rulings “does harm”.

    Lot’s of things do harm.
    The focus of harm has only been discussed featuring one topic GLBTQ issues.
    That “exclusivity” is not how the majority of the CC defines harm.

  3. Gary Bebop says:

    Tom doesn’t mention litigation here, but who PAYS the cost for litigating flagrant, deliberate acts of clergy disobedience? Bishops have been warning that litigation could “bankrupt” a conference. Should the faithful be expected to bear this cost at the expense of ministry?

  4. This is all very sad. I cannot imagine John Wesley could have imagined what his little effort to bring people into a more holy and structured, heart warming relationship with Christ would have come to one day. While I believe all people deserve respect and privacy, I also believe that church law should be obeyed. It is sad that those who have sworn to uphold the scriptures, decide to reject them. God created a world full of natural laws. When we disregard those laws, the whole of society is harmed, but untimately, God is harmed. Sin, of every kind, has it’s beginning in self centered behavior. Whether hetrosexual, or homosexual, sex outside marriage is not pleasing to God. Besides standing strong against homosexual sin, the church ought to be preaching against fornication and adultery and every form of self-gratification the Bible speaks against. We are all sinners in the need of Grace. Our church ought to be helping us see that and helping us realize we can do better.

  5. I have remained relatively silent on this issue but these recent events are causing me to think that silence is no longer an option, or at least won’t be for long. I am a UMC pastor in line for provisional elder this year and for the first time ever find myself questioning whether I want to be ordained by an institution that seems to have no moral compass, especially if the CoB does nothing out of this meeting this week.

    I am a local pastor in the bible belt (Dayton, TN), and this issue is starting to disrupt how I minister to others. A new family visiting our church for the first time, new to Methodism, asked where they could learn more about our church and it’s beliefs. Normally I would have (in addition to setting up a lunch meeting to talk) happily referred them to our conference web page or umc.org, but this week I did everything I could to steer them away from any of that because I knew on the front page of our website was the news release about these clergy in PA.

    When I start losing members, or visitors dry up because of this scandal, I don’t think it will be long before my church and many around here stop sending in their apportionments or paying for health insurance (it’s cheaper to get it in the open market anyways).

    If bishops are considering the financial fallout of lawsuits against these clergy who broke church law, they may want to consider the fallout from churches everywhere ceasing to pay their salaries.

  6. My beliefs are in the word of the Bible,if it’s against what our God has written then I’m against it!!
    He loves us all but he does not condone actions against his laws!!
    God Bless us all and God can forgive us of our sins , but same sex marriage is not something in my Bible that he condones and should not be performed in our churches!!!

    HE REIGNS
    GOD BLESS

  7. When in authority, those leaders are supposed to listen to their people to make their decisions, not make their decisions on their own desires or beliefs. They are to follow the mandate of their constituents. Thus these Bishops, while voting on this issue need to remember to vote on the will of the MAJORITY of their people, not those who yell the loudest.
    They are also to uphold their vows and the rules of the Church when making their decisions. Those who act against the vows they took when ordained should have their licenses taken away and no longer be allowed to preach in a United Methodist Church. They are breaking a covenant that they took with the Church. There is no denying that they are disobeying the promises they made while being ordained.

  8. Bob Browning says:

    If you assume custody of a new vehicle, whether you purchase it or it is a gift, no matter, it comes with a warranty. If you read carefully the owners manual, you can plainly read that it possible to void the warranty by altering the original equipment or original intent of manufacturer.
    Some will claim that they are the owner, they’ll do as they choose. I say fine, have at it.
    It is time for holiness Wesleyans to move on.

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