UM News Service reporter Heather Hahn recently recounted the third forum on sexuality held by the Connectional Table, this one in Mozambique. I was intrigued by the views of Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic and Baltic Area. Alsted “said some of the conferences he serves want to allow same-sex marriages and gay ordination, while others would be opposed to such a move. Still others, he said, are split on the question. But he sees no reason those differences should threaten the church unity. ‘It has always been part of my understanding of our DNA that we as United Methodists are willing to ask the hard questions… and to do this with respect, grace and compassion.’” When asked what might happen if the church changed its position on marriage and sexuality, “Alsted said some churches would welcome the development while he is sure others ‘would consider leaving the connection.’”
“’However, it is a mystery for me that this one issue has become such a dominant issue within our denomination and in our society, and that presents a problem,’ he said. ‘The issue of human sexuality, in particular homosexuality, is an important issue. But it does not have the significance or importance to split us as a church. And if we go in that direction, I wonder what we will think of our past in 50 years.’”
I agree with Alsted that “United Methodists are [and ought to be] willing to ask the hard questions” and engage one another “with respect, grace, and compassion” (at least on our better days). But his statements bring up the important question, whether the issue of homosexuality has “the significance or importance to split us as a church.” I believe this issue is a communion-dividing issue for at least three reasons:
1) Empirically, it has already proven to be a communion-dividing issue for many other Protestant Christians. The United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all experienced denominational separation after changing their position on marriage and ordination for same-sex persons. In addition, thousands of persons have left Mainline congregations, including The United Methodist Church, over the past 20 years due to struggles over what we believe about sexuality. Churches who become “Reconciling” often lose a significant percentage of their membership. One can say that it doesn’t have to be that way, but evidently many people do see a change in the church’s position as a reason to separate.
2) Evangelicals view compromising the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality as a violation of biblical authority. We say that we believe the Bible is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). Yet that is precisely what advocates of same-sex marriage are proposing, making the affirmation of same-sex behavior an article of faith. Scripture is clear on this matter, as we say in our Book of Discipline, all persons are of sacred worth and loved by God, but homosexual behavior is not consistent with God’s will for us. I have read many different attempts to portray an alternative interpretation of Scripture that would allow same-sex marriage. By and large, these are rationalizations, not faithful interpretations of the Bible. The best any of them can say is that the words of Scripture do not mean what they say, or that they no longer apply to us today. There is no positive warrant in Scripture endorsing same-sex behavior. Against that is 2,000 years of Christian teaching and an additional 1,000+ years of Jewish teaching about the complementarity of the sexes and the meaning of marriage. These teachings were promulgated in many different cultural situations, some of which allowed or even embraced homosexual behavior. Yet the teaching has remained consistent throughout that God’s design is for marriage between man and woman — and most ideally between one man and one woman for life. Given the stress on obedience in the Bible, including in the words of Jesus, for the church to turn its back on biblical teaching would leave many evangelicals no choice but to separate.
3) Alsted (along with Rev. Adam Hamilton and a number of other church leaders) seems to believe that it is possible for the church to exist with part of it endorsing same-sex marriage and ordination and part of it opposing this. However, proponents of same-sex affirmation would not be satisfied with such a situation. Even Hamilton views that accommodation as only a temporary one, until the older generations die and the younger generations are in a position to change the church for everyone. If by some chance a compromise were reached that would allow people to live according to whatever they personally believe, it would not last long. Advocates for same-sex affirmation view their cause as a civil rights issue on par with slavery, racism, and discrimination against women. Just as the church could (rightly) not exist “half slave and half free,” or segregated by race, or not giving women full equality in every part of the church, so same-sex advocates will not rest until every part of the church affirms the goodness of same-sex marriage and the endorsement of homosexual behavior. Anyone who cannot agree with such a program will eventually be forced to leave the church. What is the difference if that separation happens now or in 20-30 years? It will happen just the same.
Much as I would like to believe that persons holding different views on human sexuality and having different practices regarding marriage and ordination could all live together in the same church body, I do not believe it is possible. For either side to live with the other’s actions would require each side to give up their deeply held convictions and violate their consciences. This truly is a communion-dividing issue.