By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
Evangelicals have often predicted that the effort by progressives to radically change United Methodism’s view of marriage, ordination, and sexuality is only the first part of a much broader agenda to overturn traditional Christian social ethics. The latest efforts by our denomination’s advocacy agencies (General Commission on Religion and Race, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and Young People’s Ministries) to promote the acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism represent an expansion of the advocacy agenda in ways that most United Methodists would find troubling.
This advocacy is found in the handbook for delegates of General Conference (called the Advance Daily Christian Advocate—ADCA). Just released at the end of last week, this handbook has a section on “intercultural competence.” The agencies want “to support each delegate’s ability to build relationships across our diverse cultures.” Much of the information presented in this section is basic to understanding how to cope with personality and cultural differences.
But there is one page (whose authorship is not given) that outlines “Sensitivity on Holding Conversations Around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” It offers guidelines for conversation that delegates are expected to follow (although the guidelines were never voted on or approved by the delegates).
The first admonition states, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer (LGBTQ) persons are our siblings in Christ and should be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect.” With that principle, everyone can agree.
Beginning with the second admonition, the guidelines begin to go off the rails. It encourages us to be aware of the presence of persons with different sexual orientations. “Many may identify as bisexual, queer, lesbian, gay, or other identities.” This guideline assumes that there are multiple (“other”) sexual orientations that exist and are part of the normal human experience. It further assumes that “many” persons exhibit these various identities. Evangelicals believe that our identity is found in our relationship to Jesus Christ, not in our sexual attractions. We also believe that some sexual attractions are not good or positive and are to be resisted, not celebrated. Studies have consistently shown that less than five percent of the population exhibit one or another of these various attractions at some point in their lives. That hardly constitutes “many” (fewer than 43 out of the 864 delegates). Yet it seems to be part of the agencies’ drive to normalize homosexual and bisexual practices, portraying these as common and normal in hopes of convincing delegates to affirm these attractions and practices.
The third admonition stipulates, “Do not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past. Ask someone their pronouns before using gendered words to describe them.” Ten days in Portland with this kind of recommended protocol before every conversation will make General Conference a perfectly dreadful experience for everyone involved.
One assumes that the recommendation is offered in the event that a person who looks and dresses like a woman may want to “identify” as a man (and vice versa). One assumes that there may be a few instances of this taking place. But the underlying message is that gender is a fluid, changeable concept that is subject to the feelings and desires of the individual. For the most part, however, our gender is part of our God-given personhood bestowed at birth and unchangeable. It is not desirable for a person to attempt to change his/her gender. This third admonition buys into the current fashion that gender is self-determined, rather than God-determined. And it represents an escalation of the LGBTQ advocacy into the arena of transgenderism.
The fourth and fifth admonitions posit that LGBTQ persons ought not to be referred to as “prostitutes, adulterers, pedophiles, murderers, confused, unchristian, an issue, etc.” and that their marriages, covenants, or relationships ought not to be compared to bestiality. Evangelicals agree that inflammatory language ought not to be used in describing any person, including LGBTQ persons.
At the same time, we need to be very sensitive to allowing legitimate debate and discussion about the rightness of certain sexual and gender practices. The question of how the church ought to regard marriage and sexuality is an issue that merits prayerful biblical study, theological reflection, and conversation. Placing artificial limits on language is just a clumsy attempt to make it impossible to discuss these questions and potentially intimidate people who are unwilling to affirm homosexuality and transgenderism.
Unfortunately, these guidelines on conversation are all one-sided. There is nothing in these guidelines to delineate how evangelicals and traditionalists are to be talked about. In the past, those who have embraced a traditional perspective have been called bigots, homophobes, unenlightened, uninformed, narrow, or a “child of the devil.” The name calling can go both ways. In either case, it needs to be avoided. The one-sided character of these guidelines calls into question their objectivity and poses the possibility of an underlying agenda.
The guidelines’ draconian nature appears in the final admonitions, which expect that facilitators (presiding bishops, committee chairs) should rule such “behavior” (using improper language) out of order. And if facilitators do not do so, delegates are expected to interrupt and challenge the improper language, making everyone responsible for being the “political correctness police.” A more calculating strategy for silencing the voice of those attempting to uphold biblical teaching cannot be imagined. If I don’t like what you are saying, I can shut you down by accusing you of using improper language.
I want to emphasize again that evangelicals oppose all violence against individuals for any reason, including LGBTQ persons, and oppose the use of disrespectful and inflammatory language in all debate, including debate about LGBTQ persons. However, these guidelines go beyond encouraging respectful debate and seek to engender thought control—or at least debate control—in a way designed to tilt the playing field. The agencies involved ought to withdraw the guidelines. If not, delegates should not feel bound by guidelines that have not been approved by the General Conference and let their conscience be their guide.