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?