Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: We Must Do Better


Since 1972, whenever the General Conference of the United Methodist Church convenes for their quadrennial gathering, the issue of homosexuality has taken a quite visible, central place. We live in a strong tension between those who press our our church to fully recognize and bless gay and lesbian relationships and those who believe that homosexuality is not in keeping with a biblical understanding of love and marriage.  Equally pressing is the debate over whether or not openly gay and lesbian people can serve as pastors and if pastors and congregations can conduct and host same-sex weddings.

For the past 40 years, the United Methodist Church has maintained these basic standards in our Book of Discipline:

  • All people are of sacred worth and that we must not reject or exclude gay and lesbian people. Nevertheless…
  • …the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
  • Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained or accepted as candidates for ordained ministry.
  • Pastors are prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings, and churches cannot host them. These are chargeable offenses.

Just this week, the General Conference voted to maintain our current denominational stances for at least another four years. But that wasn’t without lots of demonstration, advocacy, an attempt at dialogue and numerous petitions to change the UMC’s stances and policies.

I have heard church leaders predict that the General Conference’s decision could very well lead to a split in the UMC or to the exodus of deeply disappointed laity and clergy. Only time will tell, of course. This issue has certainly created similar schisms in other Christian traditions.

Now, I don’t want to use this post to debate the issues. I have already laid out my thoughts and reflections on homosexuality in previous posts. But in the confines of a nutshell, I hold a carefully considered, nuanced understanding that homosexual relationships are outside of God’s will and intent for human sexuality. I derive this from my reading of Scripture as God’s Word, informed by tradition, reason, and experience. I believe this while also passionately including gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, family members, and church members.

So you might easily assume that I am overjoyed and relieved by the General Conference’s decision to maintain our current language and policies on homosexuality. You would assume wrongly.

You might assume that I want gay and lesbian people and and others who want to change our church’s position  to cease and desist– to shut up and conform, or get out. Again, you would assume wrongly.

By now, my conservative brothers and sisters might be assuming that I’ve “caved in to a liberal, pro-gay” point of view. Once again, they would assume wrongly.

However, as I stated yesterday in a Facebook update, I am deeply torn by the General Conference’s handling of this issue.  I wasn’t there, but from what I gather, all of this was handled quite badly by “both sides” of the homosexuality debate. Once again, the same debate played out like a bad rerun. One side passionately battled to move our church away from current stances and policies. The other kept their ground, fighting to further solidify the church’s current position. At their core, both sides operate out of an  all-or-nothing approach. Each side is highly reluctant to fairly and openly understand the convictions of the other or to even slightly concede that perhaps there is a degree of credibility and integrity with both positions that might lead to an alternative way forward which upholds both Scriptural teaching on sexuality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people.

From what I can see, several things went wrong this year.

First, just as in years past, there were several gay and lesbian advocacy groups on hand to demonstrate, hand out literature, and in general to be a visible proponent for change. As delegates went in and out of General Conference sessions, they had to move through groups of people singing, praying, and donning signs, clothing, and stoles advocating change. They were by no means violent or invasive. But they were quite vocal and at times purposefully disruptive to the sessions. At one point yesterday all non-delegates were asked to leave because of all the disruptions. In years past, there have even been arrests when protesters refused to abide by Conference rules.

I believe these folks have a right to be there– to be heard and seen. They stood for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot ignore them or their message. They sought to do no harm to anyone.

However, while their presence posed no threat, their approach was not at all helpful. Let’s face it, most people’s hearts and minds are not changed by loud, forceful demonstrations. For folks who don’t hold a strong opinion, approaches like that can come across as intimidating and overly-zealous. For people who do hold a strong opposing belief,  these demonstrations only calcify their position.

Earlier in the week, there was an attempt at “holy conversation” on homosexuality between people of opposing views. All delegates were divided into large groups presided over by a bishop and were encouraged to dialogue. I very much applaud the effort. But I also know from hard experience that genuine, sincere dialogue is an extraordinarily delicate form of remedial communication. It doesn’t happen easily. If dialogue is forced, rushed, or if folks insist on using the dialogue table as a subtle form of advocacy, then dialogue quickly falls apart.

And fell apart it did… badly. These holy conversation sessions were delayed and shortened because preceding legislative sessions went longer than anticipated. I also suspect that participants were not adequately prepared for how to dialogue and what to expect. As a result, some groups’ dialogue devolved into debate. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that both sides say hurtful, unfair things. As a result, these “holy conversations” left many participants feeling wounded.

Then through the legislative process there were some high profile attempts to change or add to the language on homosexuality by stating that as a denomination, we are divided on our understanding of homosexuality and that we agree to disagree. No one seriously doubts that reality! But for various reasons, that was also voted down by the Conference.

So, in the end nothing was changed. In the coming years, we’ll see what was lost or gained.

But I am torn by the fact that nothing was offered to guide our church through this great divide on human sexuality. We badly need that! I grieve for those who feel hurt and betrayed by the General Conference’s decisions, even if I cannot fully embrace their positions. I grieve that as denomination we are no closer to building unity on this issue, even in our diversity. That is everyone’s responsibility, not one side or the other.

I am dismayed that once again battle-hardened positions on homosexuality yielded very little wiggle room for other, more subtle ways to approach this very complex issue of homosexuality. Bumper sticker slogans and one or two sentence policy positions don’t cut it. This is going to take extensive, open conversation and a willingness to embrace perhaps an entirely new paradigm of thinking concerning homosexuality that takes into account the primacy of the Bible and the very real experiences of gay and lesbian Christians. We need both, not one or the other.

I just pray that it’s not too late, that God hasn’t already left us to our own vices of division and mutual exclusion. But until we know that for sure, let the peacemakers do their work with urgency and grace…

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16 Comments

Filed under Reflections

16 responses to “Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: We Must Do Better

  1. Chris – an insightful post.

    One of the things that struck me in reading again the UMC position on homosexuality is how high it soars, and how quickly it falls to earth again.

    “All people are of sacred worth”

    Absolutely brilliant. A forthright, clear, and concise statement.

    “and that we must not reject or exclude gay and lesbian people”

    Any more than you reject or exclude anyone else. ALL people are of sacred worth.

    “Nevertheless…”

    And that is where your denominational courage fails. Everything that follows is simply ways that the UMC intends to reject or exclude gay or lesbian people, despite their claim that it is something they must not do.. Everything that follows makes a lie of what came before. It transforms a beautiful, courageous, no-holds-barred universal statement of God’s unconditional love for everyone and the church’s intention to do the same, into mere rhetoric on par with “some of my best friends are black.” It’s fence sitting. It’s trying to play both sides. It’s a failure to act with conviction.

    There is no such thing as being partially exclusive, or kind of rejecting homosexual people. The UMC must make a choice to either be accepting or not be.

    You know my position on this subject well – I’m not shy about it, and it isn’t very nuanced. But I won’t promote it here (at least not yet – no promises not to stir up trouble!). Here I just want to say that I think that the UMC is being lazy, trying to have it both ways, trying to hold together two mutually incompatible views.

    • Ed, you know (or at least I hope you know!) that I very much respect you and your thinking, even when we don’t agree. So yes, I know exactly where you stand on this issue, and I respect the integrity of your views. I’m not going to debate you here… Frankly, I’m at a place beyond debating. I am intrigued at your assessment of the denomination’s stance as “lazy” or a lazy compromise. The funny thing is, the statement is not meant to be a lazy compromise. It’s intended to be a clear statement of teaching.

      I want to offer an observation that I’ve found to be true almost across the board with the gay community and those who stand for the full inclusion of their sexuality. It seems as if for many gay and lesbian people, if one rejects their sexuality, they are seen as rejecting the whole person. Same goes for the use of the word inclusion. For this same population, to be inclusive is to include both the person and their sexuality. It seems incredulous to them that someone can value, love, and include them while also not supporting or condoning their sexuality. I was in a long-term dialogue group several years ago, and we found this to be true. One of the eye-opening things we discovered is that a person who views their sexuality as sinful can still love, value, trust, and include that person in their life and church just like any other fellow sinner. At the same time, a gay person could love, trust, and include a person who cannot affirm their sexuality.

      So while the denominational statement will never be acceptable for the LGBT community, and understandably so, for many people it doesn’t stand in their minds as a contradiction or a debasement of gay and lesbian people. They are people first and valued, loved, and included as people.

      • Chris – this isn’t about love. This is about rights and dignity and honesty. In reading the current stance on homosexuality in the UMC, I feel like I am reading the end of “Animal Farm”.

        “All people are of sacred worth, but some are worth more than others.”

        Until the UMC treats practicing homosexuals the same way it treats all other practicing sinners, it will continue to categorize them as second-class members of the church family.

  2. “Let’s face it, most people’s hearts and minds are not changed by loud, forceful demonstrations.”

    Mmm. The Civil Rights era has given us pretty good evidence that loud, forceful demonstrations, used properly not only work but are essential. The problem with wanting those that try to claim equality to be polite and soft-spoken, is that (1) the polite approach doesn’t work, and (2) this is a yes or no question with little room for negotiation. Either people are equal or they are not. Negotiating a merely less humiliating or hurtful treatment doesn’t sound like a big winner.

    As always, I applaud your kindness and your striving for peacemaking. But it still looks like the onus of concession is placed all on one side, the side that must remain inferior, not “part of God’s plan.”

    • Sophie, thanks… As always you and Ed challenge me to think more deeply in places I haven’t considered. So I agree with you that the tone argument doesn’t work. I’m not sure I’m advocating for a different tone so much as I am advocating for a different approach. That’s not semantics; at least I don’t believe it is. Yes, the Civil Rights movement widely used demonstrations to advance civil rights for all people. If I recall, it was the violent response to their peaceful demonstrations that began to turn the tide towards full civil rights. Camera images of policemen with clubs and fire hoses against peaceful demonstrations was the key. Demonstrations, however, have not proven effective across the board. It has worked in some circumstances. However, in General Conference settings, it has not served anyone well. One can always justify this approach as being a witness and presence caught on cameras and told in newspaper articles. It garners sympathy with particular parts of our population, but it doesn’t sway the deliberations or voting process, at least in the way which demonstrators want.

      What does work, however, is a different approach. I find the best approach is calm, face-to-face dialogue where people get to know and hear from people who are different from them. Minds are rarely changed in these settings in terms of positions, but hearts are changed, and that is a huge, major transformation that leads to healing, understanding, cooperation, and trust– all necessary to forge a way forward that fully honors everyone.

      I guess I’m naive enough to believe that there is a way forward that is different from the all-or-nothing, either/or options that polarize ideologically diverse faith communities into mutually exclusive, ever-deepening entrenchments. I’ve got some initial ideas on this, should there be enough open-minded people who value unity and mutual inclusion to consider them. I know others do, too. But often these more quiet, thoughtful options get drowned out by the right/left battle.

      • Chris – much as I appreciate and love your desire to try to bring people of differing viewpoints together (that’s part of a pastor’s job I know, and you seem to be very good at it) there does sadly come a point where one must draw a line. Equal can only be equal, it can’t be “mostly equal”.

        I see the issue as coming down to this for the UMC – does God’s love trump God’s law? Depending on whether you answer this question “Yes” or “No”, you will be on one side of the argument or the other.

      • I now how that feels — I feel the same about many of my religious friends. I love them all for their good points, but I’m saddened (and sometimes horrified) by some of the things they say and do. Except that we choose our religious views.

        (This is not snark, just to be clear.)

  3. As Sophie points out, the “tone” argument is a fallacy, in that it does not address the truth or falsehood of the statement, but instead derails the discussion by focusing on how the statement is made.

    • It can derail, yes, especially if there is no viable response to the statement. I happen to think, however, that there may be other options, but they won’t be heard unless enough people step away from the current clamor and its tone :-).

      • I do understand the feeling. If I come up to you, my face red and contorted with rage, shove it within an inch from yours, and scream at the top of my lungs “THE SKY IS BLUE!”, spraying you with spittle and the remains of whatever I ate for lunch, you are going to react poorly to what I say, regardless of its truth or falsehood.

        But in the end, it is a derail because it does not address the issue at hand – is the sky blue or isn’t it?

        Minorities must almost always use tactics that bring about some form of confrontation in order to get their voices heard. It is simply how things work in a society, like trying to say something when everyone is singing a hymn.

  4. thecrediblehulk

    Just to clarify previous comments, I am not trying to argue one side or the other here – I’m just saying that the choice seems to me to be far more clear cut than you or the UMC are making it out to be. The UMC cannot be inclusive and exclusive at the same time.

  5. VW

    I have to preface the following comments by quoting Paul. Eph. 2:8 – 10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9) not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10) For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
    Being gay does not mean an individual can’t be saved. 1 Tim. 2:4 “God wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
    That being said:
    The church is not dismissing or rejecting gay people. They are not closing the doors to gay people. The church is saying we do not accept the act of homosexuality and will not condone the sinful lifestyle that comes with it. Just like the church will not accept an adulterous lifestyle, or a lying lifestyle, or take your pick of any other acts that are not in line with the 10 comandments.
    Through this entire thread I have yet to see one reference to scripture. However, I see the phrase from the UMC book of discipline “all people are of sacred worth”. This is similar to people who pull out one verse from scripture and build a camp around it.
    Would the gay community like the church to dismiss the rest of the declarations in the book of discipline?
    Must the gay community take this one declaration out of context and expect the rest of us to accept their interpretation?
    Would the gay community suggest that the church dismiss the teachings of the Holy Word of God?
    There are several verses in the Holy scriptures that denounce homosexuality. As Christians, no matter what denomination, the final word on any issue should be God’s. I will provide an old testament example as well as a new testament example.
    Lev. 18:22 homosexuality is refered to as “an abomination”
    Rom 1:24 – 32 Paul warns that homosexuality is: a vile passion, unnatural, shameful, not proper, people who practice it no longer acknowledge God, and those who approve of the practice are guilty as well.
    There are other verses but these two passages get the point across. The bible is not gray or lukewarm on this matter, God’s word condemns it. The church should not take a lukewarm stance either.
    This movement in our culture is an example of the moral decay taking place in this country. I would encourage all who read this to remember the words of Paul in Romans 12:1 – 2 “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. 2) And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
    The Almighty is the same; yesterday, today & tomorrow. Why would the church sell it’s soul to be accepted by a sect of todays unrighteous culture?
    So in closing, I’ll revisit the gay’s argument…”all people are of sacred worth”. They are right…but it does not entitle them or anyone to a life of sin in the church. Adolph Hitler, Joeseph Stalin…these too “were of sacred worth”. They were also WRONG. When the people of their respective nations adopted the culture of their movements, the results were not good.

  6. I think we have a logical fallacy bingo here. Edmund, you want to take this? I need to go to bed. At least I can fall asleep easily, counting fallacies.

    Or hey, wait, I can also fall asleep counting abominations: a church barbecue (Lev. 7:18); shellfish (Lev. 11:10-12); eating birds of prey, ravens, cuckoos, swans, pelicans or even bats, which it turns out the Lord God thought were birds (Lev. 11:13-19); eating fowls that creep, going on all fours, I assume like the famous KFC four-legged bucket buster and the very un-kosher flying pigs (Lev. 11:20-23); eating creeping things that don’t fly, so much for alligator stew (Lev. 11:41-42); watching your relatives naked (OK, I sympathize with that one), making fun of your wife in front of her sister (that one also), going anywhere near a menstruating woman and a bunch more unclear rantings (Lev. 18:1-29); and that’s just for Leviticus… Zzzzzzz….

  7. Edmund Mettheny

    Dear VW –

    I would like to preface this by saying… oh heck, lets just get to the point.

    VW sez
    The church is not dismissing or rejecting gay people. They are not closing the doors to gay people. The church is saying we do not accept the act of homosexuality and will not condone the sinful lifestyle that comes with it. Just like the church will not accept an adulterous lifestyle, or a lying lifestyle, or take your pick of any other acts that are not in line with the 10 comandments

    I respond
    That’s just rubbish. We aren’t discussing some Platonic form of homosexuality here. We are discussing real activities by real people. Saying that you reject the act of homosexuality while trying to ignore the rather blatant fact that such acts are performed by people is trying to have your communion wafer and eat it too.

    VW sez
    Through this entire thread I have yet to see one reference to scripture. However, I see the phrase from the UMC book of discipline “all people are of sacred worth”. This is similar to people who pull out one verse from scripture and build a camp around it.

    I respond
    Yes, that’s a horrible thing to do. What a relief that Christians never, say, pick a few scriptures out of context and build a camp around them. If they did though, they would probably have a cool Greek term like “Eisegesis” for it.

    VW sez
    Would the gay community like the church to dismiss the rest of the declarations in the book of discipline?
    Must the gay community take this one declaration out of context and expect the rest of us to accept their interpretation?
    Would the gay community suggest that the church dismiss the teachings of the Holy Word of God?

    I respond
    1) No. Or at least I don’t think so, based around the idea that anyone who wanted the entire Book of Discipline thrown out would probably have little interest in becoming a Methodist, regardless of the church’s stance on homosexuality.

    2) No, and I don’t think that’s what they are doing. Rather, I think you are taking one example of many that they use to justify their position, isolating it from the remainder of their supportive arguments, and then claiming that they are using it in isolation.

    3) Yes they would, just as slaves and those who believed in abolition did, and just as women did, and just as reformers in the church have done since the very beginning.

    VW sez
    There are several verses in the Holy scriptures that denounce homosexuality. As Christians, no matter what denomination, the final word on any issue should be God’s. I will provide an old testament example as well as a new testament example.
    Lev. 18:22 homosexuality is refered to as “an abomination”

    I respond
    I believe that Sophie above has already put paid to the Leviticus example in fine form, but just to repeat – Leviticus lists numerous things as being blasphemous, sinful, or otherwise proscribed by God, which the church today does not accept. Claiming that homosexuality is an abomination based on Leviticus but not accepting the instructions of Leviticus on issues such as diet, haircutting, tattooing, etc. is just cherry picking. Remember that funny Greek word I used above? It’s that too.

    VW sez
    Rom 1:24 – 32 Paul warns that homosexuality is: a vile passion, unnatural, shameful, not proper, people who practice it no longer acknowledge God, and those who approve of the practice are guilty as well.

    I respond
    You know what else Paul warns us about? Uppity women in church. He also returned a slave to his master, a fact which slave owners used to argue against abolition on biblical grounds. But the fact is, the church does not give the same weight to everything written in the Bible. And many of the parts that it has given weight to in the past are less regarded now – for example the UMC stance on the consumption of alcohol and the proscriptions against drunkenness has softened considerably since the 1930s.

    VW sez
    There are other verses but these two passages get the point across. The bible is not gray or lukewarm on this matter, God’s word condemns it. The church should not take a lukewarm stance either.

    I respond
    There are a lot of things that the Bible is not gray or lukewarm about that modern Christianity nevertheless does not accept or adhere to. To the best of my knowledge the modern church does not advocate for rape victims marrying their rapists, forcing widows to marry their deceased husband’s relatives, stoning adulterers, selling people into slavery, or cutting off the hair of women who pray with their heads uncovered.

    But I’ve never been one to take the path of some, and claim that Biblical injunctions against homosexuality are being misinterpreted. Really, I think they are pretty clear.

    They’re just wrong.

    Let me repeat that for emphasis – the Bible is wrong regarding homosexuality. It’s also wrong about bats. It’s wrong about unicorns, wrong about slavery, wrong about mixing fabrics, wrong about the age of the earth, and wrong about a whole bunch of other things.

    VW sez
    This movement in our culture is an example of the moral decay taking place in this country

    I respond
    You know that the pro-slave church said the same thing. And the church that argued against women gaining positions of leadership (or the vote, for that matter). And the church that said letting anyone sit in a pew, not just the folks who paid to rent them, would be the end of everything. Always, always, this is the rallying cry of the stodgy old holdouts to change. Our culture is in moral decay!

    Let me tell you what I think. I think that our culture no longer treats four million people of color as beasts of burden, and no longer treats women as baby factories, and no longer treats those with birth defects as punishments from God. We don’t burn people for witchcraft. We don’t stone adulterers. I don’t consider this to be any sort of moral decay on our part, despite the fact that all of the above is Biblically supported, and has been for the vast majority of the history of Christianity.

    VW sez
    Paul in Romans 12:1 – 2 “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. 2) And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

    I reply
    I see your Romans 12:1-2 and raise you a Romans 14:1-12.

    VW sez
    The Almighty is the same; yesterday, today & tomorrow. Why would the church sell it’s soul to be accepted by a sect of todays unrighteous culture?

    I reply
    You are making the mistake of conflating God with the church. The history of the church has been one of constant change throughout its history. It does not matter that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow – the church is not, and never has been, static over time.

    You also employ a false dichotomy here by implying that the only two options are a) church stays the same, b) church sells its soul. I think that if you consider all the changes that Christianity as a whole, and Methodism in particular, have undergone through the years, it should be pretty obvious that the church can change without losing its soul.

    VW sez
    So in closing, I’ll revisit the gay’s argument…”all people are of sacred worth”. They are right…but it does not entitle them or anyone to a life of sin in the church. Adolph Hitler, Joeseph Stalin…these too “were of sacred worth”. They were also WRONG. When the people of their respective nations adopted the culture of their movements, the results were not good.

    I reply
    “The gays argument”? You do know that there are people, a pretty large number of them, who support the idea of equal rights for the LGBT community without themselves being LGBT, right?

    Second – a life of sin in the church? Such hubris. EVERYONE in the church leads a life of sin. Everyone in the church sins, they do it all the time, and they do it consciously. Every single person in every congregation makes a decision to sin, does so regularly, has always done so, and will continue to do so until the day they die. That is the beauty of the Cross – the most meaningful and powerful of all Christian beliefs. ALL fall short of perfection – and all can be washed in the blood of Christ and accepted by God anyway.

    Third – Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin? Seriously? Don’t you know Godwin’s Law? Also, do you really think it appropriate to compare people who earnestly and honestly wish to become fully participating members of the church (even accepting for the moment that they are incorrect in their beliefs about homosexuality) to two of the biggest mass murderers of history? I think your perspective is a bit skewed there.

    “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. ”
    – Romans 2:1

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