My Annual Conference will once again be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBT people into the life of our church, accept and normalize same-sex marriage, and to stop trials for those clergy who violate our Book of Discipline by conducting same-sex marriages. It’s yet another chapter of a debate that’s been raging in my United Methodist Church since the subject of homosexuality first came up in 1972. Yes, we’ve been debating this subject for 42 years, longer than I’ve been alive.
Most everyone would agree that we are locked in an irreconcilable debate between two disparate points of view. To state these views concisely:
- Our Reconciling (progressive) friends say that fully including LGBT people into the life of our church– into membership, leadership as lay people, marriage, and ordination– is a matter of biblical love and justice. God does not exclude anyone from the gospel and the body of Jesus Christ. God also shows us how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through our LGBT members as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve and lead the church just as powerfully as anyone else.
- Our Transforming (conservative) friends say that this is all a matter of two things: the authority of Scripture, especially the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality, homosexuality especially; and the preservation of marriage and family, as established by Scripture. The bottom line: the practice of homosexuality is a sin and therefore outside of Christian teaching established by Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.
Here’s the problem with this debate in a nutshell. They are talking past each other. These two “sides” are speaking two different languages- the language of inclusive love vs. the language of biblical authority.
Yet there’s an irony to all of this. Both sides read the same Bible and hold to its authority as the inspired Word of God. And both sides believe in an inclusive, loving church!
Now– let me stop right here because I can sense that both my conservative and progressive colleagues are already chaffing against what I just said. Friends, I’ve made these observations after having spent hours upon hours talking to people on both sides of the LGBT debate. There are some eery similarities between both sides. Here are two striking commonalities:
First, both conservatives and progressives read the same Bible and they take it seriously as the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Or, if we want Wesleyan common ground to stand on, we all can affirm that, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104). By and large, progressives do not simply toss out passages of Scripture they don’t like. They wrestle with them through the lenses of careful biblical study, criticism and experience- something that everyone from any ideology does. Our ideological differences stem from how we interpret biblical teachings on human sexuality and hermeneutically apply them to our present-day circumstances.
Second, both conservatives and progressives strive for an inclusive, loving church, and in this case with our LGBT neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay people or don’t want them in their churches. We all want and strive for an inclusive church. Where we differ is in the nature of inclusivity. What are we including? Many of our conservative colleagues advocate for and practice radical hospitality to their LGBT neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality. This is not hate or exclusion, at least in their eyes and hearts.
However, I want to say here that this does not at all diminish the real painful histories that LGBT people have experienced being ostracized, hated, and excluded from their families, friends, and church. This still goes on. That said, conservatives (and everyone else) have come a long way in getting rid of bigotry and homophobia. Much more needs to be done. Yet we can confidently say that a large and growing number of my conservative colleagues are weeding out hate and homophobia, extending love and grace to all, while at the same time upholding what they believe the Bible teaches about human sexuality.
To sum up what I’ve just said: by and large, both progressives and conservatives read the same Bible and advocate for a loving, inclusive church. Albeit, there are noisy, visible exceptions who always show up to steal the limelight. Put them aside, and we still find these striking similarities between a vast majority progressives and conservatives.
If it is true– and I firmly believe it is!– that progressives and conservatives on the LGBT issue affirm biblical authority and an inclusive church, then I believe there is a scriptural way forward for all of us. Call it a third way apart from either extreme, and yet it can be a place for all of us to stand together.
That Scriptural way forward is Romans 14:1-15:7. A few months ago I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBT debate. I invite you to give it a read.
Basically, in this passage Paul addresses a dispute between Christians of the ancient Roman church over eating meat that could have been offered to an idol. There were those who believed, based on firm Scriptural premises, that eating this meat was taking part in idolatry and so for the most part, they lived as vegetarians. Others in the community had the faith to believe that idols and idol worship is false anyway, and had no qualms with eating this meat. Then there were those who believed that the Sabbath (and other Jewish holy days) are sacred and must be strictly kept. Meanwhile, others saw everyday as holy.
The Apostle Paul framed this debate by calling it “disputable matters.” In other words, these Roman Christians were not differing over basic Christian dogma or doctrine. None of these things were in question. They were debating disputable matters of ethics, matters that do not inform essential Christian dogma and doctrine.
Paul’s solution was both simple and genius: accept each other at the same table of grace. Don’t force your beliefs onto the other as a stumbling block to them. Respect each other’s convictions as holy convictions, unto the Lord. Give each other space and room to live as they believe the Holy Spirit has led them to live. Strive for the things that build each other up, not tear each other down. Be patient with each other. And above all, be like Jesus, who humbled himself to be crucified for all of us. Welcome each other in the spirit of our crucified and risen Lord.
What would this look like in practice here in 2014, dealing with the LGBT debate? We would accept each other within the same church. We would make room for each other to live and practice ministry as the Holy Spirit has directed us. We would remember that our unity does not need to be based on our agreement over disputable matters like human sexuality; rather, our unity is based on our unified embrace of the dogma and doctrine of our church, our shared Wesleyan heritage as United Methodists.
This is more than merely “agreeing to disagree”. I can agree to disagree with someone without having to maintain a relationship with them. But, if I say that I accept someone whose views on disputable matters are different from mine, then we agree to stay in a covenanted relationship as siblings in Christ within his body. We need not part ways or remain locked in a debate that paralyzes and polarizes our church into winners and losers.
Having said this, let me address some possible objections:
1) “So you’re saying that we should just accept sin and let it remain. I cannot be in a church that passively accepts sin.” The fact is, we the church have always debated what is within and outside of God’s will. Take the issue of remarriage after divorce. In many places the Bible condemns remarriage for divorced persons. And yet, for pastoral reasons, we’ve made room for these persons while allowing our differences over this matter to remain. (I am a divorced and remarried person, ordained as an Elder. No one has ever held that against me, even though one could condemn my remarriage on biblical grounds.) Also, there are a number of other sins we passively overlook– greed, gluttony, gossip, etc. How well are we doing actively pointing out and condemning each and every instance of these sins? The point is this: we are all growing disciples of Christ, always discerning what is sinful and what is not, while growing in holiness. We can still accept each other, even in our differences over what is sinful and what is not.
2) “So you’re saying that we must live in a church which tolerates exclusionary attitudes towards LGBT persons? Where is the justice in that?” I think we all need to drastically lower the volume of our individual convictions on human sexuality. I’ve found that it is very possible to work side-by-side with someone whose convictions are very different from my own on LGBT or any other range of issues. How do we get along? We simply don’t go there. We value the wonderful things we have in common, and we value each other as people. On the matters we dispute, we simply give each other space.
This third way of biblical acceptance will require the progressive and conservative sides of the LGBT debate to change tactics. We can no longer afford to impose our will and views regarding human sexuality on the whole denomination, no matter how biblically correct we feel our view to be. It is a disputable matter.
However, the third way of biblical acceptance will give us all tremendous freedom while keeping our church united around the essential things which already unite us. We can all freely hold and live our convictions on human sexuality while keeping our church from further fractions and schisms.
Then the prayer of Jesus will be more fully realized in our time:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)