Front Row Seat (Reflections on a Church Conference to Disaffiliate)

As a representative leader of the UMC, I sat on the front row of a Church Conference where I heard of how the UMC is led by people who are “incompetent and immoral,” who “trade God’s Word for the secular ideology of the world,” who “abandon doctrine” in order to not offend anyone, and who want to bend our will to “pagan cultural Marxism.” It was all part of a continuing effort to build a “damning case against the UMC.”  Damn! Condemn! Declare as evil! As I listened, I could not think of any leader who deserved such hurtful and judgmental attacks, even considering isolated examples. The main speech concluded with a prayer calling for us to part ways as Paul and Barnabas did and to love one another even if from afar – familiar talking points, shared as pleas to God.

To counter this narrative, I heard grace-filled speeches calling for unity in love, even in the midst of different perspectives.  I heard of how a few isolated examples do not represent the whole. I heard of a trust in the Holy Spirit to keep us all centered, allowing us to honor perspectives that stand at the edges of theological interpretation. This is a dynamic that has always been a part of healthy congregations.   I heard much love for the UMC and for our doctrine, liturgy, mission, and ministry. I so appreciated the spirit with which these truths were shared.  

When the votes were counted, however, division won the day – by 4 votes.  It was winner-take-all! There were no provisions for those who want to remain UMC, many of whom have given of their tithes, taught Sunday School, and shared in holy communion and potlucks for years. There was no honoring of the larger church that had given pastors, provided equipping and resources and offered an opportunity to be a part of a global mission bigger than ourselves.  I thought of the person who said, after hearing of a love for our doctrine and discipline, “the videos I watched told me you would say that and that you would be lying.” That’s the spirit that won the day.   

For me, it felt as if the Spirit of God left the room, leaving the space as something other than holy.  I then looked up at the stained-glass image of Jesus, and I sensed the presence of Christ.  Knowing that Living Lord was there for all, I especially sensed his presence with those whose hearts were broken and who were fighting back tears. I want to stand with these beloved and faithful souls as well.   

A Personal FAQ on Disaffiliation

Here is my personal FAQ, with answers to real questions that I continue to hear from those leaning towards disaffiliation.  I am thankful for all who are willing to engage in the conversation.

  • How can we stay in a denomination with such doctrinal drift?
  • How can we stay in a denomination where people are praying to a “Queer God?”
  • How can we accept something that goes against the Bible? (This is at the heart for many).
  • If we disaffiliate, won’t we be able to put this debate behind us, stop talking about sexuality, and get on with the business of being the church?
  • But we would still be methodist, right?  Just not united?
  • Is this our church or does it belong to the Conference? Is this not an opportunity for us to control our own destiny?
  • Will we be forced to accept views or policies that do not align with our conscience? 
  • What will happen at General Conference next year?
  • How can we conference together in ways that glorify God and give a good witness to the world?

How can we stay in a denomination with such doctrinal drift?

In the conversations around disaffiliation, some claim that there is a movement to change the beloved doctrines of our church.  In this regard, it is true that isolated examples can be found.  There are those within the church who stand at the edges of doctrinal interpretation. There always has been and always will be. To use isolated examples, however, as a justification for disaffiliation must assume that this will not happen in a new denomination. That is unlikely. 

Our seminaries are getting much blame for this supposed doctrinal drift.  I do not believe it is founded.  If we want to judge our seminaries, then I would encourage you to read the ordination papers of students applying to be ordained.  Read what they have to say about the trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, justification and sanctification, the calling of the church, what it means to be ordained, and more.  I get to do this every year, and it is inspiring. The holy apostolic faith will continue to be shared in powerful ways.

In response to accusations that our seminaries teach heresy, it is true that students can learn about other expressions of faith and explore other ideas. The trajectory, however, for those seeking ordination in the UMC is to be able to share the holy orthodox faith of the church in faithful and fruitful ways and to do so within the context and times in which they are called. For a comparison, I suspect you could go to the School of Business at the UofA and take a class on the economics of socialism, but it would not be fair to say that the school is trying to lead students in that direction.

In this larger debate about doctrinal drift, it is worth noting that there are over 30,000 United Methodist pastors in the U.S. In most discernment processes, the same handful of examples are used of people who have stood at the edges of theological interpretation and then used fallaciously to cast shade on the whole.  Is it fair to base this decision on such a small sampling?

How can we stay in a denomination where people are praying to a “Queer God?”

In many places where there are people promoting disaffiliation, this has become a major talking point.  It is true that such a prayer was recorded at a seminary, during Pride Month, and at a service designed to welcome members of the Plus community.  Can we give this a “generous read?” As explained by students, the term ‘Queer” can be used for all who feel like they are different and who are judged because of that.  It is not only about sexuality.  In this case, the hope was to show that Christ stands with these beloved souls. There is much scriptural backing to say that Christ identified with the outcast, the marginalized, the judged. 

In this particular case, was it shocking to hear? Yes, for many.  Remembering that this came from an un-ordained student in the process of formulating how to best express her faith, was this worthy of being weaponized and used in ways to cause her harm and to cast unfair concerns upon the church as a whole?  The answer is “no” in my opinion.  If there is judgement to be made in how this is being communicated, the weight of that judgement should not be put on this one student in her twenties and still in school.  

How can we accept something that goes against the Bible?

This question, formed in many ways, is at the heart of it all for many.  Staying UMC will necessitate a willingness to accept that there may be different faithful interpretations of the passages before us.  I would be among those who want to approach the matter with more humility and less judgement, a deeply rooted biblical perspective.  I don’t fully understand matters of sexual orientation and identity.  I do, however, stand firm on the biblical virtues and values that are life-giving for all.  I do not believe a separate standard should be made for some. I want to promote a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of faithfulness, commitment and all the virtues summed up with the word “love.” 

When it comes to assessing who can be leaders in the church, I stand with those who want to focus on calling and character, rather than making blanket judgements around personal identity, that would keep us from even considering whether someone is called or has the character needed for faithful and fruitful leadership in the church. 

In one setting, a person asked me, in all sincerity, to share what a different interpretation would look like.  He had assumed that the scriptures were clear and that the matter was settled.  I started by saying that homosexuality was a term coined in the 20th century as a medical term to denote deviate behavior.  After this, the word found its way into scripture as a translation for words that point to abusive and harmful behavior.  Both science and most translations have changed this understanding, but even where it still exists, Christians in the Plus community would agree that the behavior described in the original Greek is wrong. They might also say that this has nothing to do with two people wanting to live in a faithful, committed, and loving relationship. When it comes to the passage in Romans 1 and the words about doing what is unnatural, many in Plus community would agree that engaging in behaviors that are unnatural is harmful, but that they have come to a place, through much prayer and struggle, where they are comfortable living into what is natural for them. 

Personally, I have come to the point where I honor those who have come to such understandings in their conversations with God through the scriptures and who have found ways to truly grow in God’s love and to be a great blessing to the church.  I also lament the possibility that there may not be congregations in certain communities where such understandings would be honored.  

For more on this, including a look at Matthew 19, please see my blog posts “Wesley and Human Sexuality, Parts 1 and 2.” These posts have received a lot of attention. 

If we disaffiliate, won’t we be able to put this debate behind us, stop talking about sexuality, and get on with the business of being the church?

Disaffiliation is not likely to bring an end to this debate. I had a conversation recently with something committed to joining the GMC. This person was in a church where the music director was gay. The person who wanted to disaffiliate loved this music director and appreciated his giftedness and the spirit he brought to worship.  I pointed out that, in the GMC, a gay person who wanted to live in a faithful relationship with another and grow in God’s love through that relationship, could not work in a church, even as a lay person. That would be grounds for dismissal.  This led to some rethinking.  It might also lead to attempts within the new denomination to change this policy.  The debate will continue.

We have another church that has voted to disaffiliate that has a similar situation.  That church is considering being independent rather than joining the GMC but that is leading to a whole different debate.  Some don’t believe it would be good to be independent in this way; others do.  There is now division on top of division.

Changing denominations in unlikely to help. Recently, I have had conversations with both a Baptist pastor and a Church of Christ pastor who came to me to talk about how these same questions were surfacing in their congregations and they both said, in different ways, how much they admire how I was able to talk about it without being fired.  Being able to conference together in love is a good thing!

But we would still be methodist, right?  Just not united?

This is an assumption that begs a lot of questions.  To disaffiliate means that the local church will have to decide many things and to do so quickly.  It will lead to more debate, not less, and perhaps to division on top of division.  Will you still practice open communion?  What liturgies and hymns will be used? What will you believe?  What will your policies be? How will not secure pastoral leadership and what criteria will be used.  Will you join another denomination or not?  The questions will keep coming.  And you will need a good lawyer to be involved.  It is a good thing, in my opinion, to be rooted in the larger church where direction is given, where resources are shared, and ministry happens together. 

Is this our church or does it belong to the Conference? Is this not an opportunity for us to control our own destiny?

The idea of owning our own property and controlling our own destiny is popular in some circles. In response to this, I want to affirm our calling to be in covenant together. I like knowing that I can go to any United Methodist Church and say, “This is my church.” “We share in ministry together.” 

Yes, this is your church and, as a United Methodist, you are able a part of a mission that is so much bigger than you or this one place.  Together, we have built a global church that makes such a difference in the world. We can think of UMCOR, Global Ministries, United Methodist Women (now United Women in Faith), United Methodist Men, Africa University, Discipleship Ministries, Assembly, and Veritas, just to name a few. The hope of those who want to Stay UMC is that we would build this upon this witness rather than tear it down.   

Will we be forced to accept views or policies that do not align with our conscience?  (This fear is expressed in different ways).

With so much rhetoric designed to stir up this fear it is hard to speak a word of reassurance.  I heard of how one pastor tried to speak a reassuring word into the conversation about how we continue to believe in Jesus, and the other person said, “The video I watched told me you would say that and that it would be a lie.”  In this case a video promoting disaffiliation was trusted over a beloved pastor. 

In my opinion, there is one official statement that needs to find a way into the noise.  In a letter from the Council of Bishop around this tension, we read: “We cannot be a traditional church or a progressive church or a centrist church. We cannot be a gay or straight church. Our churches must be more than echo chambers made in our own image arguing with each other while neglecting our central purpose. Instead, we must be one people, rooted in scripture, centered in Christ, serving in love, and united in the essential [of our shared faith].”

I love that and think that it is worthy of our commitment. Giving this witness would glorify and expresses a way of living the Christian faith that is so needed in our communities.  In many communities the UMC may be the only church where this welcoming spirit might be offered.

For many the calling found in Ephesians chapter 4 continues to be a guiding light.  The Apostle Paul begs us to live out the calling we have been given, to love one another with patience, gentleness, and humility, being eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. We are called to a higher unity, represented by something more than uniformity of opinion.  Our unity is rooted in a holy love that is patience and kind. It is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way, as the scripture says. How do we share this calling with one another and together as a witness to the world?  

What will happen at General Conference next year?

As a delegate to General Conference, my hope is that this language around the “h-word” and incompatibility will be removed.  In my opinion, it is shameful that our Church continues to use a word that hurts and de-humanizes people and turns them into issues and problems rather than beloved souls.   At the same time, I do not believe this language should be replaced with language that says it is compatible. I believe we should leave that for continued holy conferencing and seeking God’s guidance, and that we should allow (and protect) clergy and congregations to follow their conscience on how to love others, and in a wide diversity of cultural contexts.  That is the perspective of most delegates that I know.

In a global church, with delegates from many places and cultures, I must say that I am not optimistic that this language will change.  What is more likely is that some form of regionalization will pass, allowing different regions in the world to develop their own criteria for ministry.  Within the U.S, there is a desire to allow more freedom and to cultivate more openness.  That is the goal. There is not, however, a desire to replace “may” with “shall.”  That is not who we are as United Methodist Christians.

How can we conference together in ways that glorify God and give a good witness to the world?

In all forms of “Conferencing” may we stand together as the Body of Christ, with many parts, rooted in the historic and core doctrines of our faith, and in this rootedness, honoring the various branches of perspective and interpretation that help us all to grow in faith.  May we “think and let think,” to use Wesley’s language, trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work among us to keep us centered as a whole and aligned to God’s will, recognizing that somethings this work of the Holy Spirit is a call to appreciate the spirit of those who are serving at the edges.

To build upon Wesley’s guidance, to focus on the opinions of our “party” or to want all to follow this or that “scheme of religion” is “quite wide of the point.” It is worth noting that the word “party” contains the word “part.” Attempts to make a “part” into the “whole” are destructive to the Body of Christ. According to Wesley, a methodist is to be distinguish by the love of God planted in the heart, the love that empower us to be the Body of Christ with many parts.  May this continue to be our focus and our witness. 

A Balcony Perspective on Disaffiliation

I sat in the balcony for a Church Conference on disaffiliation.  From the balcony, it hit me that this meeting was being held in the sanctuary. Several speakers went off script and referred to weddings, baptisms, funerals, and regular worship in this sacred space. I began to wonder about the spiritual damage that was being done, knowing that some would be cut off from this rootedness.     

From the balcony, I wondered about using the honored word “discernment,” used in this case to describe the pitting of two sides against one another and moving to a vote to divide. True discernment usually looks different, with people willing to suspend judgement, listen, and seek life-giving outcomes – “unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-3).  

From the balcony, I wondered about the harm caused by voting. A friend recently pointed out that the only recorded vote in the New Testament was when Pilate asked the people to choose between Jesus and Barabbas (Matt 27:21). The only time the word “vote” is found is where Paul confesses to his vote to condemn Stephen and other Christians to death (Acts 26:10).  It is not a glowing endorsement. While voting may be necessary on occasion, especially around organizing for ministry, there are a lot of options before this last resort – conversation, conferencing, catechism, consensus, compromise, and shared calling above all.   As we discern and decide, we would do well to remember that the word “party” includes the word “part.”  To set up a winner-take-all vote to make a part the whole is…(what’s the right adjective)…so dishonoring of the Body of Christ.  

From this particular balcony, the attempts at politeness did not take the sting away from familiar rhetoric. I once again heard isolated examples of statements from professors or un-ordained students as the justification for the harm being caused.  I wondered what would happen if we spent our energies, particularly around seminaries, reflecting on the historic questions that have to be answered for ordination.  How might we judge theological education if we read the papers of actual students?  I get to do this every year and continue to be inspired by how the historic apostolic faith of the church will continue to be passed on from one generation to the next.  To this end, it is good that students who are called to serve the church as pastors come in contact with a variety of views in the world.

In this particular case, the vote to disaffiliate failed by a few votes.  I was relieved. And then reality set in. As a part of my job, I had to walk down the stairs and into the pain of a divided congregation.  It wasn’t long before I overheard conversations about how all the talk of wanting to be a “big tent” – Body of Christ – congregation, rooted in scripture, centered in Christ, and united in the core doctrines of our faith was all a cover for some nefarious agenda.  The level of accusation against those who were once friends, and the willingness to trust those working for division, was alarming.  I met with those who had worked hard for this outcome, but there was no celebration.  People were pleased, but no one was happy.  A deep hope, however, remained, — that this would continue to be a congregation that truly believed in the Living Lord who was at work to keep the church as a whole centered in faith, hope, and above all love.   That’s what will see us all through.

Worshiping at Fairview UMC (after the vote)

I’m sure the saints of heaven smiled as we worshipped yesterday. We came together with a combination of much hurt and hope to sing praise, pray together, say the creed, and hear God’s word read and proclaimed.  A couple of things stood out to me – as the Spirit moved.  I was struck by the altar and how someone had so carefully placed the paraments.  It was an obvious act of holy love. Then, a boy came forward with the light, and after lighting the candles, placed the lighter on a hook that someone had attached to the altar.  It stuck me that someone thought of this, and it had become a part of the tradition in that church. After the service, I told the boy that he did a good job and he said, “I’m good at this.”  He was proud.  I thought of those who missed this beautiful act of worship because of the spirit of division. And I was personally moved to not take joys like this granted.

I was also struck by the service itself.  This was a congregation that had a history of learning how to get along and make room for each other.  This was evidenced by the way we sang hymns and choruses in the same service, with some holding hymnals and others looking at the screen.  In our meeting afterwards, I said “I bet there was a conversation at some point about these things.”  “Oh yes,” they said, “and we worked through it.”  “We would have worked through this as well if we hadn’t been pressured into a vote to divide.” One man lamented, “It just didn’t have to be this way.”

He was right.  I’ve seen it too often – when this process for disaffiliation moves to a vote the outcome is division – of congregations, of friends, even of families.  As one said, “The devil is the only winner.” I would agree, while also affirming that God can work for good even in the midst of this pain.  This group knew that as well.  They are determined to be the church in a community that needs this witness. 

In this case, the vote was to remain UMC. This was a relief to many, but the heartbreak of division was still very real. Many hope that the divisions will not be permanent, and that reconciliation will occur.  They believe that would glorify God.  

And in the midst of all of this, we worshipped.  And yes, I could hear the saints of heaven rejoicing in my spirit and I could sense God’s comforting, healing, life-giving love.  The Holy Spirit was there, perhaps working overtime. Thank you, Fairview UMC in Camden, for your desire to be faithful and fruitful as United Methodist Christians. Seeing this was healing to my heart. 

Hope Through Hurt (First Reflections on My New Role and Disaffiliation) 

On October 1 I started a new appointment as the Director of ReStart Initiative, a cabinet position with the purpose of providing care, support, and help with next-step discernment for all who want to remain United Methodist and who are affected by disaffiliation. Some have asked if I am “excited” about this.  Since every conversation seems to be born in pain and heartbreak, excitement is not the best word.  I have been inspired, however, by the faith of so many who also have hope in the midst of pain and who trust that healing will come.  God is definitely at work!

Here are a few stories from these first weeks that I am holding in my heart.  For the first one, a man came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I am conservative.”  He then called his wife over and said, “I lean to the right on many things; she leans to the left,” Then he put his arm around her, and said, “Together we make something beautiful.” Even in laughter, a sadness was expressed over how this witness was no longer welcomed in the church they had loved and served for years.  

Another man spoke of his newfound calling to make sure that there would be “a traditional United Methodist Church” in their community.  I was struck by the word “traditional.” To help me understand, he spoke of a church where people come together to worship, to say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer together (this was important), and where people could have different perspectives on some things but still honor and love one another. He was proud that his church was one of the very few places in town where an openly gay person could serve among them and was, seemingly, much loved.  That all changed in an instant, with a vote.  “So yes,” he said, “I want to help cultivate a traditional United Methodist Church in this community.” 

For one more story, a woman spoke of how her friends are calling and saying, “We didn’t want you to leave. You are one of us.”  With this plea she realized that she could not be a part of a church where “us” meant creating a “them” – where it became okay to objectify others as objects to be feared, as issues rather than people, as agendas rather than members of the Body of Christ. She, and many others, want a church that focuses more on the beliefs and values that are life-giving for all rather than trying to judge some by a different standard and creating an “us and them.” “As I understand it,” she said, “That is just not the way Christ.”

My new “congregation,” so to speak, is made up of many who feel that they have been “disaffiliated” or “exiled” from a church they have loved.  While all might use terms like traditional, moderate, centrist, or progressive to describe a part of their calling, they are also committed to finding community under a higher calling and creed.  The term used most often to describe this is “United Methodist.”   For these beloved souls, this work is not primarily about preserving an institution.  It is about cultivating a way of life, where we are called to love one another with patience, kindness, and a humility that does not insist on its own way.  As the Apostle Paul says, without this we have nothing.  John Wesley called this “true holiness.”  

My job right now is to help cultivate this way of life.  I invite you into this calling as well – and in this invitation I want to also include all who have, or are thinking about, voting for disaffiliation.  There is a more excellent way. 

Wesley on Human Sexuality – Part Two

It was a modest project – to look directly at Wesley’s notes on the passages that are often used and to see what he had to say.  I was not expecting to find some of the things I did. With all the attention the previous post received, I want to look again, in light of some of the comments, and ask if my conclusion needs to be modified.

Concerning Wesley’s notes on Romans 1:26-27, much more can be said. Wesley speaks of three degrees of ungodliness – uncleanliness (v.24), being given up to vile affections (vs.25-27) and the vilest abominations (vs.28-31).   The word “abominations” is reserved for his long list that includes envy, deceit, covetousness, gossip, and fornication, which Wesley specifically used as a blanket term for all “pornia.”  Under the second category of “vile affections,” Wesley’s illustration is the “heathen Romans…and none more than the emperors themselves.”  As a point of interest, he also speaks of “American heathens,” in the note on v.31.  Under this category, Wesley speaks of idolatry being “punished with unnatural lust.” The only other time “lust” is mentioned in his commentary on Romans is in the note on 7:7 where it is specifically defined as “evil desires.”  Once again, we can conclude that Wesley wants to point us beyond sexuality only. 

Referring to Wesley’s note on I Cor 6:9-10, I can state it even more emphatically. Wesley wants us to think beyond sex!  He struggles with the word translated as “effeminate” or “soft.”  He gives this definition – those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.” At the same time, he does address the type of person that people would have had in mind. He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!  Wesley has trouble with this group being on the list – whoever he had in mind.  I included more commentary in the previous post, making sure I didn’t make too much of this or impose too much of a 21st century perspective.  With statements like this, I do wonder how this matter can rise to the level of schism.

Referring to Wesley’s note on I Timothy 1:8-11, Wesley gives no commentary on the word “sodomite.” Here I did have to look in other places.  There are a handful of mentions in the Notes. When he elaborates beyond an assumed definition, he points us beyond sexuality.  He equates this word to idol worship (2 Kings 23:2), to corrupt principles and practices of government (Deut 32:32), and all things abominable (Rev 21:8).  In addition to this, he elaborates on the sin of Sodom in his note on Ezekiel 16:47, mentioned in the earlier post.  It is clear that sodomy is not good. It is also clear that we cannot project the sin onto a particular group of people.  Wesley wants us all to understand our complicity and involvement in sin as a step into a life-giving relationship with God.

I spent a lot of time on Wesley’s commentary on Matthew 19 in the previous post.  In the notes of this chapter, and in other notes mentioned, Wesley does have some thought-provoking things to say about eunuchs, including that we cannot always take the term literally.  In the context of current discussions, his words are remarkable – as seen in the previous post.

To conclude, I want to state my previous and modest conclusion with more fervor. ”Wesley’s willingness to struggle with these texts gives us permission to do so as well.” To state it another way, there is much room in Wesley for other perspectives. An honoring of perspectives is woven into Wesley’s larger corpus of teachings.  To paraphrase Wesley’s own words, a Methodist is not distinguished by this or that opinion or scheme of religion.  All of that is “quite wide of the point.”  I love that line! Methodists are to be distinguished by the love of God in our hearts.

Yes, there is room in Wesley.  The question is – is there room in the church? For you? For me? For us together in communion? I say “yes,” with Wesley among our guides.

Dividing the Family Inheritance (thoughts on the lectionary and disaffiliation votes this week)

The gospel lesson from the lectionary this week is ominous, given that votes to disaffiliate begin this week among us.  In Luke 12:13-21, we read where someone wants Jesus to go tell his brother to divide the family inheritance between them.  Jesus refuses and makes it clear that this is not kingdom work. Jesus then takes the opportunity to tell a parable where successful persons focus on building bigger and bigger barns for themselves, with no thought of others, and in the process risk their own souls. 

The analogy does not work exactly because those seeking disaffiliation are not talking about dividing the inheritance in a fair way but rather want to take it all. As one pastor has said, and I paraphrase, “This is a huge deal.”  For only (x dollars) we can “own the whole block and control our own destiny.”

It is easy to see why one who has this desire would think this is a good deal. On the other hand, this is not a good deal for those who believe that faithfulness is about something more than controlling our own destiny. This is not a good deal for those who honor our connectional covenant together and believe that congregations hold property in trust for the larger church. These congregations would not have beloved pastors without the commitment of the larger church to confirm callings, provide training, and develop systems for appointment, support, and shared mission. These congregations are who they are because of a shared commitment to the apostolic faith that has been passed down through many faithful souls.

It is not a good deal for those who believe that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, keeping us aligned in God’s love as a whole, even as some stand on the prophetic edges that make others uncomfortable.  That is a constant dynamic in the church.  To use isolated examples of a few who stand at the edges as a reason for schism only works if it is believed that the new church will never have people inspired by new thoughts and new insights for how to invite all into lives of faithfulness and love.  It works only if the Holy Spirit will no longer be in this work at the edges, even as the Holy Spirit also works among those who feel called to hold fast to views found on the inside.

Perhaps we cannot read too much into it, but it is interesting that this scripture from the lectionary popped up for this week.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit will use this – as the Holy Spirit does and often through the scriptures– to transform hearts.  Perhaps the better way through this tension is to figure out how to share the inheritance that we have all been given and to do so in a way where all are honored.  That would be kingdom work!  

Wesley on Human Sexuality (and his commentary on often cited verses)

Certain passages keep coming up in our conversations about human sexuality and the future (and possible division) of the church.  Since Wesley’s notes on the New Testament are a part of our doctrine, it might be good to know what he has to say.

One verse from Matthew 19 is often quoted to make a point about marriage. In this passage, Jesus speaks of marriage between one man and one woman, and how the two become “one flesh.” In context, this is an answer to a question about divorce.  The law of Moses gave “men” permission to dismiss a wife for most any cause. Jesus says that this is because of our hardness of heart and calls “men” to a higher standard, with some arguing that this call was given to provide more protection for the wellbeing of women. While Jesus honors this form of marriage in his illustration, the point of his answer, as Wesley says, is not about marriage; it is to speak against two things: polygamy and divorce.

And then things get very interesting. Even after lifting up this high standard, Jesus makes it clear that he is not giving a new law to be enforced. He tells us that not everyone can accept this, but only those who are given the ability to accept it.  Jesus shifts the conversation to those who are not called to marriage in this traditional sense. In this context, he speaks of eunuchs – some who are born this way, some who are made this way, and some who choose this way to glorify God.  The term “eunuch” was used in the ancient world as a euphemism for those who we might call “gay” today. Wesley does not make this connection directly but does tell us that we cannot always take this term literally.  He speaks of those who are eunuchs “by natural constitution, without their choice: to others by violence, against their choice; and to others by grace with their choice.” This is remarkable language, with much to ponder. (Also see notes on Acts 8:27, I Cor 7:7, and Dan 1:3). 

Jesus ends this challenging passage by saying, “Let anyone accept this who can.”  It is with this word that Jesus offers his teaching on marriage, divorce, and the honoring of those who do not, or cannot, enter into a “traditional” marriage.  These are all complex matters that call for much grace.

Next, we turn to verses within the first chapter of Roman that are often cited (Romans 1: 26-27). Wesley points out that this passage is about “abominable idolatries,” where people exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship the creature rather than the creator. The illustration is used of men and women exchanging what is natural for them for what is unnatural for them. From our perspective today, we might say that this is not healthy for any of us.  Whatever else we might say, the illustration is not the point or purpose of the passage.  It is about idolatry that leads to “the vilest abominations.” Wesley lists these abominations in his commentary – Injustice, Unmercifulness, Maliciousness (“a temper that delights in hurting others.”). Whispering (to “defame others.”) and Backbiting (speaking “against others behind their backs.”).  

In terms of sexuality, Wesley puts “fornication” on his list. The Greek word is “pornia” which can be defined as any sexual expression which objectifies self or others. As Wesley says, it is a term that “covers every species of uncleanliness.” By this understanding, this term includes much more than our common definition. In his notes on this passage as a whole, Wesley emphasizes the point that Paul is trying to make.  If we judge others, we only condemn ourselves (Romans 2:1).  This passage is about so much more than what we like to focus upon.   

Next, there are two other passages in Paul’s letters that are often cited, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11.  In both of these passages we find a list of vices that do not represent the kingdom.  More specifically, we see a list of certain types of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” – as if they deserve it apart from God’s amazing grace. The lists include idolaters, fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, drunkards, revilers, robbers, murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and all that is contrary to sound teaching.  

The word translated as “male prostitute” in the NRSV, literally means “soft.” In Wesley’s bible it was translated as “effeminate.” This same word is used in the gospels to compare the “soft” or “luxurious” clothing worn by those in royal palaces with the clothes worn by John the Baptist (Mt 11:8; Lk 7:25).  In reference to sex, there is a history of this word being used to describe the passive partner, the effeminate (which was seen as a vice by many). In his notes, Wesley describes those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.” It is clear that Wesley saw this in a broader way. In other contexts, Wesley uses this same word in a positive light. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft and yielding spirit.”  In his commentary of the phrase “Love is kind,” he describes “kindness” with the word “soft.” He also says that peacemakers are those who “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.”  Being “soft” can be a good thing.

As a part of his commentary, Wesley does allude to the common use of this word to describe a particular kind of person. He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  Whoever he has in mind, he struggles with them being on this list. To make sense of this he speculates that we must all guard against sins thought to be the least in order to secure ourselves from the greatest sins. With all of this, it is clear that Wesley sees this notion of “being soft” is a broader context, beyond sex alone, and he also calls us all to look in the mirror. 

The next word on this list is even more challenging. Translated as “sodomites” in Wesley’s day, it is a combination of two words, one meaning “male” and the other meaning “bed.” While very rare in ancient literature, it is mostly seen as a reference to abuse and exploitation of another. In some contemporary translations, it is used to denote the active partner in a same-sex (male) intercourse. In the history of translation, it has also been associated with pedophiles or abuse of boys or children (This is how Luther, for example, translated it).  There is evidence that Wesley defined this word in ways that move beyond sex. In Wesley’s notes on Ezekiel 16:49, he says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor was the source of their fall. Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).  In other words, when we see this word, we cannot only think of “those people.”  On this whole, this term is used in the context of exploitive, abusive, neglectful, selfish, and harmful behavior, often seen in the context of sexual relationships.

In the last century, this word was sometimes translated with the term “homosexual.”  It is worth noting that this 20th century term was used to denote an official mental disorder.  It was often used to suggest practices that we would all consider “incompatible with Christian teachings.”  The American Psychiatric Association did not fully remove this classification and these associations until 1987.  Because of these associations, we have been asked to stop using this term. It is hurtful and undermines the hopes for a life of faithfulness and love found in many who might be labeled in this way.

According to Wesley, we are to interpret all scripture, especially challenging scriptures, through the grand truths that run through the whole, using passages that “take hold of our conscience.” (See note on Romans 12:6 and Sermons “On Charity and “On Laying the Foundation”).  Jesus himself used this method when he gave us the great commandment to love and called this the summary of all the law and the prophets. Wesley calls this love the “chief of all graces” and the “royal law.”  In addition to the Great Commandment, Wesley also turned to passages like I Corinthians 13 and I John 4 to serve as a lens through which to interpret the whole and be able to “rejoice in the truth.”  These passages express the “grand truths that run through the whole.”  

It is worth noting the connection between love and truth. Biblically speaking, truth is that which reveals God’s love and makes it known. The word itself means “to reveal” or “uncover.” Truth is not rooted in the law. In fact, sometimes the law covers up the truth.  Jesus himself dealt with this. Truth is revealed by love that is patient and kind and does not insist on its own way (I Cor 13:4-7). It is this love that invites all of us to struggle with our own perspectives and prejudices and to be transformed, from one degree to another, into the likeness of Christ. By the practice of this love, truth is made known through us. That is the Wesleyan way.   

 In my mind, Wesley’s willingness to struggle with these texts gives us permission to do so as well. His commentary opens the way for us to acknowledge that we do not fully understand matters of sexual orientation and identity and thus can approach such matters with less judgment and more compassion.  At the same time, we can affirm a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values that are life-giving for all – faithfulness, commitment, and all virtues summed up with the word “love.”  We can focus on these biblical values for all, rather than setting some aside by a different standard.  In this light, it is worth noting that Wesley consistently defined holiness with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility.  May we all aspire to this kind of holiness and to the call to love one another well.

2548.2 “If You Know You Know” or “History with an Eye to the Future”

The adage is true about being doomed to repeat history if we are not aware.  Thanks to a recent podcast hosted by Dr Ashley Boggan Dreff, our General Secretary of Archives and History, light has been shed on how paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline developed and how it has been used.  As one person said on the floor of the 1948 General Conference, “We all know what this is about,” even though the purpose was never specifically acknowledged. As “white flight” became a reality, this paragraph was added to deal with property where there was no longer a thriving “white” congregation.  Thoughts of revitalization and building diverse communities of faith may have been seeds in the hearts of some but were not a part of the collective hope at the time.  The only lens through which solutions were sought was the lens of segregation and a desire to maintain separation of races.

This paragraph authorized the United Methodist Church to be able to deed property to Pan-Methodist denominations or to other evangelical denominations.  In addition to the UMC, there are five other denominations within the Pan-Methodist Communion, all formed specifically for African Americans.  The largest of these is the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).  While there may be elements of goodness in the motives, this goodness was also mixed with a complicity to sin.  Relational dynamics are still complicated in this way.  What can we learn and how might be grow in ways that glorify God?

Once again, the struggle is between inclusion and separation, only in a different context.  At issue is how we relate to certain persons who want to be a part of the church, who want to make a commitment to the values of the church and want to grow with other in the love of Christ and who might consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ+ community. On one side are those who believe we must approach matters of human sexuality with more humility and less judgment and, when it comes to marriage and relationships, focus on the virtues and values that are life-giving for all. Those calling for separation, want to draw much harder lines around traditional definitions of marriage, not only in terms of the values of faithfulness and love, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. Limiting relationship in this way is not seen as exclusion but as giving witness to what is truly good for all.

Concerning leadership, the lines are similar.  When discerning leadership, some want to focus on call and character, while others want provisions that could keep conversations about calling and character from ever being considered.  How a person looks and identifies is where the first line is drawn.   

Calls for separation come from those who cannot faithfully stay within a denomination that allows others to cross this line.  It is claimed that separation is needed so that all can practice faith in ways that are comfortable for them.  I can hear the line I heard often growing up, “They worship differently than we do.” 

To support the call for separation, some claim that this need for separation is about more than human sexuality.  It is popular to claim deep theological differences, often by highlighting extreme examples and then generalizing these examples to implicate the whole.  It is also interesting how extremes on the other side are ignored.  As we engage in this struggle at Annual Conference, we all need to be assured that there are not major attempts to change our core doctrine.  Doctrine is not what this is about. 

It is interesting how advocates of separation/division/schism have gravitated to this paragraph with such a morally complicated history.  This should give us all pause – first to reflect on what is right – and then to also notice the many other problems with using this paragraph.  Concerning the legislation built upon paragraph 2548.2 that we will likely see at Annual Conference: 1. The paragraph deals with transfer of property from one denomination to another. It does not create a process for congregations to disaffiliate.   2. The legislation binds the authority of the bishop, cabinet, and others listed in the paragraph.  Even if these parties agree, they cannot be bound to act in particular ways by legislation.  3.  The GMC as a denomination is not yet organized.  How can we approve a denomination before it exists and before we know if there will be any mutual recognition? We’ve heard representatives of the GMC say that they cannot enter into a communion agreement with the UMC until they have had a general conference that can make such a decision.  4.  The legislation will likely call for a simple majority vote as a possibility, relying on this paragraph that calls for a majority vote by both denominations (not local congregations).  The Judicial Council has already ruled that any disaffiliation must include approval by a 2/3 majority. (Decision 1379).  This is the standard for important decisions that have such effects on people.  One could point to the GMC Book of Doctrine and Discipline to see how this threshold is used for important decisions. In that book, the threshold of 3/4 is used for some decisions.

As United Methodist we live together under a trust clause that calls us into covenant together and is deeply rooted in our Wesleyan tradition and in scripture.   With this connection, each of us can go into any UMC and say, “I’m a part of this.” “This is my church.”  May we be careful and conservative about how we change this sense of trust and allow our churches to be transferred to another.   With this move we risk leaving whole communities without a United Methodist presence and perhaps without a congregation that represents the values we hold dear. Let us support those, in all congregations, who desire inclusion or are willing to live and worship together in a denomination that supports inclusion – the United Methodist Church. Let us all pause before we give this away.   What is this all really about? 

Reflections on January 6 (and mixing politics and religion)

Some might call me a church nerd, but when I hear the date, January 6, my first thought is Epiphany and the 12th day of Christmas. In our nation, however, this date has come to signify something very different. Today, as we open our newsfeeds or turn on the TV, we are not likely to hear much about epiphany or the magi and their gifts.  

With last year’s events on January 6th as a backdrop, the traditional gospel lesson for this day can be shocking.  It is highly political.  King Herod is a main character, and we know some things about him from history.  His top priority was to maintain power at all costs.  He expected complete loyalty and got rid of anyone seen as a threat. According to the story in Matthew 2, the magi or wise ones came to Herod looking for “the child who has been born king…” With all his power, Herod’s response is fear. “He was frightened.” As the story progresses this fear manifests in extreme violence, seen in the massacre of all children in and around Bethlehem. 

Interestingly, whether this massacre actually occurred is still debated.  History would suggest that this is a literary device to make a larger point.  At the same time, some also think that this part of the story may have been inspired by known accounts of Herod’s willingness to eliminate those who threatened his reign, including his own children.  Either way, it is worth reflecting on the way fear often leads to violence.  We are told that this fear pervaded “all Jerusalem.” We can imagine how this fear took different forms, with some buying into Herod’s desire to maintain power and others who feared the consequences of this desire.  It is also interesting how seeds of fear, when planted by skilled manipulators, can so easily lead many to believe lies and buy into the demonizing of others that then justifies our participation in violence – or at least the acceptance of it.  Is there another way?   

The wise ones went home by another way.  This is key to the story.  They did not get drawn into Herod’s deceptions.  Their encounter with Christ led them to follow a different light, a light that reveals God’s eternal and steadfast love for all. That can happen to us as well. Along this new way we learn how to live in this love, with patience, kindness, and humility, working together the bond of peace, a way beyond all partisan politics (Eph 4:1-3). Along this way, a higher understanding of power is revealed, and in this light our misguided fears are redeemed into hopes that are life-giving.  The key is to be willing to live by another way.

Every year we are all invited to take this yearly pilgrimage in worship through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Being immersed in this liturgical journey has something to do with my first thought about this date, January 6.  I count it as a blessing to be able to frame all that surrounds this day through this lens. On this day of epiphany, I commend this yearly pilgrimage to you, where you will have the opportunity to view every day through the light of God’s love as revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  It is never too late to join the journey. May your Epiphany be blessed!

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