Pastor Michael, Would You…? (Personal Responses on Ordination, Marriage, Incompatibility, and the Way Forward)

IMG_4577Would you vote to approve someone for ordination if part of their identity was characterized as LGBTQ? 

In answering this question from our Way Forward Bible Study, I start with matters of calling, character, and competencies, as well as faithfulness, and fruitfulness in ministry.  As United Methodists, we have a long and involved process for this discernment, which includes seminary, psychological evaluations, internships, residencies, with lots of written responses and interviews along the way. Many who start the process do not end up ordained.  If someone is deemed to have a clear calling, evidence of faithful character, and who bear good fruit in ministry, it would be hard for me to not affirm them for ordination. As a part of the above criteria, I would have trouble voting for anyone who wanted to use ordination to push a particular personal agenda. Ordination is for those who submit to a higher calling to proclaim and teach God’s word to all, to share the sacraments with all, to order the whole church for ministry, and to cultivate opportunities for others to serve Christ. This is not a position to be used to promote a personal agenda.  After this discernment, I would also trust the bishop and cabinet around issues of making appointments. This is already a consideration at many levels – divorce, multiple-marriages, violation of covenants and repentance, and to be totally honest, we still deal with issues around ethnicity, gender, language, and theological orientations, all in consultation with congregations who are able to share what they want in a pastor. Finally, if a person was actually asked about their sexual orientation, it might be worth hearing someone say that they are a “self-avowed practicing Christian” and that their sexuality, wherever it might be on the wide spectrum of sexual orientation, was submitted to this primary identity and that they were seeking to engage in all relationships in ways that honored this calling.  In my mind, that would be refreshing and would help all of us focus on our higher calling.

Reflection Questions:  What are your expectations of a pastor?  What is the pastor’s role in a congregation? (These are the issues that have led us to this General Conference. In the midst of them, we are called to find common ground in values at a higher level.  When we do that God is glorified).

“Would you participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple?

In answering this question, I must start with the purpose of marriage as outlined by John Wesley and his commentary on scripture. Beyond “repairing the species,” as he called it, the purpose of marriage is to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, forgiveness, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. That’s what makes marriage good for individuals and for society as a whole.  In Wesley’s language, marriage is meant to “temper” us.  In working with any couple, I want to encourage them to make a commitment to practice faithfulness and to grow into this kind of holiness.  If a same-sex couple expressed interest in a relationship with the church as a way to cultivate these commitments, I would feel led to invest in them.  From here, we would engage in a discussion about current disciplinary restrictions and ways to honor this commitment without violating the covenant we share in a global church with diverse perspectives.  In this discussion, I would lift up the call of all Christians to sacrifice their own feelings and opinions in order to build relationships with others.  I would invite this couple to respect those who desire to support more traditional understandings of marriage.  I would share some of the implications and blessings of being in a global church, with diverse cultural perspectives. In this light, I would share my preference for keeping the traditional and beautiful liturgy for marriage intact, while at the same time, express my hope for being able to offer another liturgy that would bless the covenant between them and affirm the legal union between them.  In a spirit of Christ’s love, these two understandings of marriage and covenants are not mutually exclusive.  Both can be honored.  In the history of marriage, we see many changes — from issues of property to divorce to roles –  and yet some things do not change. For all couples who feel led to unite in this way, I would lift up the same biblical values — monogamy, faithfulness, and a desire to grow in holiness together.  This is not about the pushing an agenda and is certainly not about saying “anything goes;” my pastoral concern is how to faithfully respond to anyone who wants to practice faithfulness and grow in the love of Christ. That’s the lifestyle that the church is called to cultivate.

Reflection Questions:  What is the purpose of a marriage relationship?  How is marriage itself – in terms of sacrificing our opinions to build relationships and practicing holiness – a model for the church?

“What is your opinion about the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings?”

I believe that this language needs to go. The word “homosexual “is an offensive term. We’ve been asked not to use it by many for whom this term is used. It is hurtful. Until recently, this term was used to define a psychological disorder. Beyond this, it defines people by their sexuality and puts them into a box of negative stereotypes. We don’t define others in this way – and if we do, it is often in a derogatory way. Even for those who see this as a sin — unredeemable by grace and by the virtues of faithfulness, commitment, and love — we don’t label others by what we see as their sins. And next, when this word is used in some translations of the Bible, it is used to translate words that connote abusive behavior, or words that suggest being soft, carefree, or hedonistic.  Such behaviors can be seen as incompatible with Christian virtues, but to use this term, and these insinuations, for persons who want to practice faithfulness, commitment, and to grow in the virtues of holiness, is both unfair and harmful.  Those labelled in this way can legitimately say that this term, with these connotations, does not describe them.  In my opinion, it is a shame that this next General Conference will be focused around a word that hurts and de-humanizes people.  At the very least, I believe that this language needs to be removed from the Book of Discipline.  This does not mean it 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 in this regard, and in a wide diversity of cultural contexts.

Reflection Questions:  How can we approach this “issue,” knowing that we are talking about real people?  What practices are needed to help us cultivate healthy community, in a way that is faithful and does not bring more harm into the world?  What is your responsibility as an individual?  

What is your hope for this congregation in the light of decisions that will be made at General Conference around issues of human sexuality?

Throughout our conversations, our theme verse has come from the Apostle Paul, who urges us to live into the calling that we have been given, “with all humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-6). It is clear from these words, that unity is not the same as uniformity.  The virtues would not be needed if we were meant to retreat into “like-minded camps.”  Rather, we are called to honor a variety of gifts and perspectives and to practice our “calling” in the midst of our diversity.  That’s how we prepare ourselves for the kingdom of God.  My hope is that this calling would be strengthened among us and would be at the heart of our witness.  May Love Grow Here!

Reflection Questions:  Looking at this chapter of Ephesians, what is the difference between unity and uniformity?  What values do we want to promote and cultivate?  What different will this make in the world?

Authority of Scripture, a Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward

pic- bible and communion“It’s really about the authority of scripture.” “Your interpretation undermines a high view of scripture.”  These talking points are at the core of many arguments around the Way Forward.  In light of this rhetoric, I want to think through the issue of hermeneutics (the system we use for interpreting the scriptures) and reflect upon how we might do this in a Wesleyan way. (It is a longer than usual post).

As Wesleyans, we must start by affirming that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation.   At the same time, Wesley makes it clear that some passages take “hold of our conscience” in a special way and serve as “master text” (my language) to help us interpret all revelatory claims, even those in scripture (See Sermon 91, “On Charity” and Sermon 132 “On Laying the Foundation”).  In his notes on the New Testament, Wesley gives us this rule – to interpret every doubtful scripture through the grand truths that run through the whole (Note on Roman 12:6). On several occasions he calls us to assess all scriptures through key passages built around the word “love,” starting with what Jesus calls the summary of it all — Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley also turns frequently to I Corinthians 13, calling the love defined here as the ““chief of all graces” and the “royal law.” This love is patient and kind and never insist on its own way.  In terms of hermeneutics, we are called to filter all scriptures through these and other passages that serve as lenses to provide clarity to the whole.  For you, what would some of the other key passages be?

In one hermeneutical approach that is often criticized, the suggestion has been made that we divide the scriptures into categories, with one category for passages that express the timeless values of God, another for passages that express culturally conditioned values, and a third for texts that do not fit with the will of God as we have come to know it through the lens of Christ. This framework can be helpful for discerning core truths and navigating difficult passages.  Nevertheless, with this method, it is tempting to simply throw out passages that do not fit with our sensibilities.  To provide some perspective, I would say that inspiration is found in the fact that our predecessors did not “clean up” the scriptures. They gave us the gift of struggling with all texts to help us discern how we might live faithfully and fruitfully in the context we are given. The method of interpreting through the lens of key passages is very helpful in this struggle.  We might call it a hermeneutic of struggle in community to discern God’s will for us in our time and place.

As Wesleyans, we honor the whole of scripture by noticing the context, exploring the history, understanding the words, and seeking God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the scriptures come to life as we engage them in relationship, using tradition, reason, and experience as resources. We seek common ground in key values that illuminate the whole beyond the sometimes culturally-conditioned realities — and here the list is long – slavery, women, children, diet, dress, war and peace, wealth and poverty, property, inclusion of others, the kind of leadership that is needed, and yes understandings of marriage and divorce, just to get started. When we apply one hermeneutical to an issue that might affect us and then draw a hard line on another issue for others, it perhaps says more about our own prejudices than it does about our desire to live faithfully and practice love.   Wesley consistently call is to self-examination rather than judgment.  This would be another hallmark of a Wesleyan hermeneutic.

When it comes to issues around covenant relationships, this method allows us to give priority to virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. Often, this level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice. This surface focus can actually foster justifications and excuses for more harmful and self-serving behaviors.

Through this hermeneutic, we avoid “proof-texting,” or the picking of verses to prove an opinion.  And yet this practice continues.  When opinions run strong, it is tempting to select certain texts while ignoring others. Doing this, however, is not unlike the use of the “slippery slope” fallacy (as challenged in a previous post) where negative consequences are assumed while ignoring other possibilities.  Here we can add another official fallacy – the fallacy of misusing an authoritative source to affirm one interpretation on one issue without acknowledging other possibilities. A faithful way forward cannot be built on such sand.

And now a drum roll please.  The most important dimension of a Wesleyan hermeneutic is our trust that the Holy Spirit is at work…and that God is big enough to work uniquely with all of us through our incarnate realities of cultural circumstances, personalities, gifts, interests, and identities this side of heaven.  In God we trust! We do not have to judge.  Our job is to learn how to love one another. This is the way we participate in making the path straight for “all flesh to see the salvation of God.”

Examples from Wesley to support this understanding could fill volumes.  For one example, in his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  The truths of scripture are actually hidden, rather than revealed, when we use the Word to prove something to others and thus cause division.  Wesley likened this to the “worst kind of enthusiasm,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.  When one is “drunk from this spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.  Scriptures come to life when we engage them together and “steer a middle course.”   As Wesleyans, the witness of the Spirit is revealed when we come together to practice faith and grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.” The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

Through this hermeneutical lens, I have written a series on Scripture, Wesley and the Way Forward. After an overview (found in Feb of 2018), I dealt with Wesley’s teaching on effeminacy, sodomy, marriage, divorce, and more. Believe me, it is not all one-sided. Room is given for more than one interpretation.  In my opinion, to use the argument that there is only one perspective on the issues before us actually belittles a high view of the authority of scripture. It makes it more about power over others. It might make a good sound bite, but it does not honor the high calling that we have been given to be the Body of Christ in the world.

The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (A part of the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It is interesting to me that divorce figures so prominently in our debate on the way forward.  In our Annual Conference, for example, one pastor wrote a beautiful reflection on how his own divorce led to a change of heart. This sparked a defense of divorce by others, arguing that we have permission to be gracious to the divorced and remarried, but there is no biblical justification to extend this same permission for same-sex unions, for one example.

It is true that our statement on divorce in the Book of Discipline is redemptive and gracious. In my mind, this makes it very relevant to our current debate. In this statement, divorce is described as a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.”  Implied is the need to address the “brokenness” before we embrace the “alternative.”  If we do not engage the “regrettable,” in “grief over the devastating consequences,” we are likely to become indifferent to both divorce and remarriage. We will come to see it as an “acceptable” alternative. We will minimize the devastation and block out the pain. I have seen this happen among us. Even pastoral leaders can be divorced and remarried multiple times and it is a non-issue among us – at least in public discussions.

I wonder if our indifference to divorce and remarriage plays a role in the permission some feel to call for divorce or schism in the church.  It is even argued that we might be able to love one another better if we would go our separate ways. Perhaps this alternative, and our impatience with difference perspectives among us, will glorify God. That seems to be the claim.

In this call for divorce or schism, we also hear a lot of blaming. It is so tempting to project the cause of brokenness onto others. I love the way Wesley so eloquently described the extent of our brokenness in his sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity.”  Building upon the Apostle Paul he says, “No one is righteous, not one.” And in this same sermon he says that the “grand objection of the infidels against Christianity” is how Christians themselves live and claim their own righteousness.  Not acknowledging our own brokenness contributes so much to the brokenness in the world.   For Wesley, in this sermon, our first calling is to watch and pray.  It is not to defend God and try to fix others on our terms.  It is God alone who transforms, and we all need to be more focused on our own need for transformation than we do on others.  In this sermon, Wesley gives this beautiful vision of a God who “will arise and maintain his own cause and the whole creation shall then be delivered from both moral and natural corruption. Sin shall be no more.  Holiness and happiness will cover creation, and the whole race of humankind shall know, love, and serve God, and reign with God forever and ever!” This is what is in store for us! What if we all did more confessing of our own brokenness, rather than trying to fix others, and together put our trust in God to bring this vision to fruition for all – even in ways beyond our human understanding?  That would lead to much healing.

From a biblical and wesleyan perspective, marriage itself is an acknowledgment of brokenness.  It is a part of our collective brokenness. In heaven, when all brokenness is healed, marriage will not be needed.  Marriage, as we have seen in the series, is an institution meant to bring healing.  Its primary purpose, beyond reproduction, is to help us grow in the virtues of holiness – humility, patience, kindness, and love. What if we found a way to honor all who want to make commitments, practice faithfulness, and bear the fruit if this holiness? What if we all were so focused on our own need of healing that we really didn’t have much time to point our finger at others. What if, instead, we worked at finding ways to honor one another?

In a culture of divorce and division, schism and polarization, why would we accommodate to this culture?  Are we not called to give witness to a higher vision? Is it not worth seeking the “mediation” called for in the BOD’s statement on divorce and to pour our energy into how we might stay united in love? I wonder.

More On Marriage (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576From the previous post on marriage, divorce, and singleness, my radar has been up, and I have noticed some things. First, I noticed an AT&T commercial targeting people “moving out of the friend-zone and moving in together.”  Right after this, I saw an ad for Chevrolet touting an SUV to help couples “move in together.”   I am sure the marketers did their research and chose these words carefully.  The word marriage was not used.

The institution of marriage has evolved and changed for centuries.  We see this in the bible as well. The Declaration of Intention in our liturgy, for example, is rooted in a time when most marriages where arranged.  Likewise, we no longer use the word “obey.” It has not been long since women were seen as subjects of their husbands.  Now, it seems that many have no use for the institution at all. People are waiting longer to get married. Traditional ceremonies no longer make sense to many.  I’ve talked to young-adults who are hesitant to get married in a church believing that some of their friends would not be welcomed (at least that’s the perception). They don’t want to get married in the church because they care about others and love them.  That is interesting to me.

All of this leads me back to the purpose of marriage as outlined by Wesley.  Beyond “repairing the species,” as he called it, the purpose of marriage is to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. That’s what make marriage good for individuals and for society as a whole.  It “tempers” us.

Most assuredly, in our current debate, the church cannot adopt an “anything goes” position.  The One-Church option has been depicted in this way, but it is not fair in my opinion. Rather, this plan provides the opportunity for us to come to the table together and work to establish a strong sexual ethic for all — rooted in monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when personal sacrifice is required, and a desire to grow in the virtues of holiness.  Such a conversation would require the humility to say we don’t fully understand sexual identity, but we can agree on the values and practices needed for faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Listen to the culture around us.  It is marked by division, divorce, polarization, building up by putting down, claiming our own righteousness, seeking the easy way, and “moving in together” without any steadfast commitments.  Why are we accommodating to the culture?  Are we not called to a higher unity rooted in humility, faithfulness, kindness, commitment, and love?

We can do better.  I invite you to bring people together and have this discussion.  Can we develop a strong sexual ethic for all?  What would be on your list of virtues needed?  If we are truly seeking a way forward, it seems to me that this would be a conversation worth having.

Next up – The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

Wesley on Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness (Part four in a series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576The term “human sexuality” is often used to characterize the debate before us.  This strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  It seems that we are so focused on one dimension of human sexuality, that we actually neglect our calling to be pastoral and prophetic in many dimensions of human sexuality — marriage, divorce, singleness, equality, roles, expectations, abuse, exploitation, and words in the lists in scripture like fornication and adultery.  I want to explore Wesley’s guidance on some of these issues as they relate to our big debate — specifically looking at the purpose of marriage, the reasons for prohibitions on divorce, and the call to singleness.

First marriage.  What is the purpose of marriage?  In Wesley’s commentary on the scriptures, he gives two purposes.  In the context of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 20, Wesley speaks of the need for marriage because we are subject to “the law of mortality,” and “the species is in need of continuous repair.”  Thus, the first purpose of marriage is reproduction or the “repairing” of the species.

The second reason for marriage is found in Wesley’s commentary on I Thess 4:4, and moves us to think about social and spiritual “repairing.”  Wesley says, “marriage is not designed to inflame, but to conquer, natural desires.”  Marriage is given to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. To bear these fruits, much attention and intentionality is needed.

While Wesley does not comment on it, there is another reason for marriage in the scriptures. The Apostle Paul says that we should marry if we cannot control ourselves. He says that it is better to marry than to “burn with lust” (I Cor 7:8-9).   Being consumed with passion, where we begin to see others as objects for our pleasure, is not good for the soul or society. (A biblical word for this is “pornia,” usually translated as “fornication.” Wesley uses this term in a much broader, and more inclusive, way than we see elsewhere).

These “reasons” call for several thoughtful and serious questions. How is marriage good for souls and for society as a whole?  Is it possible that other types of unions, beyond traditional views of marriage, could foster true holiness as described by Wesley?  What if the church promoted a strong ethic of monogamy, commitment, faithfulness, and intentional growth in the virtues of faith for all?  Given the moral choice, is it better to be in a relationship where this is possible, or to be told that “burning in lust” is the only option from the church?  Is it possible to reserve the term marriage for traditional purposes, and to still bless other kinds of unions?

What about divorce?  Relying on scripture, Wesley holds the church to a high standard, and “ministers” to a higher standard.  He makes it clear that the prohibitions apply equally to women and to men and speaks against the law that allowed men to write a divorce decree “on any trifling occasion.”  He speaks strongly against the notion of “putting away” a wife to pursuit other desires.  He makes no exceptions accept for adultery.  He speaks of marriage as one man and one woman, and the two becoming “one flesh.” Every time this is mentioned, Wesley makes the connection with the church’s stance against polygamy and divorce.  Such unions of commitment and faithfulness help society guard against these two ills.  From Wesley’s perspective, that is the value behind promoting strong commitment.

As a pastor, I must acknowledge that I have supported many people through divorces.  I have sought the grace to discern circumstances in individual cases, to offer forgiveness, and to affirm the possiblity for new beginnings. I have also tried to be responsive to the fact that divorce often leaves others hurt and broken. My experience is that it is never one sided.  With that said, I feel that the church has become lax on this issue.  There is little stigma.  Even pastors can be divorced and remarried multiple times, with no explanation needed, and continue to serve in leadership.  Often, we even celebrate it.

If we err on the side of grace in divorce, it begs the question:  Could we give this same grace to others seeking to live in faithful, covenant relationships and to grow in God’s love? Why would we withhold that from them and turn them away from the church?

Singleness? In the scriptures singleness is seen as a gift given from God.  With this understanding, the question becomes: can singleness then be imposed on people as an expectation of the church?  Wesley provides some commentary on Matthew 19:12 where, in the context of teaching on marriage, Jesus speaks of eunuchs who choose singleness.  Jesus says that some eunuchs are made this way, some are born this way, and some choose this way. Wesley points out that it is not for everyone, but “only for those few who are able to receive the gift.”  In his commentary on I Cor 7:7 he joins with Paul in wishing that all unmarried “men” would “remain eunuchs for the kingdom,” but acknowledges that all are not gifted in this way.  Throughout history the word “eunuch” has been used as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley hints at this himself in his commentary on Acts 10:27 and Daniel 1:3 by telling us that we cannot always take the term “eunuch” literally.  There was a time when eunuchs – understood literally or as a euphemism – were put into the same category as gentiles and foreigners.  They were not admitted to worship or into the congregation.  In the New Testament we see this barrier broken.  It begs the question, are there any implications of this issue for our current debate?

Do these understanding of marriage, divorce, and singleness inform our current debate? One way to make some connection is to note the progression in the scriptures towards a more restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse.  This progression comes out of a growing need to protect women and children and provide a secure environment for them.  Is it possible for us to apply this principle to the debate before us? Could we promote a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Could we move towards acceptance of people, while at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness, with lots of forgiveness and grace as well?  Could that be a part of our way forward?