We’re called Methodists because we believe in being intentional about our faith, by applying the sound methods and valuable tools that God makes available to us. With that in mind, we can and should have intentional discussion in our congregations about our current UMC conflict and human sexuality, despite all the madness around the topic. So, our church is spending six-weeks in guided reflection on it.
In full disclosure, the default perspective in this series aligns with traditional United Methodist doctrine. That’s partly because I vowed to uphold the doctrines of the church at my ordination. It also happens that my personal views coincide with current UM teaching. We’re going to do our best to engage every angle each week, but you should know where I stand since it may color our time together.
Guidelines for our Series
Since sexuality runs so deep and personal for so many of us, we’re going to covenant together to try to let the Holy Spirit be our guide, and to abide by the following:
- The theme Scripture for our series is – “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
- We’re going to have very guided discussion. In the interest of time and continuity, we’ll save questions and interjections for our Q&A Box (write them on the provided Sticky Notes and place them in the basket). They’ll be processed and engaged when appropriate.
- Be especially mindful of your language/attitude. Everyone in this room has personal connections to, or is, an LGBTQ identified person. We are never just talking about ideas or doctrines, but always real persons who are beloved by God.
Tips on Communication
When it comes to our language/attitude, here are some tips:
- Let’s do our best to differentiate between terms, e.g., sex (internal/external physical characteristics), gender (culturally-defined masculine or feminine traits), orientation (persistent patterns of attraction), identity (sociocultural label).
- LGBTQ+ stands for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Trans/Queer, etc. I’ll occasionally use “LGBT” to refer to the whole sexual spectrum.
- Let’s avoid “We, us” or “Them, they” language, or other labels that falsely categorize large groups of people.
- There are lots of labels for different views: conservative, liberal, etc. We will use “Traditional” and “Progressive” since those seem somewhat acceptable to their respective groups.
The UMC on Human Sexuality
For background to our denomination’s current struggle, here’s a brief time-line of Methodism:
1738 – John Wesley’s revival movement of “Methodists” begins to take-off in England
1784 – Christmas Conference forms Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in America
1844 – MEC splits into North and South over slavery
1939 – North and South reunite as the Methodist Church (MC)
1968 – MC and EUB (another Wesleyan group) merge to form United Methodist Church
1972 – United Methodist church adopts current stance on human sexuality
2020 – General Conference in Minneapolis in May for huge potential decisions
Since 1972, the UMC has taken what some would call a “traditional” view on sexuality, marriage and ordination. The summary version of the current UMC stance is that, “All persons are of sacred worth, but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Some argue that the UMC unnecessarily highlights one particular spiritual struggle above others by codifying this language in its doctrine. In other words, why “pick on” homosexuality by calling it out specifically while remaining silent on other topics?
Well, the truth is that our doctrine does speak to a host of moral questions beyond homosexuality. It’s actually a little absurd how far our Social Principles go in describing proper Christian behavior. But, even more, our current language became codified into UM doctrine largely in reaction to support for same-sex practice that arose more vocally than ever before in the 1960s, and which continues today. As groups began to work more fervently to redefine the Church’s understood teaching on Christian marriage, our denomination responded by more clearly outlining its sexual ethic.
“What does it mean in real life?”
The practical application of our doctrine is that generally all people are invited into the full life of the Church through:
- Membership, Baptism, Confirmation, and Profession of faith.
- The open table of Holy Communion.
- Service in staff and volunteer leadership roles.
- UMC clergy will not perform same-sex marriages.
- UMC property will not host same-sex marriages.
- UMC funds will not promote homosexual practice.
- UMC clergy will not be “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”
You could place an enormous asterisk by this latter list because, for more than a decade, United Methodists have been selectively applying this part of our covenant. Particularly in different parts of the United States, clergy have occasionally performed same-sex marriages, openly gay clergy have been ordained, and most recently an openly lesbian bishop (Karen Oliveto) was consecrated in the Western Jurisdiction. There have been some minor consequences, and the Judicial Council (like the UMC Supreme Court) has ruled against these breaches of our Connection, but we’ve discovered that there is very little accountability for these actions from region to region. That realization is, perhaps, the ultimate reason for the seriousness of our conflict and the possibility of a split.
As you can imagine, some UMs believe our current teaching is fair and moderate. Its language leaves no room for hatred while it also admits that we can find no way to conclude that God creates and celebrates same-sex practice. Others believe our current teaching is unchristian and unbiblical; they want openly practicing LGBTQ-identified clergy, and same-sex marriages, to be allowed in every UMC. Still others want a “to each their own” approach, where individual clergy/congregations decide, although this view also comes with a mountain of other challenges. More on that later.
With this backdrop set, where do we begin to have some conversation? I think we can start with some of the oft-repeated questions that I hear every time anyone broaches these topics. The first is:
1. “Should I even care about other people’s sexuality?”
Especially in libertarian South Carolina, the land of scoffing at motorcycle helmets and car emissions test (to name a few), there’s a strong sentiment that none of us has any business being concerned about any of this. As the chorus goes —
- “What consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes is up to them.”
- “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
- “Sin is what separates me from God. Other people’s sexuality doesn’t separate me from God.”
- “If it doesn’t hurt anybody, what’s wrong with it?”
Or there’s a familiar internet meme —
So is it any of our business to have concern for other people’s sexuality? Should Christians even care? Well, my response is a resounding…
Why? Because, first, in every other avenue of our culture, sex is unfiltered and public. It’s everywhere, and none of it seems very sacred. For example, you may have mixed-feelings about the 2020 Super Bowl half-time show: was it multicultural art, or semi-nude exploitation via pole-dancing and pelvic close-up? You decide. But how can we, in one breath, make sex one of the most publicly exposed aspects of our existence, and then in the same breath demand that it remain the most privately-held moral topic on planet earth? There is a chorus of voices on sexual ethics, serving up countless messages every day of the week; the Church must also have a voice in that choir.
Second, the life of the Church is different from civic life. I can personally get behind the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage because I believe firmly in the separation of church/state and I don’t want people to be legally penalized for consensual adult sexual behavior. I can agree that the government has no place in people’s bedrooms. But the Church is an absolutely different arena. We vow to live in covenant community, submitting to one another in love. The best Christian fellowship I’ve ever had, the kind that saved my life as a 20-year-old college student, was a small group of five guys. A fair bulk of our attention was directed toward sexuality, and how it was playing out on campus. We built the kind of relationship, in trust and accountability, that meant no topic was off-limits, no part of us was entirely private inasmuch as it mattered to our covenant faith. That is the aim for Christians everywhere, in gentleness with love.
Third, and most importantly, God cares deeply about sex, so we should too. One of my favorite indirect quotes on the subject comes from C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. To set it up, the book is a little strange in its point-of-view. It’s written as if one demon is corresponding with another demon, giving us insight on hell’s perspective of things as we listen in. Here’s a portion that relates to sexuality:
“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground…He made the pleasure: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
God is the author of all true pleasure, very much including sex. But sex is a also a unique spiritual battleground where there is a great deal of room for something holy and good to take place, or a massive opportunity for evil and harm to be at work.
After all, sex is incredibly powerful in both the short-term and long-term. It may well be the most potent single experience in human existence. Physically, sex produces a dopamine high that isn’t far removed from the mechanism of cocaine or heroin. Sex is driven by our ultimate biological imperative, to reproduce as successfully as we can. Sex can be addictive, and can become associated with countless mental health struggles. Sex is directly intertwined with our key relationships and families. It has a major impact on our sense of self-worth, our sense of the worth of others, our sense of guilt or purity, our sense of standing with God. And our sexuality is also incredibly sensitive — even a single traumatic sexual experience can leave devastating effects for a lifetime.
Once again, for these reasons and more, sex matters immensely to God. It has serious spiritual effects, so we must care about the sexuality of ourselves and our neighbors. That brings us immediately to a second common question…
2. “Aren’t We Being Judgmental?”
In any conversation like this, we all suddenly remember our favorite 1% of the Bible. And it never fails that this reading comes up:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
“Whatever we do,” as the thinking goes, “let’s not be hypocrites by acknowledging anyone’s sin. We’re all sinners, so none of us has the right to condemn someone else. Jesus says everybody should just put on their spiritual blinders and forget we have any eyes at all.” Except, Jesus doesn’t say that in Matthew 7, or anywhere else. He does insist that we shouldn’t minimize our own faults while magnifying our neighbor’s (more on that later). But then he concludes, “Everybody has stuff in their eyes, so let’s help each other remove it all, starting with ourselves.”
A similar quote people snag from Jesus goes like this:
“My only real problem is with Pharisees, because they’re such rule people. I hate rule people because I hate rules. I’m just about love, bruh.”
Except, again, he never said any such nonsense. Jesus engaged the Pharisees in order to correct them, just like he constantly did with the disciples he loved most, and the strangers he taught in the streets. He meant to provide them with a Godly rule of life. Through and through, he was a devout Jewish rabbi who, in his own words, came “not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Thank goodness his fulfilling of the Law means we don’t stone anyone anymore, and we can wear polyester, and we eat shellfish (and every other poor example people use to mock the Old Covenant). But Jesus didn’t erase the moral groundwork that God was laying for thousands of years, most of which still inspires our legal and moral systems today. He called us into a New Covenant that runs even deeper than the Old.
Jesus taught as much about loving accountability, with morality and a pursuit of holiness, as anything else he did on earth. Nearly every encounter where he exhibited extreme grace concluded with some version of “Go and sin no more.” The entire New Testament is a catalog of Christians trying to uphold each other in love, with gentleness and grace but also with behavioral expectations. So, yes, Christians must discern sin and seek moral ethics for ourselves and for others. The Church must have sexual ethics. The United Methodist Church must have doctrines on sexuality.
Granted, it must be one of the most Spirit-led, compassionate, and humble things we ever do together, but we most definitely have to do it.
3. “Is being gay a sin?”
One of the big ones. Now here is a complicated question, especially the way it’s worded. For starters, what does being gay mean? For me, a helpful tool is to think about sexuality in its three common tiers: attraction, orientation, and identity.
Attraction is the part of the equation that people feel as an experience they can’t control. We are just drawn to certain people or things, in certain ways. Attractions seem to be able to evolve, but that process feels like it’s out of our hands. The vast majority of people have opposite-sex attractions. About 6% of men and 4.5% of women report same-sex attraction (these figures vary depending on the sources).
If someone experiences an attraction strong enough, durable enough, and persistent enough, they may feel oriented toward one or both or neither of the sexes (hence the “LGBTQIA+ spectrum). About 2% of men and 1% of women report having strong enough same-sex attractions that they would say they have a “homosexual orientation.”
Identity is a sociocultural label that people choose to describe themselves with. It comes with cultural meaning and community. There is little data on identity because researchers often collapse the three tiers into one. It is clear that in the last several decades, the average age of identifying oneself has shifted from 20 to 15 years old. People greet this fact differently. Some may celebrate that younger people are feeling confident and secure enough to declare their identity sooner; others may worry that, at younger ages, sexual identity is elusive and fluid during the sensitive stages of development.
With these tiers in mind, maybe a better way to approach this third question is in three parts:
- Is having same-sex attraction sinful?
- Is feeling oriented to the same-sex sinful?
- Is adopting an LGBTQ+ identity sinful?
For those of us who don’t identify as LGBTQ+, an ever better way to frame the question is like this:
- Is having opposite-sex attraction sinful?
- Is feeling oriented to the opposite-sex sinful?
- Is adopting a heterosexual identity sinful?
And what answer does our Christian faith provide to us? Are these things sinful in and of themselves? My response is a resounding…
Not exactly. Because it depends on how we respond to our attractions, what we do with them. It depends on how we respond to our sense of orientation, how we apply it. It depends on the identity we choose, how we live into it. And I believe all of these things are true for every single soul, no matter how we identify.
In other words, I think our Christian calling is to discern between these different parts of us, and the persons that we truly are in God’s sight. We’re equally called to discern between persons and practice. And, for the record, I think that’s exactly what current United Methodist teaching aims to do: “All persons are of sacred worth, but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
So What’s Next?
Over the coming weeks, we’re going to take a longer look at overall UMC teaching on sexuality. One classic Methodist tool is the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” It’s the idea that we should study our beliefs through four lenses: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The lenses don’t rest on equal footing; we believe that they’re more like a 3-legged stool with Scripture as primary and the other three as supportive structure. But it’s a great, holistic method.
We’re actually going to work in reverse, so next week we’ll start with the lens of “Experience.” Once again, all are invited to join us, and let’s pray over it together.