by Chris Ritter
Jeremy Smith has written an analysis of inclusion in the church in which he likens our present debate over the ordination/weddings of practicing homosexuals to earlier debates in the church on the role of women and African Americans. He notes that calls for inclusion were first met limited acceptance, then structural solutions were offered as an interim step, and finally (after a period of justice denied) full inclusion was granted. He suggests we read the handwriting on the wall, skip the middle step, and move now to fully include homosexual practice into the life of the church. As so many like Jeremy have asked: “Why be on the wrong side of history?”
An argument for a 180 degree turn at General Conference 2016 is an argument for schism. Quick changes are for people who travel alone, not together. If you try to spin an aircraft carrier around at the same speed as a kayak, you will rip the hull in two. Going immediately from “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” to full inclusion of homosexual practice would cleave our hull. You cannot simultaneously champion the institutional unity of the church and a complete about-face on our understanding of human sexuality.
The logic of incremental change is that we often are fallible in our predictions of the future. Mainline Christianity has had its share of false visions and dead-end plans. Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, there were a good number of Mainliners who thought Communism was the preferred political future and desired to hitch the church’s wagon securely to it. They were on the wrong side of history. Some are old enough to remember when theological education, in response to perceived growing secularism, shifted to mold all future clergy into caregivers. Becoming semi-spiritual psychologists was to give us pastors a continued (if diminished) foothold in our society. All the while, an explosion of spirituality was hitting our culture for which our clergy were ill prepared to notice, much less seize upon. Our seminaries were on the wrong side of history.
In the 1990’s, I can remember one of my instructors issuing the smallest vision for the church of Jesus Christ I have ever heard: “If all we accomplish in our generation is removing gender-specific language about God from our churches, we will have done enough.” Some are still dutifully answering the “inclusive language” whistle of the pronoun police, but most have realized this all has little to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ. After a brief trip down the inclusive language road, I notice that our annual conference is once again praying to “Our Father”. It seems this all was merely the preoccupation of an inwardly-focused church coached by bored theological academics on the wrong side of history. We would do well to beware those who want us to store all our eggs in their shiny new basket.
Of course, there are those of us who do not accept Jeremy’s premise that race and gender are issues equivalent to the present debate over homosexuality. After all, we are not arguing over whether to accept people, but a behavior. There are plenty of same-sex attracted people among our laity, clergy, and (I presume) our episcopacy. What we disagree on is whether same sex attraction is something a fully devoted follower of Jesus should act upon. Four thousand years of Judeo-Christian teaching says a decided “no”.
When the church ventured out into the Roman world, it encountered a culture that was accepting of a variety of same-sex physical pairings. As Christianity gained influence, this became decidedly less the case. The church is now being told we cannot expect to be relevant if we insist upon celibacy in singleness and fidelity in a marriage between a man and woman. The truth is that we will never be able to stretch the list of acceptable practices wide enough to encompass the gaping expanse of unchecked human sexual avarice. When sex is allowed to steer the bus we are not going to like the destination. Any version of Christianity that is not strong enough to rein in sexual urges is likewise too feeble to impact a culture. We need to be prepared to call people not only to be sexually chaste, but also lay down their very lives. The rigor of church discipline is nothing compared to the rigors of the cross or the mission field.
Some of us have a vision of a hardier, holier United Methodist Church with the fortitude to lift up the cross, not just lay down the welcome mat. We plan to invite people to join the passionate ranks of the sexually restrained. The goal is to mold a generation that is dead to self and alive to God. Being counter-cultural, we expect hardship and persecution instead universal applause.
As we often hear concern over our ability to reach the rising generation, I suggest that a laboratory for the future of our denomination might be found in our campus ministries. Our Wesley Foundations are as well staffed and funded as similar ministries by other groups and, generally speaking, as inclusive as they can be. The extra-wide welcome mat remains in pristine condition because so few tread upon it. Aren’t we finding that people don’t need to come into a United Methodist campus ministry to hear their sexuality is OK? They can get that anywhere. In contrast, there are ministries (some UMC affiliated and many not) where Jesus is preached along with a call to lay down one’s life, including one’s sexuality. Young people come, Christianity is practiced, and lives are changed (even when the “inclusive” campus hierarchy threatens to kick the group off campus).
Contrast our broad-minded and (in many places) dying campus ministries with the early Methodists who were about as morally exclusive as any movement imaginable. Our General Rules conclude:
If there be any among us who observe [not our rules], who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season, but then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
For all the exclusionary language they inherited, early American Methodists were uniquely effective in their mandate to “reform a nation and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” A whole generation of young, single adults answered the call to go into the mission field. The average life expectancy of a circuit-riding preacher was a mere thirty-three years. The message was not one of inclusion but transformation. Throughout much of the 19th Century they were establishing, on average, a new church every day. The clergy of the established churches who sat on the East Coast playing chaplain to the culture were on the wrong side of history. We might say that the Circuit Riders were busy making history while others were debating on which side of history to be.
I have authored two of the “structural solutions” that Jeremy Smith references in his blog. The advantage of these plans is that they allow different visions for the church to play out under the umbrella of United Methodism. Instead of putting all our eggs in one basket, why don’t we put this debate to the test of time? Let’s have this conversation again in a generation or so and decide together who was on the wrong side of history.
Among the many, many wise things you say here, Chris, my favorite has to be the “pronoun police.” Thank you!
Chris, I really appreciate the historical work here. I find the “wrong side of history” argument facile. Thanks for this.
I believe the Church, especially the UMC, will continue to decline until we learn to see people through the eyes of Jesus. I believe that will require a radical change in mindset from a “what’s best for me” driven by a capitalistic economic system to a servant mindset built upon the life and ministry of sacrificial love modeled by Jesus. PEOPLE matter to Jesus and it’s time we quit arguing about our own agendas and get back to the mission of the Church, which I pray is the mission of Jesus,
Very insightful in showing how the past is instructive and relevant to what is happening now. The “wrong side of history” argument is just a vacuous rhetorical tactic used to intimidate and silence opposition. Any moral system predicated on accepting particular behaviors is build on a house of cards and will open a Pandora’s Box of doctrinal paradigm shifts.
This made so much sense, I was hoping your post wouldn’t end!
Agree to the need for creating space for the debate to continue. Also agree a less than careful and incremental approach to full inclusion will result in schism. I appreciate your sharing your own theological understanding Christopher. I think your plan gains more traction if you had a passionate and trusted progressive voice that would speak to the merits of your plan as well as you speak to the middle-right. Thanks for your leadership.
I think “full inclusion,” just like “wrong side of history,” is a misnomer. No one who agrees to the basic tenets of Christianity and the Book of Discipline is denied full inclusion.
People who have been shaped by capitalism which itself is a living out of the Protestant work ethic like to feel like they believe in tough truths. The thing that makes this debate such a farce is that it really doesn’t have to do with us ourselves laying down our lives. Having tough-sounding doctrine about other peoples’ sexuality is a SUBSTITUTE for laying down your life for Christ. What makes it so attractive is that it’s a substitute that sounds hard instead of a way of living that is actually hard.
I am not sure I take your point, Morgan. Can you say a little more about that?
Is the “tough-sounding doctrine” you are referring to, the Bible?
I need more. I don’t think I understand.
40+ years is not fast.
While I agree the debate has been waging for a while, our stance has only become stronger and more specific as it has been tested and defied over that time. A sudden 180 degree turn would do great harm. If some had their way and General Conference 2016 did a full reversal, we could go from “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” to a non-celibate and openly gay bishop within a very short space of time. Open itinerancy is also a reason to await consensus. The Jurisdictional Solution lets those who can no longer live under our covenant move toward the full acceptance of homosexual practice within their jurisdiction without forcing others to do the same.
The best solution is to make the US a central conference and call the vote.
I am struggling with the concept that people need Jesus, but yet we can’t live together as a denomination. These two ideas seem to be polarizing to me.
“When the church ventured out into the Roman world, it encountered a culture that was accepting of a variety of same-sex physical pairings.”
How’d that work out for Rome?
Regardless of what you say, your protest that “we are not arguing over whether to accept people, but a behavior” rings hollow. The only “behavior” to which the biblical material normally cited has reference with regard to same-sex sexual activity is abusive and lustful “behaviors,” not loving, committed “behaviors” between two people of the same sex. I, too, am against abusive and lustful sexual activity, regardless of the gender of the parties involved. However, when two mature persons desire to commit their lives to each other with the intention and capacity to show to their partner a love such as that which they have experienced from God through Christ, a focus on their “behavior” is misplaced, just as a focus on the “behavior” of similarly committed heterosexual partners is. Such a focus simply demonstrates the perversion of the people who make that their focus rather than the love that is meant to be shared between the partners. I would not make the argument that the UMC is in danger of being on “the wrong side of history.” Instead, they are now, and may continue to be, on the “wrong side of the Gospel,” perhaps to their own detriment.
Seriously….if you can make the Bible condone sex between two men then you can make it condone anything. These are the kinds of mental gymnastics that totally undermine the credibility of those who advocate liberalizing teaching on sexuality. Why not just admit the obvious: you disagree with Scripture.
Treating the Bible like an extended ink blot test, into which one may read their own personal preferences, makes it essentially irrelevant (which may be the eventual point?).
Yes, it most assuredly IS about condemning certain behavior, not people–once you get into the business of sanctioning something under voluntary control, like behavior, then you are treading on shifting sand, potentially leading to the creation of earth-shattering moral paradigm shifts that have no real connection to Scripture, Judeo-Christian tradition, or natural law.
I’m sorry you don’t like the way God has inspired me to understand the scriptures. I am consoled by the fact that many preachers in the South used to believe that God condoned slavery, and they wrote books quoting the scriptures that they used to justify the practice. We now know that the “traditionalists” of their day were wrong, and the abolitionist “liberals” were right. Neither you nor I may be around to see the change come to fullness; but I believe the Spirit of God is making a similar change to our understanding of human sexuality, in that it is abusive and lustful sex that fails to honor the image of God in which people have been created that God condemns, and it is loving, committed, faithful sex that honors the imago dei in the other that God affirms, regardless of the gender of the partners. We’ll see.
I wonder if you have read any of Dr. Gagnon’s research? I found it fascinating and thorough. Your perspective that “lustful and abuse” sexual conducted is what is biblically condemned and not “loving and commited behaviors regardless of the parties involved” seems valid; however, as Dr. Gagnon’s research shows many different “committed same-gender” relationships existed in Paul’s day and he would certainly had knowledge of such and was including such as he wrote. Additionally, people in that day and time were writing and asking what was behind same-sex attraction–nurture vs. nature sort of stuff including the beginnings of postulating what we would today refer to as genetic causes. In other words, Eccl. is correct, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I hope you take the opportunity to read some of Dr. Gagnon’s work. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on it.
I have read it. I think his exegesis is sound. Thanks for the comment.
Yes, I am quite familiar with Dr. Gagnon’s writings on the subject. I wonder if you are familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work, particularly his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Though Gagnon would like one to think that he bases his rejection of same-sex sexual activity on the Bible, the truth – as revealed in the “Hermeneutics” section of “The Bible and Homosexual Practice” – is that he objects to homosexual behavior because a man’s penis and a woman’s vagina were made for each other. From there, he relies on Jeffrey Satinover to help him draw a dreadful picture of what he claims the “homosexual lifestyle” consists of – a “lifestyle” that many heterosexuals also live, but he doesn’t mention that, because his anti-gay bias would be shown for what it is – and then he marshals the biblical material in a way to undergird his primary biases, refuting every other biblical scholar whom he cites. Thus, it is his gut that tells him homosexuality is wrong, and his rational faculties affirm evidence that supports that gut feeling while rejecting evidence that refutes it or calls it into question. He never once show any realization that his views might be biased by the fact that he is a heterosexual male who gives weight to a limited view of natural law – i.e., one that says that homosexuality is an aberration of “normal” sexuality – rather than recognizing that homosexuality is just as “natural” for some as heterosexuality is for others, albeit a majority of others. So, I consider Dr. Gagnon’s work too tainted by his personal animus against same-sex behavior to be of any value to anyone except those who want to join him in misreading the biblical material in the ways it has been misread for generations in order to harm some of God’s beloved LGBTQ children. I commend to you Dr. Jack Rogers’ book “Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church”, revised and expanded edition, as well as James V. Brownson’s book, “Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.” I doubt that either of these books will change your opinion on the matter, but I believe the arguments of each are at least as worthy of consideration as Gagnon’s, especially since, in Rogers’ case, he shared Gagnon’s views prior to taking up his own study of the issue, and his study – which he assumed would simply confirm his prior views – led him in a very different direction.
In fact, I have read all of Dr. Gagnon’s research. If you are familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree on Politics and Religion,” you will understand when I say that Dr. Gagnon begins with a bias – as revealed in his “hermeneutics” section in “The Bible and Homosexuality” – founded on the idea that the biological compatibility between male and female genitalia is the primary evidence that God intended only for heterosexual sex to be affirmed, and all the rest of his commentary is meant to confirm this bias while refuting a bias in any other direction. I, on the other hand, wish to affirm the sovereign authority of God to create whatever sexualities God desires while not insisting that God require the use of every body part for that purpose for which some human judge decides it is meant to be used. Dr. Gagnon can have his opinions about what existed during Paul’s time and make his judgments about what Paul ought to have said about it – all of which is arguable rather than fact proven by Dr. Gagnon – but the reality is that evidence is mounting of not only the capacity for the sharing of godly love, including through sexual sharing, between partners of the same sex that Dr. Gagnon does not wish to acknowledge; so that finally, the evidence to the contrary of Dr. Gagnon’s conclusions will be so overwhelming, that his voluminous work will be seen as so much “vanity, and a chasing after wind.”
xnlover, ever read Philemon? Along with other Scripture, it was used by many abolitionists–who would certainly not have been considered “liberals” by today’s standards–as an argument AGAINST slavery. No such Biblical argument can be used to justify the sexual liberation you advocate. You are comparing apples to oranges, and comparing them a million times over does not make them any more alike (except in the minds of the naive and uneducated).
While you may not appreciate it, the general trajectory of your rationale leads to no enduring support for either of the things you (seemingly) hold up as inviolable: fidelity and monogamy. Both can easily be jettisoned using your reasoning.
You might find them easy to jettison, but many loving same-sex partners who desire to honor Christ with their lives would not.
“When sex is allowed to steer the bus we are not going to like the destination.” That is so true.
While I agree with your reasoning, logic, and arguments here, I shudder at the thought of waiting another generation to see if we are indeed on the wrong side of history. I am reminded of the admonition that perhaps we are “but a generation away from extinction.”
Your argument, Chris, continues to inspire, as it so closely resembles the author of II Timothy: “Preach the word. Be ready to do it whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction. There will come a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. They will collect teachers who say what they want to hear because they are self-centered. They will turn their back on the truth and turn to myths.” (II Tim. 4:2-5 CEB).
We don’t have a generation to spare…
Sadly, many LGBTQ persons who also can’t wait another generation for change to come are taking their own lives.