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.