More on gays and the UMC

A Facebook friend linked to this article advocating for gay equality in the UMC. I didn’t feel like starting a Facebook flame-war by responding to it there, but that’s what this blog is for, right? 😉

The author, a retired UMC pastor named William McElvaney, refers to a letter from the Council of Bishops from last year reaffirming their commitment to upholding the Book of Discipline, especially its stance against homosexual unions and the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals.

This opinion piece is typical of people representing that side of the issue. As the church approaches General Conference this spring, these voices will only grow louder. Even my many colleagues in ministry who, like me, affirm the church’s position, won’t link on Facebook to articles representing their viewpoint.

Being against gay equality in any guise, even for the best of reasons, isn’t cool. And the fear of being uncool, let’s face it, motivates much of our behavior.

McElvaney accuses the bishops of “double-speak.” How can they uphold the Discipline while at the same time speaking of love and grace? “The claim of offering grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ is disingenuous at best and simply hollow in the eyes and ears of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

First, the bishops’ claim is only “disingenuous” if they don’t really believe what they’re saying. If the bishops believe that homosexual behavior is harmful and, yes, sinful—as two millennia of biblical exegesis and tradition maintain—then it would in fact be unloving and ungracious for them to say otherwise.

While the bishops’ position is “hollow in the eyes and ears” of some gay and lesbian Christians, what about those many gay and lesbian Christians who, despite their orientation, seek to be faithful to the most obvious reading of scripture and Christian tradition by remaining celibate? They are out there, and they don’t believe our church’s position should change. McElvaney isn’t doing justice to their struggle.

McElvaney writes, “The bishops’ more excellent way, as difficult as it may be, is not finally to be ecclesiastical enforcers of church law but to be courageous educators and exemplars of God’s radical agape for all through Jesus Christ.”

Why can’t they be both? The same Jesus who said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” was also the one who said “go and sin no more.” Since both statements originate with Jesus in the same passage of scripture, I hope that both are compatible with “radical agape.”

I love McElvaney’s use of the word “radical,” by the way. As if his side were courageously going against the cultural grain!

You know what would be truly radical and countercultural? If we Methodists were a group of people committed to living up to biblical and Christian ideals of human sexuality in all areas of our lives, including not just homosexuality but marriage and divorce, premarital sex, abortion, and pornography. At least then we couldn’t be accused of letting the cultural tail wag the ecclesial dog.

McElvaney writes, “Many UM clergy who favor enforcing the Discipline as mentioned above have assured their listeners and readers there will be a mass exodus of UM members if the church does not continue to insist that gay sexuality and same-gender unions are unacceptable.”

O.K., he has a point here: We should neither affirm nor change anything in the Discipline based on what happens to church membership rolls. We should be faithful to Christ first, and let the chips fall where they may. But, c’mon… there’s already been a mass exodus from our church over the past 40 years. In fact, the only area of the UMC that’s growing—and growing dramatically—is the southern hemisphere, where church leadership stands most strongly against changing the Discipline. So McElvaney is hardly proving his point.

McElvaney asks, “Who among us would not claim that the church is stronger in Jesus Christ for having become more just and inclusive in racial and women’s rights?” Here he places racial and gender equality on the same playing field with homosexuality. At first blush they seem similar, except that when our church moved toward gender equality, we did so on the basis (in my opinion) of good biblical exegesis—and even some tradition, as women were sometimes known to be leaders in the early church.

The race issue isn’t even close to a good comparison. By 1968, when the church eliminated the last de jure roadblocks to racial equality, we were simply catching up with John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, and our racially inclusive Methodist roots. Although our commitment to racial equality didn’t last long, the earliest Methodist church in America was a place where whites and blacks were equal.

Needless to say, if we were going to be faithful to John Wesley on the issue of human sexuality (not to mention the Bible and tradition) we wouldn’t be thinking about changing our Discipline.

Next, McElvaney considers the Discipline’s injunction, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” He writes, “Why is Jesus not mentioned instead of the amorphous, nebulous term ‘Christian teaching’? Was it considered too risky to mention Jesus by those at General Conference seeking to condemn GLBT sexual life?”

I agree that the Discipline’s language is weak, but not as weak as McElvaney’s classic “argument from silence.” We just know, McElvaney and his supporters believe, that Jesus wouldn’t be against homosexual behavior. Indeed, to oppose homosexual behavior on biblical grounds means resorting to (as McElvaney writes) “a few statements by Paul.”

If only Jesus had said something about homosexual behavior to settle the question!

As I’m not a “red-letter Christian,” believing as I do that Paul’s words are no less inspired than the words of Jesus in the gospels, I don’t think relying on “a few statements by Paul” is a bad idea—especially after we understand those words in context. The context behind Paul’s words about homosexuality in Romans 1, for instance, is so sweeping in scope that the context only helps the cause of keeping the Discipline unchanged.

The larger reason why the argument from silence doesn’t work in Jesus’ case is that homosexual behavior was already prohibited in Judaism in the first century. You could just as easily read Jesus’ silence on the subject as a tacit endorsement of the status quo. He disagreed, after all, with other aspects of Judaism’s status quo (like marriage and divorce) and said so—in the red-letter words of the gospel.

Of course, we could argue that Jesus wasn’t silent on the subject but his apostles censored his words in the gospels, but that’s a highly speculative enterprise. In any case, it shows how weak the argument from silence is for both sides.

Besides, given Jesus’ tendency to amplify the Old Testament’s words about the sacredness of human sexuality, why would someone on the pro-gay side be so eager to enlist Jesus as an ally? Modern culture gets nearly everything else wrong on the subject. Why are we so eager to say that in this one case, at least, they’re exactly right?

McElvaney writes, “Paul and his generation had no knowledge or awareness of long-term consensual same-gender loving relationships so prevalent today.” As N.T. Wright—who was an ancient historian before he was a Bible scholar—argues persuasively, this is untrue. Plato and other Greek philosophers exalted same-sex monogamous relationships as ideal. (I haven’t read Plato, but I’ll bet McElvaney hasn’t, either.) Paul was better-read in Greek philosophy than we are. He was also aware that the Caesar Nero married a man in a highly public spectacle.

To say that Paul had “no knowledge” of such a thing is a stretch—or are we accusing Paul of a failure of imagination? If only Paul could have imagined that there was a Christian way of being gay, he would surely support my side. Regardless, it’s another argument from silence.

Finally, McElvaney writes, “When the church gives signals that GLBTs are a threat to the church—not eligible to be considered for ordination, not worthy to receive pastoral blessing for holy unions, although we bless animals and athletic events—and defective sexually because of loving “the wrong neighbor,” the church tacitly approves anti-gay oppression within and beyond the church.”

Where to start? We human beings are a defective people in countless ways, as surely he would agree. It’s not surprising that, whether we’re gay or straight, we are defective in the complex area of human sexuality. Also, we bless animals and athletic events because we believe that animals, alongside human beings who compete in sporting events, are part of God’s good creation and even bring glory to their creator. We believe all human beings, including homosexuals, are likewise created in God’s image and, as our Discipline also says, “people of sacred worth.”

Our Discipline also “blesses” gays and lesbians in the workplace when it explicitly opposes, for example, discrimination in hiring. But the church doesn’t “bless” everything that human beings, gay or otherwise, do. We recognize that we are sinners, one and all, equally in need of God’s grace at every moment.

4 thoughts on “More on gays and the UMC”

  1. It seems that another basic question here is whether GLBT is best for living and continuation of the species — or not. (I think we should all set aside “B” as a special case because it implies an non-monogamous relationship, by the way.) We still need to forgive and love others, but we also need to decide whether certain actions are pro-life and/or sinful or not. These decisions are made in many areas of life — such as lying, stealing, murder, envy, honoring parents, loving others and loving God. If we are spouses and parents, our determinations and standards regarding sexuality and these other issues greatly affect our families as well.

    Along these lines, I have always wondered why the Christians don’t bring the overwhelming physiological and biological evidence into the sexuality discussion more often. I think we should consider the abundant evidence provided in science and nature (God’s creation) in the areas of conception, procreation, natural selection, life span, STDs, and reproductive systems. What, with about a 99% share, are all of these signals in nature trying to tell us? In this area, nature and science, it seems to me, continually provide overwhelming evidence that God is, simply, “smarter than we think” in setting up certain moral principles of sexuality for us.

    Over and over, God seems to have given us laws to follow (1) which are just plain healthy for us if we want to survive as a species, (2) which would take us a whole lot longer to figure out if He hadn’t given them to us in “plain English”, and (3) which we would have a tendency to rationalize into “anything goes” if we didn’t have His constant guiding hand at the helm.

    He seems to know what’s good for us more than we can know for ourselves — and He is nice enough to let us know what’s right before we kill ourselves trying our own thing per our own independently-derived morality.

    1. Actually there is a lot of biological evidence about homosexuality–not as much as we’d like, but some studies are out there and they are summarized in the book “Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why”, by LeVay published by Oxford. It suggests there are several different causes for homosexuality. One is the timing of the testosterone surge in utero for the male fetus. Another is an antibody response of the pregnant mother to testosterone; this is seen in later born boys (statistically a male’s chance of being homosexual increase with each older brother he has–as long as they are from the same womb. This is a similar mechanism to Rh reaction which affects later pregnancies.). My favorite is an androphilia (probably) gene, coding for wishing to have sex with men. An Italian study elucidates this. When a man has this gene, he is homosexual; when a woman does, she has more sex with men than the average women, which meant in the days before contraception, more babies. This may be one way one type of homosexual “gene” is kept in the population. Another way may be “balancing selection” aka “heterozygote advantage”. Like sickle cell gene in a malarial environment, having a few “gay genes” but not enough to make one homosexual, may be a reproductive advantage over having no gay genes. (My hypothesis is that it may make straight men with a fee gay genes more able to communicate with women. But, like all hypotheses it could/should be tested.)

      1. Highly speculative hypotheses, all widely disputed in the field. The truth is, we don’t know much about what causes homosexuality. It’s likely a complex interaction of a number of variables related to both nature and nurture. I grant that genetics may play a role, but I doubt it’s a large one.

        In modernity, we’re biased toward finding biological causes for everything. Read a sociologist’s perspective on this bias, and how it’s manifested itself in many areas of research over the decades: Kimmel’s “The Gendered Society.”

        Besides, sexual orientation is on a spectrum. It’s not binary. It’s not either/or.

  2. Brent, what an excellent post! Keep up the good work, despite all opposition (which there will continue to be and increase). “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:3 (NIV).

    Perhaps your best statement is: “If the bishops believe that homosexual behavior is harmful and, yes, sinful—as two millennia of biblical exegesis and tradition maintain—then it would in fact be unloving and ungracious for them to say otherwise.”

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