Will the bishops provide leadership?

November 14, 2013

The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church is meeting this week in North Carolina, and pastors on both sides of the homosexuality divide are waiting to see whether they’ll offer any guidance or leadership on this issue. What will they say or do, for example, about the fact that one of their own—the retired liberal bishop Melvin Talbert—recently performed a same-sex wedding in Alabama, in violation of our Book of Discipline and over the objections of the presiding bishop of that area?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know where I stand: I support our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality, which is also the stance of the vast majority of the universal Church—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or evangelical. Outside of marriage, which by definition is between a man and a woman, celibacy is the rule, whether you’re gay or straight.

I wrote this blog post last year, in response to an Adam Hamilton sermon, which reflects my best thinking on the subject.

If it means anything to you, I graduated from the Candler School of Theology in 2007 happily liberal on the subject, like many of my classmates, but I’ve changed my mind. This change corresponded on my part to what I believe is a deeper commitment to the authority of scripture, a rediscovery of my evangelical roots, and a desire to be a pastor (and person) of greater integrity and faithfulness.

In a sermon in 2011, I said the following, which I still want to emphasize:

The problem is that most of us know and love people who are gay. They are often our friends and neighbors and family members. They are often brothers and sisters in Christ. And some of you listening to me may be gay—and I’m glad that you choose to love and serve Christ in this church. You are welcome here. When the vast majority of gay people say that they didn’t consciously choose to be that way, I have no reason to doubt them. After all, I didn’t consciously choose to be straight, and I wouldn’t know how to not be straight. It’s who I am—which works out well for me because I get to marry, and be sexually active in the confines of that marriage, and be an ordained minister. Good for me! How can I not feel anything but compassion for gay Christians who struggle with an orientation over which they have no control.

While I feel passionately that changing our church’s position would be tragically misguided, in my passion, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that our church’s position directly affects many of God’s beloved children, who are made in his image, and who are no more in need of God’s saving grace and mercy than I am.

So I resonate with Pope Francis’s recent words on the subject—that by overemphasizing church doctrines related to sexuality, we can make the good news of Jesus Christ seem like bad news.

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

I don’t disagree with his words at all. But, unlike me, he has the luxury of saying this knowing that his church’s doctrine on human sexuality is never going to change. Never ever ever. Obviously, United Methodist Church doctrines aren’t nearly as secure. So pastors like me speak up, because what’s the alternative?

When I got ordained in 2010, I wasn’t kidding when I told God, the bishop, and the Board of Ordained Ministry that I believed in the doctrines and polity our United Methodist Church. My fingers weren’t crossed behind my back. So when these doctrines and polity, which relate to something as central as human sexuality, are under assault, what am I supposed to do? Act like it’s no big deal? Like I don’t take it personally?

Again, I meant what I said back in 2010 when I was ordained.

My question is, did all of these clergy colleagues of mine who are disobeying the Discipline and failing to live up to their promises—in Pennsylvania and elsewherenot mean what they said?

This is why I can’t go along with Methodist historian Tom Frank’s “open letter” to the Council of Bishops this week urging them to ignore these acts of covenant-breaking. Dr. Frank writes:

I am not asking you to change the church’s statements on homosexuality. Clearly that is not within the powers of the Council. I am asking you to acknowledge that a large number of faithful United Methodist ministers in good standing cannot in conscience restrict their pastoral duties to accord with these statements.

I’m sorry: Cry me a river! This “large number of faithful United Methodist ministers” knew what they signed up for when they were ordained. Many of them had other ministry options available to them if they couldn’t live with our church’s doctrine. I don’t believe that all or even most of them experienced some dramatic change of heart on the subject after they were ordained.

No, many of them probably winked and nodded when they were asked questions related to sexuality. It’s a game of “how to answer a question without being completely forthright.” I’m ashamed to say I played it myself back in 2007 when I was commissioned. Let’s not be naive.

Regardless, now that my covenant-breaking colleagues see that the church isn’t following her mainline sisters over the cliff, they want to take the wheel by force.

I hope the bishops do whatever they can to stop them.

15 Responses to “Will the bishops provide leadership?”

  1. revdrsusant Says:

    Brent,

    Brother in Christ, you know that we disagree on this issue, and I do totally support Tom Frank’s position. Church trials are not going to solve this problem.

    I am reminded of the inquisitions. I am reminded of all of the arguments of all the ways the church was going to “hell in a hand basket” because in 1956 women were finally allowed by General Conference to be ordained as full elders. Having listened to the recorded debate/conversations from General Conference of that year about the solid and sound Biblical foundation and Book of Discipline, etc. reasons for not ordaining women as full elders will cause you to say, “Really?”

    I too can state these words of yours:
    “This change corresponded on my part to what I believe is a deeper commitment to the authority of scripture, a rediscovery of my evangelical roots, and a desire to be a pastor (and person) of greater integrity and faithfulness.”

    I once stood where you stand with your very clear opinion that resonates with your other words from Pope Francis:

    “But, unlike me, he has the luxury of saying this knowing that his church’s doctrine on human sexuality is never going to change. Never ever ever. Obviously, United Methodist Church doctrines aren’t nearly as secure. So pastors like me speak up, because what’s the alternative?”

    Church doctrine has to be able to change, and it has changed over the years. It has changed and will change concerning this issue. The alternative is to remain always tied to only being a traditionalist which is dangerous.

    I will not break the vow of ordination I made to abide by the Book of Discipline as it is now written. I will stand with my ordained brothers and sisters, who like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understand the necessity of breaking laws, secular and church doctrine, that are immoral, wrong, and do not reflect God’s grace. Some are called to do this ministry and take these actions. Just as Christ stood against the status quo of the religious leaders of his day.

    I will err on the side of God’s grace encompassing all that I don’t understand about this issue of homosexuality that always leads me to believe that the real issue that drives this discussion is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of things we don’t completely understand, and fear that drives us to want to believe that church doctrine can never change. It has changed, thanks be to God, or I would not be an ordained elder today. It has changed, thanks be to God, or most likely I would still be living on my family’s “plantation in Caroll County, Georgia” owning slaves as did my great great grandfather. Church doctrine and the Book of Discipline changed on both these issues that were also, in my opinion, fear driven.

    I can give you space to stand where you stand, and I can give my brothers and sisters who disagree with you space to stand where they stand in performing same sex marriages/celebration/unity services. I consider all of this necessary to get us through the change of church doctrine that we will get to.

    I end with this quote from today’s daily mediation from Richard Rohr:

    “Many politicians and clergy know what they know, but they don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s what makes them dangerous. Only people who are comfortable not knowing can usually smile. People who are preoccupied with “I know” have little space for smiling.

    A creative tension in the second half of life, knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know, is a necessary one. All you know is that it is foundationally all right, despite the seeming contradictions and conflict.”

    Christ have mercy. God have mercy.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Susan, I love you and I’m glad we can disagree as friends. And of course you know that my beef is not with clergy who merely disagree, but who disagree and break covenant. Or I’m at least unsympathetic with them.

      To your point, I could argue, as many smarter people already have, that slavery and the ordination of women are not equivalent to homosexuality. But that argument would be primarily exegetical: “Here’s what the Bible says and here’s how the Church has historically interpreted it.” Any argument for homosexuality is in a different category. We’re no longer arguing what the Bible says—because, good heavens, that was pretty clear to everyone until about 1971—but what it would say, if only, if only, if only…

  2. Susan Taylor Says:

    Brent, what the Bible says is always pretty clear to the person doing the interpretation, isn’t it? Interpretation and sound exegetical interpretation still lead to uncertainty in this issue and the same can be said about women as ordained clergy and for the issue of slavery.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I disagree, obviously. You’ve heard the fanciful interpretations of Romans 1, as if any old interpretation will do, as if words don’t mean what we think they mean. Worse, it’s an argument from silence: Paul, while he seems to be talking about same sex sexual relationships, was really talking about temple prostitution, pederasty, etc. Yet he doesn’t say that. We’re stuck with what he says, and what he says points back to Genesis 1-2 and God’s intentions for Creation, as affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19. One pastor, whom we both probably know, said in a recent sermon: “Jesus wasn’t talking about homosexuality or gay marriage! He was talking about divorce!” Fine, given that homosexual behavior was illegal in first-century Judaism, would this pastor then have us believe that had Jesus’ disciples asked him about gay marriage, he would have said, “Oh, of course that’s fine.” Too bad he didn’t tell us!

      Again, it’s an argument from silence, which is not the argument we make when we argue against slavery or for female ordination.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Susan, you say: “Church doctrine has to be able to change, and it has changed over the years. It has changed and will change concerning this issue. The alternative is to remain always tied to only being a traditionalist which is dangerous.” Actually, church doctrine should always be anchored to scripture, which does not change. Jesus got onto the Pharisees not because they would not change, but because their traditions were at odds with true scriptural constraints.

    Brent, I applaud you on your stance. It is difficult to stand true on this homosexuality issue when so many people claim you do so because you are bigoted or “homophobic,” when really you are just trying to stand true to what scripture says.

    I also agree that there are proper differences of opinion when various passages can be read different ways consistent with the text, but not proper ones when every single text on the point lines up unequivocally with the same stance.

    • brentwhite Says:

      What am I supposed to get out of this? He’s likable enough, but if the price of being faithful to God (as I see it) means “chaos,” would you have me choose something other than chaos? Out of principle, you wouldn’t support that, would you?

  4. revdrsusant Says:

    Tom,

    You say, “Actually, church doctrine should always be anchored to scripture, which does not change. Jesus got onto the Pharisees not because they would not change, but because their traditions were at odds with true scriptural constraints.”

    I say that if church doctrine is always anchored to scripture and never changes, then I would be eating a kosher diet and never wear rayon or polyester clothing. I certainly would not be ordained clergy.

    Church doctrine is anchored to scripture and it is anchored to the interpretation of that scripture by theologians both ancient and present who have created many of the doctrines and traditions of the Christian church that we still attempt to follow today. Christian doctrine has will continue to change because God is always creating a new world. We cannot fully understand it, and we limit God with many of our doctrines and traditions. We have in the past, we will in the future and we will continue to have mystery and not full understanding.

    i will choose to continue to err on the side of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness that tells me that a lot of church doctrine comes from human interpretation of the way the church “ought to be.”

    See and read the above link, please.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I have read your link and I may respond to it. Note that the New Testament points out about the Old that it had certain functions which are no longer in play now that Christ has come. See Hebrews. There is not just some blanket “we don’t need to follow the Bible anymore.” The Bible has to be interpreted in its own context to determine exactly what it allows or prohibits. But no scripture writers (or Jesus) ever advocated an abandonment of the Holy Writ in favor of “developing norms,” or the like. And the New Testament, in the “Age of Grace,” just as strongly condemns homosexuality as the Old Testament, including by Paul, the “Apostle of Grace.” So, we can’t get around scripture here.

  5. revdrsusant Says:

    Brent,

    What may be chaos to you may not be chaos to me. In “a beginning” (as I understand the Hebrew from Genesis which is interpreted most often as “in the beginning”), God created out of chaos and continues to create out of chaos each day.

    I like the author’s use of a “mourner’s bench” for those who cannot go along with a change. I could be on that mourners bench right now.

  6. revdrsusant Says:

    Tom,

    Actually, Paul called himself the apostle to the Gentiles and he and Peter argued over their understanding of God’s call to the Gentiles.

    So who decides the Bible’s context? Is there only one context, multiple contexts, based on?

    You say, “The Bible has to be interpreted in its own context to determine exactly what it allows or prohibits.”

    Really? That’s a statement that has certainly taken us down some very narrow and constrained paths that I know were not filled with the “Age of Grace”. Can you say Salem witch hunts? Need we talk about the ways that women were treated during the long journey for the right to vote in this country? Has our treatment of African Americans, women, immigrants and homosexuals been in line with the Age of Grace?

    No, Jesus never addressed homosexuality. He did break numeous “understood religious doctrine/scripture rules” according to those who worked hard to keep all the doctrinal/scripture rules at the time he was in ministry on this earth.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      You are correct that Paul referred to himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. He is sometimes referred to as the Apostle of Grace because he spoke of it so frequently, including in Romans, which also condemns homosexuality and lesbianism in chapter 1.

      By “context,” I am referring to the internal evidences of scripture itself, not how it has been “contextualized” by various and sundry persons since, as to which there is and has been indeed a wide variety.

      Jesus condemned the Pharisees as to the Sabbath in particular not because they were following the Old Testament constraints in that regard, but because they were adding to them. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” But even were it the case that Jesus “overrode” some Old Testament constraints, he was God and certainly had the right to change any of his own rules should he so choose. “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” However, I don’t see how that gives US any license to do the same. As to us, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (Paul again.)

      I am not sure I know what you are talking about concerning some scriptural debate between Paul and Peter, unless you are referring to the instance in Galatians where Paul confronted Peter for being hypocritical. There is no suggestion that Peter (not acting as an author of scripture in that respect) was in the right about that.

      Finally, that some Christians have acted wrongly at times in the past (and, indeed, all of us do that sometimes even today) cannot change what the Bible clearly says on subjects about which it is perfectly clear, and homosexuality is one of such subjects.

  7. pastormack Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and honest reflections. I agree that as clergy we sign up knowlingly, and for more than 30 years the UMC position has been the same. The right thing to do if one cannot fulfill their covenant is to leave, not disobey – barring that, if one chooses to disobey knowing the consequences, do not act shocked when held accountable. Peace to you.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Right! Be civilly disobedient if that’s what your conscience requires, but be willing to suffer the consequences. Regardless, I couldn’t be less sympathetic with their cause.


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