While I was on vacation last week, a couple of blog posts from United Methodist leaders reminded me that we are in the midst of a politically divisive season. No, not that season… I’m talking about the United Methodist Church’s General Conference 2016 in Portland, which begins next month.
First, Dan Dick, a theologically progressive United Methodist minister and author, argues that if our church splits over issues pertaining to homosexual behavior, it will have done so because we have chosen “personal desire over the will of God.”
God’s will, from Dr. Dick’s perspective, is unity above all else. We are united in baptism, which—because Methodists are sacramental—we believe is primarily an act of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, therefore, the Holy Spirit has already said that our LGBTQ-affirming brothers and sisters, including sexually active gays and lesbians, are included in our church. So who are we to say otherwise?
Dick writes, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of our behaviors and/or beliefs.”
Moreover, since this essential unity can’t be abrogated by human action anyway, including splitting the church, we may as well learn to live together. In fact, to do otherwise is to “reject God, renounce Jesus, and revoke our baptism.”
If a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian were reading Dick’s words, he might be forgiven for thinking, “Physician, heal thyself!” As Riley B. Case puts it in the comments section:
Following this logic we need to renounce our United Methodism and our Protestantism and go back to Rome. Since 2016 is the year before the 500-year anniversary of the 95 theses, we could perhaps vote at General Conference to disband and repent. After all, blood is thicker than water.
Another commenter includes these insightful words from John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, regarding church schism (Sermon 80, On Schism, ¶ 17):
I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a minister of the Church of England. And I have no desire nor design to separate from it till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet, and right, and my bounden duty to separate from it without delay. To be more particular, I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel. Yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the church without omitting this, without desisting from the gospel, I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue to unite with any smaller society, church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.
Moreover, since Wesley himself endorsed, however reluctantly, the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the former British colonies of America, how can he be considered anything other than a schismatic?
Clearly, Wesley himself, unlike Dick, did not value unity above all else. If Dick thinks Wesley was wrong, I wish he would say why. Does Dick know something about the nature of baptism that Wesley didn’t know?
Not to mention the authors of scripture!
After all, I’m sure the man committing incest, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, also happened to be baptized. Yet Paul tells the church in the strongest terms possible to separate themselves from this man—for the sake of the man’s soul. Suppose some leaders in the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul: “No, Paul, we think it’s perfectly O.K. that this man is committing flagrant, unrepentant sexual sin, which is condemned alongside homosexual practice in the exact same context of Leviticus 18 and 20.”
Would Paul write back and say, “No problem. You’re all baptized, after all. God has accepted this man committing incest. You need to as well”?
It boggles the mind.
Of course, I am making an argument from scripture, which few Methodist leaders these days have the stomach for. Certainly not Dick. He seems so bored with the biblical argument that he can’t even bother to make it. He only argues about the argument:
The Bible offers a cultural community/purity code that has absolutely nothing to do with the post-enlightenment morality codes of Western civilization. What we want the Bible to say about homosexuality it simply doesn’t say. Sure, it is named as “a sin”, but not as some would like to define it today. In context, it was a disobedience to God and a violation of community because it did not fulfill the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.” Those who wish to make it about the sanctity of marriage must be careful, because it cannot be separated from issues of divorce, bloodline, polygamy and a much broader (less-sex-based) definition of adultery.
As I’ve argued in many places in this blog (here, for example), the biblical case against homosexual practice goes far beyond the “thou shalt not’s” of a few proof-texts (although inasmuch as scripture says “thou shalt not,” we Methodists, who say we affirm the primacy of scripture, better pay attention!); it mostly has to do with complementarity of male and female. This is affirmed loudly by Jesus in Matthew 19 and its parallels. Contrary to Dick’s assertions, Jesus’ words there, along with Paul’s in Romans 1 and Ephesians 5, say nothing about procreation.
But Dick’s point here is to say that we can’t know what Paul and the other authors of scripture meant when they wrote about sexuality—except they didn’t mean what we mean today. (At least Dick concedes that the Bible says that homosexual practice is a sin, so that’s progress, I guess.) His words remind me of something I wrote in my review of Daniel Helminiak’s revisionist book, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.
The author’s point is that everything we think we know about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality is wrong…
[I]f Helminiak is correct, we have no idea what kind of Bible we have—because the Bible is so hopelessly obscure that none of us unschooled in the nuances of Hebrew and Greek can begin to decipher it! Words no longer mean what we think they mean—despite what a broad consensus of Bible scholars and translators have told us for 2,000 years.
Fine… We don’t know what Paul means by “unnatural” (Greek: para physin) in Romans 1:26. Why stop there? How do we really know what “love” means in John 3:16?
If Dick (and Helminiak) are right about the obscurity of the Bible, then we have another problem: Suppose God wanted to tell us through his Word that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin. What would God say that he hasn’t already said? How would the Holy Spirit have guided the authors of scripture to put God’s intentions into words such that they couldn’t be dismissed as culturally relative?
What would the Bible have to say about homosexuality to convince revisionists that God is telling us that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin?
I ask because, if the revisionists are right, they rule out that interpretation before they even start! Why? Because, they say, their world is different from ours and vice versa.
In the second article, on the UMC-affiliated Ministry Matters website, Rev. Dalton Rushing tells us that he believes in the primacy of scripture, yet he says that his convictions regarding the “legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships” comes from “hours of study of scripture, of the doctrines of the church, of science. It comes from conversation and communal discernment. It also comes from hours and hours of prayer.”
Do you see the contradiction?
If we Methodists accept the primacy of scripture, then the authenticity (or not) of homosexual relationships depends on nothing other than what God is telling us through his Word. Inasmuch as tradition, reason, and experience help us understand what the Bible says, that’s good and useful. But they have no veto power over the Bible.
(And before anyone asks, I am happy to argue about Albert Outler’s so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)
Rushing says that apart from his convictions about the LGBTQ issue, “you’d be hard pressed to argue I’m not a classical Wesleyan evangelical.” If so, then he would surely agree that the Holy Spirit does not reveal something to us today, even through “hours and hours of prayer,” that contradicts what the Holy Spirit has already revealed to us in scripture.
Besides, I’m sure the apostle Paul prayed a lot, too. Ahem…
Like Dan Dick, Rushing is only arguing about the argument. I would like for him to actually make his argument.
Early in his article he writes:
While I would argue that [the LGBTQ issue] is not the most important issue facing the United Methodist Church (the church lost nearly 5% of its worshipping membership between 2012 and 2014, according to the most recent statistics available), the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is certainly important.
Because if the UMC splits this year—or General Conference sows the seeds of a split in the near future—the denomination that’s left in its wake will lose much more than five percent of its membership in two years. And if it lost those members in part because it changed its doctrine on sexuality to reflect Rushing’s convictions, he would probably say something like this: “It’s unfortunate, but if that’s the price the church had to pay in order to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, then so be it.”
I could be wrong, but why wouldn’t he say something like that? From his perspective, our church is condoning something evil. Isn’t it? Denying full equality to gays and lesbians; discriminating against them in ordination and marriage; actively harming them through our witness and our doctrines, perhaps even leading some to commit suicide (as I’ve been accused of doing on more than one occasion).
If Rushing believes he’s right, how could he not believe that the LGBTQ issue is bigger than simply losing members?
So here’s something I have in common with most theological progressives in our denomination: I believe the stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to this issue.