The United Methodist Church is set to meet again later this year to discuss the future of our denomination. Nothing is official yet, despite what you might hear. The key issue is human sexuality and a possible church split, specifically over the question of LGBT weddings and ordinations. Current church doctrine could be described as “traditional” where homosexuality is “incompatible” with Christian teaching.
Today’s blog post is on how people on all sides reason about the issue differently. Here is an outline on three possible views regarding things like homosexuality, marriage, and the like. Even if you are thoroughly convinced of your viewpoint, I encourage you to try and understand where someone else might be coming from. After several years of study, here are what I believe are the strongest arguments for traditionalism, progressivism, and centrism. Countless books have been written on each approach, so I’ll do my best to keep it concise!
Traditionalist View- The UMC ought to stay the same. LGBT individuals ought to be welcome, but we should not change church teaching on the matter.
Church tradition has been consistent in upholding the covenant of marriage as between one man and one woman. This ideal was outlined in Genesis 2 with the creation of Adam and Eve. Even though many stories of scripture deviate from this norm (polygamy, enslavement, abuse, etc.) the overall message of scripture points to a “traditional” view of marriage. If anything, “problematic” depictions of marriage from the Old Testament point to the fact that people are sinful and in need of some uncompromising standard! We ought to strive for that Godly ideal of a husband and wife mutually loving one another. Overall, scripture has a consistent message, beginning with Genesis, and continuing through the writings of Paul, who wrote against the practice of homosexuality. Theologically speaking, marriage between one man and one woman also affirms God’s intent for procreation, partnership, and raising children. Though many people are called to be single, or marriage couples might face issues such as infertility or decide not to have children, the fact of the matter is that broadly speaking, men and women were created for one another as a part of God’s plan.
Christians ought to never judge other people. But that does not diminish the fact that we are called to discern between right and wrong. There are clear standards for us to follow, and we have a serious obligation to uphold this view of marriage. LGBT persons are to be welcomed in the church, but cannot be pastors or married by UMC clergy.
Rev. Rob Rebfroe puts it this way: “[The UMC’s] view on sexuality is a compassionate, biblical and beautifully nuanced statement. It affirms the worth of every person, declares sexuality to be a gracious gift of God, protects the rights of those who might be mistreated because of their sexuality, and states what the Bible affirms – not all sexual practices, heterosexual or homosexual, are acceptable in the sight of God.”
Even though the surrounding culture might change, that must not distort the beliefs and practices of the church. The church must continue to be faithful to our God-given calling.
Progressive View- The UMC ought to change and be affirming. We must celebrate LGBT individuals through things like church leadership, weddings, and ordination.
Church tradition has been opposed to this change, but the Holy Spirit is doing something new and unique in our day and age. The modern church is in the midst of an “Acts 15” moment where God may be moving followers to remove barriers preventing others from joining Christian fellowship. In the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, the apostles decided that gentiles did not have to follow old traditions and customs. In the same way, if a Christian identifies as a lesbian, she does not have to follow previous practices dictated in biblical law. God’s family is growing, and so we ought to fully include LGBT brothers and sisters.
Scripture is bound in its own historical context. Just as we do not follow every custom from the Old or New Testament, homosexuality falls into this category, too. Old Testament passages are difficult to apply for today, since many stories like Sodom and Gomorrah actually deal with other issues like hospitality, instead of same-sex acts (for example, Ezekiel 16 talks about how the cities “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”). In the New Testament, Paul is likely referring to pagan practices when he forbids homosexual behavior. Temple prostitution was quite common in the world of the new church, so these were commandments to abstain from deviant sexual behavior involving exploitation, pedophilia, or prostitution. In contrast to today’s world, two loving adults of the same gender in a committed, covenantal relationship can actually affirm God’s ideal for marriage. The “gift” of Christian marriage ought to be extended to them as well.
Rev. Kari Tolppanen puts it this way: “The gay marriage issue divides Christians. In the same way, the issues of circumcision and food laws divided Christians in the apostolic era. Paul and his co-workers believed that circumcision of the heart had replaced circumcision of the flesh and that Christians did not need to observe the food regulations of the law of Moses, but the majority of the Jerusalemite Christians disagreed with Paul (Acts 21:17-36). Paul instructed Christians to accept different opinions and interpretations on those issues (Rom. 14 and 15). I hope the same kind of open-mindedness prevails in the discussion on same-sex marriage.”
God is remarkably adaptive, reaching people exactly where they are at any given point in human history. God used ancient customs all throughout scripture to reveal Godself. God is also using our current cultural setting to reach new people as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people gain more visibility in our world. In order for the church to be faithful today, Christians must openly accept and celebrate those in this community.
Centrist/Moderate View- The UMC ought to adapt and realize that this issue is simply not worth fighting or splitting over. People can arrive at different conclusions and still be faithful disciples.
No matter how hard we argue, we will not convince the other side to adopt our beliefs. This is a highly personal issue, with many in the church feeling like they or their family members and close friends are excluded, or that their personal beliefs are not taken seriously by the other side.
Scripture is filled with many instances of people disagreeing with one another, yet being charitable in their disputes. Paul wrote of different teachers in Philippians 1, and how some were apparently preaching out of rivalry, selfishness, and envy. This did not matter, according to Paul, because the end result was that Christ was still being preached! In the same way, it should not matter if a pastor or church nowadays disagrees over LGBT issues, so long as they are preaching that God came to save us and give us new life through Jesus Christ. That core message ought to be at the heart of church practice.
Practically speaking, the LGBT debate is a “secondary” sort of issue—similar to other issues of Christian disagreement, such as worship preference or style. It is important to have opinions on these differing viewpoints, but it should not cause so much division that the church gets stuck in the same old debates. In the same way, the question over whether a gay couple can get married in a Methodist church should not be worth fighting over. Disciples can disagree with one another while at the same time live faithful lives.
Rev. Adam Hamilton once put it this way: “Anyone who has ever stood in the center knows it is hardly safe. You’re likely to be criticized by both ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals.’ But in an increasingly polarized world, the center may just be the most radical, extreme, and faithful place to stand if you are seeking to follow Jesus Christ.”
While the traditionalists and progressives argue that the entire church ought to adhere to their beliefs, this issue is not worth dividing the church over. In other words, LGBT issues present a gray area where compromise is necessary. Some churches ought to decide to be traditionalist, while others ought to decide to be progressive. Doing so allows us to be truly united in ministry, keeping the mission of the church at the forefront.
There are many strengths to each side. I’ve heard it said that the traditionalists truly have a high view of scripture. The progressives are very focused on the movement of the Holy Spirit. And the moderates embody the belief of “live and let live.”
Each also have their weaknesses, too. People claim the traditionalists overlook problems like abuse and suicide in the LGBT community. People argue that the progressives have a weak view of scripture and simply change positions depending on culture wars. And people also say that the moderates are playing politics and trying to keep folks happy, when in reality it is a much more important issue.
So regardless of whatever you personally believe, it is important to think critically about this matter. I think we fight with one another without getting to know what the other side actually believes. If anything, when we examine contrary viewpoints, we enhance our own understanding of what we personally believe.