Inclusiveness of the Church — The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition who seek relationship in Jesus Christ shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition .
I am always amazed at how we United Methodists can waste precious time and energy on some issues, while ignoring the truly important issues of our age. Each time we try to cast a truly transformative and global vision, special interest groups — both liberal and conservative, progressive and regressive — rouse the rabble to distraction. In our history, debt, war, racism, and sexism have all had their day, so the misdirection de jour is (whisper it…) homosexuality. Yes, up front, let’s all admit that homosexuality is named in scripture as a sin — right alongside lending or borrowing money at interest, bearing false witness, divorce, etc., etc., ad nauseum. We cannot deny it is there. We also cannot deny that slavery is perfectly acceptable. In case you haven’t noticed, the Bible was written a long time ago to a pre-modern, Middle-Eastern culture. Sociologists and anthropologists have thrown a great deal of light on primitive views of homosexuality, chief among them that in early cultures with a prime agenda of growth, expansion, and conquest (such as, oh say, the Hebrew people), homosexuality served no good communal purpose. Therefore its immorality was not reduced to prudish sexuality, but the much greater “sin” of denying the needs of the larger community. But, apparently, we don’t want to deal with the spiritual issue in context. It isn’t about truth anymore. It is an emotional argument where one side wants to defeat the other side. We frame it as a “sin” issue, but that’s ridiculous. In Maxie Dunnam’s recent video appearance (check it out on Shane Raynor’s, Wesley Report, he reminds us that the grace of God only extends so far, and that it is up to us United Methodists to decide who is worthy and who is not. He doesn’t limit his concerns to just homosexuals, but to wife beaters and pedophiles as well. It is nice to know that if you become Christian first, then a sinner you’re safe, but if you are a sinner before joining, the church wants nothing to do with you…
One of the main things that gets lost in all this irrational controversy is that “a homosexual lifestyle” is not fundamentally about sex (any more than a heterosexual relationship is primarily about sex). I struggle with my personal feelings about homosexuality — I know what the Bible says, and I know what our Book of Discipline says, but I also know dozens of gay and lesbian people who are among the finest, kindest, most caring, loving, and giving people I know. Biologically, we are “wired” for procreation, but we deny our biology in a host of creative and sometimes destructive ways that no one labels “sin,” even though scripture admonishes us to treat our bodies as temples. I engage in a constant battle to reconcile my feelings. Ultimately, for me it is not about behaviors and preferences on the part of the individual, but about the mandate I feel on my heart from God to love, to serve, to accept, and to care for the children of God. I have spent years in prison ministry, loving some of the most unlovable (and often unrepentant) people I have ever met. Were they to come to my church upon release from prison seeking ministry, I would receive them — with full open disclosure and a measure of common sense. Each congregation still has to make decisions about who can serve where, and each will use a different set of criteria. You don’t put child abusers in children’s ministries, or let a struggling alcoholic drive the church bus. What deeply distresses me when the conversation turns to homosexuality is the lie — and Maxie Dunnam not-so-subtly reinforces it — that it is the agenda of a gay or lesbian individual to somehow undermine, harm or destroy our congregations. The readiness to ascribe evil intent to homosexuals is just plain stupid, and we need to stop listening to the people who spread such garbage.
It is obvious that I am sensitive to the plight of homosexuals, even though I personally struggle with the lifestyle. That makes it seem like I am taking sides. Many passionate people will disagree with me, and I respect that. I expect many people will be angry with me, and some even disappointed. Some will find it impossible to agree to disagree, and this makes me sad. There is no way we will ever arrive at agreement on this issue and there is no reason to (even to this day there is no more than an uneasy consensus on the rights of minorities and the role of women in ministry — through my work for the national church I have encountered latent racism and sexism all across the connection). We’ve never had total agreement in our past, and it is unlikely in our future. From my perspective, there is only one way forward that will move us to a better place — reframing.
If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need to clarify the priority work that will enable us to get there. Every group in the church that does this faithfully finds that the whole question of homosexuality drops from the top of the list — there are dozens of issues more important to the vast majority of United Methodists. With priorities in place, we need to spend the greatest part of our time, energy, and resources on what is truly important, and let go of the private buggaboos that systematically distract us. Along with this, we need to return to a place of faith that builds a future rather than a place of fear that freezes us in the present (and the past).
Any time we come to a crossroads of greater inclusiveness vs. greater exclusivity, we should opt for openness (or remove it from our banners, billboards, and TV spots). We have become so scared that our beloved institution might topple that we have circled our wagons. For those of us who believe that sin can defeat the church, we need to rethink our call. For those who believe that the love of God is greater than any challenge to the church, we need to be careful not to compromise the integrity of God’s love by making it cheap.
We have fallen into a bad habit of picking and choosing sins to be upset by and sins to ignore. Paul reminds us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus reminds us that what goes on in our hearts and minds is as serious as what we actually do. How is gossip or lying less serious than homosexuality? How is taking advantage of someone less serious than physical assault? How is stealing property worse than stealing someone’s dignity? We are on very shaky ground here and self-righteousness is no solution. Even if some hold homosexuality to be a terrible sin, we are charged only to condemn the act, but not the one who does it. The various and sundry specks we search so diligently for in other people’s eyes compare quite favorably to the logs of judgmentalism, hostility, fear, and anger in our own. There is no simple answer. Our emotions have replaced our faith in the issue of who the church should love, accept, receive, and nurture. What I personally believe is irrelevant to the larger church, but it guides me to the only position that works for me: if each individual is a child of God, I will accept him or her wherever they are, and seek in every way possible to work with them to find God’s will for their own life.