Amendment 1 and the Temple of Doom

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.

29 replies

  1. I see your points. Personally I think that this is a continuation of the decline of the baby boomer generation and its cancer like impact on the UMC communion. In the end who cares? If we believe in the atonment of Jesus if it means anything then in the end we are saved if we believe regardless of our societal sin. Christ covers ALL sin period, even the ones that we REALLY dislike. He didn’t from the cross say yeah but not….. or only if…… but only if you do or believe….no if we look to Christ we are saved. Its hard enough to get people to trust in the atonement with putting stumbling blocks in the way to the Cross

    I don’t get why you guys are fighting the war from 8bce. But lets say Mr. Dunnam gets his way with the language. I don’t care and frankly, I am not going to actively support it if it is approved, it is a waste of God’s resources to even bring it up. Most Methodists have never read the Discipline, those of us who have had the misfortune have large swaths that we disagree with or choose to simply not support. Go to any Annual Conference and you find the local watering hole full of pastors thumbing their noses at it. Or check out the quad between sessions and see pastors and lay smoking between sessions or eating way too much. All of this happens and the Dunnam’s of the world focus on an issue that impact a tiny franction of our membership. Dunnam’s not God and doesn’t get a say at all into who is saved or a member of the body of Christ. So at best its a waste of time and at worst he is an active agent in tearing apart the Church. Dunnam needs to repent his hate and seek Jesus. Jesus can save this man from his sin and put him on a path back to God. Right now he and folks like him are so far away from Jesus, they need to repent come back to Church and love people.

    I know that for a vocal group Gay marriage, ordination, and participation is THE issue. For me Gays are people. Jesus loves people. I love people. I’ll let God work out the rest.

  2. I am very grateful to everyone for the conversation — on both sides. And I feel there is a nice consensus that the truly important issue is how we treat children of God. All of the tug-of-war debate that casts this into a “win-lose” issue hurts more than it helps. I appreciate the respectful way people are disagreeing/agreeing on this site, and just wish we as a denomination could learn to engage in controversial issues with as much grace. We’re all on this life journey together — the less adversarial we can make it, the better off we will all be. Thank you for your thoughtful responses (and even for the less thoughtful ones as well…)

  3. As a fairly new part time pastor with a number of gay friends, this post really spoke to me. When California passed Proposition 8, one of those gay friends in LA out of the blue became very angry with me because I belonged to those “backward, hate-mongers”: Christians. He sent me a long and very bitter e-mail expressing how much of a hypocrite “Christians like you” are, pretending to love thy neighbor but really being unforgiving, selfish and cruel, deserving of the backlash many Christians received by the pro-gay marriage advocates. I never spoke to him about Prop 8, I don’t live in California so didn’t vote on Prop 8, and I never expressed to him any of my thoughts about gay marriage, so I was very hurt when he did that.

    Feeling a bit angry myself, I returned his e-mail, replacing the words “Christian” with “Homosexual” and asked him to consider how he would feel if someone sent him such a bigoted screed. I reminded him that I loved him just as much as I ever did as my friend and that I felt sad that he was so angry about this issue. But I also told him he needed to remember how we have been friends in spite of our differences for many years, and he knew me better than that. I never treated him as a “sin project” to fix, but as a true friend that I cared about no matter what.

    He apologized to me. He assumed all Christians, as too often depicted by the media, are all like Maxie Dunnam, in spite of how well he knows me. He assumed I said one thing to his face but did another.

    But I also in the wrong too – he told me that he really didn’t know me all that well concerning my faith. I wasn’t a good enough friend to assure him of who I really was as a Christian. I apologized to him too.

    My feelings on homosexuality are that, like any sin, sin isn’t who you are but what you do, and that we all are sinners who can be forgiven through Christ. He needed to know that. We talked frankly about our philosophies and feelings for quite a while and forgave one another. We understand each other better now and have a closer friendship than ever. He is more tolerant (even accepting) of Christian viewpoints and people, and I am less guarded and apologetic of my faith around my non-Christian friends.

    • Thanks for sharing this story. There is nothing simple, nothing easy, about navigating emotionally charged issues. It is so easy to say there really isn’t an issue — it’s simply about loving others as God loves us, but you can’t go there. When people think as strongly with their hearts and guts (yeah, I realize, people don’t REALLY think with these things, but you catch my drift), there is no way to make any issue “purely rational.” This, I feel, is the weakness of The UMC way of dealing with disagreement — we hyper-rationalize it: draft it in formal language as a proposal to vote on — as if winning a vote changes anything. The whole gay-lesbian issue seems to lack compassion on either side. Your experience illustrates the fundamental importance of not treating this as an “issue” and remembering that what we are dealing with is real people, with real feelings, and real lives. I have long been amazed at some folks who hold a rigid, angry, and exclusionary opinion of gays/lesbians, yet know and truly admire and love a specific individual gay/lesbian person. They think this person is absolutely FANTASTIC, and see no contradiction between their generalized prejudice and their individualized acceptance. People are complex — it’s why we need a Savior…

  4. To: Smitty

    Thank you for your post, which spoke to me with wisdom.

    To: Eric Pone:

    I hope you work out the anger inside. I recognize that cancer.

    Peace and grace,

  5. The danger for me of speaking about “making a fuss over things that aren’t all that important (homosexuality) and thus distracting the church from the really important ” (my paraphrase)- is that this minimizes the esperiences of gay people in the church (not an issue, PEOPLE) who are also legistlated out of the church. I suspect there would be an uproar if someone said dealing with racism, or dealing with sexism, is a distraction to the church.
    We wonder why membeship is on a decline? This is surely a signficant contribution, I think. There are people in the church I serve that would lose their job in the “secular world” if they practiced the discrimination of that many legistlate, practice and hold sacred in the UMC.
    I think all one need do is really become educated about gay people; talk to parents who have children who are gay or lesbian; look at the suicide statistics for gay teens..on and on. This is literally a LIFE AND DEATH concern for so many people. Frankly, as I see it, the UMC looks just plain stupid in this.
    Heterosexism is rampant. Sure, it’s easier to talk about that other stuff – the typical ministries of the church. Well, we can’t afford to do the easy, usual stuff. These times demand more of us if we follow Jesus.
    My expereince is telling me that when we take on the tough stuff – it is like a fresh wind blowing through. it energizes people who are intelligent and compassionate; peopel who have been watiing for SOMEONE to say, right in church: “God does not intend violence. Homosexuality is not a sin, it is a gift of God that can be lived out faithfully or not, jsut like heterosexuality.”
    Churches abound that never say such things. THAT is the distraction, for me.

    • I do hope that you picked up from my post that it is turning the homosexuality debate into an issue is exactly the distraction I’m talking about, and when we stop debating issues, and start loving people the debate pretty much goes away. Homosexuality is an “hot” issue primarily for homosexuals and those who dislike them (about 5% on either end of the scale) and a fundamental justice issue (for another 10%), but basically a live-and-let-live issue for most folks in the middle. It breaks my heart that well-intentioned conservatives stir up so much animosity against a segment of God’s children. Loving people should be a no-brainer. Debating over who to condemn and why is a distraction, and has no place in a “united” community in Christ. Either we learn to get along, or we practice truth in advertising and get rid of the word “United” from “United Methodist Church” once and for all.

      • Well – I disagree with those statistics. This is “hot” for people who embrace the expansive love of God and that’s more than 10%.

        You said you “know what the Bible says.” Do you? Do you know when that word came into scripture? Have you ever done an intensive study of those “clobber texts” – and if so, what di d you learn or what were your insights?

        You say you “struggle with the lifestyle…” What is your struggle? And also, one’s orientation, one’s core identity, isn’t a lifestyle. A lifestyle is more about what kind of car you drive, how big your house is and what label is on your jeans.

      • Hey, Janet, thanks for your thoughtful engagement with the posts. There is a fudge factor to all statistics — what I am getting at is that a minority on both sides fuel the debate. Most Christians are indifferent or basically accepting of an individuals lifestyle choice. I’m personally sorry that it isn’t a “hot” issue for more people, but I stand by the findings. We do not have a signficant segment of United Methodists who are passionate about justice issues, including gay rights.

        “Homosexuality” does not appear anywhere in scripture (no English word does, and there is no clear equivalent in Hebrews) and in a paternalistic, sexist premodern society, there is no distinct prohibition against lesbianism. There is simply no way around the prohibition against “a man lying with another man as with a woman.” Of course, there are prohibitions against what we label sodomy, but we’re very creative in how we interpret exactly what that constitutes. However, cutting one’s hair, eating shellfish or meat from an animal with a cloven hoof, or borrowing/lending money at interest are all counted as equally ‘sinful’ as homosexuality. As I tried to say in the post, the cultural “immorality” had nothing to do with the actual sex act, but with the negative impact on a community charged with reproduction and increasing population. Homosexuality contributes absolutely nothing to the “be fruitful and multiply” mandate. The “clobber texts” are definitely used out of context — literary, historical, cultural, ethnic, and figurative. I hate the way Leviticus 18:19-23 gets abused. The “rules of the household” given to distinguish the Hebrews from other peoples have nothing to do with morality the way modern post-Victorian Americans choose to intepret them. I believe their original intention was not to help anal-retentive control freaks delineate a lists of “sins,” but to give guidance to protect a community in its infancy. As a Middle Eastern medical researcher friend of mine has pointed out, these rules may be nothing more than a protection against the spread of disease (which was often intepreted as punishment in primitive cultures) in a place and time predating any understanding of the importance of cleanliness, bacteria, germs, and anti-biotics. It may very well be that none of these things apply to us, because we know how to proceed with safety and caution.

        My struggle with the lifestyle has nothing to do with nature/nurture — I don’t believe people choose to be gay. I come from a science/research background, and I believe that human beings are designed around a biological imperative for the survival of the species. There is no biological benefit to homosexuality. I also have worked in crisis care with youth and young adults, and I have experienced the psychological scarring of many gay and lesbian people — not all of it imposed externally. This is not to say that I think homosexuality is evil. I have no struggle here at all. As I said, I know too many gay and lesbian people who are healthy, whole, balanced, spiritual, generous, kind, compassionate, caring, smart, moral, ethical, and happy. I am friends with a number of gay men, and I do not judge them in any way, and I do not want, or ask them to change. It is not my place to judge anyone. I can admit that I don’t relate to their life experience. I have lesbian friends who I know are spiritual, loving Christians, and I don’t for a minute think they are less Christian for their lifestyle. I understand there are people who vehemently disagree with all this, and I feel they have the right to their opinion. I desperately wish that the disagreement didn’t result in such anger, animosity, violence, and outright hatred. There responses to gay and lesbian people are much more evil than any “sin of sexuality” that can be named.

        Ultimately, I think it is so sad that modern American Christians reduce any relationship — homosexual or heterosexual — to what we do with our “naughty” parts. The best relationships I know of are about deep respect, honest communication, sacrifice, commitment, and mutual trust. These things have absolutely nothing to do with the gender of the participants, but everything to do with the integrity of the individual. In my heart and mind, this is all that truly matters. Hope this gives you a bit more clarity about what I personally believe.

      • Thanks, Dan.
        A few more thoughts.
        I think “lifestyle choice” is way off the mark. We are talking about someone’s core, God-given identity, not a CHOICE from the lifestyle buffet.

        IN your words you line homosexuality up with other “sins” (Romans text) and in doing that, you cast gay persons as sinful at their core. That’s harmful language that does violence to people.

        There is a simple way around the “man lying with a man” prohibition The concern iwas about the men spilling their seed. In those days, the men thought their seed held “life itself” (imagine that…) so to waste that life-seed was like murder, throwing away life. It has NOTHING to do with a loving, faithful relationship between two men.

        Homosexuality certainly contributes to “being fruitful and multiplying.” Lesbian couples have children all the time. Gay couples parent children all the time.

        I understand a person’s right to “their opinion.” But we are called to stand for the Gospel. We are called to bear witness to the expansive love of God. We are called to proclaim that all people are God’s people. We caleld to speak the Gospel truth. And for someone to proclaim a lesser love, a smaller kingdom is surely their “right” – but I will name that as contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ at every turn.

        Those people you have interviewed across this country spoke to you (if i recall well) their critique that the church doesn’t put word and deed together. The church too often cares more about it’s buildings, budgets and words – and it fails to practice the love of Jesus. It lacks integrity. We’re called to something higher than “opinions.” We’re called to extend the radical love we have seen in Jesus
        Thanks for the conversation.

      • I think part of the reason for the anger and animosity, at least from our side (I’m a gay Methodist), is that we’ve had the words “I love you” used as a weapon against us by other Christians. We’ve seen the Sanctuary smiles turn bitter when the subject of Teh Gay even comes up. We’ve felt the marginalization that you as a straight person may not even know is happening.

        We want to belong to our church, to play an active role in its life, but we have learned to keep our walls of defense up until we know for sure what the Church’s intentions are. We’ve been sucker punched too many times to trust you.

        And so, even in a church that is somewhat supportive, we have to wonder how welcome we really are. What would happen if I walked into your church next Sunday holding my (theoretical) boyfriend’s hand? What would happen if I stood up to recognize our (theoretical) tenth anniversary? At prayer request time, what would happen if I took the microphone and asked for prayer for my (theoretical) friend’s partner who is HIV+ and having a bad month? If we brought our (theoretical) daughter, would there be a discussion among staff about whether she can come to Sunday School, just in case ‘it’ comes up?

        I wouldn’t presume to speak for your church, but in mine any of those would cause scandal, and my church is relatively accepting.

        Speaking of physical genital contact (please correct me if I misinterpreted), you said that “there is no biological benefit to homosexuality.” From a heterosexual point of view and assuming that genital contact is only for procreation, perhaps there isn’t. But from a lesbian or gay point of view, it most certainly does have benefits, one of physical intimacy and spiritual connection that perhaps you take for granted.

        Thank you for even opening the floor to the discussion. It may be the way out of the stalemate that we find ourselves in.

      • Thanks, Matt,

        My heart breaks for the way my church is choosing to deal with the gay/lesbian relationships. I would joyously welcome gay or lesbian Christians seeking to connect with a church I pastored, but I have to be honest that I have yet to pastor a church where they would be opening and universally welcomed. Having never been gay (or lesbian, for that matter) I cannot even pretend to know what it has been like. I know unfair treatment. I know ostracism. I know mockery. But I do not know an angry, violent condemnation based on who I am. I cannot figure out how the church of Jesus Christ in any framework can justify the treatment of same-sex relationships.

        As to biology. Make sure you know that I never confuse biological structuring with physical intimacy. The varieties of real intimacy defy human comprehension. One of the very best marriages I ever witnessed was a twenty-two year old man and a sixty-nine year old woman. They met with disapproval at every turn, but I have no question that their love was real, and that intimacy of every kind was part of their relationship.

        I shake my head in total frustration at the lack of common sense given to Biblical interpretation. I know what the Bible says, I understand what the early authors wrote, and I also understand that in a premodern, primitive culture, the instructions were practical, not moral. The practical issues that were addressed in Leviticus are no longer true today, so perhaps we need new standards of discernment to understand what constitutes “normal” in the 21st century. (Unless of course every other intellectual, technological, anthropological, and scientific advancement we have made we’re willing to ignore and reject as well.)

        I don’t know any perfect person. What I do know is that the church exists to serve two classes of person: perfect and imperfect. Only people who do not qualify for either of these two categories should be excluded.

  6. As a lesbian, a woman you have interviewed and defended, and as a lifelong Methodist, I cannot quite understand Janet Ellinger. If she attacks those who are sympathetic and honest about the issue, what does she do to people who disagree with her? She has used some very fancy selective reading and interpretation to create things to disagree with, and she obviously has done some creative interpretation herself to come up with some of the things she has. Let me just say, on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition in the Northeast Jurisdiction, your work is greatly appreciated and your reasoned and reasonable approach is something we need a lot more or.

    • Hello.
      Thanks for your thoughts, too. What I try to do with disagreement is to gain understanding. I feel that is what Dan and I have shared. His words: “thoughtful engagement.”
      With justice issues, I do come to a “here I stand” place.

      There are many sympathetic and honest statements that have, and continue to be, harmful to GLBT persons, within and beyond the church. And it is important to me to engage in dialogue around that. All of us approach things from our own interpretation/understanding and our own experience. That is the place from which I speak.

      Kudos to the Gay Lesbian Coalition in your jurisdiction and the minsitry that must be happening through that group.

      I, too, have appreciated Dan’s leadership in the UMC. He has been in the church I serve and this area of Wisconsin. I have also appreciated this dialogue I have been able to have with him, and now with you.
      Janet Ellinger

      • Nicely said, I am so grateful to people who come to the table to keep talking, even around the painful realities. The only way we are ever going to come to grace is by being open. If everyone could engage “beyond issues” to the real people involved, we would be better off. I so appreciate your willingness to challenge me and keep pushing me, Janet. I take no offense, and hope that I can become a better person as people shine the light of resason on the words I say and the meanings they convey (sometimes unintentionally). Thank you for your thoughts, feelings, and passion.

  7. I Believe you unmistakeably make the point – that there’s no getting around it (though some try – brilliantly and creatively!) – that in the Scripture Homosexuality is sin – albeit perhaps not as bad as others – ‘wife-beaters’; theivery’ etc. The question you seem to beg, and others, is: ‘So why is homosexuality differant?’ The difference consists in the fact that many are saying loudly, in word and speech, that it is not a sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” (1Jhn. 1:9) The next verse says that if we say that we say we have sinned not, then we are liars and the truth/the word is not in us. This seems to me to be at the very heart of the gospel. ‘Repent and get your joy back.’

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