Jay Archer is a thoughtful and Christ-like leader inside the Tennessee Conference. Jay’s response to my “The Bible and Homosexuality” blog asks some good questions about the future of our United Methodist connection. Jay wonders what will center the church and where is the United Methodist church heading.
I post this email from Jay with his permission.
May we listen to each other as we seek to hear from God’s Holy Spirit.
Grace and Peace
First of all I want to thank you for sending out your thoughts on some of these crucial matters on which our church is deliberating. They are difficult and complex issues in and of themselves, and the response or action of our General Conference will set in motion courses of thought, feeling, and repercussions on many pivotal points for Biblical and theological reflection for years to come. Also, the responses and actions of General Conference will have an immediate effect on the future shape of the United Methodist Church. There will be ramifications on our fruitfulness in ministry coming from the deliberations and decisions made there that are hard to calculate regardless of whether there is a unified position on issues, a compromise solution, or a split in United Methodist identity. Will deliberations and decisions made at General Conference help our life together as United Methodists become life-producing for our members, or will our life together in one institutional expression of Christ’s great church become so life-draining that its members become exhausted and despondent through the attempts to live with each other in one institutional expression of Christ’ great church? So thank you Paul for putting forth some thought on these matters.
I will express some of the places where my thinking is different or moderates from some of your expressions on these matters.
Biblical understanding on the matter of homosexuality
I would hope that we all try to gain the best Biblical understanding possible on any issue, as indeed revelatory truth is contained in the Scripture. I recognize that what any two persons might consider “the best Biblical understanding possible” could differ.
In my determining of what I think is the best possible Biblical understanding I do not find “Biblical literalism” a useful tool, nor do most United Methodists. Wesley speaks of listening to the “whole” of scripture in trying to understand any of it. This Wesleyan process was used by Wesley to reason that it was not true that the Lord “hardened the heart of Pharaoh”. Wesley looked for another way to make sense (or suspend his understanding) of the verses that spoke of such. Therefore this Wesleyan approach was used in gaining the best Biblical understanding of women in leadership and also of slavery. The whole of scripture (including the letter of Philemon as it regards slavery) and the reality of how God had called women to leadership and prophecy as indicated elsewhere in scripture…eventually yielded the best Biblical understanding possible…and this best Biblical understanding is sustained by scripture itself. In regard to homosexuality, I do not see any positive or contrary Scriptural word that would elevate homosexual practice onto the list of practices that give glory to God or are in line with God’s good creation and God’s intentions for holy living.
Old Testament: We claim that what we regard as the Old Testament is scripture as well and contains revelatory truth. Certainly finding the best Biblical understanding can prove difficult in regard to many passages of Old Testament scripture, but the Old Testament deserves the respect of our trying to harvest truths for our faithful living from it. In regard to homosexuality, I cannot casually dismiss implications that homosexual practice is a problem for those who live under God. It could be throwing out the baby with the bath water to dismiss the Law as a source for God’s truth, even if parts of it can be truthfully dismissed from our Godly and faithful living. From the word that those who disobey their parents are to be stoned I do not learn a punishment for disrespect, I see the importance of the family unit in the people of God, and the necessity of transfer of Godly truth from generation to generation, and I learn about a tendency in all of us to rebel against parents—including our God who says we can call him Father. In regard to the negative light cast on homosexual practice in the Old Testament, I relate it to a doctrine of creation (male and female as God’s order, and the created best practice for a mother and a father to raise a child who needs direction on what it is to be a Godly man or Godly woman that is compatible with God’s revealed goodness of creation. Again, the Law can never be a source of our Salvation…our covenant relationship with Christ Jesus is that, but the Law does contain truth to which God would have us pay attention. After all, God had a hand in the Law, though scholars disagree as to where that hand manifest itself.
Jesus and homosexuality. In that my Biblical understanding on homosexuality springs from a doctrine of creation (male and female and male and female as the household unit) I do consider Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 1:21 and Genesis 2:24 as significant in consideration of whether marriage can also be male and male or female and female. Also, that Jesus would say there is no marriage in heaven in no way impacts the call that while we are on earth and in a body, we are to follow God’s intention for life on earth and in the body, and in my view one of the boundaries God sets for life on earth and in the body is that we are to only become one flesh through a covenant of marriage between male and female. I would also say it is a dangerous path to think of only the words that come from Jesus’ mouth as having the in incontrovertible truth on which we can have confidence. That path leads to the search for the Historical Jesus, which elevates only the words of Jesus to the highest station, and then argues to determine (according to their own human reason) what the “real” words of Jesus were. It takes a whole Bible to see Jesus in truth, and to see what are purported as Jesus’ words as the real scripture leads to human perversion every time. If the argument is that I will always put the Gospel account of Jesus’ words as the final judge over all, then that sounds a little like Biblical literalism. The other matter involving Jesus and homosexuality is the suggestion by some that Jesus would have and practice a great love with persons of homosexual orientation. I definitely think this is true. “The bruised reed he will not break” Isaiah 42:3 speaks to Jesus’ method. We are all bruised reeds and Jesus does not choose to break us, but mend us and uphold until we stand in Godliness. Homophobia is real and it breaks bruised reeds, but not all that persons call homophobia is really homophobia.
The Nitty Gritty Issue
It seems the core of your thinking is that there is room for Biblical and theological disagreement over homosexuality in one church, since, in your view, it is not a matter of the “essentials” but rather a “think and let think” issue. I believe you would also say that if the United Methodist Church can live together in disagreement, it would be a powerful witness to Christ. Your Biblical example for your approach comes from the early church consisting of both Jewish and Gentle elements living in one wider church with Jesus as head. Basically, at this point you would say that this issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not worth splitting over. I would say that your thinking lies in the direction of the hope of some of our Bishops that the United Methodist Church can defuse the intensity of our differences by focusing on other aspects of our mission. This hope would be that the UMC can be vital in living and engaged in mission even in the midst of perpetual disagreement in the area of homosexuality.
Some thoughts on the Nitty Gritty Issue
I am still mulling over the ideas and proposals brought forth from different quarters on how the UMC can move forward in the midst of divided passions and positions. I have mixed thoughts about a form of splitting, and also mixed emotions.
Here are some little things flying around in my head as I mull on these matters.
- The proposals that are stated as compromises are not likely to end our discomfort over this issue. Continued debate will continue to draw our energies and be a hole through which we will lose the energy that can come from unity. Those who categorize a different perspective on homosexuality as homophobia will not be able to rest until what they perceive as homophobia is purified from the church. In the Connectional Table proposal purported to be a compromise, I find it interesting that those who have a more traditional Biblical view of the matter of homosexuality and same-sex marriage carry the label of having the “historical” position. In our day, among the progressives, to say “historical” means “outdated” and only to be tolerated until it is lost in the pages of history. The Connectional Table does not have sincere respect for the theological views of those who have a “historical” understanding, and consider that continual debate on the issue will eventually do away with the “historical” position.
- There has already been some choices made against our living in covenant with each other, and this can be considered an action toward splitting. Those who have a traditional view have been charged with wanting a split. Some who hold a “progressive” view have already split from the church in many ways involved with getting around the Discipline agreement or ignoring the Discipline, or even speaking boldly as a tactic that they are going to ignore the Discipline. I do believe that some Bishops only want unity at this time as a tactical strategy to hold us together until their views on homosexuality win predominance. Their true hope is not unity that would involve a perpetual disagreement and a long-lasting pattern of “agreeing to disagree” on this “non-essential issue”, but a church that thinks the way they do on an issue they consider essential. Of course, many on the traditional side of this issue would also want to be a part of a church that thinks more like they do on this matter they consider essential. All of this is to say it very difficult to have two camps in the church who value this issue as essential live together under the same roof. We can live next door to each other and be helpful neighbors, but as long as we are under one roof, there will be a tension that causes splitting.
- I wonder if I can thrive in a church that walks the course of the compromise proposals brought forth to General Conference. I do not see myself changing in regard to my current Biblical understanding. On this issue of homosexuality I was once very much on the liberal side of the issue, but have moved to the conservative side as I have changed in my understanding of God, myself, and the trustworthiness and value of Scriptural revelation. In the future UMC will there really be respect for a more conservative view on this issue? How will I respond to continued pressure from my own church to get with a liberal view on this matter? As the surrounding culture, and even its legal apparatus, presses for conformity on a position I do not hold, will I get support from my church?
- Can I live well in loving service to our Lord if I find a growing disaffection with the church through which I live my ministerial call? Disaffection springs from diminished trust that I am on the same page (or a similar page) in regard to those with whom I am working in the harvest fields. Our connection grows the love power and mission enthusiasm of its participants when our connection has the feeling of a spiritual movement that has us moving in the same God-pleasing direction. This is a way of speaking about some Bishops’ hope for the church in retaining a unified connection, but it is a tricky task to have a God-engendered spiritual movement when disaffections are already planted in many (on both sides) involved in the movement. I have dreamed of our connectional church being in the center current of a powerful spiritual movement for the Gospel Kingdom. I may not get to see this. And yet I do think there is a powerful spiritual movement taking place in this world. I want to get on board with it. Do I do that best from serving a United Methodist Church with its sections of those with whom I do not hold confidence? Or can there be a way for an embodied Wesleyan movement to take shape that I can enthusiastically join…either outside the UMC connection or inside the UMC connection?
- I do have concerns about possible developments in the UMC that will add more deep discomfort. Currently I am invigorated by my identification with the UMC due to my respect for its Wesleyan heritage. I fear a trend away from what I consider to be essentials of Wesleyan theology and moving toward “progressive” perspectives that diminish the early church testimony on which the Wesleyan heritage was footed. In some UM circles the divinity of Jesus is questioned, consideration of the cross in regard to atonement is dismissed, or even the resurrection of Jesus is considered non-historical. I do have concerns as to whether the future UMC will continue to “contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3). Observing the debates on homosexuality and same-sex marriage was sort of like observing the Supreme Court process. It is not always the particular determination on a matter brought to the Supreme Court that carries the most influence on the future law development. Many times it is the reason offered by the Supreme Court to support its ruling that holds the most sway on future developments. Some arguments brought forth by “progressive” thinkers in support of same-sex marriage or new notions of gender fluidity will hold the most sway on future generations. Imbedded in many of these are theological perspectives that will undermine the faith I have been entrusted to hold and pass to future generations that they may know fully our Lord and live and love in ways that please the one to whom we belong. What kind of Wesleyan church will strengthen my endeavor to live for Christ and join in the work which God is doing?
Thank you, Paul, for your thoughts and in incentive for me to think more about the coming General Conference and the future of our United Methodist Church. God help us all.