A Theology of Inclussion

No matter what our lesser rules or rulings might say, our United Methodist constitution declares: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, 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.” (Article 4) Furthermore, we believe “the redeeming love of God revealed in Jesus Christ extends to all persons” (UMC Discipline 226-1). We welcome all persons to the Lord’s font and table. We do this without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.    

 

We so we welcome everyone, because our theology flows from God’s grace, not human merit: “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our works or deservings.” (Articles of Religion IX).  We are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of us who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) . “Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price”. (UMC Baptismal Vow). By God’s grace alone, we are given our identity as Children of God. Our status as Children of God is our fundamental identity, superseding all lesser categories and classifications. We are made One in Christ by grace, and the claims of the law, or race, or gender, or status melt away in faith, hope and love.       

And yet as one body, grace affirms our diversity so that: “It is not necessary that rites and ceremonies should in all places be the same, or exactly alike; for they have been always different, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners… Every particular church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies, so that all things may be done to edification.” ( Article XXII)  We see this latitude as we empower the Central Conferences with “the power to conform the detailed rules, rites, and ceremonies for the solemnization of marriage to the statute laws of the country or countries within its jurisdiction.” (UMC Discipline 543-14) Wesley taught that we may not all think alike, but implored us all to love alike. Indeed, “For we know only in part,” “we prophesy in part,” “we see in a mirror, dimly” and  “we know only in part.” Faith, hope and love surpass knowledge. (1 Corinthians 13) Paul taught “All of us possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3) The love of Christ surpasses knowledge and fills us with the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19)

 

We understand the Acts of the Apostles and letters to offer a story of widening grace and expanding inclusion.The church baptizes eunuchs and the uncircumcised, classes of people who were previously banned from the Lord’s assembly and table. The Holy Spirit leads a reluctant bishop to embrace full inclusion of the uncircumcised. Peter declares, “If God has given them the Spirit, Who am I to stand in the way of God?” (Acts 11:17) The church will set aside both tradition and Scripture: In the book of Genesis, God says to Abraham, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:14) Peter comes to understand “God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)  Acts tells us that the church listened with amazement when they heard how God was working within uncircumcised person’s lives! Indeed, Paul declares, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek there is neither slave nor free; nor Is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Long after the Canon was closed, the church dropped headscarves, ended slavery, and ordained women.

 

As Methodists we understand that marriage and ordination are not sacraments. “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ,” and ordination and matrimony “are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel; being such as have partly grown out of the corrupt following of the apostles…” (Articles of Religion XVI)  It is theologically inconsistent with our understanding of baptism and contrary to God’s grace to categorically deny God’s marriage blessing or call to ministry to Children of God, whom we welcome to the Lord’s Table and baptismal font. The marriage blessing and the laying on of hands are either means of grace or badges of human merit. When God’s Spirit is working within a relationship or minister,  who are we to withhold God’s gracious blessing? Indeed, the marriage covenant offers queer people a means of grace and sanctifying space wherein they can grow a committed and Christ-centered relationship.

 

Surely much of the church’s past exclusion of queer folks from marriage and ordination flows from an overly sexualized understanding of queer persons that reduces and classifies their personhood by their sex acts. Any reduction to or classification of a person by the physicality of sex acts, dehumanizes the individual and denies their primary identity as a Child of God. Human sexuality, love, and marriage are best understood in a context not of sex acts but with baseline values like charity, community, commitment, and equality. There are biblical models of same-sex friendship and love that point us to the deep spirituality within some same-sex relationships: “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul….Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1, 3) Often we proffer Ruth and Naomi as models of love and commitment, and use this passage to solemnize a wedding: “Ruth said [to Naomi], “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!… so the two of them went on (together).” (Ruth 1:16-19) The defining of people by sexual attraction and sex acts is a perverted understanding of human sexuality. As Children of God, we are more than sex acts and attractions. Let us judge relationships by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Such are the fruits of spiritual relationships. (Galatians 5:22-23)

 

Let us consider, Jesus’ teaching that sex and marriage belong to our earthly life, not to the spiritual life to come. Jesus said,“there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven” but that our heavenly bodies, and presumably our sanctified sexuality, will be fashioned more like that of the angels. (Matthew 22:30)  Jesus never directly addresses same-sex attraction. Exclusion of queer folks is not rooted in Jesus’ teaching, who outraged the religious rule-keepers by declaring “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). Jesus speaks of heterosexual divorce in Matthew 19. Jesus’ word resonate within that current culture, for Jesus only addresses men divorcing wives.

 

Our UMC Articles of Religion trust that those set apart for ministry are capable of discerning God’s will regarding whom they might marry. “The ministers of Christ are not commanded by God’s law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.” (Article XXI)  Why would we graciously trust pastors to discern the individual they might marry, while not trusting them to know if God created them as queer or straight? Or would we ban queer people from a life of committed covenant love?

A few selected Scriptures should not determine our theology. The so called “clobber passages,” do not stand as acceptable standards to exclude a whole category of people made in the image of God. The sins of Sodom, that created the slur “sodomite” involve gang rape and tribal hostility. (Genesis 19) Romans 1 names people burning with “shameful lusts” and “inappropriate sexual expressions.” Such passages do not describe committed same-sex relationships. Indeed, the contrasting values might be appropriate, committed, loving sexual expressions. First Corinthians 6:9 speaks of submissive and dominant sexual relationships, violating the notion of radical Christ-centered equality. First Timothy 1:10 speaks of  “male abusers of themselves or male perverts”.

 

So if the church allows queer persons to marry and answer God’s call, does that mean anything goes?  No, we believe all people are called to live out their sexual identities within the context of God’s graciously naming us as Children of God. The Golden Rule, the Great Commandment, or the Royal Law of loving neighbor as ourselves must guide our sexual activity. We must live within the context of God’s covenantal love. In Galatians Paul posits a radical redefinition of spiritual living apart from the received laws: ‘But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus…in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love… I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! For you were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 3-5) Paul then offers the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit as measures of relationship with God, ourselves, our partners and with others.  We are called to treat each other with decency, modesty, charity, honesty, and equality, never taking advantage of another and always offering mutual edification. We are called to modesty, humility, chastity, charity and self-control in singleness. We are called to monogamy, mutual edification, equality and fidelity inside of our marriage. We reject selfish, exploitive, manipulative, unequal, non-consensual, pornographic, lustful, dishonest, hedonistic, dishonoring, dominating, submissive, perverted, abusive, self-centered, greedy, casual, non-committal, hook-up, and other fallen expressions of our God-given sexuality. We are called to live as children of God, striving to keep every aspect of our relationships, including our sexual expressions, characterized by grace, generosity and agape love.

Finally, in regards to ordination we believe, “All Christian ministry is grounded in the covenant of baptism… which comes to us as a means of grace” (p301:1)  Indeed, “Calls- and the discernment and confirmation of (calls)- are gifts of the Holy Spirit.” (301:2) Ordination “is a gift from God to the church” (303.1)  Furthermore, “God’s call has many manifestations, and the Church cannot structure a single test of authenticity”. (304:1) As Children of God, we are saved and set apart by the grace of God. God called Saul of Tarsus, even though he was a religious terrorist before God changed Paul’s heart along the Damascus Road.  (Acts 9) God continues to enrich us through Psalm 51 despite King David’s considerable polygamy, murder and other types of sexual brokenness (2 Samuel 11; 15:6; 1 Kings 1:1-4). Ministry flows from God’s grace, not our human merit. If God can inspire David to write Psalm 51 and Paul to pen 1 Corinthians 13, God surely can use queer persons living inside committed and Christ-centered relationship to proclaim God’s gracious Good News, welcome all persons to God’s table, and baptize others as children of God.    

 

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