The current social and political climate in America is increasingly polarized. Our culture one that is quick to differentiate between “us” and “them” however we may define those terms. There is a hesitancy, in most cases an outright refusal, to see where the other side may be right. In 2020 I believe that Republicans still have things to learn from Democrats and vice versa.
This attitude and mentality of polarization has infected the current debate over human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. Those on either side of the debate have a hard time finding any common ground for the other and settle with demonizing their every word: even those that might teach us something. What I’d like to encourage us to do today is set aside our strong political, social, ethical, theological, doctrinal beliefs and take a moment to consider what the other side might teach us. Regardless of where United Methodists land in the current debate I am utterly convinced that the other side is saying something that we need to hear and my fear is that we are too polarized to take the time to hear it. So take a moment, set aside your preconceptions and assumptions of motive, and let us pray together that God would give us eyes to see and ears to hear what the other side might teach us.
*As a side-note, I recognize that there are more than two positions in the UMC but for the sake of conciseness I will keep our conversation to the two main camps: traditionalist and progressive.
I believe it’s disingenuous not to admit one’s own bias so I want to make clear from the start that this is where I fall theologically if you didn’t know that already. Traditionalists are strong advocates for the authority of scripture and hold to the traditional views of not only the UMC but the vast majority of the Church catholic throughout history that marriage, properly defined, is between one man and one woman. We affirm that all persons are persons of sacred worth, loved by God, who God desires to welcome into his family. However, we also view the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Traditionalists in the UMC have clarified the language of our denominational Discipline for decades to affirm again and again this traditional Christian stance. We hold firm to the witness of scripture and wonder how our brothers and sisters on the progressive side of the debate could so easily cast aside the clear teaching of the Word of God.
First, I would say that they have not strayed from what we consider traditional teaching lightly. Progressive United Methodists view the issue of human sexuality as one of social justice. They view the traditional stance of the church as harmful to those in the LGBTQ+ community and believe that the hurtful stance we maintain is not of God and that to advocate for full inclusion of persons in the LGBTQ+ community is to uphold their baptismal vows as United Methodists to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Progressive United Methodists are not coming from a place of nefarious intention.
While traditionalists disagree with the theology of progressives we must admit that they raise valid concerns. The church has historically done a poor job of welcoming persons in the LGBTQ+ community. It is also valid to cite the suicide rate of those in the LGBTQ+ community which is far higher than the general population. I believe we need to hold to a high view of scripture and a traditional Wesleyan/Methodist theology but we must confess that we are far from perfect. As we move forward into whatever the UMC will become (likely multiple, separate expressions) those of us in the traditional camp must wrestle with how we can be a convictional church that is also welcoming and compassionate to all persons regardless of their sexuality or anything else that may set a person apart. We serve a God who loves us where we are but too much to leave us there as the saying goes. We must work towards being a church that invites all into the family of God, into the universal holy love of God, while simultaneously calling all who profess faith in Christ to a high standard of moral integrity and Christian living. By the way, I’m not only talking about sexuality: we are a holiness movement! Christian holiness is not relegated to ones sexual preference but to all aspects of our daily lives. We must be careful not to highlight one sin as greater than another but instead to call all Christians to seize the power of the Holy Spirit to resist sin and temptation and conform our lives more and more to the example of Christ. Here’s a great article I came across recently that I think traditionalists should take time to consider.
The problem with the labels ascribed to the different sides in this debate is that they represent a variety of persons. This is especially true among progressives. I know some who are progressive only on the issue of human sexuality and are otherwise as orthodox as they come. I know others who don’t believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, or that Jesus is the only way. And lots of folks fall somewhere in between.
Progressive arguments on the issue of human sexuality come from places of deep compassion, solidarity, and a commitment to justice. I have enormous respect for their desire to care for and love all persons and welcome all into God’s family. While we may disagree theologically as well as practically (how we go about addressing these concerns) I like to think that I have learned much from my progressive brothers and sisters.
I would encourage progressives, once the dust of The Protocol settles, to consider what they might hear/learn from traditionalists. The main question I would encourage you to ask is: what are your theological non-negotiables? Obviously we are looking at a separation between traditionalists and progressives because of theological non-negotiables. But as I said earlier, there is a great degree of latitude within the progressive side on a number of other issues. What sort of church are you looking to build? A church that is pretty well orthodox and evangelical apart from the issue of sexuality? Do you still require belief, as a denomination, that Jesus Christ is the way? Do you believe in the virgin birth? What is the role of the Holy Spirit? Did Jesus rise from the dead? What is the role of scripture in forming your thoughts and theology? As part of the Methodist movement will you promote scriptural holiness and hold one another to accountable to a holy standard of living? What are your requirements for membership?
This is by no means an exhaustive list but just a taste of some of the questions that will have to be resolved in the Post Separation UMC. And hear me when I say, this isn’t just some hypothetical slippery slope. This is the reality that every other mainline denomination that has moved towards a progressive view of human sexuality is now living in, to one degree or another. Please decide sooner rather than later what you consider sacred and what your theological non-negotiables are. And when the dust settles, be ready to defend them.
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