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3 Theological Reasons the #UMC Should Reconsider its Stance on Same-Gender Relationships

essentialsThe debate we have been having for over 40 years as a church has been decidedly un-theological.  Below are three ways to enter this conversation that force us to think a bit more theologically, channels that deserve more attention than they usually get.  Here are three theological reasons the United Methodist Church Should Reconsider its stance on same-gender relationships.

3) Divorce

All churches, in formulating their teachings on marriage and sex, are faced with a variety of questions.  These are interrelated.  What you think about sex impacts what you think about marriage; what you think about marriage impacts your view of divorce; views about a host of other matters like abortion and contraception also must cohere within this web.

The fly in the ointment of conservative United Methodists who argue that it is impossible for the church to change its stance on same-gender relationships is divorce.  On one hand, we are told it is impossible for the church to “compromise” the clear teaching of Scripture about divorce, but in the other, we see evangelical leaders getting divorced and remarried with hardly the bat of an eye.

It makes no sense to threaten schism over same-gender relationships and remain almost silent on divorce.  We have come to see, as most Protestants now have, that divorce is sometimes a necessary option – not just in cases of adultery but particularly in situations of abuse or neglect – and that remarriage is often a blessing.  This is against the clear teaching of Matthew 19.  Why can we reinterpret (or ignore) Scripture here, and not elsewhere?  I do not agree with the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox on everything, but their practices vis-a-vis marriage, divorce, and same-gender relationships are coherent.  On the other hand, I’ve known many couples who have their second marriage to be a profound blessing.  If this is a possibility, despite Scripture’s teaching, might not there be room for a conversation about same-gender marriage?  (Note: we already let individual conferences make policies about divorce.)

It makes no sense to argue we cannot bend on sexuality while in practice being silent on divorce.  It is incoherent for our clergy who are in the closet to have to remain there when we say nothing to heterosexual clergy who are serially monogamous.

2) The Keys

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” -Matt. 16:19-20

If you have read my work elsewhere, you probably guessed that I take ecclesiology (the nature/study of the church) very seriously.  I believe this is because Scripture and tradition treat the church as an entity of utmost importance.

Jesus gave the church “the keys of the kingdom,” and promised to honor whatever the church bound and loosed. (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox differ over who precisely Peter represents here.) We see a clear example of this in Acts 15 over the question of dietary laws.  I’ve often thought that Acts 15:10, about “placing a yoke” on the neck of disciples that neither they nor their ancestors could themselves bear, applies to the UMC’s treatment of gay and lesbian persons.  To call people to lives of celibacy, without lifting that up as an honorable vocation and providing resources and community to make this a life-giving possibility, is indeed a heavy and unjust yoke.

The church has authority, given by Christ, to bind and to loose – to come together in prayer and humility – and discern these matters. We’ve been doing it since the earliest church.  God, amazingly, trusts us and honors our discernment.  On ecclesiological grounds, I believe that anything that is not core doctrine (say, what is contained in the historic creeds), is subject to the binding and loosing of the community.  “In non-essentials, liberty,” as the saying goes.

1) Holiness

Methodism is a holiness movement. Even the most cursory reading of  Wesleyan history shows that holiness is at the core of our mission and ethos.  This is perhaps the most neglected, most fruitful avenue for discussion in the long-simmering debate over same-gender relationships in the United Methodist Church.

In the church, marriage is not a right but a rite, not a ceremony but a vocation.  The best reason Christians marry is because they find a partner who will draw them nearer to the triune God.  If the whole of a Christians’ life is to be directed towards a greater love of God and neighbor, then the deepest purpose of marriage must align with this end.

United Methodists would do ourselves a favor if we took seriously the work of Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopal theologian of uncommon nuance.  His Sexuality and the Christian Body is a hefty read, but you can read more succinct versions of his work here and in this Christian Century piece. In the latter, he argues explicitly for a holiness view of marriage and suggests that we

…take marriage as an ascetic discipline, a particular way of practicing love of neighbor. The vows do this: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Those ascetic vows—which Russian theologians compare to the vows of monastics—commit the couple to carry forward the solidarity of God and God’s people. Marriage makes a school for virtue, where God prepares the couple for life with himself by binding them for life to each other.

Marriage, in this view, is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to their good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples do.

I am moved by this vision of marriage as “a school for virtue.”  Re-discovering this sense of marriage as a calling directed towards sanctification could do much to sanctify our own conversations within the United Methodist Church and beyond.  Let us not treat as a piece of paper what God has given as a gift and a vocation.

Conclusion

Too much of our denominational conversation devolves into categories imported from outside the church.  To be frank, there are better avenues for debate, three of which I have outlined above.

I long for us to argue better.  I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means.  How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.

So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content.  By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate.  We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.

I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church.  I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist.

To that end I shall continue to study, work, and pray.

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Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem

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Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos.  In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals.  Here’s why.

It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity.  The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela.  The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle.  There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress.  Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does.  She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that.  On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days)  is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.

Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards  LGBT persons.  In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel.  Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society.  But that is just a preview of what is to come.  Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life.  The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.

The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere.  They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians.  Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.

But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?

Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem.  They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour.  Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.

So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror.  They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.

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The Thin Line Between Marriage and Idolatry

by Drew 0 Comments
ImageWeddings and Idols…closer than you might think.

One of my favorite nuggets from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s brilliant little book For the Life of the World is the following:

“The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of ‘adjustment’ or ‘mental cruelty.’ It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God….the family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” (90)

Schmemann’s insight is stunning, and his accusation of idolatry is not too strong. The simple definition of idol is: anything that has more importance in our life than God. In that sense, based on an unduly childish notion of “love” (so-called) that is really more like an immature codependence, there are many married folk in our world who are attempting the impossible: building a lifelong relationship on the fleeting feelings that are no more eternal than a wedding cake. Real love is work, real love is a ministry, which is why marriage is not the final stage of “progression” in a relationship but a calling to be discerned and entered into (as the old liturgies go), “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.Ask any ordinand, or doctor, or plumber: following one’s calling is both a blessing and a curse, and all vocations (including marriage and singleness) are shot through with gifts as well as costs.

Marriage is about God. From a Christian perspective, the only good reason to be married is that you can follow God and mature more as a disciple by being united in a covenantal bond to this particular person than if you were not. Faithful marriage is a form of worship to God, but its inverse – marriage (or any relationship in which God is not central) as the summum bonum (“highest good”) imaginable in life – is a hideous idol.

There is a cross in marriage, because marriage is a gift from God and God’s gifts (as opposed to Hollywood mythology or sentimental fantasy) always call us away from our natural inclinations that we might be transformed into a nearer likeness of the Image of God. The good news is always cruciform, including the good news that God has called some to embody covenant fidelity with another human being. Ordered toward God, marriage is a beautiful, wondrous mystery. Oriented towards some smaller god good – making babies, or my own happiness, or a cure for mutual boredom and loneliness – marriage cannot be the gift it is intended to be.

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