The 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.
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.
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.
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.