A close colleague of mine has refused to talk about Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church, saying that nothing good will come out of it. Apparently nothing good is coming out of the silence either…(http://firstname.lastname@example.org&l=460_HTML&u=4115304&mid=6206185&jb=13) It’s time to start talking.
For years now, I have sat back and listened to both sides of this argument and as 2016 comes closer and closer, it seems that we as a church may never actually have a conversation about the issue. Some are claiming there are “irreconcilable differences” but I’m not sure how you ever hope to reconcile a difference when you never talk about it. From our local churches to our General Conferences, sexuality has been a taboo topic. We have anticipated nothing but pain and unfiltered passion and for that reason time and again we have refused to address the issue. It’s time to start talking.
To Secede from the Union
Recently, some of our colleagues have suggested an amicable split. The primary argument seems to be that those who are performing same-sex marriages are breaking the rules and not being properly punished. Their reasoning is: if you’re not going to follow the rules, then I no longer want to play the game.
While I understand their frustration and I too believe that elders who knowingly and intentionally break our covenant should be prepared to hand over their orders, I do not believe that the solution is to tear the game board in half. If you don’t like the way the game is played, then it’s your job to figure out how to cause healthy change. And if you don’t think you’re up to the challenge of creating healthy change, then you have the freedom to leave the game, but you do not get to ruin the game for everyone else who has not yet given up!
In fact, calling for a division of the church runs contrary to our covenant and such persons are just as guilty of violating their orders as other offenders. The Discipline is a narrative of finding union in spite of disagreements. It is this union to which we have covenanted:
While it is true that United Methodists are fixed upon certain religious affirmations, grounded in the gospel and confirmed in their experience, they also recognize the right of Christians to disagree on matters such as forms of worship, structures of church government, modes of Baptism, or theological explorations. They believe such differences do not break the bond of fellowship that ties Christians together in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s familiar dictum was, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” (The Discipline ¶103, pg 54, 2012)
Christian unity is not an option; it is a gift to be received and expressed. United Methodists respond to the theological, biblical, and practical mandates for Christian unity by firmly committing ourselves to the cause of Christain unity at local, national, and world levels…Knowing the denominational loyality is always subsumed in our life in the church of Jesus Christ, we welcome and celebrate the rich experience of United Methodist leadership in church councils and consultations, in multilateral and bilateral dialogues, as well as in other forms of ecumenical convergence that have lead to the healing of churches and nations. (The Discipline ¶105, pg 88, 2012)
Whereas we seek to find healing among the nations, it seems ironic that we can find no healing within ourselves. If “denominational loyalty” is something that can be “subsumed” within our broader understanding of ecumenism, then a firm understanding of denominational unity must be assumed within our understanding of membership to the local church or conference. None of us has the right to call for division. We vowed that we would not. So it’s time to start talking.
A More Perfect Union
Some have argued that division is necessary in order to form a more perfect union. They believe we are hopelessly divided over even the most fundamental things such as scripture. And while I share in a frustration that we are not more seamlessly united, I do not believe that perfect agreement is even possible or advisable.
On the one hand we must consider to what extent we should be in agreement. Suppose we divide over the issue of same-sex unions. Should we then also divide over divorce? Some think it’s okay, while others believe it is not? Or what about interracial marriage? Or polygamy? I hear we have brothers in the Central Conferences who have multiple wives; when they come to Christ we do not ask them to leave their wives because that would be irresponsible and it would destroy the family. Applying that line of thinking, if someone is in a same-sex marriage before coming to Christ, then may we allow them to stay in that union after coming to Christ? I am not here advocating one solution over another. I am merely considering the challenge of finding agreement and pondering where the next division might occur.
On the other hand, we must also consider how a church that demands perfect agreement might survive and evangelize in a postmodern world that values holding competing truths in tension. Out of the gate some will discount the value of postmodernity and declare it impossible to evangelize in such an environment. They will want to press the absolute truth of the Gospel, though from the previous argument it seems that we cannot even agree on how broad that truth is. These people have given up on Paul’s missional mindset to go into the world of the Athenians to teach them about the “Unknown God.” Perfect agreement leads us to become insular and inward focused. For those who can embrace disagreements and dialogue with contradictions, they will find endless opportunities to evangelize. It’s time to start talking.
Counting the Cost
When I first heard the idea of division, I felt the bottom of my stomach fall out. Did anyone stop to think about the ramifications of such a decision? My father always taught me that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You can’t undo it and most times when the dust settles you realize the problem wasn’t as life-altering as it seemed. I think his advice holds true for our connection. Any division will be tantamount to suicide. There will be irreparable damage and we’re not even clear yet on the depth and breadth of the issue. I suspect we’re a lot closer than we allow ourselves to think.
However, if we pursue division, there will be consequences. In the context of the communities we serve, we will be labeled out-of-touch and incapable of adapting to the needs of our context. Young people and trendy leaders will cease to hear our voices since we will no longer appear to be living in their world. The least, the last, and the lost will not trust us to love them as we will appear to have minimum requirements for love. The hurting and the seeking will keep looking for safer places to land where they can openly and honestly ask questions about their faith without fear of judgment or exclusion. We will no longer be missional.
In the event of an amicable split, we will necessarily exercise reckless disregard for stewardship. Property, trust funds, endowments, pensions, boards and agencies, and all other assets will have to be divided. Legal documents will have to be rewritten and plans will have to be made to address our existing financial commitments to our missionaries and retirees. It will take years of time and millions of dollars. Property law will monopolize the time of our conference leaders. Cases will have to go to court for decision and appeal. Mistakes will be made and matters will need reviewed and re-reviewed. Worse yet, our mission will come to a standstill. We will be so inundated with the work of separation that we will no longer have time to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Funds that could have been used to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be spent on legal fees. Leaders who had committed their lives to telling people about Jesus will be burned out by the cost of division. And the next generation of Christ followers who we were entrusted to reach will fall to the wayside.
For the sake of the church, for the sake of the communities we serve, for Christ’s sake…it’s time to start talking.