Hi Dojo readers,
A few years ago, I hosted an 8-part dialogue here on the Dojo blog with my friend Sam–a UM Pastor in the midwest–on the issue of same-sex ethics and the church. If you missed that series, I wholeheartedly recommend reading it. It was an excellent and cordial discussion that I was grateful to participate in.
Here are the links:
What I appreciate most about our discussion was that it avoided the caustic rhetoric which so often characterize the discussion, both in popular culture and within mainline denominations like United Methodism (to which Sam and I both belong–he as clergy and I as laity).
I was fortunate to take part in such an exchange in person as well when earlier this year I represented the UM’s current position in a panel discussion here in NC at Davidson UMC.
If you have not seen the video of that event, here is the link. It is a 3-part video of the entire discussion:
Then at Annual Conference a couple of weeks ago, we in the Western North Carolina Conference voted to engage in more honest and open dialogue on the subject of sexual ethics and the changing cultural climate we now face. I voted in favor of such discussion and have sought to do this from a biblical theological perspective wherever I am invited to do so.
WNCC “in-house” sidenote: If those in our conference calling for more dialogue on the subject–such as the members of the LGBT advocacy group Reconciling Ministries network who, ironically, succeeded at our Annual Conference in blocking any and all conversation on the subject through parliamentary manipulation in an unsuccessful attempt to push through a vote for their particular petition–are genuine about wanting such dialogue, I welcome any and all opportunities to engage with you both publicly or in private.
It is crucial that the Church speak openly, honestly, candidly and with grace on the subject of sexual ethics, and LGBT ethics in particular. If our New Testament is to be believed, sexual ethics are so foundational that knowingly violating them–along with practicing many other forms of sin–is something said to keep someone from inheriting the Kingdom (see the warnings in 1Corinthians 6:9-11, Hebrews 13:4, and Jesus’ own words in Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21, and Revelation 21:8). We as a Church simply cannot afford to get this wrong.
All of this brings me to the current post.
A few weeks ago I wrote a response to a post by WildGooseGirl, a young millennial LGBT blogger who had written a “break up note” to the Methodist Church due to our denomination’s continuing to uphold the historic Christian teaching that same-sex sexual relationships are incompatible with a life of Christian discipleship. After it was posted, I received an email from Sam. It was gracious and thought-provoking (as he has always been to me!) so I wrote back asking if I could share it here with Dojo readers so that he and I could engage in another series of discussion posts modeling honest dialogue and respectful disagreement. He agreed, and it is our hope that once again we can sharpen one another and demonstrate what is so lacking within not just Methodism, but also in the wider politically-and-emotionally-charged popular culture.
Important Disclaimer – To be clear, this is a conversation about LGBT ethics within the Church. That is, this is about those who profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior, yet disagree about the nature and importance of sexual ethics, and same-sex sexual expressions in particular. This is NOT a discussion of LGBT civil rights, gay marriage, or the impact it has on religious freedoms. That is indeed a discussion worth having, and my friend (and UM Pastor in Mississippi) Owen Weddle and I have put forth a proposed solution to that seemingly impossible conflict…which I HIGHLY recommend everyone read and share with others! Here are the links for that series:
It is also not about “bigotry”…which I have addressed in this previous post here in the Dojo:
So without further ado, here is Sam’s email to me:
My brother in faith, my ethical conversation partner, my friend, how are you? I hope you are really well in this season of your life. We are something like three years past from the last time we talked online, if I remember right, and man how time flies! What’s new with you?
I’m writing now because I saw your post on Examiner about WildGooseGirl’s departure from the UMC, and I thought I had to pick your brain about this! I read her piece and it’s heartbreaking stuff. She is a powerful writer. You and I have heard a similar story many times, I am sure. And your response was at least as powerful: that the salvation of Jesus Christ defines her!
That is a wonderful point of entree into the heart of sexual identity, isn’t it? She writes that her self is defined at least in part by her sexuality. And what a tough-love pastoral response to make if we think that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with the faith: that she’s wrong about her self-identity. It’s not her sexuality that defines her, it’s simply Christ!
I think that you both are right in the senses that you intend to be right. I think WildGooseGirl is speaking at the level of personal identification and importance. It’s really a big part of her life that she’s queer; she says as much, and we really can’t argue with that. It’s a pretty big part of my life that I am straight–both exterior to me, insofar as society always seems really interested in whether we are gay or single or masculine-acting, etc., and interior to me. In other words she identifies as queer and simply states the fact that it means a lot to her and to the world.
Of course I think you are right at the level of faith identity–that in baptism we lose our less-important identities and put on the identity of Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). It really is the power of God’s love in Christ that frees us from lesser identifiers and fetters. You speak to that really well and it’s a message we need to hear.
So where is the point of contact between the two? Because again, both are right: sexual orientation, like gender, race, and economic status, really does matter in our lives. But on the other hand it doesn’t ultimately matter because God’s love is deeper than just those things. Our relationship to Christ is determinative and overshadows our contingent identities.
Maybe the point of contact is the conversation about relative importance. I remember in our conversation before we talked about what is necessary to hold and what is optional. Calvinist or Arminian emphases may or may not be fitting for the faith, and theologians debate that; zooming out, we might debate the relationship Catholics or Christian Scientists or Oneness Pentecostals have to whatever central orthodoxy we construe as essential. Coming from a UMC perspective, maybe we say that Calvinists and Arminians both are well within the theological circle; maybe Catholics too, Christian Scientists only in a qualified sense because of their denial of the Trinity and material world, etc (maybe we don’t, it’s a conversation). These are healthy discussions about what we construe as necessary, sufficient, fitting, or representative of the fullness of the Christian faith.
But again, the conversation has to be about the interpretation of Scripture in context. WildGooseGirl is telling us that her queerness is central to her identity, so in the context of response to that identification, you respond with a biblical interpretation centered the question of sexuality. I hesitate to adopt your stance but I understand the context in which you state it: she’s talking about sexuality, so you are too.
I wrestle with the question of the faith at a zoomed-out level. Both sides of the LGB debate in the UMC often come at the question context-less; “we need to say this or that about sexual minorities,” but in what context? In response to what? Sometimes conservatives say popular culture is determining that queerness is now suddenly OK, so we need to respond by more clearly responding to and disallowing same-sex weddings and lesbian/gay pastors. (I am not so sure popular culture is actually going that way, at least not in the Midwestern context.) On the other hand, LGBTQ people and allies sometimes make sexuality issues front and center when they don’t need to be; they come at some meetings or conversations context-less, and the mission of the church suffers.
My question for you, and for me too, is what the relative importance of LGBTQ issues is to the UMC and the church universal. In the context of a queer woman who feels marginalized by our church, I think it’s not-great pastoral work to tell her what her identity is. Her sexuality certainly defines her because she said so. Who are you, me, or anyone else to tell her otherwise? She must be able to define herself just as you and I can. But moving out of that context, when we are dealing with a church that is made up of straight and gay people, Jews and Greeks, slave and free people, etc., I really don’t know how always to frame the question.
For example I know a lot of usurers in the church, and that is a Scriptural moral witness with no counter-witness of which I’m aware. In the context of a Christian bank president who struggles with her role in an economy of unbiblical interest-charging, I would hope that a loving affirmation of her sacred worth and at the same time a firm interpretation of the Bible as opposed to her way of life could be meted out. I don’t know how to do that, pastorally and theologically, but I do hope that your good-faith attempt at pastoral theology with WildGooseGirl would work for the banker.
The question in any case is: Why do we care so much more about WildGooseGirl than a usurious banker? Why is one issue bandied louder in the church than the other? I really mean this as a genuine question to you, JM, and to myself as well. How do we assign the relative importance of biblical interpretations?
I hope we can have a conversation about this, if you like!
As always, yours in Christ,
I will respond in the next post in this series, so stay tuned…