Hi Dojo readers!
It has been a busy Summer and I have been travelling quite a bit, so I apologize for how long it’s taken for me to respond to Sam’s post. For those who are just joining us, my friend Sam (a United Methodist Pastor in the midwest with whom I have dialogued before on the issue of same-sex ethics) wrote to me a few weeks ago about an article I had written. You can catch up HERE if you missed it.
Sam is a graceful dialogue partner and despite our disagreements, I have much respect for him and I enjoy our exchanges because they give us a chance to model respectful, civil dialogue within the Church on very emotional and contentious issues such as the current societal shift in accepting LGBT relationships. This is nothing new, however. Our Methodist denomination has been studying, praying, and dialoging on this issue for over 40 years now. The result is the current statement in the Book of Discipline (the only official authoritative document representing UM theology and beliefs as a whole) that I personally believe to be the best balance of orthodox, Biblical faithfulness and sensitive, graceful acceptance of all people.
But not everyone agrees. For example, back in June at Annual Conference here in the Western North Carolina Conference, a prominent LGBT lobby group tried to pass a resolution to petition next year’s General Conference (the official decision making body of the UMC which meets every four years) to drop the clause in the Book of Discipline which affirms that the practice of same-sex sexual relationships “is incompatible with” a life of following Jesus. And while the group’s attempt at manipulating parliamentary procedure to force the petition through without dialogue (after they had just introduced a petition calling for more dialogue on the very same subject, ironically!) did not pass in the WNCC, similar petitions by this group in other more progressive conferences did pass. They were also successful in getting a number of their delegates chosen to represent the WNCC next year at General Conference where once again there will be calls for the UMC to go the route of the other mainline denominations and embrace LGBT sexual relationships as legitimate in the sight of God and to be blessed and celebrated by the church.
Likewise, and the thing that started this discussion with Sam, a few weeks prior to the above a millennial lesbian blogger who goes by the name “WildGooseGirl” wrote a powerful “break up letter” with the UMC because she felt excluded and hurt by the church’s New Testament sexual ethic. She speaks for a number of LGBT individuals and advocates within the UMC, including a number of extremely progressive Bishops and clergy members. Thus, I wrote an open response that attempted to clarify the Churchs’ position and communicate it with grace and truth.
It is this response that Sam wrote to me about in part 1 of this series. I am pasting parts of his initial post in bold along with my comments below…
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.
I agree that her LGBT orientation seems to be the lens through which she views her identity. There is perhaps no other subset within culture that identifies themselves by a particular desire or longing as strongly as the LGBT(QQ…) community. In part because of past stigmatization, abuse, and cultural isolation, many LGBT individuals have found among themselves a caring and accepting community to which they can finally feel that they fully belong. I believe this is a stinging indictment in many cases against the Church of Jesus–both doctrinally and in terms of hospitality.
Fortunately, there are strong Christian voices lately who have not only recognized this problem, but have also challenged the Church to do better. One of the most insightful I’ve come across since you and I last dialogued is Wesley Hill. If you have not read his reflections in “Washed and Waiting“, I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
I agree with you that the issue of who we are at the deepest and most defining level is immensely important, and it is probably the greatest challenge that the Gospel puts before every person who approaches the foot of the Cross.
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.
Again, I totally agree. There are essentials, and there are non-essentials. I believe the Apostles’/Nicean Creeds are a good starting point in terms of doctrine (thus I would place the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy, as well as the teachings of Joseph Smith, Oneness Pentacostals, and the Arianism of the Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of the historic Christian faith…as I would the non-Resurrection theology of many Mainline Protestants of the last two centuries such as Marcus Borg, Rudolf Bultmann, John Shelby Spong, and many of our current UM Bishops and Pastors). When it comes to the level of ethics, I believe the ethical conclusions various Christians come to spring from their prior and more foundational hermeneutical approach.
Thus, I believe someone can come to a wrong ethical conclusion, yet still be a genuine follower of Jesus who is simply in grave error–and who should be open to correction by the greater Body of Christ when he or she is so far out of step with an historic Christian ethic. But I say “grave error” because there are some ethical actions/behaviors which Scripture strongly declares able to negate someone’s claim to remain within the Kingdom, even if they genuinely believe they are right. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that they not let themselves be deceived in 1Corinthians 6 comes right on the heels of his discussion of the sexual ethic they were accepting (and even celebrating as a mark of being “spiritual”!) in their midst. Likewise, the warnings at the end of Jesus’ Revelation to John contain appeals to the ethical rather than mere doctrinal lest one be denied entry to the New Jerusalem.
This is why when it comes to the issue of affirming LGBT sexual relationships (I say “sexual relationships” to specifically denote the sexual/erotic rather than the loving/friendship aspects of interpersonal relationships), I can’t see any possibility of it being an “agree to disagree” issue on par with things like, say, Arminianism/Calvinism or the role of Women in Church Leadership or Infant/Believer Baptism.
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.
This is where I’m afraid I have to disagree. I think the most essential pastoral work one can do is help point any sinner away from their sin-as-my-identity mindset toward a Jesus-as-my-identity mindset. Many alcoholics, sex addicts, racists, co-dependents, depression-sufferers, etc. define themselves around those powerful (and sometimes innate) aspects of their behavior or psyche. We all self-identify in ways that are simply false. This is the whole “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world…but rather be transformed by renewal of the mind” thing that Paul wrote to the Roman Christians about comes in to play. Roman Christians self-identified as either Gentile or Jew…and thus Paul needed to point them beyond their self-chosen identities to the greater, deeper, and more foundational reality of their “in-Messiah” identity. He spends literally the entire book doing this.
So I do not believe that you, or I, or wildgoosegirl, or anyone else should be able to define ourselves in any way that we choose, no matter how much we desire to. Of course we can define our struggles and our journeys in unique and personal ways. But I don’t believe that is the same as defining our identities. At least not within a Gospel context.
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?
This is a good question, Sam. And even though it’s taken me a couple of months to respond, I have thought much about your comparison here. I would respond with two points.
Firstly, usury isn’t, to my knowledge, universally prohibited or condemned in Scripture. It is prohibited in Torah (i.e. Exodus’ Covenant Code in ch.22, etc.) between fellow Israelites–and in particular when it comes to an Israelite lending money to a poor fellow Israelite. It is not prohibited when it comes to lending commercially outside the Covenant community, however (Deuteronomy 23:19ff). Neither Torah nor Gospel ever really speak against usury in the realm of international commerce or finance…at least not that I’m aware of. If you know of such prohibitions, please share them with me as I am unaware of them. (Here are all the passages that speak to usury, and the prohibitions seem to be either among fellow Israelites or regarding exorbitant interest charging). So for that reason, I do not agree that usury is only spoken of negatively “with no counter-witness.” At least, it is nowhere universally condemned with remotely the same force as same-sex sexual relationships are condemned in both Testaments. It is simply prohibited between members of the Covenant community–which should, of course, shape how we as a church operate when it comes to things like wealth, poverty, and material needs to begin with (which could be a whole other topic for discussion altogether!).
Therefore, secondly, I would say that in terms of application, the banker who lends money and conducts finance within the secular sphere may not be automatically violating a genuine Christian ethic. I say “may” because many banks and financial institutions do indeed operate in ways that are unethical (I’m thinking of things like predatory lending, intentionally obscure terms, or dishonest “service charges”, etc. in particular), and they should be challenged strongly on this by the Church! Thus, an unethical banker who wished to join (or remain a member of) the Church would ultimately need to face the choice between continuing their unethical practice or following Jesus–much the same way Zacchaeus did. It would be absolutely wrong for the Church not to challenge them in this way, particularly if that church did challenge other types of sin (such as sexual sins) openly and unashamedly.
I think perhaps a better analogy to what you’re asking about would be the proper pastoral response to the owner of a predatory Payday Loan service or strip club owner within the congregation. How would we minister to them effectively and lovingly, yet in a way that did not condone or celebrate their sinful self-identity as such?
I suggest that it would all ultimately hinge on their response to the teaching that such practices are indeed sinful. If teaching the Biblical ethic regarding a practice they are personally heavily invested in is met with anger, frustration, or self-justification of the behavior in question, then it would hardly be pastorally responsible to draw back and change the Church’s ethical stance on the issue in order to be “inclusive.” However, if preaching the New Testament ethic to them resulted in a state of repentance, brokenness, and a genuine desire for change of heart and life, then the pastoral response would be markedly different–especially if it would entail dramatic life changes at a deep and perhaps painful level. Jesus promised his followers nothing less than painful self-sacrifice and perhaps even death.
But he also promised them it would be absolutely worth it.
Does that help answer your original question? I look forward to your thoughts in response.
Blessings from the Dojo, my friend.