Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sexual ethics and the pro-LGBTQ argument within the United Methodist Church

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is less than forty days away, so the online chatter about hot-button issues is reaching a fever pitch. Predictably, it is the issue of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people that gets the most press. While I would argue that it is not the most important issue facing the United Methodist Church (the church lost nearly 5% of its worshipping membership between 2012 and 2014, the most recent statistics available), the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is certainly important. For what it is worth, I am on record as an advocate for full inclusion.

I am hesitant to contribute to the chatter, as I think these matters are best discussed face-to-face and within the context of relationships in the local church and the annual conference. That said, as I have been called out, in a way, I feel it necessary to respond.

By way of context, The Methodist Federation for Social Action, a liberal caucus group within the United Methodist Church, posted a brief blog post by an anonymous clergy person in which the author says this:
"It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules."
While I am sympathetic to much of MFSA's organizing on behalf of those on the margins (including those who identify as LGBTQ), I find this article to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, which is far different than being prophetic. I'm in favor of universal birth control access--the thrust of the article--but as UMC clergy, we already have this access. Advocating for those who don't have this access is a worthwhile goal, but I fail to see how a clergy person's public rebuke of the UMC's sexual ethic helps that cause. This seems like an argument crafted to stir the pot rather than bridge divides. As I noted in a tweet, if accepting this kind of argument is what it means progressive, I don't know what that makes me (more on this in a minute).

Talbot Davis, pastor of Good Shepherd Church, a United Methodist congregation, agrees with me about the misguidedness of the MSFA blog post, but he takes the argument several steps further than I am willing to go--or that I find appropriate. (Davis and I are friendly; we hope to find time to get together at the Southeastern Jurisdictional conference this July where we are both delegates. I should note that I have great respect for him.) Davis argues in Ministry Matters that the MFSA post, and comments associated with it, prove that those who favor changing the United Methodist Book of Discipline to include full inclusion of LGBTQ people are "dismantling the entire sexual ethic that has helped define the Christian faith for two millennia," leading to "sexual anarchy." That Davis, an opponent of full inclusion of LGBTQ people, would believe these things is hardly surprising. But he does not stop there. Davis continues:
If you are a United Methodist centrist and are heading to Portland still undecided in how you will vote on the Conference-defining issue, please remember: a “change the language” vote unleashes a generation of clergy who have so rewritten our sexual ethic that it will not be in any meaningful sense Christian.
In essence, his argument is this: those who favor full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the United Methodist Church are unleashing an "anything goes" sexual ethic. What is more, he says--does not suggest, but says!--that those who what to change the Discipline's definition of marriage likewise want to do away with the stigma against premarital sex. To be blunt: the argument that those of us who argue for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church have no integrity on sexual matters is an argument so full of wet straw that it practically self-combusts.

1. To suggest that MSFA is equivalent to being "progressive," and that "progressives" must buy into what MSFA says hook, line, and sinker, is similar to saying that "conservatives" must accept the hateful nonsense of the Westboro Baptist Church. Of course these two entities are not equivalent, and of course the WBC doesn't speak for conservatives. But why do I have to accept the rhetoric of an organization of which I am not a part, simply because I identify, in some settings, as "progressive?"

2. The lines we draw between "conservative" and "progressive" theology are not as clear as Davis describes. Let me use my own life and ministry as an example. I have been known to talk about my theology as "progressive" as it relates to the issue of full inclusion, but that is simply because that one issue seems to be the dividing line for us. To be honest, my theology is a mixture of conservative and liberal, but (with the exception of full inclusion), you'd be hard pressed to argue I'm not a classical Wesleyan evangelical. I believe in the literal resurrection. I believe in the virgin birth. I believe in the primacy of scripture. I place a high value on conversion. I believe that the business of being the Church is the most important thing in the whole world. I believe the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and lives of believers. I believe Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. I believe sex is sacred, and that marriage is the only relationship strong enough to stand up to its power. I could go on.

3. The classic division of "conservative" and "progressive" political ideology, beyond the LGBTQ matter, does not mirror "conservative" and "progressive" theological divisions.  For instance, in my own annual conference, considered one of the most conservative in the United States, it is not unusual to see resolutions related to immigration reform pass easily, supporting ministry with and the legitimacy of those who are undocumented.

4. I am not unique in my theological perspective. Many (if not most!) of my colleagues who identify as "progressive" are similarly classically Wesleyan evangelical. We have just been convicted of the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships and want LGBTQ people to be able to enter into that marriage covenant. I maintain that this is, in fact, a conservative argument. It is also no longer a fringe position. We sometimes paint clergy who advocate for full inclusion with the broad brush of "radical;" in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, these clergy are often exclusively appointed to liberal churches. I've been called worse things than "radical," but whether you agree with this argument or not, I maintain that this theological bent is well within the mainstream.

5. Our conviction related to the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships is not, as Davis suggests, a result of "The church of me and now [trumping] the faith of we and history." I will, again, speak for myself here, but my conviction comes from hours of study of scripture, of the doctrines of the church, of science. It comes from conversation and communal discernment. It also comes from hours and hours of prayer.

6. In other words, when Davis says:

"Once you become more enlightened than the authors of Scripture when it comes to same-sex intercourse, then you are inevitably more enlightened when it comes to premarital sexual intercourse as well,"
he is making a claim that simply is not true. Beyond my own rejection of the claim that I am pretending to be "more enlightened than the authors of Scripture," let me be clear. I believe in the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships, and I believe in the legitimacy of marriage for straight and LGBTQ people alike. I also hold traditional views on premarital sexual intercourse and on the primacy of scripture. In fact, I believe my position decreases the frequency of premarital sexual intercourse by opening the institution of marriage, a holy covenant, to more people. Davis's "inevitably" simply does not hold up to reality.

In summary, to suggest that those "centrists" among us who believe in--or are beginning to support--the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships are somehow opening the pandora's box of sexual libertinism is neither factual nor fair.

I don't mind being disagreed with. I do mind being misrepresented. As we chatter before--and during--General Conference, let's be people of grace and truth.


  1. What will be the "new" definition of "marriage"? I have yet to see a proposed new definition that includes "same sex"/LGBT.