On January 5th and 6th I participated in two General Conference listening sessions in my Annual Conference. We heard various and diverse opinions on people’s hopes for the upcoming special General Conference of the United Methodist church, which is slated for February 23-26 in St. Louis. I was one of about a couple dozen people over the course of two sessions to give 3 minutes speeches to the entire body after a time of small-group round-table discussions with various delegates.
Throughout both sessions some expressed their desire to see the church change to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. More than once the denomination’s current official position in the Book of Discipline, which in a nut shell is that sex is for marriage and marriage is only between one man and one woman, was condemned as being discriminatory and hurtful to the LGBTQ community. More than one person speaking for progressive change insisted that since being gay is not a choice then it is wrong to not bless same-sex unions. There were several implicit comparisons—one very explicit—between sexual orientation and race. At least one speaker spoke of a scientific consensus along those lines with regards to sexual orientation.
More than one speaker on behalf of the progressive view also condemned the traditional view as harmful and even deadly. That is, that the traditional Christian view is actually causing people to kill themselves. A mother of a gay son, who took his own life, actually spoke to that point. It is incredibly heart-wrenching to even think about. I can imagine how emotionally devastating it would be to lose a child like that.
Other progressive speakers used the issues of the church’s evolution on the issue of slavery and ordaining women as analogies for how we should also think differently about the Biblical passages that prohibit homosexual behavior. More than one progressive speaker admitted that Bible is clear on the issue, but they just don’t think those verses apply anymore in light of modern knowledge and experience. One woman said: “We know what Leviticus and Paul said, but we should interpret those passages as we interpret the passages on slavery” (i.e. as no longer relevant today). One basically said, the Bible is a flawed book written by flawed men who gave their opinions about the will of God at the time, but they were wrong. Another gentleman used the argument that since Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything about it then it must be okay, and it doesn’t really matter what Leviticus or Paul say.
There really wasn’t anything in these arguments that I haven’t heard before. All of these comparisons and assertions are dubious at best, and one assertion is pretty insidious and sinister really. The race comparison is just false, as is the idea that there is a scientific consensus behind such an analogy. Consider the American Psychological Association on the cause of sexual orientation:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
That is a far cry from being just like race or eye color, which is another comparison I’ve heard quite frequently. I’m not saying that the APA supports the traditional Christian view; they certainly don’t. The APA, as with almost all of secular society, believes that all consensual sex between adults married or not is perfectly normal and healthy, and most of the APA, based on the ideology of their predecessors like Alfred Kinsey, would likely believe that it is sexual repression, not expression, that is unnatural and unhealthy. Their conclusions and advice are based on a particular set of philosophical presuppositions and a worldview that is quite different from the traditional Christian worldview. And these secular philosophical presuppositions are too often asserted as scientific fact. The truth is some just believe that people should be able to have consensual sex with whomever and however they want without any negative judgment. It’s no secret that people with this ideology often have tremendous contempt and disdain for the traditional Christian view, which they see as backwards and repressive. This is the dominant view we encounter almost exclusively in pop culture and secular media and entertainment.
Nonetheless, as the LGBTQ+ acronym itself suggests other types of sexual attraction/desire and orientation are more appropriate analogies. For example, a few weeks ago a United Methodist shared a video from a site called “Queer Theology” promoting the acceptance of polyamorous people (people who desire to be in multiple sexual relationships simultaneously) like him. In the video a young man talks about his polyamorous (possibly bi-sexual?) orientation and how he thinks the Biblical metaphor of the Church being the bride of Christ justifies those types of relationships (i.e. because, he said, Jesus is in intimate relationships with multiple people at the same time). Other progressives have also followed the logic to these other expressions of sexual desire to condone and bless any expression of consensual sex with marriage only being optional. As a matter of fact, one plan being put forward to the special General Conference called “The Simple Plan,” would remove restrictions regarding sex outside of marriage altogether from what I understand.
From the traditional Christian worldview, however, we believe that sin corrupts and distorts our God-given desires and enslaves us apart from God’s grace to those desires. Think about the way Paul describes a person enslaved to sin in the flesh apart from the power of the Spirit in Romans 7. The person thus bound, even when he knows better, cannot not sin. A person in the flesh, apart from grace, has no choice, but is left asking, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). Of course the answer comes in the next verse and the next chapter: “God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25). In chapter eight Paul describes the new life and freedom we have through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Whereas in the flesh bound by sin, we cannot submit to God’s law because we will not; in the Spirit we are freed from the power of our corrupted desires for joyful obedience to the will of God! (Rom 8:1-17). This is true for all of us no matter how our corrupted desires manifest themselves in our lives sexually or otherwise.
And of course this does not mean our desires will be completely transformed on this side of the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. In this life we will still have to deny the fulfillment of our sinful desires and put them to death by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:12-13; also Col 3:5ff). As Jesus said, we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily to follow him (Luke 9:23). And, of course, we will need to be plenteous in mercy and forbearance with one another in the struggle together.
As far as the slavery comparison goes, that is also a bad analogy. Even some of the best liberal scholars admit that the Bible is clear and unequivocal in it’s unconditional prohibition of homosexual practice. The regulations even under the old covenant for Israel were designed to be a system of mercy for the destitute, as hard as that might be for us to imagine. And even within the old covenant regulations of slavery there was already a quick trajectory toward freedom every seven years and in the year of Jubilee. It was not a system based on race and lifelong chattel slavery as developed in colonial and Antebellum America. And there is nothing to suggest that the Biblical model of slavery was to be required to continue to exist in every time and place. Again this is not a good analogy, and it would be better to look at the trajectory of sexual morality in the Bible with regards to …. sexual ethics. As the Sermon on the Mount makes clear, the trajectory was not toward a more liberal sexual ethic. A similar argument can be made for women in ministry as there is already precedent for woman exercising prophetic ministry and leadership even in the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament. At least these two issues are not straightforward and unequivocal in the same way that the prohibitions against homosexual behavior are.
As for the charge that the conservative Christian view is actually causing harm and even death, I can say that the disproportionate rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies, among other problems, in the LGBTQ community is concerning and heart-wrenching. Any time someone takes his or her own life it is incredibly alarming and sad. A teenage boy in my kid’s high school took his own life last week. He left a note saying in part at least it was because his girlfriend broke up with him. I’m sure he was troubled in many ways. It is heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine what his former girlfriend is going through as a result.
There’s a movie called “Prayers for Bobby,” starring Sigourney Weaver, who plays a conservative Christian mother who became an LGBTQ advocate after her gay son, Bobby, took his own life. The movie portrays Bobby’s depression and suicidal tendencies as resulting from the rejection he experienced from his conservative Christian mother and his church. But even in the movie it shows that Bobby finally took his own life after being distressed by seeing his boyfriend flirting with another man. To try to lay the blame primarily at the feet of the conservative Christian community is incredibly manipulative and really quite insidious. It is a lot more complicated than that.
Is the message to traditional Christians that you must give up your convictions and accept the progressive view or you are responsible for people’s deaths? This will only lead to more anti-Christian sentiment and more legal maneuvering to suppress the expression of traditional Christian views in society. But will this really lessen the disproportionate rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies in the LGBTQ community? There is evidence to suggest it will not.
This is not, however, to suggest that it is okay for parents or churches to completely reject and disown their children for any reason, whether they come out as bi-sexual, polyamorous, gay, or as just refusing to be celibate outside of marriage as a strict heterosexual. My children may disown me, but, by the grace of God, I’ll never disown them, but that does not mean I’ll agree with everything they believe and do.
At our listening sessions, nevertheless, every progressive speaker who expressed condemnation of the traditional view in the terms described above, also expressed support for the “One Church” Plan, which purports to make room for both progressive and traditionalist views in the same denomination. It’s really hard to understand how people who believe the traditional view is so harmful would be content with being affiliated with people who still promote it. The One Church Plan does actually liberalize the definition of marriage and only allows for slender exemptions for the traditionalist conscience. It will also quickly bring about the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the United States by delegating that decision to the Annual Conference clergy sessions, where only ordained elders and deacons will have a say (with the exception of a few lay people and local pastors who happen to be on the Board of Ordained Ministry).
The part of conscience that the One Church Plan does not protect is conscience in terms of affiliation. Progressives show they understand the importance of this when they make motions to divest clergy pension funds from companies that do business with the state of Israel, for example. And by not allowing for a gracious exit, the One Church Plan allows local church property and assets to be used as leverage to create a fellowship of the coerced rather than the committed, as some have put it. I think it is clear that most progressives support the One Church Plan because it gives them the upper hand to maintain control of the denomination in the U.S. The exemptions they give traditionalists now can be taken away later (consider how the Episcopal Church has recently revoked exemptions originally given to conservatives when they first officially liberalized their polity; the Presiding Bishop has recently brought sanctions against the Bishop of Albany). Progressive United Methodists will not be content to allow space for what they see as grave injustice for long. Is the One Church Plan really a recipe for “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3)?
When it was my turn to speak at the listening sessions in my Annual Conference this is what I said:
I speak today on behalf of the modified traditional plan; I believe it is the only plan that will allow for unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In John 17 Jesus prays that his disciples may be one (vv. 11 &22); he also prays that they will be sanctified or made holy according to the truth of God’s word (v. 17). We do not have unity because we do not have a shared vision of holiness and truth.
The argument is really not about whether Scripture identifies all forms of homosexual practice as sin. Liberal Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says, progressives should be honest that they are in fact “rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture” in light of the authority of modern experience. Walter Brueggemann argues that the revelation of Jesus shows that the prohibitions against homosexual behavior were just wrong. Our own Adam Hamilton makes a similar argument by saying that some Scripture was never inspired of God. Yet according to Matthew 5 Jesus said:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)
I pray for unity, but not a unity based on what is at least a partial rejection of the authority of the moral law in Scripture. This is not in harmony with the teaching of Jesus or our own doctrinal standards that express the sufficiency of Scripture (Article 5) and the ongoing authority of the moral law (Article 6), which was an essential for John Wesley. Jesus, in John 14:15, says, “if you love me you will keep my commandments.”
Without a shared vision of holiness and truth we cannot have unity. The “One Church” plan will not bring peace; it will prolong infighting and intensify it by localizing it to the Annual Conference and local church. The traditional plan allows for the possibility of unity around a shared vision of holiness and truth; it also allows for amicable separation for those who have contradictory and competing visions.
The call to maintain the unity of the Spirit in Ephesians 4:3 must be understood in light of what Paul says a few verses later about the goal of building up of the body of Christ. The goal is to work
until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,.. (Eph 4:13-15 NRSV).
 Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” Commonweal Magazine, 6/11/2007, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0. accessed 1/3/2019.
 Marlena Graves, “It’s Not a Matter of Obeying the Bible: 8 Questions for Walter Brueggemann,” On Faith, https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2015/01/09/walter-brueggemann-church-gospel-bible/35739. accessed 1/3/2019.
Below you’ll also find a link to a video where I recently discussed the plans that the special General Conference will be presented and explain why I disagree with some of the most common reasons given for changing the official position of the UMC. It may be useful in having conversations in churches from a conservative perspective.