The events of General Conference and the aftermath have been painful. Some, like me, are thankful for the outcome, that the historic and what we believe to be the Biblically faithful position has again been reaffirmed. The thin margin between opposing sides reveals the depth of the division though. Many, many people are deeply saddened, disappointed, frustrated, and extremely angry. I can understand that. I can’t say I haven’t felt that way when things haven’t gone the way I thought they should. I take no pleasure in the angst and pain of others. This General Conference has been revelatory in many ways.
One clergy colleague said, this General Conference has revealed that the denomination is “a nasty, mean rat bastard.” While I do not appreciate the language, and do not agree, I do appreciate the honesty. Emotions are running high, of course, but we do need to be completely honest about the nature of our differences.
In response to another conservative colleague’s statement affirming the traditional position, but also insisting that all people are still welcome in the church, a progressive clergy colleague said it was nothing but a hurtful and hateful statement. She insisted that unless she as a gay person is accepted completely, including the goodness of her sexual behavior, then it is just a message of hate. I disagree, but I appreciate the honesty. Other pastors who have tried to present what they see as more moderate and balanced messages have been severely rebuked for making excuses for great, even grave, harm done to the LGBTQIA+ community.
This type of rhetoric didn’t just start. Long before General Conference 2019, promoters of the liberal One Church Plan and the more progressive Simple Plan said similar things. They insist that the church needs to change to be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people because the traditional position is doing harm, greatly and even gravely. As I shared before, these kinds of statements were made repeatedly at two listening sessions in my own conference in early January (See my reflections HERE). During the General Conference and after, that refrain has only grown louder, stronger, and more explicit. Progressives and Centrists clearly believe the traditional position of the church is doing great harm; that it is egregiously unjust, even evil. Many American bishops have themselves repeated this refrain.
Bishop Will Willimon, a One Church Plan supporter, basically framed General Conference as a battle between the pure-hearted, pious progressives and centrists, and the conniving and calculating conservatives. One Church Plan supporters like him, many American bishops among them, were calling “for generosity and openness from the podium, [while] Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals,” he said. I’m not sure if Bishop Willimon is subtly alluding to the false rumors that were being spread that Africans were bribed by American conservatives to vote their way, but it could be taken that way. Bishop Willimon does appear to double down on the idea at the heart of the One Church plan that the church should be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, but the enlightened Western liberal elite just need to provide a measure of tolerance for conservatives until they eventually come around. His disdain and contempt for supporters of the conservative position was thinly veiled (See article HERE).
The disgust, disdain, and contempt of others, like Bishop Bruce Ough, was not really veiled at all. He seemed quite comfortable framing it as a clear-cut case of good verses evil, the traditional position of course being on the latter side and doing great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. For Bishop Ough conservatives are “the problem.” He also doubles down on not allowing churches to exit the denomination with their property for conscience sake. (See his video HERE).
Bishop Ken Carter was more diplomatic, but not entirely coherent. He reiterated the refrain that the church has done great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. He also expressed appreciation for the passionate faith of conservative evangelical United Methodists. And he also doubled down on the idea that remaining together in the same church together despite these deep differences are what it means to be the body of Christ. He is quoted as saying, “We are a church that includes people with different visions of the kingdom of God,” and “I believe that’s the body of Christ” (See article HERE).
I agree with Bishop Carter; we do have different visions of the kingdom of God. But I do not agree that is what it means to be the body of Christ. Unity at all costs, no matter how serious the contradictory and competing views are, is not a recipe for unity at all. We need at least a reasonably similar and complimentary vision of the kingdom if we are going to have unity. It appears that what Bishop Carter perceives to be theological diversity is his highest priority. But I think it is the very attitude of doctrinal indifference that John Wesley called confusion and a curse as he alluded to Ephesians 4:13-14 (See the oft misquoted Sermon 39 Catholic Spirit).
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. ~ Eph 4:13-14 ESV
Exaggerating our differences is wrong; downplaying our differences is wrong too. Both cloud the truth. General Conference and the aftermath has revealed just how stark the differences are. I’m not saying there aren’t sincere people on both sides, and truly in the middle trying to figure things out. But the truth is for a great many on the progressive/centrist side, this is a matter of grave injustice and hate. I know if they sincerely believe that, they cannot help but to fight tooth and nail to keep people from expressing views they find hateful and harmful, and trying to convert people to their vision of the kingdom. But that’s also why conservatives were not buying the assurances given in the One Church Plan. Bishop Ough again reiterated that the One Church Plan was imperfect but a stepping stone to a church of perfect inclusiveness, which would inevitably exclude the expression of traditional beliefs. Richard John Neuhaus put it this way:
Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.
Yesterday a progressive leaning colleague, whom I don’t really know, messaged me and graciously asked what I would say to the LGBTQIA+ people. Here’s a slightly edited version of my response (edited for my fumbling thumbs mainly).
I have offered clear and specific teaching and guidance to my congregations for years, not only on this issue, but on the traditional Christian position on sexual morality in general. I have never talked about it in a way that singles out any particular class for special condemnation or for special exemptions. I have had members from all walks of life, who struggle with many different kinds of temptation. I have had church members who have disagreed, but we listened to each other very closely. Some have shifted to my viewpoint; others still aren’t sure, but they know they are much more informed.
What I would say today to anyone who is LGBTQIA+ is that God loves you and I love you. You are created in the image of God, but as with us all, that image has been distorted by sin. Sin corrupts our desires and makes us want and want to do things that are not good. The power of sin enslaves us all beyond our own ability to choose otherwise apart from grace. But grace by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can set us free through forgiveness and transformation. Transformation, however won’t be consummated in this life; it will be consummated in the new heaven and earth (see Rom 5-8).
In the meantime we will all have to struggle together against powerful temptations and forces that will seek our conformity to the ways and corrupted desires of a fallen world (see 1 John 2:15-17). Whether it be pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth, we all have to be on guard against the devices of the enemy. The grace of God in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit makes salvation possible, but not easy. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and enter into a life of self-denial to follow Jesus on the hard path that leads to life. Christian faith is not just measured by what we gain, but also by what we are willing to lose and give up. There is a serious cost to discipleship, but not to be compared to the glory of the New Creation. Christ calls us to die to our old way of life corrupted by sin to be people of the New Creation. The New Creation is not something we are called to create ourselves, but a reality that has been created for us to enter into by the grace of God through faith in Christ.
“Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'” ~ Matt 16:24-25 ESV
There are many people from the LGBTQIA+ community who have accepted that kind of invitation. One is my friend Angy, who was same-sex attracted and acting on those desires. She says she realized that it wasn’t really preachers like me who were condemning her. She says she came to believe it was actually those who were affirming her in sin who were condemning her. She has been outspoken to share her testimony, but the voices of people like her are not provided with the same platform.
For some the message I shared above is pure hate; for others, like my friend, Angy, it is genuine love. That is the contrast that is at the heart of our dilemma and lack of unity in the United Methodist Church. The truth is we are not in the dilemma we are in because we have talked about this too much; the truth is we have not talked about it openly, specifically, and honestly enough.
We do have different visions of the kingdom of God, very different visions. The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed requires repentance and self-denial on the part of everyone, no special condemnation, no special exemptions. The grace of God makes it all possible; and we all need it.