Reaffirming the United Methodist view on marriage and sexuality

Commentary by Rob Renfroe

United Methodists have reaffirmed 2000 years of Christian teaching regarding sexuality. This is the same view held by the most rapidly growing parts of the church today. And it is the only view that will hold The United Methodist Church together.

Our view on sexuality is a compassionate, biblical, and beautifully nuanced statement. It affirms the worth of every person, declares sexuality to be a gracious gift of God, protects the rights of those who might be mistreated because of their sexuality, and states what the Bible affirms – not all sexual practices, heterosexual or homosexual, are acceptable in the sight of God.

Unfortunately, this view doesn’t fare well in an overly-sexualized, decadent Western culture which prizes individual happiness and cares little for biblical holiness. Our society teaches us from the youngest of ages that sex is our right, that an active sex life is essential for being a whole and healthy person, and that the Bible is unable to speak to our modern way of life.

It concerns me little that our fallen culture teaches such things. It concerns me greatly, that when the church teaches differently, it is called homophobic, spiritually violent, and dishonest – even by some of my fellow United Methodists.

We are a divided church regarding the practice of homosexuality. We are not divided in acknowledging that many people are hurting because of our reaffirmation of the historic position. We are not divided in caring for our brothers and sisters who have been hurt. We all care and we all care deeply. No one in the UM Church takes any pleasure in the pain of others whether or not they agree with our views.

That’s why those of us who represent the part of the church that holds the traditional view were glad to tell our bishops and the agenda committee that we saw no need to vote on other petitions regarding sexuality after the first votes were taken. We were happy to move those issues to the end of the agenda, knowing that they would not be addressed because we felt no need to increase the pain that our brothers and sisters were experiencing.

But we are divided. And we are divided about the Scriptures. Some who want to change the church’s view regarding sexuality simply read the Bible differently than we do. Others believe the Bible teaches that the practice of homosexuality is not acceptable in the sight of God, but they believe that the Scriptures were so conditioned by the culture of their human authors that they no longer apply authoritatively to our time.

We are divided. Then, some ask, why not acknowledge that in the Book of Discipline? Well, for several reasons.

The first is consistency. We United Methodists disagree on practically everything. We disagree on abortion. Some want a more restrictive position. Others want a position that leans more toward a woman’s right to choose for any reason. But we have landed on a position and we do not begin it with the statement that people of good faith can differ on abortion.

We are divided on collective bargaining, consumption, civil disobedience, universal government-provided health care, and the death penalty. But in none of those instances do we feel it necessary to detail the majority and minority views and end up suggesting that we really aren’t sure what we believe.

Those who want us “to be honest” and admit our differences regarding homosexuality have not called for us to acknowledge how divided we are on any of these issues.

A second reason for refusing to put into the BOD a statement that there is a majority and a minority view is because the framing of our differences this way is  “Western-centric.” There has not been a “minority” view until modern and post-modern times and even in the 21st century there is no real minority opinion outside the United States and Europe. The United States is not the center of the secular or the Christian world. The fact that there is a minority view in the United States does not mean that it should be detailed and defended in the book that holds together a global church.

The epicenter of Christianity is now far to the south and to the east of The United States. Not only does the average Christian not look like middle-class white Americans, the average Christian does not think like middle-class white Americans. The average world Christian does not believe that individual happiness is more important that the church’s holiness, does not believe that the clear teaching of Scripture can be dismissed by a liberal hermeneutic, or that the latest cultural ideas trump 2000 years of consistent Christian teaching – a practice that C.S. Lewis and others referred to as “chronological snobbery.”

The cry that we must change our beliefs and our practices or we will become culturally irrelevant and “lose the young people” is incredibly sad. Really, is that how we determine Christian doctrine – by what works with a particular demographic in a particular society? Following that logic, we would preach one message about sexuality in the U.S. because if we don’t young adults will leave us. But in Africa we would preach a different message because young people there would reject a message that we are told would be enticing in the U.S.

Our primary concern should be to preach what is true with love, not what will attract a crowd. Our mission is to transform the world, not to be transformed by it. And I believe that the gracious proclamation (through words and deeds) of God’s truth has the power to transform our fallen culture just as it has every fallen culture it has encountered.

One final reason. We cannot give those who want to change our position false hope. Let’s be honest. Very few who disagree with the church’s position will be satisfied when we state that we disagree. They want us to affirm homosexuality as being a sacred gift in the same way we affirm heterosexuality. They will not be content until we change our policies so that we marry homosexual couples and ordain practicing homosexuals. Acknowledging our differences may be all that some need to feel that the church has made room for GLBT persons, but that is not the desired end. And should we traditionalists “compromise” by stating that United Methodists are of two minds, those who want to change our position will believe that they are one step closer to doing so.

We traditionalists are not going to change. Right or wrong, we believe that holding our position is a matter of being faithful to Scripture. And should the UM position change, we will leave the UM Church – millions of us – rather than deny Scripture. Whether or not we should, we will. We will not stay in a church that we perceive to be unfaithful to the clear teachings of the Bible. That is what has happened in the Episcopal Church USA, the ELCA and the PCUSA. And that is what will happen with the United Methodist Church.

So, knowing that a compromise will not be sufficient and will only give false hope to those who want to change the church’s view, knowing that we traditionalists will not abandon our views, and knowing that changing the church’s position will lead to schism, we simply see no reason to take a step that will lead to the demise of the church we love.

The United Methodist Church provides room for all people and it allows space for honest discussions. It offers the love of Christ to everyone and the hope of transformation to all who desire it. We hold the Church’s historic view and it is the view held today by the vast majority of Christians around the world. And we can be proud that the children of Wesley have found a way to remain faithful to this view that so beautifully combines grace and truth.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.

 Editor’s note:What follows is the substitute amendment submitted by Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter:Homosexuality continues to divide our society and the church. All in the United Methodist Church affirm that homosexual persons are people of sacred worth and all are welcome in our churches, but we disagree as a people regarding whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God.

The Bible is our primary text for discerning God’s will. We read and interpret it by the light of the Spirit’s witness, with the help of the thoughtful reflections of Christians throughout the centuries and assisted by our understanding of history, culture, and science.

The majority view through the history of the church is that the scriptures teach that same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to the will of God. This view is rooted in several passages from both the Old and New Testament.

A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstances and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God. They read the scriptures related to same-sex intimacy in the same way that they read the Bible’s passages on polygamy, concubinage, slavery and the role of women in the church.

United Methodists will continue to struggle with this issue in the years ahead as a growing number of young adults identify today with what is the minority view. The majority view of the General Conference, and thus the official position of the church, continues to hold out that same-sex intimacy is not God’s will. We recognize, however, that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.

It is likely that this issue will continue to be a source of conflict within the church. We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.

We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.”

–Submitted by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter.