Editorial: Talking Past One Another

Rob Renfroe

Rob Renfroe

You’ve probably watched two people have an argument that got nowhere. They championed their positions with as much passion and clarity as they could muster, but to no avail. Finally, they left exhausted by the effort but no closer to a resolution. Sometimes we describe that scenario as two people “talking past each other.” In hopes of helping our conversation regarding same-sex relations and gay marriage, let me share some arguments that go right past me and why.

1. You’re doing harm when you say the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The reoccurring progressive mantra that we traditionalists hear repeatedly is “you are doing harm” to children of God. I have written on several occasions that we fully believe in the worth of all persons and the imperative that the church must be in loving ministry to all persons. I know some, claiming to be Christian, have used the most offensive language to refer to gay persons and I am all too aware that even awful acts of physical violence have been perpetrated against gays by some who have used the Bible to defend their actions. That kind of harm is wrong and wicked.

But do we really “do harm” by stating that the Bible does not affirm same sex relations? Does it truly follow that you cannot speak against a practice without demeaning a person’s worth? If so, we would never be able to teach that the Scriptures condemn pride, greed, or adultery.

I know it is hurtful when we are told that our actions are not acceptable in God’s sight. But there is a difference between hurt and harm. A doctor who sets a broken bone may hurt us to move the bone into place, but he or she does not harm us. Just the opposite – the doctor makes our healing possible.

We traditionalists believe that God intended the good gift of human sexuality to be expressed within the covenant of marriage between one woman and one man. Telling someone that sexual relations outside that covenant are not what God intends and that engaging in such relations is sinful may hurt, but it does not harm – not if spoken in love, and not if there is also the offer of understanding, love, forgiveness and support for all who seek to be faithful to God’s will in this aspect of life.

2. The culture is changing and we’re going to lose people, especially young people, if we don’t change. Sadly, this argument is all too common, made even by some of our bishops.

In the past, liberals often knocked large churches, charging that their rapid growth came because they preached “an easy gospel,” avoiding the hard message of Jesus that we must deny ourselves and live by different values than those held by the culture. But now, liberals tell us just the opposite. They tell us that we had better reflect the values of the culture, at least regarding sexuality, or we’ll become irrelevant. If we ever want the church to grow, we can’t hold to positions that young people don’t hold.

I agree that too many churches preach an Americanized Gospel of prosperity, health, and success dressed up in religious garb. I find that not just misguided theologically; I find it offensive and blasphemous – just as I do the progressive idea that we should abandon traditional biblical views to attract young people.

There are two problems with the “we better change our views or the church won’t grow” mentality. One, the numbers do not bear out what liberals tell us. All of the mainline churches besides the UM Church have changed their positions to allow practicing gay pastors and gay marriage. And they are all declining in numbers – and rapidly. The UM Church’s membership data is not encouraging either, but it is healthier than the denominations that have changed their standards. If telling young people what they supposedly want to hear regarding sexuality would bring them into the church, the statistics would be just the opposite.

Second, and even more importantly, the idea that we should follow the culture instead of following the Scriptures is nothing more or less than unfaithfulness. How do we make faithful disciples of Jesus when we won’t be faithful to the biblical witness?

Progressives are fond of saying that we conservatives are on “the wrong side of history” regarding homosexuality. But our goal is not to be on the right side of history – it’s to be on the right side of eternity. And that means being true to what God has revealed to be his will.

The church is called to be countercultural. We must live differently than a materialistic and hedonistic culture. Not easy to do, but still we must call people to self-denial of all that is contrary to what God has revealed to be his will. I will need grace to live that way. And persons with same sex attraction will need grace to live faithfully. Can’t we love and help and understand and give grace to each other as we struggle to do God’s will?

3. You are denying people their civil rights. Sexual progressives within the church see themselves as Dr. King’s heirs. Those of us who cannot condone the practice of homosexuality are portrayed as being as malevolent as Bull Connor with his water hoses.

Our UM Book of Discipline rightly states that persons should not be denied their civil rights. But being married in a church is not a civil right. We don’t marry siblings. We don’t marry three persons together. In fact, I have refused to marry a loving couple who did not want me to use the name of Jesus in their ceremony. I pointed them to a Unitarian Church where they could be married, but I could not do what they wanted because I am a Christian pastor and I perform Christian marriages. It is not a civil right to be married by a UM minister. And we do not deny anyone their right to be married when we tell them that our doctrine does not allow us to perform their service.

Neither do we deny anyone’s civil rights when the UM Church refuses to ordain him or her. I know of several individuals who were denied ordination because an Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry found them too conservative. No one screamed about their civil rights. We would not ordain someone who does not accept women’s ordination or whose beliefs do not allow for infant baptism. We would not ordain anyone who was found to be in an active heterosexual relationship outside of marriage. Refusing to ordain persons because their beliefs are not in line with UM doctrine or because their lifestyle does not conform with our understanding of God’s will does not deny their civil rights. That’s because ordination is not a right – it is the decision of the church that God has called a particular person to a special form of ministry and that he or she possesses the gifts, graces, lifestyle and doctrines that will be effective in the UM Church.

4. You’re hypocritical by selecting this one sin to condemn. Of course, we don’t single out this one sin. I don’t know of one UM pastor who speaks about the practice of homosexuality as much as he or she does pride, greed, heterosexual lust or anger. And rightly so. More people will be left outside the Kingdom of God because of those sins than because of homosexual sins.

But there is a reason we traditionalists do write about homosexuality and speak out about it as much as we do. And that’s because it’s the only practice prohibited by the Bible that some people in the church are attempting to normalize and celebrate. No group is arguing that greed is good, pride is to be condoned, or adultery celebrated. If there were such groups, I can assure you Good News would be as adamantly opposed to their arguments as we are against attempts to celebrate same-sex services and normalize the practice of homosexuality.

So, the real question is why do progressives single out this one practice? The Scriptures – Old and New Testaments – written to Jewish and Gentile cultures over thousands of years are uniform in stating that this practice is not God’s will for us. Why then have progressives affirmed this one prohibited practice?

5. Jesus never condemned homosexuality. If Jesus never spoke against homosexual relations, we’re told, then it can’t be wrong or, at least, it can’t be very important.

Jesus never spoke about – and I’m not equating these sins to homosexuality – rape, incest, child abuse, or mistreating the environment. Should we, therefore, decide they aren’t wrong or important?

If the Bible that Jesus would have known and the religious beliefs of his culture were all against the practice of homosexuality, are we really supposed to believe that the message to be received from his silence is his affirmation of homosexual practice? Especially when he specifically reaffirmed the created order of sexuality by stating “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matthew 19.15)?

These five arguments play very well among progressives. But no matter how often, how loudly, or how passionately they are spoken to traditional, orthodox Christians, they simply carry no weight. If liberals want to have a meaningful conversation with us, it must begin with the belief that the Bible is God’s word and that the answers to our questions will be found there. For traditional Christians, the ultimate authority for determining God’s will is not human wisdom, liberal sensibilities or a progressive view of justice. We may differ about what the Bible teaches. But that’s where a good conversation begins. Start anywhere else and we’ll continue to speak past each other.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. Rick Anderson says

    This is excellent, Rob. This kind of teaching and explanation is exactly what more is needed in this
    divisive controversy. Based on the “whole counsel” of God’s word we need to hear and learn exactly,
    truthfully, why this type of sexual immorality, homosexuality, is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
    We need to know and understand fully the arguments and justifications the liberals/progressives use
    to show or prove that their approach to homosexuality is the way to show love and acceptance of those
    who are persuaded that this lifestyle is the only way they can live as disciples of Christ and be a true
    part of the church—as a Methodist Christian. We need more careful explanation like Rob has given
    in this writing. We need this from all our clergy organization is every district and local church.
    I have not heard a single message in my local church in Kansas about this very divisive issue.
    Anything I have learned about this issue has come from the Good News organization and other sources. I am disappointed that I have not been fully informed about this dangerous controversy
    from my local church annual conference representatives or my pastor. Do these important people who represent us believe that if we are kept uninformed and in the dark about all that is happening in our
    denomination over the issue of homosexuality, that it will just subside eventually and go away?
    I do not want our protestant denomination to divide like several other denominations in the United States have divided already over this one key issue.
    Please continue to be a light and messenger of truth is this growing and ever continuing problem in our church denomination. Thank you for your continued efforts to tell the truth about sexual immorality as
    it is with all forms of homosexuality, as well as with those who are heterosexuals.

  2. Nancy Henthorne says

    This is an excellent article. As Reverend Renfroe points out so eloquently, we are all sinners for whom Christ died, and it is impossible to live the Christian life without Christ living within us. Like a loving parent, God only wants what’s best for us, and living outside His plan for us only results in our heartache and ultimate destruction.

  3. I really liked what you wrote about progressives and conservatives “talking past one another.” I know people on both sides, and yelling louder is not going to convince anyone of anything. You also did a great job summarizing your side’s beliefs along with well-reasoned responses to your opposition’s arguments.

    The reason why people are talking past one another is because both sides define homosexuality differently.

    On the more conservative side, homosexuality is defined as an act. It is something you can choose to commit or not commit, in the same way you choose to do or not do anything else. Proponents of this definition believe it is 100% up to the individual whether or not they will engage in homosexual practices, and that God will judge them based on their decision.

    Meanwhile, the more progressive side believes sexual orientation is a part of our identity. It is something completely out of our control (like our race). Proponents of this definition believe sexual orientation has as much bearing on our relationship with God as our skin color (which is none whatsoever).

    The real discussion the UMC needs to be having, the one that I don’t see anyone engaging in, is “whether our sexual orientation is a part of our God-given identity (and out of our control), or a series of sexual acts (we choose to engage in) that are blessed when performed between heterosexuals and sinful when performed between homosexuals.”

    Instead, both sides assume their opponent agrees with their definition of what homosexuality is, which leads to the other side dismissing their opponents arguments as straw men. Naturally this leads to both sides talking past one another.

    • Jim Mcconnell says

      Nathan, Thanks for your respectful and careful response to Robb’s article.
      It seems to me that whether our orientation or inclination is toward heterosexuality,
      homosexuality, infidelity, promiscuity
      or something else, we are still responsible for choosing
      whether or not to act on those yearnings
      and desires. For example, heterosexual persons maybe attracted
      to persons other than their spouse but such inclination or orientation
      does not justify acting upon those desires. I think perhaps
      your comment on one’s sexual orientation (and behavior?) being
      beyond our control sounds like we are helpless in the face of
      our sexual desires. But whether our desires are heterosexual
      or homosexual, I do not believe the Gospel tells us that we are
      helpless in the face of them. Thanks for your comment. I hope my
      response gives you a sense of how at least one “conservative”
      thinks about the issue.

  4. DL Herring says

    Thank you, Pastor Rob! Everything you’ve said here I already knew in my heart, but I couldn’t properly express it in words. The problem is that I believe our “progressive” brothers and sisters know it too but they’ve traded the sacred truth for secular lies. God save us and give us strength to stand our ground for the cause of Christ.

  5. Jim Mcconnell says

    Robb- Thanks for the thoughtful, well spoken article.

  6. Thankful for you, Rob! says

    Rob,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I’m struggling with how the church is unable to “holy conference” over this issue. I’ve cried over this because I love the UMC and am so honored to attend/serve in a church where as a connection, “we care about the least of these,” “we care about poverty,” “we care about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” “we care about recognizing all people as having sacred worth,” and so much more. I’ don’t feel that I match the defined “liberal” or “traditional” definitions in this article, however it does feel like an “us and them” on this specific issue. I believe that “holy conferencing” can lead us to “we” again. Rob, I honestly struggle on how to go about “holy conferencing” on this issue in the UMC. I’ve not seen this modeled to know what this looks like. I do however desire it and can imagine what it looks like. So here’s my delimma, I feel convicted that same-sex orientation is God-ordained based on the Wesleyan Quad. with Scripture being the foundation. I know full-well, that people who would affirm the “incompatible teaching” law, interpret Scripture differently than I do, again, based on the Wes. Quad with Scripture being the foundation. So how do we move forward with Holy Conferencing? I don’t feel called to support disobedience to the Discipline, but I do feel called to advocate for full inclusion in the UMC through means that are appropriate. I feel that it is holy appropriate to agree to disagree, and understand that it is important to live within the connectional system under the Discipline. I sense that UMC Gay Advocacy groups are tired and are exhausted because they haven’t been able to be heard? I’m not sure. On at GC 2012, the delegates could not even agree to disagree. I’m very torn on how to proceed for what God is calling me to do in the UMC-advocate for full inclusion within the framework of the discipline and UMC governmental system. I know that you disagree with me on my stance on this issue, but how would you suggest that I go about what God is calling me to do in the UMC? I don’t desire to disobey the BOD, I desire to hear the opposing side so I can hear the heart of the message. I desire to work with all my brothers and sisters (gay or straight) in the UMC to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I realize this is an odd request, but I do believe you are a person who can hear what I am saying. Thank you for prompting “a call to listen.” I do believe in the UMC and that the best yet to come. Thanks for all that you do.

  7. Scott Mann says

    Rob,
    I appreciate the article. I also appreciate the fact that as a denomination we UM’s have a process for determining our beliefs on a matter such as this. Would Scriptue hold the final word for you on all matters of that which is or is not permissible as a faithful follower of Jesus?
    Scott Mann
    Christ UMC
    Lafayette, IN

  8. Brad Walston says

    This is a well written article and I agree with much of what you say. The only thing you got wrong is that homosexuality is not a “practice.” Homosexuality is a God-given identity. If you tell someone that who they are – that who God created them to be – is against Christian teaching you ARE doing harm.

    • Brad, as Nathan put it so well, we also need to find common ground in the way we define our terminology.

      I’m not so sure that traditionalists take issue with “homosexual identity,” per se. I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t affirm the Discipline’s statement that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God” as pertaining to LGBT persons just as much as heterosexuals. Indeed, the entire doctrine of Original Sin teaches that every one of us is created in the image of God, but also that the entire human race has been corrupted by sin… so that the divine image reflected by every human being is imperfect. We are all broken icons, without exception. It is God’s love for us, even in the midst of our brokenness and sin, that gives us sacred worth.

      The word “practice” tends to be used for two reasons. First, the few scriptural references to same-gender sexuality speak to activity, not proclivity. Second, that is the language of the Discipline… and it was used there precisely because of the scriptural proscription of particular human behaviors. Thus, traditionalists do not see discord between the “sacred worth” and “incompatibility” language of the Discipline.

      Where you and traditionalists begin to have different understandings is over the anthropological question of whether same-gender attraction is shaped by God in his creative action or whether it is rooted in our fallen nature. If it’s given by God, shouldn’t the church have recognized that at some point during its first 2000 years (especially during the pre-Constantinian period when it stood in stark contrast to external cultural influences)? And if it’s rooted in our fallen nature, isn’t Jesus’ redemptive work just as effectual to those who identify as LGBT as those who are heterosexual?

      So, I’d contend that Rob didn’t “get it wrong” so much as express a fundamentally different understanding of human sexuality as what one “does” instead of who someone “is.”

  9. I’m reminded of a commentator on a Southern Baptist website who wrote, “I can’t reconcile how someone could feel he or she was born with strong homosexual feelings, love Christ and yet take on the limitations of what seem to me to be straightforward biblical teachings. That’s agonizing, and I don’t really understand it.”

    And this is the weird thing: “Straightforward biblical teachings” should at least be understandable to the average person. So often I hear it said, “OUR ways are not GOD’s ways,” as if God was some sort of inscrutable alien being.

    Consider The Golden Rule: We do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Put all the religious dogma and ritual aside, and this is what our laws boil down to. We don’t lie or bear false witness because we won’t want people to lie to us. We don’t steal from other people because we do not want people stealing from us. We don’t betray the trust of our spouses because we wouldn’t want them doing the same to us. Same goes for killing and a variety of other “bad” behaviors.

    And yet somehow there seems to be this sheepish adherence to a double standard for Gay and Straight people. If you’re Straight, it’s all so wonderful to be able to find a compatible person of the opposite sex, court and get engaged and marry and live happily ever after. But if you’re Gay, all of that is completely out of the question. Don’t even bother trying to find a compatible person. Lesbians and Gay men are precluded from any hope for romance or commitment. Gay people are simply told: “Gosh, sorry about that. You make us uncomfortable; acknowledging your existence means we might have to revise what we’ve been teaching all these years – meaning, Whoops! No infallible Magisterium or “literal” Bible… so you’ll just have to sacrifice your life and any hope of finding somebody to love. Tough luck, kid. God said it, I don’t necessarily understand it, but there it is.” How could this be considered a good value judgment?

    Fortunately, the reason increasing numbers of Americans support marriage equality is because they have learned to make better value judgments. The reason couples choose to marry is to make a solemn declaration before friends and family members that they wish to make a commitment to one another’s happiness, health, and well-being, to the exclusion of all others. Those friends and family members will subsequently act as a force of encouragement for that couple to hold fast to their vows. THAT’S what makes marriage a good thing, whether the couple in question is Straight OR Gay.

  10. Stephen Mott says

    Well done, Rob!
    Stephen Mott

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