By Rob Renfroe-
For 50 years, Good News has made a commitment to open dialogue about the divisive issues within The United Methodist Church. These topics include Sunday school curriculum, global ministries, theological pluralism, seminary education, ministry with women, and issues surrounding marriage and sexuality. Our staff and members of our extended supportive network have been faithful partners in most of the major face to face discussions about these issues with boards and agencies, as well the work of the General Conferences and annual conferences.
While we are committed to an evangelical and traditional viewpoint, we have respectfully listened carefully to other viewpoints at dialogue tables. We may not always agree, but we put a high value on engaging the issues and listening to those who do not share our perspective. Nevertheless, it does get wearisome to hear some of the same old arguments as if they are new revelations able to reconcile our differences, change the narrative, or convince those of us on one side of the argument that we’re wrong. Let me give you a few examples.
“It’s about people.” Progressives use this line, many sincerely, to remind traditionalists that our theological perspectives regarding LGBTQ issues impact the lives of real, often vulnerable people. It is something we need to remember. When we talk about homosexuality we must do so with the knowledge that people who may have been mistreated or demeaned because of their sexual attractions are listening. We are committed not to use language that appears to deny their humanity, their worth, or how much God loves them.
Unfortunately, too often the intent of the phrase goes deeper than telling us to be careful with our language. It is used to undercut our theological perspective. In fact, it is sometimes used to tell us that it is wrong to express any belief that makes others uncomfortable or causes them to question their sexual practices or desires. The charge alleges that if we hurt someone’s feelings or cause them to consider whether their sexual practice – heterosexual or homosexual – is outside the will of God, we have done wrong by doing harm to “real people.”
Even if I agree that “it’s about people,” I can still disagree that what is most important about people is how they feel about themselves or how they identify sexually. Our discussion around sexuality does impact the lives of real people – and what’s most important about people is not if they feel good about themselves but if they stand right before God.
One option is presented by those who, in the name of Christ, tell people that they must be true to themselves even if it means engaging in behavior the Scriptures teach to be displeasing to God. The other option says we must take up our cross, deny our sinful desires, and follow Jesus. Which option is more harmful?
As Christians, our first question is not what brings us happiness but what pleases God. Granted, our discussion about sexuality is about people, but ultimately it’s about real people who will stand before a holy God and will either live with or without him for eternity. We will all need grace when that moment comes. But the last thing I want to tell people is that they should continue in sin and presume on the grace of God.
We traditionalists must be very careful with our language and never speak in a way that demeans other human beings, even when we speak about sin and repentance. At the same time, I would appeal to my progressive/revisionist friends not to promote what is contrary to the will of God.
“Why can’t the denomination handle our differences the way we do in my local church?” Pastors who say this mean that their congregation has different opinions regarding marriage and sexual practice and they remain together in love and ministry. Why can’t the UM Church do the same? My response to such pastors is always the same: What would happen in your local church if you or another pastor on your staff performed same-sex weddings in your sanctuary on Saturdays? What would happen in your church if your pastor was married to someone of the same gender? It is safe to assume that some of your people would leave. Others would stop giving. Your congregation could very well become angry, divided, and much less effective in ministry.
Well, that is where the denomination is. We do not just have different opinions, we have different practices. Pastors are marrying gay couples with the approval of their bishops. And annual conferences are knowingly ordaining partnered gay persons even though the Book of Discipline and the Judicial Council say they should not. Progressives believe that traditionalists are denying justice to LGBTQ persons and they cannot live with that. We believe some are promoting sin, denying biblical teaching, and breaking our covenant. And that is why we cannot ignore our differences and act like all is well as your local church does.
Another rhetorical device centrists and progressives use is to ask the question, “Can’t we imagine another way of handling this situation?” Unfortunately, the question is most often asked by those who fancy themselves intellectual, creative, and above the fray. My response? “What have you imagined that solves our problems in a different way?”
For nearly five decades, bright and sincere people on all sides of the issue have tried to think of different ways to resolve our differences regarding marriage and sexuality. Up to this point no one has been able to imagine a solution that has brought us together. Is it possible to imagine another way of solving our division? I guess so. But you do not solve the problem by just asking the question. You solve the problem by coming up with a solution.
What if someone had told Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Can’t we imagine a different way of resolving our racial division other than persons of color possessing equal rights?” He surely would have responded, “No, justice is the only solution.” That is exactly how progressives within the UM Church see themselves. They are fighting for justice and equal rights within the church for gay persons wanting to be married and ordained.
Out of respect, the question should be asked of progressives if they can imagine a solution they can live with that does not require gay ordination and gay marriage. My guess is the answer you will receive is a clear and emphatic “no.”
Finally, “We’re better together.” This statement simply does not appreciate the deeply held, sincere beliefs of traditional, orthodox United Methodists. We are seeing faithful members leave the church every day, some after 70 years of being Methodist, because of our division and the rebellion of jurisdictions, annual conferences, bishops, and pastors. But we are pained to be in a church where segments dismiss the Bible as out of touch, promote what the Scriptures teach to be contrary to God’s will, and preach a theology more in sync with Unitarianism than United Methodism. Not all progressives do so, but enough do that we feel our doctrinal core is being undermined. And lay people in the pews are beyond exasperated when they see church funds used by our boards and agencies for a progressive political agenda rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have heard clergy colleagues follow up by saying, “Our theological differences make our fellowship richer and deeper.” If that were so self-evident, why have we not joined up with the Calvinists, the Baptists, and those who do not believe in women’s ordination, or infant baptism. “But they’re not like us,” they would respond. The stark differences, however, within our own denomination over scriptural authority, Christology, and sexuality are dramatically highlighting the fact that we are two different churches with the same name.
My wife and I are better together. We are very different. She is artistic and a global thinker. I am more literal and linear. Sometimes those differences create tensions, but we work through them and we come to see the world in a more complete way than we would if we saw it through our own eyes only. But both of us are committed to keeping our marriage covenant. We would not be better together if one of us was cheating on the other and then shaming the other for not agreeing to change our marriage covenant to permit cheating.
What more can be said that has not been said over the past fifty years? We cannot have the same conversation that has failed to move us forward or resolve our differences. “You’re bad and I’m good.” “I’m right and you’re wrong.” “Listen to the stories of LGBTQ people and you’ll change.” “Read the Bible and you’ll admit you’re wrong.” We’ve done that ad nauseum. Isn’t it time for a different conversation, one that begins, “How can we stop fighting and set each other free to pursue what we believe God is calling us to do?”
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.