- by Mary Ann Kaiser -
There have always been disagreements about what it takes to be a minister. From the earliest days of our movement the faithful have been in tension with one another over the credentials necessary for a life of vocational ministry. Within our denomination alone we have changed our mind a few times ever expanding the circle of who can be ordained. Almost 60 years since we approved the ordination of women, we find ourselves again in the midst of disagreement. Should LGBTQ persons now be invited into this circle? The opinions vary widely and few expect that to change quickly. In the meantime, how do we handle this diversity of thought about who should or shouldn’t be ordained?
John Wesley struggled with the question in 1750. He looked at the words of Christ for an answer and as a result he produced a sermon entitled “A Caution against Bigotry” based off of the text of Mark 9:
John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.
Wesley begins his sermon by describing the type of people the disciples might be upset about in the text. What do they mean when they tell Jesus “he was not following us?” Wesley says the disciples were talking about people who, on the moderate side, differed in their approaches to scripture, ritual, or church government and also something as extreme as those who advocate for what we find to be anti-scriptural, anti-tradition, or even anti-Christian.
While his sharp conviction surprised me, the long and short of Wesley’s sermon is that none of these aforementioned folks should be kept from being ordained if indeed they are “casting out devils.” Of course, Wesley himself was quick to say he did not mean literal exorcism, but instead producing the obvious fruits of God’s work – counseling, preaching, teaching and serving in such a way that lives are transformed. It seems to be less important to Jesus and to Wesley who the person is and more important whether or not God’s work is being done.
To those who believe lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk (to use the words of his sermon) are “utterly false and erroneous in doctrine,” “dangerously wrong in practice,” “guilty of gross superstition as well as idolatry,” or have “dropped one whole commandment of God and made void several of the rest,” and thus maintain the stance of the Book of Discipline, (BOD) this sermon might be an honest challenge. While Wesley is not interested in affirming these things in other people or in saying they are not doing any wrong, he is still adamant that even these people should be ordained if they are “casting out devils.”
I, personally, have witnessed many devils being cast out by people who happen to be LGBTQ. My own life has been transformed by the preaching, teaching, and counseling of my former seminary peers who were queer. I am ever amazed at the devoted service of LGBTQ persons across the country, who despite their slim to none chance of ordination, continue to serve God and The UMC with great faith. I know that I am not the only one to have witnessed the hand of God working through queer people. I know there are others even, who may disagree with “homosexuality,” but can still attest to the good work of God being done by an LGBTQ person they’ve met or heard about.
And these are the people Wesley is speaking to. He understands the sorts of convictions that make people want to keep the BOD as is. He affirms the intentions. He shares the perspective. But, he is worried about the result. He is concerned for those who restrict anyone (if they are casting out devils) from ministry because of a different perspective, practice, or even interpretation of scripture. He says himself, “But what if a man (sic) has these [gifts necessary to edify the church of Christ]…and the Bishop will not ordain him? Then the bishop does ‘forbid him to cast out devils’. But I dare not forbid him…when I have reasonable proof that any man does cast out devils, whatever others do I dare not forbid him, lest I be found even to fight against God.’”
No one can cast out devils without the help of God. Because
of this, we can surmise that wherever such “exorcism” is taking place, no
matter the sexual orientation or any other characteristic of the minister, God
is choosing to act through that person. To stop the person from continuing in
ministry is to get in the way of the work of God. The criteria for ordination,
for Wesley and for Jesus, seem to be less about big picture ideas or values and
more about God’s interaction with an individual. Are they producing fruit? Are
they accomplishing the task to which we are called? Are they transforming the
world? Then they should not be restricted from ordination over any sort of
difference. Otherwise, we have to ask with Wesley, who would be so bold as to
stand in the way of the work of God.
“Be not content with not forbidding any that cast out devils. ‘Tis well to go thus far; but do not stop here. If you will avoid all bigotry, go on. In every instance of this kind, whatever the instrument be, acknowledge the finger of God. And not only acknowledge but rejoice in his work and praise his name with thanksgiving.” – John Wesley
. . .
Mary Ann Kaiser is a recent graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She has a passion for working in the intersections of church and society. Her love for religious approaches to questions of ethics, particularly in the realms of race, gender, and sexuality, led her to internships at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) in Silver Spring, MD and Texas Freedom Network in Austin, TX. She has also worked for the Wesley Foundation and as a hospital chaplain. She currently serves as Youth Director and Justice Associate at University UMC in Austin and is pursuing ordination as a Deacon in The UMC. In her free time, she blogs for Reconciling Ministries Network.