- by Rev. Bill McElvaney -
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as John, Jesus has very little to say about sexuality, but much to say concerning marginalized people of his day. A reading of the Gospels clearly reveals Jesus as a barrier breaker, community maker, crossing all kinds of forbidden boundaries, proclaiming God’s love to those cast aside or ignored by Roman authorities and the religious establishment.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (RSV, Luke 4:18-19)
Undesirables restored to community. A Samaritan lifted up as a special example of compassion. Breaking conventional rules by speaking to the woman at the well, and listening to her story. Healing on the sabbath. Regarding the well being of marginalized people above strict observance of religious law and practice. This is our inheritance as Christians.
Scripture and Identity
Scripture as a whole does not define our identity by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or any other human circumstance. These are important features of our lives, but they are not determinate of our identity in God.
Scripture defines our identity theologically by imago dei, by our being born in the image of God. (Gen. 1:27, RSV) There are no exceptions. Our innate worth as human beings should not be open to votes cast by either church or society.
Scripture defines our identity liturgically in the case of Christians by the sacrament of baptism. In United Methodist theology, baptism proclaims and visibly enacts God’s gift of unconditional love. The faith community responds by making covenant to nourish and love the baptized. The liturgy of baptism allows no exception, as though the commitment of the congregation can be cancelled if the one baptized, whether child, youth or adult, turns out to be a LGBT person. Baptism is God’s earliest public call to the vocation of justice: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?” (UM Hymnal, p.34)
Scripture defines our identity morally, ethically and behaviorally by the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself (stated in slightly different words in each Gospel) as follows, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28 and Matthew 22:36-40, with the insistence that “on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” There is not a shred of evidence that LGBT persons, whether clergy or laity, are any less able or willing than heterosexuals to fulfill God’s will as expressed in the Great Commandment
Can the Great Commandment be secondary to institutional covenants in The United Methodist Church? On what authority does The UMC spend more time debating sexual orientation and practice than on how to best fulfill living the Great Commandment?
Those who oppose full inclusion of LGBT persons in The UMC, meaning same sex marriage, gay ordination, and the same privileges in church membership as heterosexuals, frequently claim absolute biblical authority for their position. Yes, the church should be concerned with being biblical in the deepest sense. Yet the ranking of a few Pauline texts rooted in the patriarchal culture of Greco/Roman thought and practice of Paul’s time above the persuasive, powerful and plentiful texts proclaiming God’s radical love in Jesus Christ can hardly qualify as serious biblical inquiry and authority. To be profoundly biblical from a Christian standpoint is to give prominence and priority to what Jesus taught and lived. Paul is important but Paul is not Lord.
Here are some reflections from biblical scholars that I believe are relevant to The UMC struggle to be fully inclusive:
“The languages of the ancient world, in which the biblical tradition and writings developed, had no word for ‘homosexuality.’ This is a recent term coined only in the second half of the 19th century after human sexuality became a subject for investigation by biologists, sociologists and psychologists. (Victor Paul Furnish, This I Know, published by Northaven UMC, Dallas, Texas, 2010)
“We should not ascribe to Paul the last word on the question of same sex relationships any more that we should assume that his comments concerning the length of men’s and women’s hair (I Corinthians 11:2-16, RSV) are definitive for all time.” (John Holbert, Finishing the Journey, p. 16, published by Northaven UMC, Dallas, Texas, 2000).
“The writers of the Bible could know nothing of a homosexuality that is loving, faithful and monogamous. Indeed, the Bible’s concern to promote love and justice among all of God’s people would certainly question any homosexual relationship that did not manifest those characteristics, just as it would question a similarly flawed heterosexual relationship.” (Holbert, Finishing the Journey, p. 17.)
I believe we should also consider another of Paul’s claims in I Corinthians 14:34-35, “The women shall keep silence in the churches. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (RSV) Clearly these statements by Paul in I Corinthians, one of at least seven letters considered by scholarly consensus to be “genuine” as Paul’s work, are to be regarded as time bound teachings rooted in ancient Mediterranean patriarchal culture rather than timeless truths representing the will of God.
All of the above suggest that Paul’s understanding of same sex relationship is no more binding on present day Christians, as well as others, than his assertions about hair length and subjugation of women to their husband or their having no voice in the church.
One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Dodson Gray. She uses the term “conceptual trap” to describe where we are and need to go as persons and as a church. She says a conceptual trap is like being born into a room with no windows. Social reality has already been named. It has always been this way and always will be. Just get used to it. One way to name the task of the church, Gray says, is to break through these conceptual traps with alternatives faithful to radical grace and justice for all. (See Patriarchy as a Conceptual Trap, 1982, and Sunday School Manifesto, 1994)
The UMC has made significant progress in breaking through the conceptual traps of racism and ordination of women while much remains to be improved. During these times of change many claimed that the church would collapse or at least be severely damaged. Instead the church became more faithful to the Gospel and gained new respect and loyalty both internally and beyond.
Basic Question for The UMC
As I see it the basic question before The UMC is this: Does the well being of The UMC, spiritually, membership-wise and financially, depend on marginalizing LGBT persons? When those who oppose full inclusion call for ongoing resistance at all costs, they seem to be saying, “Yes, the well being of The UMC does depend on less than full inclusion of LGBT persons. Their marginalization is what holds our denomination together.” Is this the truth about The UMC today?
How can The UMC be serious about transforming the world through disciples of Jesus Christ (The UMC stated purpose) when a whole group of people is treated as second-class citizens? When we practice exclusion that is incompatible with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? The UMC would become a more faithful church by giving up an unwarranted interest in LGBT sexuality and concentrating on inviting and developing the “Beloved Community” (Martin Luther King Jr.) envisioned and empowered by Jesus.
Paragraph 363 in the UM Book of Discipline states that “ordination and membership in an annual conference in The UMC is a sacred trust.” But how can this trust be more sacred than the Gospel of God’s love, than Jesus’ example of loving acceptance of marginalized persons? When institutional covenants supersede radical grace, the church is protecting its own prejudice and inoculates the church against love in favor of law. How can we not see the similarities of institutional priority in relation to Jesus’ struggle with the religious establishment of his day?
A fully inclusive church offers the opportunity for a deeper and more complete experience of the family of God. Inclusion requires bold leadership. Imagine bishops, cabinets and lay leaders taking initiative to reach out to LGBT persons, many of whom grew up in The UMC . . . baptized, confirmed, and eager to serve in our church in spite of being rejected at various levels of inclusion. Imagine UMC leadership being proactive like Jesus and hearing the stories and pain of LGBT brothers and sisters. And offering healing and welcome.
I have long been convinced that rational thought is important in overcoming the “we” and “they” syndrome. But what I think is even more important is personal relationship. Making friends across racial lines has been a key in changing minds and hearts. I have no scientific survey on this, but my hunch is that many who resist inclusion have no gay friends to love or experience being loved by. When The UMC becomes truly inclusive, leadership can make this a positive experience, turning fear into love. Our LGBT brothers and sisters are to be seen and heard not only as marginalized persons but also as mentors who can lead The UMC to truly realize “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
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The Reverend Dr. William K. McElvaney is Le Van Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship at Perkins. He earned the M.Div. (M.Th.) from Perkins in 1957, after earning an M.B.A. (1951) and B.B.A. (1950) from SMU. Upon graduation from Perkins, McElvaney served for 15 years as pastor of several United Methodist congregations. He then served for 12 years as president of the United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, where the William K. McElvaney Chair in Preaching was established in his honor in 1988. He received the SMU Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1980, and the William K. McElvaney Fund for the Advancement of Peace and Justice was established at SMU in 1993. “Bill McElvaney has been an outstanding leader in theological education for decades,” Dean Lawrence observes. “In his career, he has served as a professor, as a seminary president, and as a pastor. He is a model of integrity, with a passion for justice, who is always ready to labor for peace. But, in every step along the way, he acts with decency and respect for all of God’s children.”
(My hope in putting these thoughts in print is to support United Methodists who pray and work for an inclusive church, and to encourage those who are fearful of an inclusive church to reconsider their opposition. Some of the above reflections come from my book, Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation, iUniverse, 2009, especially pages 59-65 in the section titled, “Love Turns Fear into Joy.”)