From time to time I have fielded questions regarding ethical and theological issues. One burning question over which churches agonize concerns homosexuality. A friend of mine on a Yahoo! group for which I occasionally make written contributions asked about how the other members of the group feel about the question. She put her question this way: “How do people in the group feel about gays in church?” I wanted to reply to her question but needed some time to reflect. I wrote stating that I offer these thoughts as an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. I stand within this tradition. Below I offer the essential answer I wrote along with some additional thoughts on the topic.
United Methodists reflect on ethical and moral issues through a discipline established and amended by the work of representatives of the clergy and laity working together in a general conference. Our Social Principles, our Book of Discipline, and our Book of Resolutions provides us with resources for community guidance.
We revisit our positions in the General Conference every four years. Most positions on moral issues exist in a state of continual evolution and are not fixed forever. As new light brings new understanding we also change and grow. I can live with this communitarian approach to ethical issues. I seek morality based on reality. The community deliberates and debates trying to make sense of complex issues. We don’t all agree but we do come to some consensus. Traditional and progressive viewpoints are represented with many shades in between. Many issues remain in a state of healthy tension. This is a different approach than simply thundering from on high a last and final word.
We seek guidance from God in ethical matters employing what we call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. We consult these four avenues of insight as we struggle to be faithful to God and offer guidance to the Christians who choose to walk this way with us.
To answer your question about gays in church I think it may be helpful to refer to a few passages from our Social Principles, the Book of Discipline and our Book of Resolutions.
¶ 161 F) Human Sexuality—We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.
Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence.
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.
The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons. 1
The Book of Resolutions
Therefore, be it resolved, that The United Methodist Church dedicate itself to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations, and to a vision of unity through openness to the spiritual gifts of all those who have been baptized into the Body of Jesus Christ. Such ministry and openness may include: welcoming sexual minorities, their friends, and families into our churches and demonstrating our faith in a loving God; a willingness to listen and open our hearts to their stories and struggles in our churches, districts, annual conferences, and General Conference; encouraging study and dialogue around issues of sexuality; and praying for all those who are in pain and discord over our Christian response to this controversial issue.
While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.2
1. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984.
2. See Judicial Council Decisions 984, 985.
Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.
More statements along the same lines appear here and there in our sources. One may research further by clicking on this website and following several links.
Sexual orientation is either inborn or is imprinted very early in life. There are no conclusive studies yet that have discovered a single cause. Most gays and lesbians become aware of their difference from the norm in themselves very early in life. Whether the orientation itself can be altered is a question of ongoing debate. Some have testified that they were able to change due to therapy, diligent effort, and prayer. Others, however, testify that the attraction to the same sex is always present and no amount of prayer or therapy has changed that. Still others witness that they can hardly desire any change of orientation as they accept that this is who they are.
I am convinced that many of the passages in the Bible that speak negatively of same sex relationships were not aimed at what we know as homosexuality today (a word only coined in 1869 in a German pamphlet by the Austrian-born novelist Karl-Maria Kertbeny published anonymously). The few Bible passages that condemn some sort of same sex behavior appear in lists that catalogue behaviors considered abhorrent to the ancient Jews. To those ancient Jews homosexual practices signaled demonstrations of the sexual confusion and perversion experienced by the Gentiles occasioned by their fall away from God into gross idolatry. Such a thought lies behind Paul’s description of the Gentiles’ descent into idolatry and sin in Romans 1.
The issue regarding homosexuality to me is more about practice, not orientation. This brings to the forefront the Christian idea of appropriate sexual expressions. The issue of homosexuality often tests Christian moral reasoning about sexual morality.
The long-standing Christian tradition has understood sexual intercourse as appropriate within a monogamous, lifelong heterosexual relationship of marriage. We also acknowledge that in the Old Testament many of the patriarchs and heroes of the faith practiced polygamy (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon) without any clear Divine censure. However, words of Jesus and the New Testament indicate that the equality of women is better served by monogamy. Jesus upheld marriage and the dignity of women in ways that were counter-cultural in his day.
No word from Jesus directly addresses the topic of homosexuality. The Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers held a high view of sexual expression but limited it within the covenant of marriage. Adultery, fornication and incest are condemned in various New Testament texts. In three New Testament texts some sort of same-sex behavior is condemned (1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:26-27). Again, the issue of orientation is not mentioned or implied in these texts. Sexual orientation was probably not on the radar screen of any of the New Testament writers.
One may be safe to say that throughout the Old and New Testament sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage between a man and woman. Adultery, promiscuity, and prostitution are condemned.
Whereas polygamy was accepted in the Old Testament, the New Testament favors monogamy. However, in Africa the churches make many concessions to the cultural practice of polygamy due to its widespread cultural heritage. When Stephanie and I served as missionaries in Tanzania, many of our leaders were polygamists. They came to the faith as already practicing polygamists with several wives and children by them. We accommodated their plural marriages without granting approval that this reflected God’s intention.
The question, then, is whether or not the church can sanction a person with a homosexual orientation having a same sex relationship if kept within the confines of a monogamous bond. Such is the present position of the Episcopal Church in the USA and that of the Church of Christ (Disciples) who allow such a union. Both of these denominations disparage promiscuity but allow for monogamous homosexual relationships. Both churches will ordain practicing homosexual persons as ministers. The official United Methodist position at present does not sanction the homosexual lifestyle and prohibits the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
In the United Methodist Church we hold to “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness”. We do not approve of homosexual partnerships for laity or clergy nor are our ministers allowed to perform same sex marriages or ceremonies that bless homosexual unions. Yet, we accept and minister to persons of any sexual orientation as “persons of sacred worth”. Most mainline churches (United Methodist included) strongly condemn homophobia and any violence against gays and lesbians. See below from our Book of Resolutions:
Therefore, be it resolved, that The United Methodist Church strengthen its advocacy of the eradication of sexism by opposing all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation; and
Be it further resolved, that the General Board of Church and Society provide resources and materials aimed at educating members of the local churches about the reality, issues, and effects of homophobia and heterosexism and the need for Christian witness against these facets of marginalization.
1. Homophobia, A commonly used definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (1992): “Fear or contempt for lesbians and gay men.”
2. Heterosexism, A commonly used definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (1992): “Discrimination or prejudice against lesbians or gay men by heterosexual people.”
The possibility of a reversal of the United Methodist Church’s position on homosexuality remains open to debate. In each General Conference the issue resurfaces. Some call for the reaffirmation of the traditional position. However, many clergy (including bishops) and laity mount a strong and growing resistance to the present language of the Book of Discipline. These call for a revision of the position and hope to offer a proposal that will acknowledge that lesbians, gays, and transgendered persons should be fully accepted as living in valid alternative Christian lifestyles. Lesbians, gays and transgendered persons should be considered as candidates for ordained ministry equally with heterosexual persons. Some call for dropping the proscription of homosexual marriages, thus allowing United Methodist clergy to perform same sex marriages. The debate rages with strong feelings on both sides.
For many theological and social conservatives, any change or loosening of the present proscription against same sex marriage, or the ordination of lesbians, gays, and transgendered persons would signal apostasy from the faith. If a reversal of the traditional position occurred, they would feel compelled to leave the denomination and shake the dust off of their feet. To them the United Methodist Church would have wandered off the path and no longer serves the Lord Jesus Christ. The fallout that occurred when the Episcopal Church in the USA consecrated their first openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson, certainly raises concerns that a change in policy could split the denomination and lead to internecine strife.
Others, however, believe that the present Book of Discipline fails to take into account an adequate understanding of homosexuality and the needs of the homosexual person. Our present understanding of sexual orientation, sexual identity imprinting, and recent biblical studies, leads others to see continuation of the present position outlined in the Book of Discipline as clinging to a past method of moral reasoning no longer convincing. Such is a retrograde stance similar to the continuation of slavery in the South or the prohibition on women’s ordination. These would argue that the United Methodist Church must make a new and bold move to accept homosexuality as a different and valid lifestyle. They would argue that “new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient goods uncouth” (words from James Lowell’s hymn Once to Every Man and Nation). They affirm that the traditional position no longer reflects an adequate moral reasoning necessary for doing sexual ethics today.
As a Christian and a pastor I also reflect on this issue. It is not an academic exercise for me. I have pastoral concern for persons in my congregation who look to me for moral and spiritual guidance. All persons are individuals of sacred worth who need the ministry and guidance of the church. I believe that. I approach everyone with that conviction in my mind and heart. Gays, lesbians and transgendered persons participate in the congregations I have served. Some do so keeping their sexual orientation a secret, still closeted, afraid to make their identity known. These bear the pain of silence and concealment among their brothers and sisters in Christ. Parents, relatives, and friends of gays, lesbians and transgendered persons want to know how to relate to their children and loved ones. Many share concern over the discrimination, social exclusion, rejection, and violence to which their loved ones have been subjected. I know stories of the treatment of these persons that are heartbreaking.
I cannot forget the conversation that took place in a church I served overseas. A young Taiwanese woman became a Christian while living in the United States. She and I became great friends in Taiwan. In tears she told a young adult group about how her lesbian sister disclosed to her that she could never become a Christian since Christianity condemns homosexuals and she could not change. My friend wept and confessed that it was the one regret she had about becoming a Christian. She loved her sister and totally accepted her, but found the church a place of either silence or condemnation. Her concerns were not academic, they were visceral and personal.
I have witnessed homosexual persons undergo courageous attempts to change and “go straight”. Few did so successfully. Some even underwent psychologically destructive attempts at exorcism and “deliverance” from the supposed demon that tormented them. Such experiences must be psychologically disorienting and emotionally fracturing. Many who tried to change, after a season of courageous struggle, gave up their bid to rid themselves of their homosexual feelings and fantasies. After a valiant effort, some returned to the homosexual lifestyle (whatever that means). They reaffirmed their homosexuality. In some tragic cases they also departed from the Church and even their faith finding them oppressive, unrealistic, condemning and unsupportive.
I am open to a reexamination of the United Methodist Church’s present position on homosexuality. I cannot with confidence declare that our present position accurately and finally reflects the will of God and the mind of that Poor Man of Nazareth, the Crucified Jew around whose life we Christians shape our lives and under whom we serve as apprentices.