A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Homosexuality Debate

About a dozen years ago, I bumped into a member of my church during lunch who was waiting for his order. It was only a few weeks before the convening of the General conference of the United Methodist Church and the city paper had just run an article on how the controversial topic of homosexuality would be the focus of the conference.

In the course of our brief conversation about the conference and the newspaper article, the church member began using a feminine sounding voice to impersonate someone who is homosexual which was his way of letting me know where he stood on the issue. Here was a man with a very responsible job and who had been a member of the church all his life, and he still resorted to this kind of behavior as a way to let me know where he stood.

I ignored his impersonation and shared with him my take on the debate on this issue, at least as much as I could in only three minutes since they called his name to pick up his food and we had to part ways.
The reason I share this encounter which happened over ten years ago is because I had forgotten all about it until today when I received a letter from a pastoral friend. My friend shared with me how his church is up in arms regarding our conference's vote to elect someone who is a homosexual as our new conference treasurer. They called a special meeting just to get everyone worked up by explaining how the bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin.

My friend (not the pastor of this church but who attends as a retired pastor) was the last to speak and was one of the very few who said that even though he also believes the practice of homosexuality is a sin, that the bigger issue which everyone seemed to be ignoring was that God calls us to show love to all people, including those who we believe are in a state of sin. He ended his short speech by asking the question, "How many people in this room (there were approximately 150 in attendance) have shown Christian love to our new Treasurer? How many?" There was silence. End of speech. How's that for a creative impromptu way to end a speech?

A member from the back broken the silence by shouting, "But the bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin!" I guess she missed the point of my friend's ending question. I hope she still takes time to let it sink in.

A couple of months ago, I wrote on this very issue so you can read my post by clicking here. But after receiving my friend's letter which indicated that in addition to the church he attends, two other prominent churches in our conference have or will be holding congregational meetings to "rally up the troops" to protest the hiring of our conference treasurer, I feel compelled to once again weigh in regarding this issue.

OK, so here are my summary points:
  • Yes, I believe the practice of homosexuality is a sin and is not part of God's original design. Very painfully and with a heavy heart, I have come to this conclusion by using the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture and tradition weigh heavy in the direction of this conclusion for me. Regarding scripture, the practice of homosexuality is in conflict with the complimentary theological scriptural understanding of the male/female relationship and of the Bible's metaphorical way of applying marriage to that time in the future when heaven and earth will finally be reunited (heaven and earth being the complimentary components that are finally joined together to become "one flesh," to use the marriage metaphor.) Tradition makes a strong case as well since the church has consistently been a unified voice on this issue (that the practice of homosexuality is a sin) from the very first centuries of the church. Only recently has the church begun to deviate from this pattern.
  • So with the first point on the table, when you look at the polity of the United Methodist Church, that the appropriate committee of the conference recommended the endorsement of our conference treasurer, that a very fair debate ensued in the context of prayer and discernment, and that a vote was taken by our conference delegates (clergy & lay) in favor of electing this person to office, it's time to move on. We did not violate our church's Book of Discipline in the process, since there are no prohibitions of practicing homosexuality laity serving in church leadership positions. Yes, this was a gray area since the Book of Discipline does state that the practice of homosexuality is a sin, but it also states that we are not to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
  • Most of the New Testament and especially the letters of the Apostle Paul emphasize the need for the church to be unified. Yes, we will disagree, but in the case of our new conference treasurer, the church/conference was given the opportunity to debate and decide on this issue and we agreed to elect this person as our new treasurer.

If we as a conference would have voted to not elect this person to be our new treasurer and the conference hired him anyway, then yes, by all means, call for a congregational meeting and rally up the troops. But that didn't happen! The church spoke and now we must be a unified body as we move forward.

So, when I got home from conference, I called the new conference treasurer to offer my congratulations, support, and prayers. And then I said, "I'm also calling you because of a situation my church is facing." And as I began to share about our situation, the new treasurer interrupted me and said, "Oh, I know all about the situation because I heard about it and have done some research on it." He then proceeded to offer his expertise to me and my church regarding our particular situation.

When I hung up the phone, I knew that the church got it right. Before the vote, I too, went back and forth. I can understand why people voted differently from me. Now is the time to offer God's unconditional love to this person who is in need of our support and our prayers. Let's focus on doing this, rather than holding rallies to complain about a decision in which the conference clearly spoke.


johnmeunier said...

Wonderful post.

I'm greatly troubled by the unChristian and political way this debate is being used - far outside of Western Ohio.

Thank you for your witness.

Pat said...

What a powerful and thoughtful post! Thanks!

Robert McDowell said...

John & Pat - Thanks for taking the time to think through this issue with me.

Aaron said...

Hello Robert,

I appreciated reading your post here. I think you have provided a great perspective on taking what I like to call the "radical middle", which I believe is one of the strengths of our denomination.

It helps immensely to be reminded about our mission of service to others in the name of Christ.

Grace and Peace,
Aaron Kesson

Laurie said...

I am not a theologian but I have read the Bible once or twice. It seems to me that at least once Jesus comments that how we treat "the least of these" is the same as doing it to him...

John Montgomery said...


With all due respect, I did not hear you answer the question why homosexual practice was sinful. I don't have trouble giving several reasons why adultrous behavior destroys a relationship and is problematic for everybody involved. It is pretty obvious that stealing injures society and not telling the truth in court should be condemned. Am I missing something?

Robert McDowell said...

John - Sure, I'll try to clarify from my post and offer a specific example. When reading Paul's stance on homosexuality in Romans, his context is from the creation story which is the Jewish understanding that marriage is male/female which is a complimentary relationship because of gender. The bible often uses this marriage metaphor (as understood this way) to describe that time in the future when heaven and earth (different while at the same time complimentary) will be reunited which is the Judeo/Christian hope of that time in the future when the world will finally be made whole.

This isn't an issue about sin causing pain (as in the examples of sin you provided in your post) as much as it is about marriage being a theological affirmation of the future coming together of heaven and earth.

John Montgomery said...

But Robert, if this is only about finding profound ways to talk about "heaven and earth" coming together - a certain unity of the finite and infinite - given the real, not metaphorical pain created for members of the GBLTQ community - our sons, daughters, friends, colleagues and mentors, maybe we need alternative and less destructive metaphors. For example, I can easily see celebration of the fact of a wide variety in sexual orientation and constitution affirming God's love for the multi-faith diversity in our world.

Procreation certainly needs certain plumbing, but creativity emerges from commitment.

Robert McDowell said...

John - I hear what your saying. Regarding the pain experienced by people who feel alienated from society and the church, regardless of our position on the practice of homosexuality, we are called to love all people in the name of Christ.

At the same time, my understanding of the marriage metaphor from a biblical perspective is that the biblical writers take seriously the evil/pain/sin/brokennes of the world and the long awaited hope for that final uniting of heaven and earth. To ignore that metaphor would be to dismiss a huge amount of biblical material (not just selected verses here and there but interwoven again and again) that undergirds this long awaited hope.

Even with this understanding of the scriptures, I certainly want to commend you for not letting me forget the inclusiveness of God's love for all people.

Unfortunately, this vital point gets lost in the debate again and again.

Katie Z. said...

and yet to use that metaphor of heaven and earth uniting in the marriage between man and woman, begs the question about which partner is the heaven and which is the earth... especially in the context of earth being full of evil/pain/sin/brokenness.

The metaphor itself seems to subjugate one to the other and claims that only in marriage is one made whole (an argument made 1 Timothy 2:13-14).

I understand it was a relevant metaphor for its time, but as we have witnessed the liberation of women from patriarchal systems, even this metaphor might need to be liberated. If marriage today, in the Western world, is a union between equals... it doesn't appear to be a good parallel to the new creation.

Robert McDowell said...

Katie - Thanks for your insightful comments related to the marriage metaphor.

It's unfortunate that our modern worldview clouds what Paul is saying in the I Timothy 2 passage. When verse 11 uses the word, "submission" does that mean submission to men? Or does it mean submission to God? If the latter is the correct interpretation, then this changes how the crucial verse 12 is read.

In Ephesus, the people worshipped a female deity and the priests were women and ruled over the men. The men were subject to the women in that religion. Taken in this way, verse 12 is Paul's way of saying that the new religion of Christianity is not like their female dominated religion. So, actually, Paul is advocating for equality and unity, quite the opposite of how a lot of people interpret this text. And the reason for the Eve being deceived reference is to point out that like men, women need to study and submit to God as well. The point is that both men and women need to study and submit to God.

When the bible uses the heaven/earth metaphor, it's not doing so in a dualistic way - ie. heaven is good and earth is bad. They are complimentary to one another. Heaven and earth overlap at certain points often in mysterious ways through God's grace and will one day be united in complete union.