How can we be a global church that takes the Gospel to all nations, ages, races, and cultures?
That is the question that has been running around in my mind since the beginning of this General Conference and it only intensified with the way Day 5 (Saturday May 14) began.
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the Boston Episcopal Area reminded us in his sermon that one of the greatest accomplishments of the United Methodist Church in the 20th Century was the founding of Africa University by the 1988 General Conference. It surprised me to find out that this action was quite controversial at the time. Two general boards and agencies opposed it. There was a lot of concern that it was too expensive and would cause apportionments to skyrocket.
Now, look at it. Think of how many church, business, and political leaders Africa University has produced. Think of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who would not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior if not for the ministry of Africa University alumni. Without Africa University the United Methodist Church would be a much less global church.
Next, we experienced the Young People’s Address. It is always inspiring to hear their stories of how Jesus Christ is transforming their lives and to learn of their hopes for the future of our church. You can see the address for yourself at https://www.youtube.com/embed/ie4CyiOiDRo
The rest of the day was spent in legislative committees with enormous amounts of legislation coming out of committees to be considered by the full plenary sessions of General Conference next week. The pieces of legislation are too numerous for me to include in this blog, so please check out UMC.org or the General Conference app for updates about legislation.
In this post, I want to stay with the question of how to become a truly global church. As I shared in yesterday’s post, there is really only one issue preventing us from fruitful discussions about what it means to be a global church. We all know that one issue is human sexuality, particularly as it relates to LBGQT people.
As a pastor, I have often shied away from this subject. I have said numerous times, “It’s not really my big issue. I just want us to focus on reaching people for Christ. I’ll make sure everyone who comes in through church door is loved, cherished, and welcomed and I’ll follow The Discipline in the way I do so.”
I still believe that is a fine and respectable stance for any pastor to take. For these two weeks, however, the Holston Conference has elected me to be a delegate to General Conference. As such, I feel it is my responsibility to address how I see this issue affecting our denomination and the best paths ahead as I see them.
As you read this blog, I imagine you each already know exactly how you feel about this issue biblically and theologically and how you think our denomination should handle it in a perfect world. The problem is we live in an imperfect world and we minister in the name of the Perfect Lord through an imperfect denomination.
So, first, I want to share how I see the current reality of our imperfect world and denomination. Then, I’ll share how my thinking around this issue has been shaped over the years. And finally, I will articulate my view of the best options for how the United Methodist Church can move past this issue to become a truly global church.
Looking at our denomination from a sociological perspective, we have two extreme sides who are battling over the issue of LGBQT inclusion while the majority of our denomination resides somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Both these sides are well funded, deeply entrenched, and not about to give up. Within this reality, we have several options: 1) Schism, 2) Status-quo infighting, or 3) a compromise that seeks to allow each side to follow its conscience on this issue.
As you can see, none of these options would be easy, simple, or painless. In fact, all these options will cause us to lose some members and churches who disagree with our stance. Still, as I see it these are the options.
In my personal thinking about this issues, I have changed quite a bit over the years and I think it would be arrogant of me to think I’m done changing. At one time, I was extremely conservative on this issue. In fact, I was conservative to the point that I had trouble seeing how it was even an issue. Then as I continued to reflect on it, I became extremely liberal. Since then, my experiences and scriptural reflections seem to be causing my opinion to move somewhat like a pendulum. Each time, I think I have a good solid place to stand on one side of the line or the other, something happens that causes me to think again and often move in somewhat the opposite direction.
These experiences remind me that I do not even fully understand my own heterosexuality. I know that my sexuality is a gift from God that functions as a blessing in my life when I allow it function within strict limits. These limits only begin with celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. They go on to include how I look at and respect women, what thoughts I allow in my head, and what images I allow to appear on my computer or TV screen to name just a few. Within these firm bounds, sexuality is a wonderful gift that brings intimacy and joy. Outside these bounds, it brings confusion and pain. This is what I know about my own heterosexuality, but do I understand it fully? No way, not even close.
This knowledge of what I do not know even about myself causes me to approach LBGQT issues with a lot of humility. If I were to describe what exactly I think about these issues, I would imagine many conservatives would consider me to be too liberal and many liberals would consider me to be too conservative. And that’s fine. I respect both viewpoints because I have held both viewpoints.
So, how can we move forward in a global church where faithful Christians understand this issue very differently? This question can only be answered by resolving another question: Is the issue of LGBQT inclusion an essential belief or non-essential belief within global United Methodist Christianity? (Please note: I am not asking whether sexual is an essential part of our personhood. It certainly is. I am asking if having a certain theological belief regarding LBGQT inclusion is essential or non-essential for for being a faithful United Methodist Christian.)
Once again, John Wesley’s words ring in my ears, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” So which is it: an essential requiring mandatory unity or a nonessential necessitating liberty?
Let’s go back to the phrase I have said so often: “This is not really my issue. I just want to help the church reach people for Jesus Christ.” I am hardly the only one who feels this way. I have heard people on both sides of the debate say this phrase over and over. If we really mean it when we say this phrase, then I think that it implies we believe it is a matter on which it is not essential that we have full agreement.
Therefore, I would like to see a compromise that would enable us to allow United Methodists in different cultures with different understandings of this issue to minister in the way that their Christian conscience leads them.
I recognize that many of you may well feel that any compromise at all is sinful and would cause our church to do harm by lifting up as healthy what we have for centuries labeled unhealthy. I also recognize that there is much we have left to learn about human sexuality and as we continue to learn more future General Conferences will be free to amend The Discipline in more conservative or liberal directions as we see fit.
So I would support some kind of compromise that preserves the freedom for our United Methodist brothers and sisters throughout the world to minister as their conscience dictates regarding LGBQT inclusion. Is this General Conference ready to make such a compromise? Is this the right time? Is there a compromise out there right now that adequately protects the rights of those with both conservative views and those with liberal views regarding LGBQT inclusion? I am not sure. What I do think is that how you feel about this issue should not be a litmus test for what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ and therefore I would like to see liberty given to those on the conservative and liberal sides of the issue.
As I mentioned before, for quite some time I have shied away from addressing this issue at all because of my deepest respect and love for those on both sides of it. I imagine some of you will read this and be very disappointed I am not being conservative enough and others will be disappointed I am not being liberal enough. Regardless of where you are, please know that you still have my respect and my love. I hope I still have yours.
Tomorrow is a sabbath day here at General Conference. No official work will be done. Only worship will take place. I will be taking a sabbath day from this blog as well. May God bless your sabbath richly.