Below is an excerpt from the second chapter of my recent book, Unafraid and Unashamed: Facing the Future of United Methodism. As the Way Forward process within the United Methodist Church has progressed more and more questions about the process relate to how we interpret the scriptures that relate to LGBTQ inclusion and particularly how it is possible for many within the same denomination to interpret the scriptures so differently. I’m posting the chapter in hopes of helping fellow Christians, and United Methodists in particular, come to see how those who sit beside them in the pews might view this issue quite differently than they do.
When I was younger I would occasionally visit musical establishments requiring a cover charge. In deciding which bands to hear, I would ask myself three questions: Is this band decent? Is the cover charge too much? Will they finish playing before the sun comes up? If the answer to any of those questions was no, I usually passed. It just was not worth it to me.
Some of my friends were willing to pay much higher cover charges. They really appreciated good music. They could hear lead and bass lines working together. They appreciated the intricacies of a well-rehearsed rhythm section and of a vocalist’s smooth passagio. These friends would scour the local paper to see who was playing where each week. In their minds, no cover charge was too much if the right band were in town.
Now I am at a different stage of life in which a night out also involves a hefty babysitting fee. My willingness to pay a cover charge for a late night concert has gone from sporadic to non-existent. My more musically inclined friends, however, assure me such performances still take place and they still pay whatever it costs to hear the music they love.
Offering a helpful voice within the United Methodist dialogue concerning LGBTQ inclusion requires paying a high cover charge. When this price goes unpaid or under- paid, our voices become divisive and harmful. This particular cover charge requires us to be able to articulate the viewpoints of those across the theological spectrum in a sincerely charitable and authentically Christian manner.
A willingness to pay this price creates a platform of trust allowing us to offer our personal views in a way that invites dialogue and learning, rather than furthering the already deep divide. Admittedly, this cover charge is more difficult to pay for those on either far end of the spectrum. Yet, when those on the extremes are willing to articulate the other side of the argument in a sincerely charitable manner, it creates an exponentially greater positive impact than when someone with a more moderate posi- tion conveys the same message.
The highest cover charge ever paid
In Jesus’ life we find his authority for our lives stems from his ability to understand how each situation affects us. Consider how Hebrews 4 describes the source of Jesus’ authority:
14 “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (NIV)
According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus earned the right to be our authority by enduring the same temptations as us, yet living without sin. We can bristle at some of Jesus’ teachings. We can struggle with how to apply Jesus’ guidance in our busy, complex lives. We can question whether certain sayings of Jesus were meant liter- ally or figuratively.
Still, at the end of the day, Jesus is the only person who knows every temptation we encounter, every struggle we face. He understands every pain we bear, every joy in our heart, and every dream we hold dear.
Oh, by the way, he is not only the only person to ever live a sinless life but he is also the only one to come down from heaven and the only one to come back from the dead. He alone has the authority to teach us the mystery of life, death, and life beyond death.
To help us consider the lengths Christ went to pay his cover charge, I’d like to ask you to join in an exercise I often share with teenagers at our church.
First, think of the nicest place you have ever stayed, with the most comfortable accommodations. Maybe it was an immaculate residence overlooking the crystal clear ocean, or perhaps a five-star hotel with attendants waiting to take care of any possible need. Perhaps it was a swanky get-away retreat where you slept on 2,000 thread count sheets and ate expensive dinners. If you love being out- doors, you might think about sleeping in your hammock on a warm night, listening to the sounds of nature and watching the sun rise over the mountains.
Next, imagine the worst, most uncomfortable place you have ever stayed. Maybe it was a cold, tile floor during a mission trip. What about a dirt floor? Do you know what is like to live in 100-degree heat without air conditioning? Do you know what it is like to be cold to your bones, knowing tomorrow won’t be any warmer? Have you spent a night in jail and lived in the hopeless- ness of knowing every move you made required someone else’s permission?
Given the choice to live out your days in the nicest place you have ever been or in the most difficult place, what would it take to for you to choose the most uncom- fortable option?
Speaking of Jesus, John 1:3 tells us, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (NIV)
Before his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus resided in the heavens. He could look out over all of creation. He could gaze into the glories of the galaxies anytime he liked. He felt no physical pain. He resided in a paradise our wildest imaginations cannot fathom.
Then, he gave it up. He gave it up to live in a small shack with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing in ancient Palestine. He chose to be hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and sore year-round from his work as a carpenter.
What’s more, John goes on to tell us, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”(John 1:11, NIV)
Prior to his birth in Bethlehem, he enjoyed unbroken communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. On Earth, he would be confused, frustrated, and betrayed by those who knew him best.
Finally, one day on a hill outside Jerusalem, he would feel his fellowship with the Father severed as his tortured body began to succumb to the horror of crucifixion.
Philippians 2:6-8 describes Jesus’ choice to sacrifice for us with these famous words:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (NIV)
What would could cause the Son of God to make such a choice?
Through his sinless life, in which he was tempted in every way, Jesus paid the price to be our Lord, our authority for living. Through his cruel death and glorious resurrection, Jesus paid the ultimate price to be our Savior, to forgive our sins, offer us eternal life, and establish the Church on an eternal foundation.
When we consider the great discomfort Jesus endured to lead us to God, studying and seeking to appreciate opinions other than our own suddenly becomes a very small price to pay for the opportunity to help live out God’s calling to love one another in the midst of profound disagreement.
Understanding views within United Methodism
Currently, there are three main theological positions in regards to LGBTQ inclusion within United Methodism:
- The traditionalist view,
- The progressive view, and
- The centrist view.
I will do my best to articulate each of these viewpoints in a charitable, authentically Christian manner. However, it needs to be acknowledged there is significant diversity in how those who hold these viewpoints would articulate them. No brief summary can do justice to this broad span of voices.
In fact, it is difficult to decide what to call these view points, because each point of view has several descriptors frequently used to identify it. Within the following pages I have chosen “traditionalist” to refer to a viewpoint which is also referred to in places as conservative, evangelical, or orthodox.
“Progressive” is a term generally referring to groups that are also called liberal. “Centrist” views are labeled moderate in many contexts. I have chosen traditionalist, centrist, and progressive because they are terms each group frequently uses for the purposes of self-identification. Likewise, those with other viewpoints tend to use these terms in a respectful manner to refer to this differ- ing point of view.
The traditionalist view
Traditionalists maintain the practice of homosexual- ity is contrary to the will of God. They tend to base this view primarily on the consistent witness of scripture, which they believe is supported by human life cycle pat- terns and studies of psychological health.
When considering the Biblical witness, traditionalists acknowledge the difficulty of discerning which Old Testament laws should be followed by Christians and which are no longer mandatory.
Based on the condemnations of homosexuality they find in the New Testament, traditionalists often interpret the Old Testament passages banning male homosexual practice in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 as an indi- cation that, from the very beginning, God did not intend for humanity to engage in same gender sexual relations.
Traditionalists also acknowledge that the instructions to put men caught in homosexual behavior to death in Leviticus 20:13 must be discarded just as many of the vio- lent penalties for breaking religious laws in the Old Tes- tament must be abandoned due to the example of Christ’s gracious love for sinners.
Some traditionalists view the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 as a condemnation of homo- sexuality, while others maintain that Genesis 19 condemns rape and sexual violence rather than homosexuality.
The core of the traditionalist understanding of basic scriptural witness regarding homosexuality comes from chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Romans 1:22- 28, Paul writes:
22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.(NIV)
Romans 1:26-27 is the only place in the Christian Bible where female homosexuality is explicitly discussed. Using this scripture, traditionalists interpret the primary prob- lem with male or female homosexuality as being “unnatural” and out of line with God’s intentions for humanity.
Many traditionalists would also view 1st Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11 as including homosexual behav- ior in a list of actions contrary to God’s will.
In regards to the specific teachings of Jesus, tradition- alists note, when speaking of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus quotes the book of Genesis in saying:
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (NIV)
To traditionalists, this teaching seems to presuppose Jesus’ perspective that marriage was created solely for a man and woman.
Traditionalists find their views of scripture reinforced by their understandings of the natural world and human psychology. They often view the natural world
as containing God’s design for human flourishing. In examining humanity, it’s not hard to see how males and females were created to produce life and to complement one another with their physical attributes and personal- ity traits. Traditionalists point out same sex relationships are incapable of producing life through sexual interac- tion. Moreover, they could argue, basic biology indicates we are not designed to engage in sexually intimate acts with same sex partners.
Concerning psychological health, traditionalists might worry the current permissive guidelines of the American Psychological Association regarding lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons are overly influenced by a desire to be politically correct, failing to fully appreciate the psychological dangers of these lifestyles.
It is not uncommon for traditionalists to believe many mental health experts with more conservative perspectives are being unfairly silenced and their research is going unfunded and unfairly discounted simply because it is out of line with the current ethos of American academia.
Traditionalists support their concerns by studies indicating those who engage in homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual lifestyles experience greater risks of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
For these reasons, most traditionalists want to see the church articulate and uphold a traditional understanding of human sexuality in a compassionate manner.
The progressive view
Progressives tend to see human sexuality as a gift from God with diverse expressions. Many progressives view homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality as sexual orientations intended within God’s creative purposes.
The testimony of scripture, as understood from a progressive viewpoint, centers around Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (NIV)
Since sexuality seems to be an orientation rather than a choice, progressives see homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality as being included in this scripture.
Progressives consider the prohibitions on homosexuality in the Old Testament as outdated rules, based on a primitive understanding of human psychology. Just as Old Testament rules like Jewish dietary laws can be disregarded by Christians, restrictions related to sexual orientation no longer need to be followed by the vast majority of Christians.
While progressives acknowledge Jesus did not directly address sexual orientations other than heterosexuality in his teaching, they question why Jesus would not directly condemn other sexual orientations if they fell out of line with God’s purposes for humanity. From a progressive point of view, Jesus’ affirmation of heterosexuality does not imply a corresponding condemnation of other orientations.
The lists of prohibitions found in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are often interpreted in one of two ways by the progressive community. Some view these lists as express- ing the culturally conditioned attitudes of the author, not the timeless truth of God. Others question whether the Greek words (malakoi and arsenokoitai) used in these epistles could more accurately be translated as “weak mindedness” rather than homosexual relations.
The core of the progressive critique of traditionalist understandings of the scriptural witness regarding sexuality can be found in the progressive interpretation of Romans 1:22-28. Progressives point out Paul condemned homosexual practice in verses 26-28 because it was unnatural. They further note Paul had no understanding of sexuality outside of heterosexuality as being a natu- rally occurring biological orientation. Therefore, since the dominant scientific views of our day now considers homosexuality to be an orientation, there is no longer reason to view it as being unnatural.
Following this line of thought, if homosexuality is not unnatural, Paul’s reason for condemning it becomes null and void. Paul’s opinions in Romans 1:22-28 can best be interpreted as his own culturally conditioned opinion, rather than through the timeless truth of God.
In viewing the natural world, progressives remind us homosexuality is often experienced as being as natural to one person as heterosexuality is to another. While natural procreation is not possible among homosexual couples, progressives note the inability to produce children is not seen as a problematic factor in determining if a hetero- sexual couple should be together. Moreover, it could be noted mutual love and affection among same-sex couples and the care they give their children is quite life giving.
Concerning the psychological health implications of sexual orientations other than heterosexuality, progressives look to the standards of the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA ceased classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s after studies done as early as the 1950s failed to show any problematic psychological differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals.
The APA now contends:
“The longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sci- ences and the health and mental health professions is that homo- sexuality per se is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.”
In accordance with these views, progressives want the church to be fully affirming of non-heterosexual orientations and relationships. They believe that the Christian mandate to work for social justice compels the United Methodist Church to extend marriage ceremonies to non-heterosexual couples and to allow ordination for anyone called and equipped for ministry regardless of sexual orientation.
The centrist view
Within United Methodism, centrists are better defined by their hopes for resolving the conflict over human sexuality between traditionalists and progressives, rather than by a consistent theological perspective or opinion on Biblical interpretation. Centrists want to see the United Methodist Church reach a creative compromise, allowing both progressive and traditional expressions of United Methodism to co-exist within the same denomination.
Centrists often express their stance on the issue by sharing a famous quote which originated with Rupertus Meldenius, a 17th century German Lutheran, who later became associated with John Wesley:
“In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
From a centrist perspective, viewpoints concerning sexual orientation are important in regards to human health, but non-essential to the essence of Christianity and the mission of the church. With this in mind, they would like to see a method which allows progressive churches to formulate progressive policies, for tradition- alist churches to have traditionalist policies, and for the denomination to shift its energies from the debate over human sexuality to the weightier matters of reaching out to the unchurched. In the centrist way of thinking, it is more important to deepen the faith of church members, start new churches, revitalize established churches, and work together to bring hope and healing to communities affected by killer diseases, rampant poverty, explicit bigotry and low social mobility.
Many centrists greatly appreciate both the traditional and progressive arguments surrounding human sexual- ity. Some have yet to make up their minds concerning the issues of sexual orientations and lifestyles, other than affirming heterosexuality is within God’s creative intentions for humanity.
Other centrists might consider themselves to be tradi- tionalists or progressives. However, their respect for those with whom they disagree leads them to seek a central path, allowing those of differing opinions to follow their consciences while remaining united as one denomination.
Another favorite quote of centrists actually did originate with John Wesley:
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
Within United Methodism, the centrist movement asks: May we not be of one denomination, though we are not of one opinion?
Diversity within viewpoints
While preparing to write this book, I spoke to numerous leaders, representing various viewpoints within United Methodism. During these conversations, I was struck by the diversity of views regarding Biblical witness, scientific truth, and political hopes. I even noted different opinions among leaders who would identify themselves as being in the same camp.
I have summarized the traditionalist, progressive, and centrist positions. In so doing, I have necessarily left out a good bit of diversified opinion within those viewpoints. I have attempted to articulate the summaries of these basic views in a manner easily understandable and respectable to those who hold differing views.
There are some traditionalists who view the Bible and science as condemning non-heterosexual orientations more strongly than I may have described in this chapter. There are some progressives who believe the Bible contains thinly veiled homosexual relationships among some of its main characters, though I have chosen not to explore those passages. There are significant differences of opinion among traditionalists regarding whether it is possible to remain united as a denomination, given the strength of the progressive minority within United Methodism. There is also substantial diversity within the progressive camp, in regards to whether sexual orientations is biologically set or based upon life experiences and personal choices.
For the purpose of brevity we often talk about LGBTQ inclusion. It should be noted not everyone in the lesbian and gay community sees bi-sexuality or transsexuality as necessarily healthy. This argument works both ways. Just as there are among traditionalists, there are profound differences within the progressive movement over issues of sexuality.
Though the centrist camp has been largely defined by a desire to see the UMC remain unified, some in this group worry it might be too late. Many centrists remain fully committed, while others feel a gracious way out should be available for those traditionalists or progressives who no longer wish to co-exist within a big tent denomination. For these centrists, the primary focus of our denominational energies should move from debating sexuality to making disciples.
I hope this chapter has helped you appreciate the diversity of views among sincere faithful United Methodists. Perhaps it might even help you come to a greater appreciation of views other than your own.
In the midst of conflict over Biblical interpretation and scientific standards for discerning truth, it can be difficult to see a clear path forward. This conundrum reminds me of a Bible verse written for just such occasions.
In Psalm 119:105, it says:
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” (NIV)
Psalm 119 does not say God’s word will provide day light during the entire journey ahead. Instead God’s word is more like a flashlight on a dark path. It gives us enough light to take the next step. The further we go, the more we learn to trust. Eventually, we develop faith this light will help us see where our next steps should be, even if we don’t yet see the end of the road.