Friday, March 14, 2014

Bishop McLee, Human Sexuality, and Basic Christian Doctrine

Let me be clear: I think honest conversation is righteous and healthy—even indispensable—within the Body of Christ. One of our goals at United is to help students have real conversations with people with whom they disagree. Part of our problem in the UMC is that political posturing has replaced intellectual virtue, and when that happens, the road ahead can look pretty grim.

Bishop McLee is calling for further conversation on homosexuality. Setting the issue of the church trial aside for a moment, I want to reaffirm that conversation and dialogue are essential within the body of Christ. I believe Bishop McLee is sincere in his desire to heal the wounds within our denomination. We were seminary classmates at Perkins, and while I didn’t know him well, I did know him well enough to come to regard him as a person of deep faith and integrity. Whether or not we believe what he is doing is right, I believe that he believes that conversation, rather than a church trial, is the best way forward for the UMC.

That having been said, I think we have to ask how productive this conversation can possibly be. Our beliefs on human sexuality are influenced by a host of other beliefs and assumptions. Our practices of and beliefs about reading scripture, our theological anthropologies, understandings of salvation, ecclesiologies, theologies of ordination, and theological understandings of the concept of marriage will all come to bear on how we understand the issues around homosexuality.  

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: the current crisis we are experiencing over homosexuality is the result of decades of neglect of basic doctrine among mainline Protestants. Doctrine is not properly a litmus test to see who thinks the right things and who doesn’t. Rather, doctrine forms our worldview, and our worldview invariably affects our ethical perspectives. Put differently, the way in which we think about God and God’s relationship to humankind will shape our perspectives on how we are supposed to live in the here and now.

Many UM’s have gone for decades suggesting that we are committed to a theological method, not a specific body of beliefs. We have acted as if the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection are interesting speculative ideas, objects of study rather than divine revelations about the living God. We have drunk deeply from the cup of modernity. We have placed our faith in political agendas and neglected the sanctifying power and work of the Holy Spirit. And here is the result: misunderstanding, anger, factionalism, and possibly schism.

Before we can have a meaningful conversation within our denomination about homosexuality, we need to begin to repent and allow God to heal us doctrinally. There is no quick or easy way forward. Will we do this, and can we stay together long enough and be patient enough to do so? As I said at the beginning of this post, the situation looks pretty grim, but with God, all things are possible.


  1. Perhaps if Bishop McLee had issued a call to prayer instead of prolonged dialogue, the United Methodist Church would have more of a chance....

    He IS right, however that additional trials will only bring more pain and will not resolve anything. Lord help us.

  2. I'm not sure praying about it will actually work. I mean, God has to essentially choose sides...

    I think a focus on doctrine would be great, but I'm not sure it would solve the issue. One of the things that has interested me, however, is the theology of the person. I think if we developed that theology, and within the framework of the Great Tradition, we can start to solve this issue.

  3. An outpouring of the Holy Spirit WILL "work", Joel. All else follows from that--repentance, sanctification, and unity in Christ. Even theology and doctrine emerges from that gracious act of God. The question is, do we want to be healed and transformed?

  4. In addition to doctrinal study, I'd recommend two other areas of study. 1) The Desert Fathers and Mothers in early Christianity. (Roberta Bondi is a good guide here.) The ancient monastics embodied a way of life that included a deep reluctance to speak at all with an abhorrence of judging others, (following Matt 7.1). There is so much speaking and judging among people today. The DFMs could teach us another way to be. And 2) postmodern philosophy. This may sound strange, but it could be useful. I am thinking of John Caputo here, in particular, and the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute but rather contextual. Both the religious right and religious left are operating under modernist assumptions that their truth is absolute for all times, peoples, and places. Perhaps a postmodern take here would help them to admit that their truth is provisional and contextual, especially in areas of ethics.

  5. As usual, I find your comments insightful. The frustration comes, I think, for those of us who have been around for a long time and have dealt with this issue for most of our ministries. The theological discussions have been ongoing for decades. When the issue could not be resolved we have watched, and often participated in the spiral down into political maneuvering. It has become politicized out of frustration for exactly the reasons you state in the last three paragraphs. It is, I believe, simply the sad fact that we are no longer in The "United" Methodist Church able to make a confession of faith that is even remotely compatible.

  6. Let me say a little more about truth. It's clear that the religious right doesn't know what to do with gays because gays shatter their settled notion of absolute truth, truth in scripture and tradition. It's also clear that the religious left doesn't know what to do with gays who believe, based on the Bible, that their sexual attraction is morally wrong and who choose not to pursue a same-sex relationship and instead live a celibate life. There are gays like this, and they are the minority within the minority, and the religious left doesn't know what to do with them because these traditional gays shatter the left's notion of absolute truth that arises from reason and experience. Each side, right and left, needs go give up its notion that it has the absolute truth on this ethical issue, and that it will determine how all gays must choose to live and believe. A postmodern idea of truth as decentralized, provisional, and contextual might help here. It is a more humble notion of truth, less universal.

  7. CR--as a single, celibate, heterosexual, clergywoman, I hold to the current standard of our church--celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage (between a man and a woman). I don't think our standard should be made "contextual". It applies to all who choose to be a disciple of Jesus.

    To water this standard down to become a "postmodern" notion diminishes the authority and witness of scripture and the church.

  8. Holly, the standard I'd want to uphold is the Golden Rule. A single, celibate heterosexual can always choose to marry if the opportunity arises, but a single, celibate gay or lesbian cannot because the opportunity is not offered. If I were gay, I'd want the option to be married (or ordained); therefore, I must be willing to extend that opportunity to others. Treat others as you'd wish to be treated -- that's the standard.