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United No More

 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Matthew 10:13-14

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), its governing body, recently voted to affirm and strengthen the church’s current prohibitions on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and disallowing the performance of same sex marriages by UMC elders or in UMC facilities. A council of UMC Bishops, seeking a way forward from the denomination’s stalemate over issues of sexuality, developed several proposals for consideration. The “One Church Plan,” which allowed individual congregations and pastors latitude in their practices to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ, was defeated. The “Traditional Plan,” strengthening the church’s current position, passed.

I am blessed to have formed relationships with a number of LGBTQ family members and friends before any of them came out as gay. I witnessed the spiritual gifts each possessed and knew them as genuine, loving people of inestimable value long before I could be tempted to think they deserved less than others because God gifted them with a different sexual orientation than I. It is through this experiential lens that I view the UMC’s decision.

The UMC’s statement of belief, from its website, reads:

As United Methodists, we have an obligation to bear a faithful Christian witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness. To fulfill this obligation, we reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving to express faithfully the witness we make in our own time.[1]

I find this statement consistent with Jesus’ oft-repeated instruction, “Follow me.”[2] Jesus, likely intentionally, left much leeway regarding the specifics of how best to follow him, and I respect those whose well-reasoned practices differ from mine.

Here is the crux of my disagreement with the UMC’s Traditional Plan (also called the scriptural option): In my study of the life of Jesus, and in my opinion, following Jesus and following scripture can lead to different positions. For example, in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery,[3] scripture mandated that she (and her partner) be put to death.[4] A group of Temple devotees asked Jesus for his thoughts. His response, a significant deviation from the scriptural mandate, was “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”[5] Elsewhere in the Gospels, he selectively quotes from scripture, leaving out passages he apparently disagrees with. For example, in Mark 4:18-19, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, but skips the middle of verse 2, “and the day of vengeance of our God,” before reading the remainder of the verse. In addition, Jesus reinterprets scripture, even when it is unambiguous. For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’”[6] Then he alters its focus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[7] Finally, consistent with his focus on love over condemnation and inclusion over exile, Jesus lumps the concrete mandates of scripture into two statements with broad and imprecise applications: Love God and love your neighbor.[8] My belief is that following Jesus requires far more than a literal application of scripture. When scripture and Jesus diverge, whose authority do we follow? My reading of the UMC’s statement of belief is that Jesus, as “the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness, is primary.

No church I am aware of follows scripture to the letter. Everyone, certainly the UMC, picks and chooses which parts to emphasize and how to apply them. For example, scripture states that women should not speak in church,[9] nor are women allowed to teach or have authority over men.[10] One would expect that a church following the letter of scripture would not ordain women. In addition, given what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage,[11] such a church also would not ordain anyone who was divorced and remarried. Thankfully, the UMC does not prohibit either of these from occurring. Yet somehow, the UMC justifies singling out LGBTQ persons for special exclusions. There is no record of Jesus addressing homosexuality or gay marriage. Rather, his apostle, Paul, reminds us that “…in Christ Jesus (we) are all children of God through faith.”[12]

Those who preached the letter of the law and ignored grace were the targets of Jesus’ harshest criticisms.[13] He called them hypocrites. I find every reason to believe Jesus’ application of scripture was selective and conditional – not random, but purposeful, inclusive, and reconciling. He used scripture to encourage us to look within, not to judge others. The hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was the inclusion of those exiled by the government, church, or society. He openly welcomed tax collectors, adulterers, lepers, foreigners, thieves, and those possessed by demons. I find no Jesus-based reason to exclude anyone from full inclusion in the church, including those in the LGBTQ community.

Being united means bringing persons of difference together around a common purpose. It implies harmony. When one part of a body imposes rules prohibiting another part from carrying out its sincerely held beliefs regarding witnessing to Jesus, there cannot be unity. Today, the UMC is neither united nor harmonious, and should it persist with its current position, a respectful, amicable split will be in order. Those of us who feel exiled by the overreaching rules of the UMC will let our peace return to us, shake the dust from our feet, and move on in love.

Disclaimer: I am a lay member of the First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. I do not speak for or on behalf of my church or the global United Methodist Church.

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[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/basics-of-our-faith, sourced February 28, 2019.

[2] Matthew 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21; Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21; Luke 5:27, 9:23, 9:59, 18:22; John 1:43, 12:26, 21:19, 21:22.

[3] John 8:1-11.

[4] Deuteronomy 22:22

[5] John 8:7.

[6] Matthew 5:27.

[7] Matthew 5:28.

[8] Matthew 22:37-40.

[9] 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11.

[10] 1 Timothy 2:12.

[11]Matthew 19:9.

[12] Galatians 3:26..

[13] Matthew 15:7, 22:18, 23:13, 23:15, 23:23, 23:27, 23:29; Mark 7:6; Luke 12:56, 13:15.

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