Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VII): Can We Receive Some Better Questions, Please?

This is the final article in this series on the Uniting Methodists document and the “local option” solution. The proposed solution to our conversations about same-sex marriage and ordination is to allow local churches to decide whether they will or will not perform same-sex marriages and allow the annual conferences to decide whether or not they will ordain homosexual, bi-sexual, gender non-conforming, and transgendered persons. The previous six articles examined this solution from various angles to discern whether this is a wise direction for our beloved denomination.

I know that there is a general weariness about this issue and a sense that because we have been discussing it for 45 years we should surely be able to decide one way or the other by now, and move on. However, the reason we cannot, and will not, be able to ‘move on” is that, despite 45 years of debate, we have never actually had a proper discussion about it. The driving questions raised in these articles about the nature of church unity, the authority of scripture, the exegesis of key texts, the Christian view of the body, God’s design for marriage, and so forth have all been silenced under much weaker questions.

We have all been subjected to endless vague questions which have been wearily imposed upon our beloved church: “Is it not time for the United Methodist Church to become more inclusive?” “Haven’t we been called to love all people?” “Just as we have evolved in our views regarding slavery and the role of women, is it not time to evolve our views regarding homosexuality?” We must insist that better questions be asked. There is too much at stake. Our church deserves our best thinking.

Sometimes questions wrapped up in the word “inclusive” have tacitly carried the assumption that the church has some moral obligation to embrace every conceivable view which is put forward, even if it is a new doctrine invented last Tuesday. Sometimes the word love is ripped from its biblical rootedness in God’s covenantal holiness, turned into a modern emotional disposition, and then used as a lever to convince us that we cannot “love our neighbor” unless we also embrace the sins of our neighbor. Sometimes we are asked to believe that the church, in disobedience to scripture (e.g. attitudes towards women, minorities, or slavery), is equivalent with the actual teachings of scripture. Sometimes we hear the phrase, “my experience teaches me”—as if experience is the final arbiter of any dispute, carrying more weight than Scripture itself. Sometimes we are given endless pragmatic arguments about how our empty pews will be filled with young people if we just “get on the right side of history.” Sometimes we are told that because same-sex marriage is not explicitly condemned in the Apostles’ Creed, this is all much ado about nothing, neglecting the point that no sins are listed or even mentioned in the Creed. Sometimes we hear statements which confuse the church’s glorious diversity with the accommodation of endless human preferences. Sometimes we are told that passages which have been abundantly clear to the church for 2,000 years are suddenly unclear and no one has a clue what they mean. We are not given an alternative solution to consider, and weigh on its merits. We are just lulled into the sea of what Michael Ovey ingeniously calls “imperious ignorance.” I could go on, but these are a few examples of the intellectually fragile position into which we have allowed ourselves to be pushed.

What we desperately need is a proper, nuanced conversation about church history, biblical texts, theology, and pastoral care. We must, frankly speaking, grow up and act like we are part of the church of Jesus Christ which stretches back through time and around the globe. We are not a human organization like the Kiwanis Club. We are the divinely commissioned church of Jesus Christ. We must have a rebirth of both catholicity and apostolicity. We must pray for a renewed encounter with our own vibrant tradition which continues to call us to be a people of “one Book” and to “spread scriptural holiness.”

Brothers and sisters, even if it takes more time, let’s insist on a better framework of questions. These weak questions have led to weak thinking, more divisiveness, and, at times, the shaming of those who adhere to the official position in the Book of Discipline. Weak questions have led to the incapacity to speak prophetically to a culture which is in deep malaise. We have become like the doctor who thinks that he or she cannot properly treat any of their patients until they catch every disease that they have.

Mirslov Volf, the well-known theologian, statesman, and author writes in his landmark book, Exclusion and Embrace, “Vilify all boundaries, pronounce every discrete identity oppressive, put the tag ‘exclusion’ on every stable difference—and you will have aimless drifting instead of clear-sighted agency, haphazard activity instead of moral engagement and accountability, and, in the long run, a torpor of death instead of a dance of freedom” (p. 64f). May the Risen and Exalted Christ wake us up from this protracted denominational slumber, for our only hope is in His divine action. This is not the time for either clinched fists or wringing hands. Rather, it is the time for open arms lifted up to the Lord of all who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He can raise us up to new heights of proclamation, witness, and hope.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VI): Is There a Divine Design to Marriage?

One of the areas where I find myself in agreement with the progressives is their exasperation that we, as a church, might be known as “those people who are opposed to homosexuality.” This is a valid point. We must be known for what we are for not what we are against. The progressive solution is to essentially agree with much of the culture on their views of sexuality and the human body. We have dedicated five articles in this series to demonstrating why this is neither wise nor prudent if one of our shared goals is to remain firmly within the bounds of historic Christian faith. The solution which would reinvigorate our church would be to re-cast the positive Christian vision of human sexuality and the theology of the body.

Our problem as a denomination goes back many decades because our vision for the very nature of Christian marriage itself has been lost. The whole notion that there might be a divine design to marriage is never addressed. In fact, many Christians, quite tragically, embrace the larger societal view of marriage. This is the popular narrative in broad form: Marriage is a way to find personal fulfillment and make you happy. Marriage is defined, so the narrative goes, as a legal arrangement which allows two people to fulfill each other’s emotional and sexual needs and desires, and find economic stability.

Accepting this narrative is the source of many of our woes.  Individual freedom, personal autonomy and fulfillment are very high values in the West and marriage has been domesticated to fit within that larger utilitarian framework. The culture has a utilitarian view which sees marriage as a commodity.  We should have a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant. The utilitarian vision sees the body of a man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car—is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not. Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color, or not; are your teeth shiny and straight, or not? In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

Since the church has unwittingly accepted the wider culture’s view of marriage, we have very little room to maneuver. Once a functionalistic, commodity-driven, utilitarian view of marriage is accepted, then we really have no solid ground to stand on in opposing a whole range of new kinds of relationships which might be called marriage. As the mantra goes, “Why should we care who someone loves as long as they are happy?”

We must remember what Jesus did when he was asked the burning question of his day: “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Matt. 19:3). Rather than answer directly, Jesus directs them to return to story of creation and remember God’s original design for marriage. Jesus does not answer their question, he re-frames the question. We must learn to ask the right question.  Unfortunately, the first right question is not, “should the church support same sex marriage?” or “should we permit the ordination of homosexuals?” Jesus’ reply teaches us that to answer that question without first understanding God’s original design tacitly ends up accepting all the broken presuppositions which gave rise to the question in the first place.  The first right question is this: “What is God’s design for marriage?” 

Jesus calls us back to the creational, covenantal and Eucharistic mystery of marriage. First, by creating us male and female God designed two different, complementary glories who come together as one. It is the primordial sacrament of creation which would someday become the grand metaphor for Christ and the church celebrated in the marriage supper of the lamb. In Ephesians 5 when Paul commands husbands to love their wives, he tells us that he is speaking ultimately about the mystery of Christ and his church. In the Scriptures, the body is primarily a theological category, not a biological one.

Second, marriage was designed to invite us into the mystery of creation by becoming co-creators with him. Through the miracle of childbirth, we actually participate with God in creation by becoming co-creators with him. Indeed, while honoring the special calling of celibacy, the church understands that the building of families is at the heart of God’s design. This is one of the many reasons why the church has never declared moral equivalency of marriage between a man and a woman and a homosexual marriage.

Third, the family unit has been designed by God to reflect the mystery of the Trinity itself. Husband and wife become, through the gift of family, father and mother, and they stand before God with their children as a sign and seal of the Triune God. The family is meant to be a reflection of the Trinity with mutual gifts, submission, joyful exercise of kingly and queenly authority, love, discipline, self-donation, and becoming co-creators with God.

The Bible begins and ends with a marriage.  It is one of the great threads which connects the great themes of creation, redemption, and even the Triune nature of God himself. We must reject the notion that marriage is merely a human institution which can be shaped or defined by a majority vote as we see fit.  I plead with our church leaders, there are many things we can vote on in the church, but the definition of marriage is not one of them.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part V): Are We Now Facing a New Gnosticism in the Church?

The purpose of this entry is to examine the sixth and final article of the Uniting Methodists “local option” document which focuses on Ordination. This article represents a dramatic, but largely unnoticed, shift in the 45-year debate going on in the United Methodist Church. The focus of the debate over the last twelve General Conferences (1972 to the present) has been over the normalization of same sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I have already noted in the first two articles in this series that two of the deeper struggles we are engaged in, namely, the true nature of church unity and the authority of Scripture have been insufficiently addressed. However, there is a third deep issue, also neglected, which the final article of the Uniting Methodists document brings to light: The Christian view of the body.

The sixth and final article moves beyond the issue of same sex marriage and asks the church to permit the ordination of homosexual, bi-sexual, transgendered and gender non-conforming people. The sixth article does not compel any annual conference to do so, but would permit any annual conference in the country to “ordain LGBTQ persons.” This is mirrored by the November 9 letter from the Council on Bishops which calls for a “way forward” for “LGBT inclusion.” I assume that most of our readers are familiar with the designations behind these letters. For decades we have been discussing whether or not to normalize and affirm, with the church’s blessing, committed lesbian and gay relationships and invite them into the sacramental state of Christian marriage. However, this sixth and final article would allow any annual conference to ordain not only lesbian and gay persons (LG), but also bi-sexual (B), transgendered (T), and queer or gender non-conforming (Q) people.

This is entirely new ground and raises a new range of questions. It also demonstrates what I have pointed out for years; namely, that the normalization of same sex relationships was never the “end” of any debate, but just the beginning of a whole new range of affirmed states, the end of which we do not yet know. If LG, then LGBT, then LGBTQ—what possible objection would the church raise against LGBTQIA, as so on. The point is, once the church is prepared to relinquish the natural gender distinction established in creation, then no other boundary can possibly hold.

The Uniting Methodists document reserves ordination for its final article. Ordination for any ecclesial body is the highest and most sacred act of “setting apart” for ministry. Ordination is intended to embody and display holiness to the world through human vessels set apart for word and sacrament. Even though I have multiple higher degrees, including the PhD, which allows someone to call me “Dr.” my 90-year-old mother always addresses any letter she writes to me as “Rev. Timothy Tennent.” I asked her about it one time and she said, “even though you are a doctor, there is no greater honor than being called into the ordained ministry.” She’s right. It is surely among the most sacred honors a church bestows.

The Uniting Methodists document invites bisexual and gender non-conforming persons into ordination without a clear explanation of how, or if, this might challenge our traditional theology of the body and human sexuality. We have spent 45 years discussing gay and lesbian relationships, but not 45 minutes on this. I could explore these in more detail, but I would like to focus on the ordination of transgendered persons. It is here that we see with greater clarity that our struggle has never actually been about who can have sex with whom. Our struggle is over the Christian view of the body.

The affirmation of one’s decision to change their gender, either through hormonal therapy, or through various operative procedures, moves us towards a gnostic view of the body. Many of our readers will remember that one of the fiercest theological struggles of the early church was the struggle against gnosticism. Gnosticism refers to a wide range of movements which claimed that they had special “knowledge” about reality. The word gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” for knowledge. One of the doctrines espoused by gnostics is that the material world is evil. The “spirit” or “inner light” of a person is trapped inside a body, which is regarded as untrustworthy or evil. The early Christians fiercely resisted gnosticism, as this struggle is found in many passages in the New Testament. The idea that a person might be a male trapped inside a female body, or a female trapped inside a male body reflects a low view of the body. The notion that someone who is biologically male or female can decide that they really are another gender, or no gender at all, because of some insight “on the inside” has enormous theological and ethical implications related to the Christian view of the body. Gnostics say, “You cannot trust your body, but your heart is pure.” Christians say, “Your heart is deceitful, but your body can be trusted.” Indeed, for the Christian, the whole physical world has been declared “good.”

Any disassociation of the “real you” from your biological, God-given, bodily identifiers has historically been regarded by Christians as a grave error because, in one stroke, it erodes two major Christian doctrines. First, it erodes the doctrine of creation. Creation, for the Christian, is good and can be trusted. This is what makes scientific inquiry possible. Christians have always believed that there are moral boundaries inherent in the created order and one of these is that God created us “male and female.” This is declared in the creation account (Gen. 1:27), and reaffirmed by Jesus himself in his discourse on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:4-6). Christians have never accepted the notion that we can autonomously decide what gender we are, or declare that we have no gender. Second, it erodes the doctrine of the incarnation. Christians fiercely opposed the gnostic view of the body because, in the end, it disparages the doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus Christ has come “in the flesh” (John 1:14). The Apostle John is so strong on this point that he says that anyone who does not recognize that Jesus came “in the flesh” (not just a spirit inhabiting a fleshly creature) is not of God, but of the spirit of the Antichrist (I John 4:1-3).

This historic Christian view of the body has absolutely nothing to do with the increasingly popularized “regional view” of sin which is being propagated in our church today. This argues that what is regarded as sin in the southern USA may not be regarded as “sin” in California. However, this kind of teaching can only be sustained through a reader determined method of interpretation which assumes that every reader of the Bible has the right to shape multiple potential meanings of a biblical passage for himself or herself. This is to be contrasted with an exegetical approach, based on a careful reading of the original context and grammar of the Bible—on its own terms, which allows it to speak God’s revelation clearly to us.

Let us be clear. Transgendered people, like all people, have been created in the image of God and are men and women of infinite worth and should receive, like all people, the hospitality of churches who open their doors wide to all. There is nothing sinful about an attraction towards the same gender. Only our overly sexualized culture demands that all attractions culminate in sexual activity. Likewise, there is nothing inherently sinful about having a gender identity crisis. We all have struggles which the gospel addresses and which calls forth the wonderful pastoral gifts which Methodists are known and admired for. What must be opposed is any so-called solution which espouses a non-Christian view of the body.