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

Monday, December 4th, 2017

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.

Comments

  • Excellent thoughts, Reverend Tennent. My Father always said the same thing about the title of “reverend.”
    Also, while this article focuses specifically on the issue of transgenderism, it leads to a question regarding bisexuality. To ordain a practiciing bisexual person, the church will have to affirm, by definition, sexual relationships extending beyond pair monogamy. I’m wondering how many pastors and bishops who support homosexual ordination are ready to likewise ordain an individual openly involved in a sexual relationship with more than one person. And, are they prepared to allow the Church to expand our understanding of marriage to include more than two persons? Or, does one relationship stand secondary to the other?
    As you said, we’ve not spent 45 minutes thinking about what happens when we shove the door open.

  • Another excellent analysis, carefully reasoned & biblically sound. Thank you, Rev. Dr. Tennent.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    These remarks opposing the gnostic transformation of historic Christian theology of the body and the “regionalizing of sin” needed to be said. Hot potato topics must be addressed with forthright, competent and lucid exegetical work if Methodism is to come to its senses at this late hour. But we will also hear the devils squall, “What have you to do with us?”

  • “ Christians say, “Your heart is deceitful, but your body can be trusted.” Indeed, for the Christian, the whole physical world has been declared “good.””
    Can you say a little more? I understand where you are finding support for the heart being deceiful, but what is the basis for the statement that the body can be trusted? Jesus healed broken bodies as well as hearts. Bodies break and become ill. Our bodies are no more healthy without care and maintenance than our hearts.