Deeper Issues Behind the Same-Sex Marriage Discussion

Friday, September 30th, 2011

According to the United Methodist Reporter more than 900 United Methodist clergy have pledged to perform same-sex unions in open defiance of the Scriptures, of our ministerial tradition of holy conferencing, and of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  In response, a group of Asburians (either Asbury Seminary graduates or member of the Board of Trustees of Asbury) who pastor some of the largest churches in America (Tom Harrison, Charles Kyker, Ed Robb, III, Ken Werlein, and Steve Wood) have prepared a petition asking the Bishops of the United Methodist church to issue a statement that the Discipline will be respected. I support this petition because these petitioners understand that this is far more than a debate about human sexuality and marriage. View the petition here.

What is at stake is more than just a re-affirmation that Biblical marriage is between a man and a woman (though that is, in itself, a vital objective). The issue of marriage and human sexuality is but the “flashpoint” presenting issue.  There are two deeper underlying issues which we need to always keep in mind.  First, this is a struggle about Biblical authority and the great stream of apostolic orthodoxy. I have written  many blogs on this point, so I will not elaborate that point today.  Suffice it to say, we cannot even begin to reclaim our nearly lost heritage as Methodists if even our clergy advocate positions which are at variance with historic faith.  Second, this is a struggle about ecclesiology, especially the role of the episcopacy in our church. For clergy to do something in open defiance of the Book of Discipline is a serious breach of our unity, regardless of the issue involved.  There are many churches whose clergy are not under episcopal authority and are not bound to one another by a covenant. The Methodist church is not supposed to be among them.

Bishops must rise up and do what Bishops have been elected to do. Bishops are called by God, and ordained by the church, to defend the Gospel, shepherd the church and exercise church discipline. This shouldn’t require a petition.  It should be the normal expression of episcopal authority. A decade ago, Bill Hinson called for a special task force to create a process which would lead to an “amicable separation” between those called United Methodists.  This would not be a defiant church split, but a solemn process whereby the church allows those who are committed to historic orthodoxy, the Wesleyan heritage and secure episcopal authority to live under such a covenant. Tens of thousands of faithful Methodists (including myself) are not yet ready to pull the “amicable separation” lever, but this is the inevitable trajectory if our Bishops will not exercise their God-given, episcopal resolve to enforce our Discipline. Our eyes are on the Council of Bishops praying that God gives them strength for this hour. I hope that the Bishops issue the espiscopal letter which has been requested.  It will be a great affirmation that our covenant is still in force and that the “people called Methodists” can focus our energies and resources on spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world.


  • Josh Ratliff says:

    I know I’m speaking as an idealist, but this is one reason why I wish so badly that the Nazarene, Free Methodists, Wesleyans, and conservative United Methodists would come together to form one of the largest Protestant denominations on the planet. Too many technicalities of polity I suppose.

  • Matt Riley says:

    Dr. Tennent,
    I was a United Methodist all my life (about 29 years). My grandfather pastored a UM church in the Southern New Jersey Annual Conference for 44 years. When he retired the church had an average attendance of around 2,500. I looked forward to working within the UMC as someone faithful to Wesleyan doctrine. At my first appointed in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (begun July 2009 after graduating from ATS) I ran into some problems. An openly practicing homosexual woman wanted to be a leader of the newly formed youth group. I reached out to this woman in love while also telling her I believed it would not be an appropriate role for her because of her homosexuality. A small group in the church were upset with my decision. The bishop became involved an ultimately I was discontinued from being the pastor “in the best interest” of that local church. This took place a few months into my second year at the church and a month after my third child was born. The bishop’s interference in the church, supporting this small group against the the opinion of the SPRC, caused chaos. While the official reason of my termination was not my decision about the homosexual woman, it is obvious that this is the reason the bishop fired me.
    It’s been almost a year now since I was let go. I decided on my own to end my candidacy process and join the Free Methodist Church. I have been a pastor with them since July.
    My heart breaks for the state of the UMC. While the bishops may make such a statement I am afraid it will not be heartfelt by many.

  • Glenn H. says:

    It’s past time to pull the “amicable separation” lever. (1) Our church is deeply divided. That 900 ministers believe they must defy the Discipline is an example of this. But even more than that–the ethical consequences of the two positions are polar opposites. That is, the only way we stay together is by pretending we are united while we each do our own thing. Since both sides cannot be contained within the same church without undermining the position of both sides, then it is time to divorce. (2) While the traditional orthodox position may have the upper hand today, that will soon change since the youth of our church do not understand the orthodox position. Indeed, no one has taught it to them–and the church hierarchy has certainly not encouraged teaching something that is deeply divisive. Splitting the church is in the best interest of the traditional, orthodox party, as it will give us greater freedom to teach biblical orthodoxy to our youth (and adults). It is in the best interest of the sexually permissive party, as it will free them to act in ways that are ethically compatible with their position.

  • John Metz says:

    Thank you (and the others) for your courageous stand for truth and biblical authority. Although not a Methodist, I am aware of the trajectory of the denomination over many years. I grew up in a UMC congregation and attended after I was saved. Eventually, the things that were happening there and the things I heard from the pulpit (I won’t elaborate) forced me to flee.

    In my youth, Harry Denman twice visited my small, Kansas hometown. His honest stand for truth and his care touched me, but I was not yet saved.

    On a flight two years ago, I had a brief conversation with an Anglican who was leading the breakaway dioceses that have now left ECUSA. He was another one standing for truth but that stand could not prevent the downward slide. I fear you, too, may be fighting a losing battle that will end in something less than an “amicable separation.” Let us pray.

  • Walter says:

    While it is the Bishop’s job to hold ministers accountable to the Book of Discipline, and it is the Methodist Church prerogative to forbid marriage ceremonies between those of the same gender from being recognized by the church, should the church really be lobbying Congress over this issue if we want the separation of church and state to be honored so that we can worship as we please. Why not let a civil non religious ceremony be legal?

  • T Tennent says:

    It is, I think, in the State’s interest to protect the family unit for two reasons which have little to do with Christianity. First, since homosexuality is inherently, and by definition, non-reproductive, a society cannot (or at least would not be wise to) provide too many incentives for homosexual relations. Our birthrate is already close to the lline of no return (see Jenkins’ God’s Continent).
    Heterosexuality is inherently superior to
    homosexuality because the former assures the
    continuance of the race biologically, whereas
    the latter assures its biological demise. Second,
    the gender line is the most natural and historic
    place to establish a relational boundary. If the State lifts the natural gender line, then it is nearly impossible to defend all other lines – thus opening the door to “committed”
    polygamy and bestiality

  • I think it was Peter Kreeft who gave the clearest contrast between the two sides of the issue of homosexual “marriage” that I have yet seen when he (if it was indeed him like I think it was) stated that the basic question is whether marriage is a God-made or man-made institution. If the latter, then whatever is man-made can be man-changed. If the former (and if He did decree it to be between man and a woman as per orthodox belief), then it is impossible for people to change however much they delude themselves into believing they can do so through legislation or other means.
    As for legislation against homosexual marriage, I think your “inherently non-reproductive” argument is especially weak. First, because a homosexual couple could conceivably reproduce through sperm donation (if female) or surrogacy (if male)- this is not meant as an endorsement of such methods, only the realization that they exist. Second, simply denying “marriage” to them won’t make them more likely to reproduce.
    As for your second point, there would be those who argue that there might be other more natural and possibly historic places to establish a relational boundary, such as species or monogamy. Furthermore, it sounds suspiciously like a slippery-slope argument, especially in regards to bestiality. One could argue that a crucial difference between that and homosexuality is that the latter involves two people who’s consent to such a relationship can be verified.
    Note that I am not in any way for homosexuality, much less homosexual “marriages”. Rather, while I’m against it becoming legalized, I’m not going to do any extensive hand-wringing over it if such comes to pass.

  • Kyle Carney says:

    The natural, historical line is not a slippery slope argument. To suggest that we could stop at species answers the bestiality charge but not polygamy or any other form of a bigamous relationship. Historically, polygamy has been a norm in several non-Christian cultures. Monogamy as a value in the secular world is borrowed capital from the Christian worldview. I’m not saying there are no other good reasons for it, but I’m saying I can’t see any reason to forbid polygamy if we endorse homosexual unions. I agree that one man, one woman is the most natural and historical line; however, I do not know that United States courts will uphold this relational line.

  • […] Deeper Issues behind the same-sex marriage discussion A blog post by Asbury Seminary President, Timothy C. Tennent. Though its an older article, we dug it out of the archives because it offers some nuggets of wisdom. It proves to be timely as delegates took up the issues of gay clergy and same-sex marriage today. […]