Why The Church Is So Concerned With Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination

I occasionally hear someone make the case that evangelicals have invested far too much energy fighting against same sex marriage and the ordaining of homosexuals as pastors in the church.  There are some who have become convinced by weak exegesis and, feeling the winds of culture blowing, have convinced themselves that the Bible doesn’t actually condemn homosexual behavior.  Texts such as Genesis 19:1-11 and Lev. 18:22; 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7, not to mention texts like Matthew 19:4-6 where Jesus himself clearly teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, are all swept aside with some version of the question, “hath God truly said…?”   This is, of course, the well trodden response which first appears in Genesis 3:1 and has been a favorite wedge of the enemy against God’s Word.  I do believe that evangelicals must become more devoted readers of the Scriptures and less susceptible to specious arguments which erode thousands of years of faithful Jewish- Christian teaching.   But, I will need to devote more time in some future blog to address this problem.   In this blog I want to make a point of clarification about those who may agree that homosexual practice is wrong, but wonder why the church seems to be focused on this particular sin and not others.

Why, they argue, do we not seem to exhibit the same kind of righteous indignation against embezzlers or liars or landlords who oppress the poor, as we do against homosexual behavior?   Why, they go on to insist, do we single out this one sin when there are so many others sins we could – and should – oppose?  From this perspective, it seems like the church is doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of a “pile on.”

It is absolutely true that the church must take a stand against all manner of sin, whether it be shoplifting or rape.  All sin is, at its root, an expression of rebellion against God.  Therefore, the church must stand against anything which stands in opposition to His righteous rule and reign.  I think that sexual brokenness runs so deep in our culture that every pastor should take time to regularly address a whole host of issues along the “sexual brokenness” continuum, including pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, pornography viewing, misogyny, etc.

However, the reason the issue of homosexuality has been highlighted so much in recent years is not, as is often said, because this sin is being singled out from all the others.  Rather, it is because this particular sin is seeking to be legitimized as normative in the life and experience of the church.  I expect the wider secular culture to embrace homosexuality as normative and, indeed, to be regularly bewildered by the strangeness of Christian teaching.  The point is, no one in the church has sought to promote the ordination of openly practicing adulterers or to legitimize the practice of usury.  If there was a movement among us to ordain oppressive landlords or habitual shoplifters, then I suspect that these issues would be regularly discussed as well.  No Christian is now saying that usury is a good thing, or that Christians should no longer consider it important to visit prisoners, or help widows in their distress.  However, we do have bishops who are telling the church that it is now permissible for someone to sodomize their neighbor.   The result is an attempt to legitimize homosexuality and same sex marriage, moving it from the “sin” category to the “sacrament” category.

So, to put in plainly, the church would rather not focus time and energy on homosexuality.   We actually don’t believe that homosexual practice carries a heavier moral weight than a whole range of other sins.  However, any attempt to relocate any sin from the New Testament “sin lists” to the celebrative, normative list must be addressed because it strikes at the heart of the gospel itself.

General Conference and the Future of the United Methodist Church

In a matter of days delegates from all over the USA and the world will be arriving for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This gathering, occurring only once every four years, is intended to be a time of “holy conferencing” where the church focuses on theological, organizational, procedural and strategic matters so that the church might more faithfully serve Christ in the world. The last general conference which was characterized by a fresh wind of hope and optimism was the 1968 “uniting” conference held in Dallas, Texas which brought the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.  The eleven general conferences since then (1972 until 2012) have been characterized by an increasing sense of despair and doom.  After all, 1968 was the last time the Methodist movement posted a net growth in membership.

We were once a powerful evangelistic movement.  Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline.  Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, open doors) have ensued over the years.  None of these well intentioned initiatives have halted – or even really understood – the nature of this decline.  It will probably take a least three more cycles of general conferences before the following suggestions can be heard.  Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to consider:

First, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church must insist that all United Methodist Seminaries (official and approved) embody a truly Wesleyan ethos and theology which is faithful to our history.  If you take time (as I have on many occasions) to talk to the pastors and lay people within the larger family of the Wesleyan tradition (e.g. United Methodist, Wesleyan church, Free Methodist, Nazarene, etc.) you will quickly discover that the United Methodist pastors and lay people are the least familiar with the core theological perspectives of John Wesley, including prevenient grace, sanctification, holiness, etc…  Most United Methodist Churches must reclaim what it means to be a Methodist church.  This begins in Seminary training and then must be reinforced in the life of the church.  Millions of dollars from the MEF fund goes to fund United Methodist Seminaries (Just for the record, not a penny goes to Asbury) without any concomitant insistence that the “product” of these seminaries is formed by a Wesleyan perspective.

Second, the bishops must certify that all pastors are historically orthodox.  It is essential that we remember that Methodism is a part of the great stream of historic Christian confession.  We resonate with Christians all over the world in our confession of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We have permitted far too much doctrinal latitude within the church.  Men and women pastors who, for example, can no longer affirm the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and so forth should not be permitted to continue as ordained clergy.   We shouldn’t forget that Church discipline is one of the three historic marks of the church.

Third, the Seminaries who train United Methodist clergy must reclaim biblical preaching.  We were once known for powerful, biblical preaching.  Today it is not uncommon to sit in a Methodist church and hear very weak sermons.  They are weak theologically, intellectually, biblically and homiletically.  They are often based on bland moralizing and a few cute stories, but not the kind of robust Christianity of the New Testament which is powerfully proclaimed, intellectually compelling, theologically sound and biblically rooted.  Having spent most of my life in theological education, I am convinced that students can be trained to preach and teach well.

Fourth, United Methodist churches across the nation must learn how to engage a post-Christian culture. The Millennial generation self identifies as approximately 7% Christian.  This is only 2% from being eligible to be classified as an unreached people-group.  This means that all churches in North America must regain their missional footing.  We are a people on a mission.  North America is the fastest growing mission field in the world.  This, of course, involves social action, healing, evangelism, apologetics, radical service and much, much more.   But, we can no longer assume that we are at the center of Western culture.  We are now on the margins prophetically helping this new generation imagine the even greater realities of the inbreaking kingdom.

Finally, we must be a people of prayer and repentance.  The true church is always characterized by prayer and a spirit of repentance.  We have not been faithful to God.  We need His grace in our midst.  I was in Costa Rica in December and had the privilege of preaching at a general conference of all the Methodist pastors, District Superintendents and the bishop (Bishop Palomo).  It was truly inspiring to see all these men and women on their faces before God weeping for the sins of their nation, asking God to have mercy on his church.  I witnessed Bishop Palomo moving from pastor to pastor, praying for them and anointing them for renewed ministry.  I felt like I was in the middle of a movement again – it was the 18th century all over again, but in Costa Rica.

Return to our roots, remember the gospel, re-engage the world and stay on our knees – that is the simplest advice for the delegates of the General Conference to remember as they engage in the “holy conferencing” in Tampa, Florida.  It may be a few more years before the wider church can hear this, but keep planting those seed!   Let’s prepare for renewal today.  I, for one, have not lost hope.  Let’s expect God to do, as He did in Ezekiel’s day, a great miracle by breathing His life into these dead bones again.