Churches sometimes face divisive issues such as human sexuality. It’s inevitable – we can’t always love one another as God loves us. The United Methodist Church showed recently that how we close that gap makes all the difference.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. ~ John 3:17
The United Methodist Church is an amazing, diverse, faith-filled global church. It is also one of the fastest growing church denominations in the world, growth that is fueled by many newcomers to Christianity in Africa and Asia. We are a church with a long history of strong democratic institutions, which help people around the world to have a strong voice in the church. We are organised around local “conferences,” annually convened voting bodies made up equally in most instances of our clergy and elected church representatives, led by a bishop selected by a more regional committee from nominated candidates. Every four years, representatives from each United Methodist conference in the world assemble as a General Conference to consider changes to our Book of Discipline, which defines our theology and our organisational structure and policies.
People who cannot be named?
That’s a long way of saying that United Methodists work hard to consider matters fairly and thoughtfully, but not without passion. One of the key points of passionate debate in our church today is how to treat people who have a sexual identity or orientation that falls in the spectrum of what some people call “LGBTQI” – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, questioning/queer, or indeterminate/intersex.
At our global 2016 General Conference this May in Portland, Oregon, a member of the delegation from the New York Annual Conference (NYAC), my home conference, was to have offered a speech in the opening of the conference that referenced the phrase “LGBT.” She was not allowed to mention this in her address by the conference organisers. There were related demonstrations and protests outside and inside the conference location, including more than 100 United Methodist ordained clergy declaring their sexual orientation that conflicts with current Book of Discipline guidelines. NYAC’s ordination committee affirmed ordained ministry candidacy recently for LGBTQI people, including those in same-sex marriages, a stance which was affirmed today by votes of the entire voting body of NYAC.
Here’s where I have to take a deep breath, and ask for prayerful and loving consideration by all people, be they United Methodists or otherwise. Our church has remarkable and wide diversity, open to people and cultures of all kinds, and tries to listen thoughtfully to every point of view. It does an amazing job of trying to reflect the principles of God’s universal love and God’s offer of salvation to everyone in the world through faith in Jesus Christ. God’s universal love is made present and active through our faith in a fair and just way that is fueling the growth of our church globally.
Right, or righteous?
To me, “fair and just” means that we listen to all points of view fairly and justly – even when we don’t agree with them, or like them, or even want to acknowledge them. Why? Well, in my experience, it’s because a person who I may be tempted to reject just may turn out to be the source of God’s saving presence of grace. I learned that lesson from an early age in a family with deep roots in the complex and often clashing northern and southern cultures of the U.S., and expanded that view with world travel and mission work. With the issue of sexual orientation, I believe that this principle applies in all ways. It is easy for people of any point of view or orientation to lose sight of how much we need one another to make healthy and faith-filled decisions.
It’s hard for a Christian not to believe in the promises found in Jesus’ famous words from John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) However, I believe with all my heart that we cannot, and must not, accept this statement without accepting what follows in the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
If we accept a way forward through salvation in God’s image, then we must accept absolutely that this offer of salvation came from a God who wants to eliminate condemnation of all people. God wanted this so much that God offered God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, to make that so. Salvation doesn’t make us “right” and other people “wrong,” God’s offer of salvation only blesses us with the presence of God’s righteous love. This love invites everyone to move away from the wrongness of condemnation and other death-filled choices in our living. And this cuts all ways – we may find ourselves on the other side of an issue where we believe passionately that we are “right” and “they” are “wrong,” to the point that we slip into thinking that the other person is a person not worthy of being redeemed by God’s grace. We begin to put people in a “trash can,” and, in the process, we become “trashers,” rather than servants of God’s redeeming grace.
From battle lines to God’s love in truth
There is no doubt that such “trashing” had slipped in to the discussions of sexuality in our denomination, from people both for and against change. Make no mistake about it – people hurt other people, and themselves. Hurting others is not what God wants. It doesn’t matter if it’s through words, through war, through sexual acts, or whatever. God’s gospel announced to the world through Jesus Christ does not support such sinfulness. We may disagree on how the Bible describes God’s will on sexuality. Hopefully, though, we can agree that God’s answer to people hurting others is God’s transforming love, which can work in all people to bring God’s kingdom into all hearts, everywhere, right now. Nobody deserves to be put into the trash, simply because we disagree with them.
That’s why I am so grateful for the courageous and unified witness of the NYAC delegation at the United Methodist General Conference. They voiced their concerns about people not being able to even have the words that identify people by their sexual orientation mentioned at the conference. Fred Brewington, a lay delegate, spoke with the NYAC delegation literally at his back [VIDEO]. He said honestly and lovingly that the exclusion or even the mention of people of LGBT sexuality, much less not discussing the impact of their orientation on the church, was harmful. Both individuals and entire groups of people had been hurt, put in the trash can. As Fred put it, the church needed to find “A way that does no harm.”
And, through the grace of a loving, life-giving God, that is exactly what happened. A motion from General Conference leaders called for a special General Conference before the next regular General Conference in 2020. This special conference will be devoted completely to resolving how the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline references sexual identity and orientation issues, and how the church manages the treatment of LGBT people globally. Is this “kicking the can down the road?” I don’t think so. I think that it’s a God-given moment for people from all points of view to come together to work on this issue for the sake of all people around the world. The solution is more loving and honest listening and speaking in God’s loving image, not more “rightness.”
Love for “the world” means “THE WORLD”
The world is a complicated place. We have complicated cultures and histories everywhere. Sure, we see a lot more of this world more quickly through global media. But fast doesn’t always mean clear, or loving, or careful. It takes patience, courage and a lot of faith to move a world forward together in the image of God’s love. Not everyone will move forward at the same pace, and sometimes this can be frustrating. Sometimes we do need to say, “Enough!” to let the world know that we need to feel that we’re a part of God’s family in the midst of change – or lack of change. We have a right to express that frustration.
However, I believe that God’s message from Jesus in John’s gospel asks us to use that frustration creatively – not destructively. When God said in Jesus that God loved the world, God meant THE WORLD – everyone, everything, everywhere, for all time. That doesn’t mean that God loves everything that we do, or that we can figure it all out without God’s loving grace. Without God’s offer of help through grace, we are lost. But with God’s help, and our loving, faithful service to God through grace, I do believe that we can move forward to figure out any human problems together. Let’s hope that the General Conference meeting in the next few years does some of that important work in the grace-filled image of God’s truth and love.