Keith McIlwain: The Bounds of Christianity

on January 19, 2015

Rev. Keith H. McIlwain is an ordained United Methodist Elder in Western Pennsylvania who describes the rest of his family as “four lovely children and the world’s most beautiful woman for a wife.” He is blessed to serve through Slippery Rock United Methodist Church (SRUMC) in a university town about an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh. He has a passion to see the Church faithful in its calling to be the unified, disciple-making, Bread breaking, Cup sharing, Bible studying, optimistic Body of Christ. This was originally published on his blog.  Reposted with permission.


“A community with no boundaries can neither have a center nor be a community.” Thomas Oden

“Boundaries aren’t all bad. That’s why there are walls around mental institutions.” Peggy Noonan

Orthodoxy: of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc.; of, pertaining to, or conforming to beliefs, attitudes, or modes of conduct that are generally approved.


The loudest debate in the American arm of The United Methodist Church over the past several decades has been over the issue(s) related to chosen sexual behavior. Specifically, many United Methodists have disagreed with the Church about whether or not active homosexual relationships are valid within the framework of Christian discipleship in a United Methodist context.

The Church maintains in Article IV of our Constitution that, “…all persons are of sacred worth.” That is vital to understanding United Methodist exegesis of Scripture through the lens of Wesleyan theology.

The Church also maintains in paragraph 304.3 of our Book of Discipline, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This is equally important to understanding United Methodist exegesis & is in line with the rest of the Church Universal and her teachings on sexual ethics and behavior. The United Methodist position is hardly unique or groundbreaking.

The “conversation” has been marred at times by various acts of ecclesial disobedience from pastors & bishops which has forced the Church to strengthen its prohibitions against homosexual choices rather than have any meaningful dialogue. Many faithful United Methodists hope & pray that these acts will cease in order to facilitate a real conversation.

And there IS a conversation that is not only worth having but necessary for the Church as we engage 21st century American culture. It may not be the conversation many want to have, but it is nonetheless vital if we are to speak to one another in any meaningful ways.

The question which must be asked – in as loving & as gracious a way as possible – is this:

Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Certainly, historic orthodox Christianity, of which the United Methodist tradition is a part, has not affirmed sexual behavior outside the covenant of a marriage between a man & a woman. There is biblical precedent for this teaching as well as theological support throughout the 2000 year history of the Church; there’s no need for me to re-present that here. This is simply the default teaching of Christianity, and is founded on faithful biblical exegesis by many intelligent, well-meaning saints over many years.

Breaking with the Christian faith on this issue – which progressives admit is vitally important – may be quite dangerous for The United Methodist Church.

Other faith movements have broken with orthodox Christianity in the past. The history of the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups are filled with well-meaning persons who were and are very sincere about their faith and who wholeheartedly believe that they stand in divine favor. They should be respected as persons of integrity and conscience…but that does not make them orthodox Christians.

Mormonism, for example, has been dealt with by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church which in 2008 stated that, “…the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presents itself as a faith tradition outside the parameters of historic, apostolic Christianity,” and that Mormons seeking to become United Methodist must first receive the sacrament of Christian baptism as their LDS membership is not considered within the bounds of orthodoxy (see Resolution #3149 in our 2008 Book of Resolutions & the related teaching document Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

There is also precedent for considering social issues & behavioral choices to be outside orthodoxy. Few would consider Westboro Baptist Church’s extreme hate speech as perfectly orthodox, in spite of their faithful adherence to Dordt Calvinism. Likewise, most people on both sides of the political aisle would agree that pederasty is unorthodox behavior.

The wisdom of the Church, then, teaches us that allowing theology or practices deemed outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity to be accepted or normative within the Church is a threat to our identity as the covenant Body of Christ. At the point of acceptance of non-orthodox theology or practice, that branch of the Church ceases to be the Church & becomes a new religious movement, perhaps utilizing Christian language & concepts but distinctly non-Christian.

The question is thus a crucial one for us to discuss. Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Surely, the Safe Sanctuaries policies of the Church have reminded us that boundaries matter; not every behavior is acceptable in every context. The Church has the responsibility to determine what is appropriately Christian behavior and what is not.

The imperative debate, then, is not about whether the Church should bless weddings of persons who have chosen homosexual behaviors or partners, nor is it about whether the Church should ordain to the pastorate those who are actively engaged in homosexual behaviors. The debate concerns the very nature of the choice of those behaviors & whether they can be deemed at all to be within the bounds of Christianity…ever.

I take very seriously my ordination vows & the doctrinal standards which I swore to teach & uphold. Not only must I as a United Methodist pastor teach the Church’s position on the appropriateness of homosexual behavioral choices, but I also personally agree with the Church’s position which, as I’ve stated, is based on 2000 years of Spirit-led, Spirit-driven quality Biblical exegesis by faithful saints & should not be dismissed lightly.

Nevertheless, I am happy to engage in this critical discussion with friends who disagree with the Church. I am willing to listen & consider. Granted, the witnesses of Tradition, Reason, Experience & (especially) Scripture make it very, very difficult for those who disagree with the Church to change my mind (and the minds of other United Methodists who are much smarter than I am & are equally committed to orthodox Christianity), but I am willing to engage.

But let us not debate the wrong questions. Let us consider instead whether or not it is even possible for the Church to approve of chosen homosexual behaviors while still remaining faithfully a part of the covenant Body of Christ. That is a conversation worth having.

  1. Comment by Deborah Thomas on January 19, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    The Morman Church, the Chuch of Latter Day Saints
    And the other church that was mentioned are not
    Are not in the Christian Denomination, they are you their
    Defination non believers in the Divinity of Jesus Christ
    Which is cults not Christians. Christians believe in theHoly Trinity, God the Father, Jesus The Christ, and
    The Holy Spirit, which in the Christian church is the
    Holy Trinty, three in one, inseparatable. This was deco idled at the Nicene Conference.

  2. Comment by Deborah Thomas on January 19, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    The United Methodist Church is a Christian Church.

  3. Comment by Deborah Thomas on January 19, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    i made a mistake, II reread the article, and the article did not say the Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon were
    Orthodox Christians. Thank,you

  4. Comment by OhJay on January 20, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    So the upshot of the article is that any church that marries/ordains gays may have ceased to be part of the
    Church Universal, and instead might be following a new “Christianity-like religion.” Worse yet, if the United Methodist Church changes its policy toward gays, it also might cease to be part of the Church Universal.

    That’s an awfully slippery slope. The line between “historic Christian orthodoxy” and “behavioral choices … outside orthodoxy” can be drawn almost anywhere depending upon the beliefs of the individual who does the drawing. UMC, for example, permits divorce and remarriage, allows elective abortion, and ordains women. None of these practices are in line with “the default teaching of Christianity,” none are “founded on faithful Biblical exegesis … over many years,” and none can claim legitimacy under “biblical precedent … as well as theological support throughout the 2000 year history of the church.” In fact, all of these practices have been developed within the past hundred years. So if we’re going to draw a line based on “acceptance of non-orthodox theology or practice,” what is the basis for concluding that the UMC belongs on the orthodox side of the line?

    Of course, you can argue that this is the Big One, the End of the Church As We Know It. People make that argument every time one of these issues du jour comes to a head. But the UMC – and certainly the Church Universal – has lived through these things before. A vote will be forced; a decision will be made one way or another; a handful of congregations will splinter off; a handful of members will find homes in other denominations.

    And most importantly, both sides will remain Christian by faith, baptism, and the grace of God. No one else gets to draw that line.

  5. Comment by Dan on January 20, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    Actually, we do get to draw the line and have since the early ecumenical councils of the church. That’s why, for example, Arius and his followers were declared anathema by the early church and excommunicated. Likewise, a former UMC pastor of mine who denied the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ is a heretic and not a Christian. Look at survey statistics and you will find that a significant portion of UMC clergy are also heretics for denying basic Christian doctrine as laid down in Holy Scripture and the early ecumenical councils of the church. As you stated, the current UMC does not stand on the orthodox side of the line.

  6. Comment by OhJay on January 21, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Fair enough on the church being able to draw boundaries of orthodoxy. In a historical sense, that’s obviously true. I was thinking more about the power of baptism and profession of faith to guarantee individual salvation, and I have a hard time believing that those gifts from God can be canceled because someone belongs to the wrong denomination.

    That being said, I notice that your examples (Arias, pastor who denied virgin birth/bodily resurrection) are both cases of someone denying basic elements of the Nicene Creed. What’s
    your view on a situation such as, for example, ELCA Lutherans, who are rock-solid on the Creeds but still allow gay marriage?

  7. Comment by Dan on January 21, 2015 at 9:46 am

    Well, being a LCMS member, I obviously do not agree with current ELCA stances. Gay marriage is out of bounds, but I also think that divorce, unless meeting biblical standards, is out of bounds. When I think of people saying they are rock-solid on the creeds it reminds me of Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson who remarked that, while in college, he began saying the creeds with his fingers crossed. In other words, just saying it doesn’t make it so. I cannot speak to someone else’s salvation or relationship with God, but I can call other Christians to account for their statements and actions when they clearly run counter to scripture and the traditions of the church. Clear examples would be church support for Planned Parenthood (or Planned Infanticide as I call them) or the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Not all examples are so clear, but there are many clear examples around these days.

  8. Comment by John S. on January 22, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Well there is also the whole orthodox concept that baptism and profession of faith do not guarantee individual salvation.

    There is also the point that a denomination is a sub-set of Christianity while a “Christianity-like religion.” is not Christian but merely a mimic of the real thing. The question is not a lack of salvation for being part of the wrong denomination but rather in the wrong religion.

  9. Comment by Keith Mcilwain on February 1, 2015 at 7:54 am

    The article also mentions PRACTICES that take a group beyond orthodoxy, such as pederasty & Westboro Baptist’s extreme hate, which everyone would agree are not orthodox. Affirmation of practices CAN make a person or group unorthodox.

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