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.