To my UMC brothers and sisters who upheld biblical standards on sexuality:
The recent vote by United Methodist Church delegates to retain the biblical marriage standard for church leaders was an encouraging and significant victory. The vote upheld biblical standards not only for your own members to see, but also for the world. As the largest mainline denomination, the vote was reported by the media and, therefore, encouraged believers around the globe. That is good news.
The vote of 53-47 percent [for the “Traditional Plan”], however, was not a landslide victory. If an additional 49 delegates out of the 800, had voted to normalize same-sex behavior, the Church would have taken the route of the other mainlines like the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The narrow 12 percent difference in the vote may embolden those supporting same-sex behavior to fight harder and longer. Advocates already signaled that they were not done fighting when they declared that they would continue the fight at the 2020 General Conference. I therefore encourage and exhort those who uphold the biblical standard for sexuality to be strong and persevere in the ongoing, wearisome battles that lie ahead.
For 20 years, I was involved in the struggle to maintain biblical standards of sexual morality in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The votes at the biennial General Assembly and in the local presbyteries consistently supported the biblical position on marriage and sexual expression.
After two decades of struggling, however, a majority of pastors and ruling elders who supported a biblical position on sexuality began to talk about their weariness at fighting the spiritual battle, the financial and physical cost of fighting the battle, their desire to get back to the “real ministry of the church,” and their hope of finding a “third way.” It was when this mind-set among the conservatives reached a crescendo that the national vote was lost. The Presbyterian Church (USA) now ordains church leaders who engage in sexual expression outside of the marriage of a man and a woman, and it has redefined marriage to be between any two people.
For most of us, confronting evil and falsehood at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly meetings was difficult. It was emotionally stomach-churning. We spent time and financial resources attending the Assembly and preparing beforehand. We were vilified at the Assembly. Those supporting same-sex behavior told us we were unloving, uncivil, homophobic, and Pharisaical. As conservative pastors and elders, we were tempted to see the positive experiences in our local congregations as the real ministry of the church.
Ministry in local congregations is important. It is often in personal, one-on-one relationships that people come to know and confess Christ. It is in the local congregation where people form relationships, are mentored in their faith, are held accountable, and see Christ at work in believers’ lives. However, it is when large national bodies like the UMC General Conference speak that the culture is most affected. For people who are enticed by the culture to engage in sexual immorality that leaves them wounded and in despair, a biblically faithful national body speaks a word of hope. The national body speaks a word of encouragement to the local church, too, by supporting its biblical position, and reminding each congregation that they do not stand alone against falsehood and evil.
The spiritual battle against falsehood is the real ministry of the church. The Gospel always stands in opposition to the gods of this world. That spiritual battle happens in our own lives each time we are tempted by sin. Scripture admonishes us that, “All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. The spiritual battle against falsehood and evil also at times infects the local church and leadership must confront it no matter how painful. And the spiritual battle rages at the national level. For the sake of the culture, for the sake of the local churches under its charge, for the sake of Christians who are influenced by the media, I urge all of us to “not grow weary” of the struggle.
Jesus describes the battle to his followers saying, “Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Wherever and whenever Christians confront evil, there will be a struggle. Yet, that is the calling of the national church, the local congregation, and each individual Christian, whether clergy or lay. We confront the evil not with anger but as Peter said, “with gentleness and respect”.
The writer of Hebrews admonished his hearers, “Consider him [Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
When the Jewish leaders seized Peter and John and threatened them if they continued to proclaim Christ, Peter and John’s response was to pray for greater boldness. They prayed, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness”. Only by being bold are we able to “hold out the word of life” to a “crooked and depraved generation”. Paul tells the church at Philippi:
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…”
May my brothers and sisters in the UMC and all of us pray for greater boldness to shine like stars holding out the word of life?
Sue Cyre is a past board member of the Institute on Religion & Democracy. She previously served as Executive Director of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry (PFFM), an initiative providing resources to assist adherents in their defense of the biblical theology. Cyre also served as editor of Theology Matters.