UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. Kenneth J. Collins is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Collins serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute on Religion & Democracy and on the advisory committee for the UM Action program.
According to Professor Mark Smith of the University of Washington, “from the beginning of the twentieth century up to 1968, no Christian denomination in America passed a resolution or released a report that directly addressed homosexuality.” In the church today it’s all we talk about. The smart money was on the bet that the United Methodist Church would be the first to topple, to be conquered by American culture in this area, and yet to date that has not formally happened. Judging from the results of recent annual conferences it may never happen. What has been surprising, however, is the number of supposedly conservative Methodists, some of them even John Wesley fellows, who have publicly embraced the LGBTQ agenda.
This brief essay is directed to all those church leaders, Methodist or otherwise, who now advocate ordaining practicing homosexuals and who contend that the practice of homosexuality is fully compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We traditionalists, who argue otherwise, deeply regret the animated polemics of late as well as the tone of the conversation on this “presenting issue.” We affirm, as the UM Book of Discipline clearly states, our homosexual brothers and sisters are “people of sacred worth.” Our desire then is to listen and to understand, to reason and to think theologically about a matter that requires our best efforts. We, of course, have many questions and some of them are no doubt uncomfortable ones but they must be raised. Getting to the heart of the matter requires such labor. To date we have yet to read a coherent argument that can make the case convincingly by those who seek to revise (henceforth known as revisionists) books of discipline, church practices and traditions, and even Scripture itself in accordance with a particular, and judging from Professor Smith’s observations, most recent agenda.
First of all, how is the position advocated by those who champion the LGBTQ agenda consistent with holiness? In all of the accounts that we have read so far, this issue is either studiously avoided as if it never even existed, or else the meaning of the word holiness is vacated at the outset. However, not only does the Bible repeatedly affirm the holiness of Christ and the church but the subsequent ecumenical councils of the church do so as well. The Council of Constantinople in 381, for example, maintained that holiness, which underscores both purity and separation, is one of the four marks of the church, namely: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. How then do the sexual practices of this particular community evidence the purity and separation that marks the holiness and beauty of God? Traditionalists would like to know.
Second, the employment of the word “love” by revisionists within the church today as they pursue their agenda can hardly bear a comparison with the “holy love” that is everywhere celebrated in Scripture and is manifested most clearly in the self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness of Jesus Christ at the cross, in the depths at Golgotha. Indeed, the “love” described in revisionist accounts appears to have been confused with sentimentality, with wishful thinking or with outright indulgence. Put another way, thoughts, words, and actions are deemed “loving” to the extent that they are in harmony with the LGBTQ experience and its moral judgments, and they are considered “unloving” if they are not. Such an understanding of love, however, neither emerges from any careful exegetical labor with respect to Scripture nor does it characterize the lives of the saints throughout the long and rich history of the church.
Third, the holy love of God invites all sinners (both heterosexual and homosexual) to repentance, to that change of heart and mind, to that turning around (metanoia) which orients sinners to the One who is beyond them in goodness, glory and power. Repentance, then, is an invitation to an exciting journey, to that transformation of being, that will renew the precious image of God in which we have all been created. However, according to revisionists, no repentance is necessary in terms of the sexual practices and the lifestyles of the LGBTQ community. Homosexuals, we are told, must for the sake of “social justice” enter the church on their own terms (since their experience has now been made the interpretive center) or not at all.
Though revisionists like to pretend their thinking is “cutting edge” and “up-to-date” their argumentation in this setting is actually quite old and hackneyed. It is reminiscent of that sad chapter in the history of American Methodism in which sinners demanded to enter the church without taking up the yoke of obedience and repentance. In other words, they insisted on becoming a part of the Body of Christ on their own idiosyncratic, self-referential terms and ones that were unfortunately at variance with the gospel. When was this? It was during the turbulent and disruptive nineteenth century when American Methodist slave holders refused to renounce the sin of slavery and stubbornly insisted in increasing levels of self-serving arguments that they had no need of repentance, that they could hold Christ in one hand and the vicious practice of chattel slavery in the other. This manner of argument was an impossibility then; it’s an impossibility now.
Beyond this, there has been much loose talk, and even by a Methodist bishop, that the “presenting issue” does not strike at the heart of any major Christian doctrine, that no heresy is therefore involved. Once again this judgment is deeply mistaken. Like the champions of the ancient aberrant teaching of Donatism, revisionists today are propounding nothing less than an ecclesiastical heresy that undermines the Body of Christ and thereby corrupts the church in their ongoing failure to embrace holiness, repentance and the course of serious Christian discipleship. On another level, this most recent heresy reminds one of ancient Gnosticism. Just how is this so? All the usual terminology of the church is still employed (sin, grace and salvation) but such terms are now given entirely new meanings in accordance with a reigning agenda. Put another way, the metanarrative that is actually calling the tune here is not the gospel (that pretense must be shattered) but the siren song of liberal democracy in which John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is the sacred canon. In short, it appears that the revisionists have abandoned the greatest story ever told for a much different story and one that is not good news at all, that is, a genuine release for the captives. Instead it’s unfortunately a very old story, tired and worn out in its retelling: American culture once again dominates the church. Tell us it just isn’t so.