So…we United Methodists have been in the news lately.
Nothing big, we just elected ourselves an openly gay bishop last July and someone on the other side of the nation got their undies in a knot about it and asked the United Methodist Judicial Council for a ruling about whether or not this was ‘legal’ under the UMC Book of Discipline rules regarding clergy and specifically bishops.
The Book of Discipline (BOD) of the United Methodist Church states that homosexuality of any kind (thus including all LGBTQIA persons) is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ although the BOD does say that the UMC affirms “that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Then in a later section on ordained ministry, the BOD goes on to restate how “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be…ordained as ministers…or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”
Wow…feels discriminatory to me. Not what I want to see in my church’s polity.
Setting that aside, I have been thinking all week about that statement “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Who decides what is “Christian teaching”? Is there a central committee somewhere that I’m not aware of? I’m really confused about the statement “incompatible with Christian teaching”.
You see…I went to seminary, and when I was in seminary, I read a host of theology books. Some of those books were written by neo-Orthodox theologians like Karl Barth, some were written by evangelical theologians like Stanley Grenz, some were by liberationist theologians like Ronaldo Muñoz or Dorote Sölle, some were written by process theologians like Marjorie Suchoki or C. Robert Mesle, and some were by progressive theologians like Phillip Gulley or Roger Wolsey. Basically, I read a whole lot of theologians who understood God in very different ways, and how they defined ‘Christian teaching’ differed. Some basics (like the existence of God and Jesus) were the same from theologian to theologian, but what each theologian considered important was different and unique, and therefore the things they defined as tenets of ‘Christian teaching’ was also unique.
What I’m trying to tell you is that there very little consensus as to what the full complement of ‘Christian teaching’ is, so to have something as basic as sexuality be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ begs the question “Whose Christian teaching?” Because it is not incompatible with my Christian teaching or that of many of my colleagues and we all have Master’s of Divinity degrees and are ordained ministers and therefore theologians in our own right. Moreover, we have a lot of theologians who are far more well-known and well-spoken than we are who back us up.
The thing that strikes me as odd is that the Book of Discipline doesn’t state that homosexuality is forbidden in the Bible (Rom 1:26-27), or that it is an abomination to the Lord (Lev 18:22), or that it is a sin and therefore worthy of condemnation (Lev 20:13). The Book of Discipline doesn’t cite scripture to condemn homosexuality, it just gives a weak statement about homosexuality’s ‘compatibility with Christian teaching.’
Well, if that’s the argument they are using, then let’s get out our Bibles and turn to Acts 10. It’s time for some ‘Christian teaching’.
9b Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Acts 10:9b-28 NRSV)
Okay, anyone with half a brain who wants to argue with me is going to read this and say “Yeah, but this is about the food laws.”
NO it is not. The vision was about food, but the rest of the passage of scripture is about God sending Peter to teach a Gentile, a man who Peter (a righteous Jew) would have found unclean according to Jewish law. Let me remind you that Jewish law is laid out in books of the Bible like Deuteronomy and Leviticus, a book that I quoted earlier in reference to laws against homosexuality.
In Acts 10:28, Peter tells Cornelius and the people in his home that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit Gentiles, and then Peter says “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” God didn’t tell Peter that the laws in question were now null and void. The laws stood as they were written and yet…God was simply no longer interested in maintaining God’s own law when it caused certain people to be cast aside and considered unworthy.
The point of today’s Christian teaching is: God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
God has shown me that I should NOT call anyone profane or unclean, no matter how nicely I do it, or how sweetly I preface it with a statement acknowledging that “all persons are of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”
If God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, wouldn’t it be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ to label someone unfit for ministry because of their sexuality?
Yeah, I’m thinking so.
And if we don’t want to be profane and unclean ourselves, maybe we should knock that off, you think?