The discussion of human sexuality in The United Methodist Church is so often filled with misinformation and misunderstanding. There is little opportunity for honest dialogue around that which divides us. Language is used that immediately disallows for any transformative dialogue to occur. Take, for example, the guest commentary in the June Advocate by Dr. Bill Bouknight. Offering an analysis of the General Conference, Bouknight stated that the 2016 gathering “may have been the most faithful to Scripture and to the United Methodist Book of Discipline of any that have been held in the past 40 years.” He went on to state, “The UMC is the only mainline denomination in the United States that has not bought into the liberal agenda.”
The word “liberal” appears 10 times in Bouknight’s short analysis. He assured us that at the 2016 General Conference, at least, the liberal agenda was thwarted, especially as it pertains to the church’s embrace of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons fully in the life of the church.
What Dr. Bouknight does not say or even suggest, however, is that the movement toward the full embrace of LGBTQ persons is more and more one that includes persons across the theological spectrum. He suggested that those who take a welcoming and affirming stance are promoting an understanding of Scripture that dismisses a belief in divine inspiration. He suggested they reject The Book of Discipline’s teaching that Scripture “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” In reality, there are many so-called “traditionalists” who are articulating a way forward that embraces full inclusion of people who are LGBTQ.
The purpose of this article is to highlight just four examples of persons within the church catholic who, out of a more conservative posture, are advocating for the church to embrace fully our LGBTQ friends.
The most recent discussions of Christianity and the LGBTQ community have been aided by the work of Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian and founder of The Reformation Project. Vines is both a gay man and a person formed in a conservative Christian community. As he came to understand and embrace his own sexual orientation he turned to scripture to makes sense of his identity as a gay man and a child of God.
He wrote, “Like most theologically conservative Christians, I hold what is often called a ‘high view’ of the Bible. That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.”
Through a thorough study of the texts often used in discussions regarding LGBTQ persons as well as the exploration of the whole of sacred scripture, he has come to a place of affirming the LGBTQ community. In his words, “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationship.”
Vines is not advocating a liberal takeover of denominations. Instead, from a conservative and evangelical posture, he is coming to see that the church has, historically, had to revise its biblical interpretation when such understandings marginalized and oppressed human persons.
Tony Campolo (and David Neff)
Famed social-justice evangelical Campolo issued a statement in 2015 that marked in a shift in his thoughts regarding same-sex marriage. Campolo had, for many years, rejected the practice of same-sex marriage, and he represented what might be called a “welcoming but not affirming” position when it came to LGBTQ Christians. Like many, his discernment was not static and he, therefore, came to see the need to revise his earlier beliefs.
Campolo said, “It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.” This announcement was followed by a social media post from retired Christianity Today editor David Neff, who said, “God bless Tony Campolo. He is acting in good faith and is, I think, on the right track.”
Neither of these persons can be said to come from the liberal side of the church, theologically speaking. Both continue to hold a high view of scripture, a belief in the inspiration of scripture, and the movement of the Spirit in guiding persons and communities in the understanding of the sacred text.
This pastor of the non-denominational community LaSalle Street Church tells of how the compassion ministry of World Vision, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization, changed her life. By participating in the ministry of World Vision, Rev. Truax was transformed as the biblical faith was lived out in the flesh in Africa. While on the ground with World Vison, Truax met a shy 16-year-old boy whose parents had both died of AIDs; in that moment he became the breadwinner of the family. World Vision and Pastor Truax reached out to him, supported him, and cared for him. Truax believes in the work of World Vision and she became a regular sponsor of its work, contributing financially to sponsor children impacted by the ministry.
But when, a few years later, World Vision announced it would recognize the marriages of their employees in determining benefits, including same-sex marriage, and then, after public pressure, backed down and refused to recognize same-sex couples, Pastor Truax went from a feeling of deep appreciation to one of disappointment. Truax had come to understand that God’s embrace included the welcoming of LGBTQ persons fully into the life of the church.
She wrote, “I thought we all were going to see a truer picture of just how wide God’s embrace really is. And how important every single person is to Jesus. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.”
Truax did not stop contributing her funds to sponsor “her” children through World Vision. But as a Christian disciple, she was disappointed.
The former professor of spiritual formation and vice president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Orlando Campus, is perhaps the best example of why sweeping statements that label all LGBTQ advocates as theologically liberal is incorrect. Harper, discussing his own views on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion said, “Thanks to the exegetical and interpretive work by scholars such as James Brownson, Mark Achtemeier, Luke Timothy Johnson, Walter Wink, and David Gushee, it is possible to strongly affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture while holding a non-traditional view of certain human sexuality passages.”
Harper went on to correct those who believe the shifting attitudes toward LGBTQ equality are coming only from “liberals” who reject the authority of scripture, writing in the same blog post from March 29, “It is simply not true that only those who hold a traditional view are “biblical” Christians. Such either/or, in/out, right/wrong thinking is no longer credible.”
Unfortunately, we are seeing a common strategy employed by some in discussions surrounding what the General Conference termed “human sexuality.” By using the term “liberal” to describe the movement toward a more inclusive UMC there is, I believe, an attempt to wrongly depict what is happening in our faith communities today. Yes, those who embrace a more liberal theology and interpretive framework when studying scripture do, in large numbers, support the removal of the incompatibility clause from The Book of Discipline and a revision of our polity so as to welcome our LGBTQ friends to the process of ordination and to bless them in their marriages. But to describe these shifts in our church as coming only from so-called “liberals” is, in my opinion, an attempt to foster fear among our people and create a pejorative image of those advocating for change.
Even more, it is simply untrue.
Bible-honoring, faithful, people are coming to see a way forward that includes the full embrace of LGBTQ persons. Wesleyan persons of faith are interacting with scripture in ways that are true to the history and theology of who we are as Methodist people. We live in a period of disagreement over matters of “human sexuality,” it’s true. But we will not find a way forward by dismissing one another with labels that elicit fear.
Reprinted from the SC United Methodist Advocate