Those who advocate for full inclusion of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) persons within the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church were celebrating on June 24 when the Rev. Frank Schaefer’s clergy credentials were reinstated and he was, as some termed it, “refrocked.”
Schaefer was brought up on charges for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding and the pastor’s trial captured the attention of the national and international media.
I saw one of Rev. Schaefer’s media interviews after the announcement of his reinstatement, and he was so very happy. He said he felt like dancing. Indeed, someone at his press conference prodded him to follow through with a little dance! I couldn’t help but think of that hymn: “Lord of the Dance”:
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
For Schaefer and those who advocate for full inclusion of LGBT persons, including the opportunity for marriage and/or unions, it was a day to dance.
But not for long. One of the principles of liberation theology is that we, who are privileged, must listen to the voices of those who are on the margins if we are to hear the voice of God. This principle is evident in the coming of Jesus, who was not recognized by the religious authorities but was, instead, seen and heard in the midst of those on the margins. So while my heart was glad when I heard Schaefer’s ministry in the UMC was going to continue, I quickly began to think about how all of this press coverage impacts the most vulnerable among us in the LGBT community.
I began to think about the teenager in her middle school youth group in South Carolina who is dealing with her own sexual identity and, at a time when she needs reassurance, she finds herself afraid to tell her mentors at church of her struggles because the pastor’s sermon still rings in her ears when he said, “Homosexuality is a sin.”
She’s been taught that the Bible condemns what she’s feeling, too. But no one has bothered to share with her that the texts we so quickly quote are not so easily interpreted. No one has ever told her what my New Testament professor colleague says to undergraduate religion students: “There’s no such thing as an uninterpreted text.”
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is often used to justify anti-gay rhetoric, but a closer examination of this text shows it is not about a sexual ethic at all. In fact, we are horrified by the way this text allows for the rape of Lot’s daughters with no impunity. The essence of the text is the need for a consistent practice of hospitality.
Our representative teenager has heard Leviticus 18 used to talk about the “abomination” of homosexuality. But the rules regarding proper diet, clothing, and sexual behavior of heterosexuals are all said to be culturally conditioned and no longer valid.
She’s heard New Testament texts cited, too, that lead her to want to hide what she’s feeling, particularly in the church. But no one has told her that the notion of sexual orientation is something we have only come to understand after the biblical texts were written. No one has told her that the real subject of Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1 is unbridled passion and lust. Paul says people have begun to live so recklessly with respect to their sexuality that their lusts lead them from one person to another, one sex to another.
What’s more, in 1 Corinthians Paul uses two words that have confounded biblical scholars, malakos and arsenokoites, as they’ve sought to discern their exact meaning. It’s clear that same-sex behavior in the days of Paul most frequently occurred between adult males and adult adolescents, something we would term abuse. But those kinds of sexual practices have nothing to do with committed, covenantal relationships between persons of the same sex.
Further, it seems clear that in the days of Paul there was great concern about two males engaging in same sex behavior because one of them would be perceived to be acting as a female. Matthew Vines has recently reminded us of the context of Paul’s writings in his book, God and the Gay Christian, where he says Josephus, a first-century Jewish writer, labeled male same-sex behavior as unnatural because women are “inferior in every respect” to men. Thus, the issue troubling to ancient writers was the diminishment of the dominance of men, something we would no doubt question and reject today.
The discussion of the full inclusion of LGBT persons within the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church is a serious one. And it’s not because of the power plays that are already being planned for General Conference or because of how the Bible is used. It’s because there are, today, those persons in our midst who are coming of age and realizing they are LGBT. In the past, a good number of them felt so rejected by their families and their religious communities that they’ve given up hope and committed suicide.
I am thinking of them today, the young men and women who need the church’s ministry. Last year when I became more vocal in my support of LGBT persons in the life of our United Methodist Church I received a note from a former professor colleague who said, “You may have saved someone’s life by offering them hope.” At the time I thought he was overstating the significance of what I was saying. But, dear church leaders, he may be right. Every time we gather as church we may have in our midst a son or daughter of the church who is in the midst of processing his/her identity. We must tend our words carefully.
And while I think a dance of sorts is appropriate today, let’s soon get back to work, advocating for the love of God for the life of the world, especially those who find themselves on the margins. Let us work for that day when our LGBT sisters and brothers will hear from our language and our practice who they really are – children of God.
Keith D. Ray II | Reprinted from The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate | August 2014