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COMMENTARY: UM bishops should favor discipleship, not Discipline William McElvaney, Mar 1, 2012
By William K. McElvaney Special Contributor
In their Nov. 10 letter to the United Methodist Church, the Council of Bishops declared their commitment once again to uphold the Book of Discipline prohibition against UM clergy conducting same-gender unions. I have no doubt that our bishops’ intent is to serve as faithful witnesses to the faith as they perceive it.
Unfortunately, there is considerable doublespeak in the words and actions of the bishops. Is enforcing the exclusion of GLBTs from pastoral services offered in love by clergy a “more excellent way” (I Corinthians 12:31) as stated in the bishops’ letter? The claim of offering grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ is disingenuous at best and simply hollow in the eyes and ears of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. The bishops blame deep pain throughout the church on those clergy who have declared they will perform union services without discrimination. Yet the bishops make no mention of the pain of lesbian and gay members as well as that of their families and friends. It’s clear that our bishops have turned a deaf ear to UM GLBTs.
The bishops have made the Book of Discipline into an ultimate covenant in place of the Book of Discipleship that for Christians is centered in the life, teachings, example and death of Jesus. The bishops’ more excellent way, as difficult as it may be, is not finally to be ecclesiastical enforcers of church law but to be courageous educators and exemplars of God’s radical agape for all through Jesus Christ.
Many UM clergy who favor enforcing the Discipline as mentioned above have assured their listeners and readers there will be a mass exodus of UM members if the church does not continue to insist that gay sexuality and same-gender unions are unacceptable. Similar claims were made when the denomination moved towards racial justice and equality. No mass exodus took place. Likewise, the same dire warning was issued when women gained full ordination rights in the UMC. Again, these scare tactics proved to be false.
Current movements towards equal rights for GLBTs in the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches have caused no great departure. Is UM membership so anchored in fear of full inclusion of gays in holy unions and ordination that our connection will fall apart? Can this fear and rejection fulfill our stated mission to transform the world?
Our task is not to save the church, as though that were needed or even possible. Our task is to be the church. Who among us would not claim that the church is stronger in Jesus Christ for having become more just and inclusive in racial and women’s rights?
Since 1972 the UM Social Principles have stated: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (Book of Discipline, 2008, Social Principles, page 103).
This position constitutes a basic dilemma facing the UMC. The phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” is absolute and misleading. True, in the past Christian teaching has been largely negative towards sexuality, especially homosexuality. The same claim can be made for much Christian tradition that favored racial exclusion and oppression, as well as exclusion of women from equality. Thank God the UMC has made significant progress in breaking through these inconsistencies with the gospel of Jesus.
Today there are many Christian teachers who do not teach exclusion and never have. Why is Jesus not mentioned instead of the amorphous, nebulous term “Christian teaching”? Was it considered too risky to mention Jesus by those at General Conference seeking to condemn GLBT sexual life?
There is a critical distinction frequently unrecognized by bishops, board and agency leaders, and rank and file UMs as to the use of the term “incompatible.” The use of the term in the Social Principles relating to war states, “We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ” (2008 Social Principles, page 128). So in relation to war the UMC ties its belief directly to Jesus Christ whereas a more generic term, Christian teaching, is used to place restrictions on GLBTs. When Jesus is omitted or banned in exchange for outworn tradition, we likely find human attachment to law rather than grace.
Authority of Scripture
The church should be concerned with being biblical in the deepest sense. What might that look like? The ranking of a few statements by Paul above all the persuasive and powerful texts related to God’s radical love through Jesus Christ can hardly qualify as serious biblical inquiry and authority. Paul and his generation had no knowledge or awareness of long-term consensual same-gender loving relationships so prevalent today.
To be profoundly biblical from a Christian standpoint is to give prominence and priority to texts in which Jesus lifts up God’s unconditional and inclusive grace. This is what I am calling the Book of Discipleship as distinct from the Book of Discipline. How can Christians miss the comprehensive “magnetic field” of New Testament texts bearing the word and deed of inclusion? These are pervasive and found in all the Gospels. Particularly striking is Jesus’ friendship and affirmation of those rejected or dismissed by the religion or culture around him.
When the church gives signals that GLBTs are a threat to the church—not eligible to be considered for ordination, not worthy to receive pastoral blessing for holy unions, although we bless animals and athletic events—and defective sexually because of loving “the wrong neighbor,” the church tacitly approves anti-gay oppression within and beyond the church. These rejections are incompatible with the Christian gospel of God’s love best known by Christians through Jesus Christ.
I urge our bishops and our UMC to embrace GLBTs to become our mentors in how together we can experience Jesus’ beloved inclusive community of courage, reconciliation, and “just” love.
The Rev. McElvaney is a retired UM pastor in Dallas and professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. He also served as president of Saint Paul School of Theology, and he’s the author of the book Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation.