To split or not to split

A recent poll of United Methodists found that more than 90 percent of respondents don’t think the church should split over the question of homosexuality. Moreover, “[c]reating disciples of Christ, spiritual growth and youth involvement” were named as higher priorities than debates over sexuality.

The congregation I belong to is firmly in the “open and affirming” camp, and yet our pastor and leadership are strongly committed to the view that the church can and should include people of divergent views on this, as well as on other matters.

Now, in practice, I’m not sure how this is going to work, since as a matter of policy the church will have to come down on one “side” or another. Maybe the best we can hope for is some kind of “local option,” similar to what my former church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been moving toward. I’m of two minds about this because, on the one hand, I do consider full equality of LGBT persons to be a matter of justice and not simply personal preference. But at the same time, there are good Christian people who have not come around on this, and I’m not convinced that it would be healthy to continue the already-pronounced Protestant tendency toward schism by splitting the church further.

Two additional considerations incline me against a split: first, since we believe in grace and the Spirit, Christians shouldn’t regard anyone as beyond having a change of heart. And second, we shouldn’t think that we (for any value of “we”) possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even in positions we regard as fundamentally wrong, there may be elements of overlooked truth. Staying in communion and conversation with people we disagree with can be a check on smug self-certainty.

I don’t think that there’s any neat and clean solution here, and any course of action is likely to result in pain and loss. And we should be particularly alert to the effect any choice will have on those who’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination for so long. Straight Christians like myself are only too prone to discount how toxic church environments can be for LGBT people.

Probably many churches will muddle through for some time yet without coming to a decisive resolution. But I do think it’s still worth trying to find ways to muddle through together.

 

 

 

On pseudo-radical antigay arguments

This and this both seem to me to run aground on the same basic reality: gay people exist, and no amount of quasi-Foucaultian “deconstruction” is going to change that. Even if you could dispense with the concepts of hetero/homosexuality, there would still be people who are exclusively, and more-or-less unalterably, attracted to members of the same sex. And many, if not most, of these people will want to form romantic relationships, which are widely and plausibly regarded as an important part of a good life for most people. Moreover, experience shows us that same-sex relationships can foster many of the same goods and virtues that opposite-sex ones can (and may have unique ones of their own).

These facts are inconvenient for religious conservatives because the options they have traditionally proposed for gay people–feigned heterosexuality or permanent celibacy–are so unappealing. The damage that results from living in the closet is so apparent now that hardly anyone seriously advocates this in public anymore. But celibacy is hardly a better alternative for most people. There’s no particular reason to think that gay people are in general more cut out for celibacy than straight people are. (This is true even if celibacy is pitched as a bohemian alternative to the “bourgeois” nuclear family.) Certainly people can be called to celibacy, perhaps as part of a religious vocation, but it’s unreasonable to demand this of gay people as a class.

I suppose it might be a sign of how much headway gay rights have made that opponents are now resorting to such counterintuitive and esoteric arguments.

Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

The biblical case for same-sex relationships isn’t new

It’s great that some theologically conservative evangelicals are making the “biblical” case against Christianity’s historic anti-gay position. There are certainly many people–and not just in evangelical churches–who feel in good faith that they can’t accept a revision of the traditional view without sacrificing their trust in the Bible or other bedrock convictions.

But at the same time, most of the arguments mentioned in the article linked above boil down to saying that

(1) what the biblical authors (especially Paul) condemned is not the same thing we are talking about when we discuss monogamous same-sex relationships and

(2) the Bible’s “moral logic” or its “underlying values” point toward an affirmation of loving, mutually enriching, stable relationships, whether they be opposite- or same-gender.

I happen to think this is basically correct, but it’s also what more liberal scholars have been arguing for decades. It’s understandable that evangelicals would want to make the case to their co-religionists in a cultural and theological idiom that they’re more likely to accept, but this isn’t a substantive departure from the “revisionist” case that has been made in mainline Protestant churches. Framing it that way reinforces the view that mainline scholars and leaders don’t take the Bible and Christian theological tradition seriously and have just capitulated to “the culture.” But in fact, the decisions of churches to embrace full equality for gays and lesbians have typically been informed by painstaking biblical scholarship. This scholarship has led to essentially the same conclusions that are now being used by evangelical revisionists. Obviously not everyone has been convinced, but that’s not because the case hasn’t been made until now.

Can Methodists consistently oppose homosexuality?

The Book of Discipline is, in effect, the constitution of the United Methodist Church. It contains the law and doctrine of the church, specifies how it is organized, and enunciates the church’s stance on various social issues, among other things.

Notoriously, the BoD states that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and this is a major obstacle to the church blessing same-sex unions or ordaining non-celibate gay people.

But Heath Bradley, who is the UMC campus minister at Vanderbilt University, had an interesting post recently asking if the rejection of same-sex relationships is consistent with other statements about marriage made in the BoD. He points out that it rejects several of the major rationales used to deny the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. In particular, the BoD denies “male headship,” or the view that men should have authority over women; complementarity, understood as the view that men and women are, apart from each other, inherently incomplete; and “procreationism,” or the view that marriage is essentially or primarliy for the sake of having children.

How, then, he asks, can the UMC justify its position against same-sex relationships if it denies these underpinnings of “traditionalist” views on marriage?

And yet, after all this we still assert in the BOD that gay marriage is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (161 F). In light of this, I think a fair and modest proposal to our sisters and brothers on the traditional side would be to explain to us how we can continue to hold this view while denying the main lines of support that have traditionally gone into this negative judgment. If we reject patriarchy, complimentarity, and procreationism, as we officially do in the BOD, then on what basis do we continue to make this judgment about gay marriage? If the fundamental goods of marriage are ” love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity” (161 B),  then why exactly does a marriage have to include a male and female partner? Hasn’t experience clearly taught us that same-sex couples can exemplify all of these virtues?

Rev. Bradley notes that traditionalists could still appeal to the (apparent) biblical prohibitions of homosexual acts; but he points out that Methodists generally interpret individual biblical passages in the light of larger ethical “frameworks.” So if the UMC denies the frameworks that underpin most defenses of “traditional” marriage, then on what basis does it continue to proscribe same-sex relationships?

When is schism justified (or required)?

Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.

  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.

  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.

  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*

Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.

Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?

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*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.

“It gets better”–Christian style

A group called (somewhat ham-fistedly IMO) the “Not All Like That (NALT) Christians Project” has started a campaign inspired by Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video series. According to the group’s website, the purpose of the campaign is to “give LGBT-affirming Christians a means of proclaiming to the world—and especially to young gay people—their belief and conviction that there is nothing anti-biblical or at all inherently sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.” You can watch the videos they’ve recorded so far here.

The group has already been written up at Religion Dispatches and Time. It’s hard to say what kind of impact it will have, but it’s good to see the “open and affirming” Christian perspective trying to go more mainstream.