This is an opinion piece; an “Op-Ed” we could say. The opinions that are expressed are my own and I know of folks who will disagree and I know of many folks who will agree and say I don’t go far enough. That’s way it is with opinion. But this opinion is not in a vacuum. It is shaped by the start to General Conference. And it’s shaped by Scripture along with, I hope, some Tradition, Reason, and Experience. And while I’m not sure adding another opinion to the mix is helpful, I’m trying to own where I am.
So, here goes…
In the build-up to this 2019 session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis there are lots of meetings. The Judicial Council meets. The Bishops meet. Most of the General Boards and Agencies meet in some form or another. And the various caucuses and interest groups usually meet as well. There are a lot of meetings.
After all, this is a big deal. When you try to get a denomination of about 12.5 million members together to make decisions, you try to get as much face-to-face time in as possible with the delegates.
Plus, there is an added weight to this time of gathering. It is a “special” session of the General Conference. It’s “special” because it’s in an off-year and it’s “special” because there’s only one major agenda item: human sexuality and the denomination’s response to The Commission on the Way Forward.
We may say that we are “discussing” matters related to human sexuality and LGBTQI+ inclusion. However, perhaps more importantly, we are “voting on” matters related to human sexuality. If you are reading this, you are already well aware that it is something that we don’t all agree on and about which the United Methodist Church has been discussing, and arguing, and hurting for about fifty years. It’s time for a vote. It’s hard not to vote without some claiming to be winners and some claiming to be losers. Because of this, there are people with all different perspectives and backgrounds that have a lot invested–personally, professionally, spiritually, emotionally–in this gathering. And the foreboding sense of many is that we’ll all “lose” in some way.
I was at one of those pre-conference meetings. There, Bishop Robert Farr of the Missouri Conference tried to calm the fears we might have by reminding the us that this is not the first “special session” of the church and it will not be the last. The Church (note the big “C”) has been the Church for a couple thousand years. And the same thing that holds today has always held in the Church: “Whenever two of three are gathered, the Lord will be in the midst of them.” AND there will be a pot-luck. AND there will be conflict. It is hard enough to agree on the color of the carpet for the parsonage in a small local church. It’s more difficult trying to find agreement on a matter that has deeply entrenched positions in our own environment while including the perspectives and languages of the many delegates from around the world; approaching one-half of our denomination. And it’s difficult when our LGBTQI+ friends and allies have endured so much pain.
But again, this is not the first special session and it will not be the last.
That said, let’s look at one of the first ones, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, from the New Revised Standard Version:
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
This is an interesting passage. As I read it, the Gentiles were coming to faith. This was a new thing and the Jewish believers weren’t exactly sure what to do about it. Their Scriptures said that one needed to be circumcised to be saved; in other words, one needed to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian. The Scriptures were clear. There was no place for them, the Gentiles, in this church.
But these Gentiles came forward saying how God had been moving in their lives. And Peter, trying to convince the Pharisees present, testified that the Holy Spirit had indeed been given to these Gentiles; ones who didn’t seem to fit the Scripturally-defined boundaries for who could be included in the life of the growing church. Peter said, in words that must have shocked his hearers, this is testimony that God “has made no distinction between them and us.”
Bishop Farr shared this story of the special session at the Council of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts to give us hope that the Church (note that big “C” again), our Church, will survive. The United Methodist Church may look different. But God’s Church will still go on. There will still be disciples, and works of justice and mercy, and the transformation that comes from proclamation of the Word of God.
But I couldn’t help but note how this illustration from the Scripture might speak to our current reality. After all, it is story of how the church adapted its understanding of Scripture in response, not just to the changing worldview of the expanding church, but to the Spirit’s activity among those whom the church had previously excluded. When that early church heard and saw how God was present in the lives of those Gentiles and present in ministry those on the “inside” welcomed in those they had previously put on the “outside.”
Look, I am far less intelligent than I imagine myself to be. Those who know me best can attest to that fact. And when it comes to gender identity I have a whole lot to learn. I learn from brothers and sisters in Christ. I learn from my children and their friends. I learn from my colleagues across the church. And I learn from those who have a different understanding of gender in their lives. As a middle-aged, cisgender male, I understand far less than I hope to someday. I am learning. I will always be learning.
What I do understand and about which I am thoroughly convinced is that the Holy Spirit is moving in the lives of LGBTQI+ people, both inside and outside of the church. God is moving and that movement seems to break open the theological and Scriptural boxes in which I had previously, comfortably, placed my God.
I can trace some of this movement back to my days in seminary. Twenty-five years ago when I was in a hospital chaplaincy program there was one “out,” gay chaplain that I worked alongside and served with. I was younger then (as were we all) and I had little intellectual framework to comprehend a homosexual Christian, let alone a homosexual pastor. There was no box for that. It did not compute. It was like a Venn Diagram with three circles that never intersected.
But, what I did understand is that he was awesome. He was good at chaplaincy. He had more command of the Scriptures and a greater presence of the Holy Spirit than I did then…and probably than I do now. And he was willing to be in dialogue with me. What I understood is that he confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and I understood that I could see that the Lord was using him in powerful ministry for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Upon the end of our program, I, without reservation, told him that I would want him as my chaplain if ever I had the need. The Holy Spirit was alive and well in him. He was a brother in Christ I would be honored to serve with; and more, I’d be blessed if he pastored me.
Since that time I’ve had members and friends of my congregations who identified as LGBTQI+ that God has used for ministry. I have family members who identify as something other than cisgender and I have needed to listen a lot more than I talked. I have struggled with some of the language and have needed to sometimes apologize and ask forgiveness. Yet, all along, I have seen the Holy Spirit work through individuals that I might, at some time, have made “a distinction between them and us”…them and me.
I’m sure some will argue that this illustration breaks down in places. That chaplain from 25 years ago might argue that he was never outside the church, one of the Gentiles, even if I might have perceived him as such at the start of our relationship. And I have friends that might argue that comparing this avoids some other parts of the Bible that they would rather bring up. And I know that part of my understanding of this Council of Jerusalem is that, as Christians, we are ALL outsiders, let in by the grace of Christ and not through the law.
But I want to argue that if God is working through those in the LGBTQI+ community, just as God is working through those who are not part of that community, what does it mean for me to exclude them from a full life of faith in the church? Could that, indeed, be “putting God to the test?”
I am no Biblical scholar. And I don’t claim to know how the Spirit of God works. Nearly 50 years into my faith journey I’m still figuring a lot out. But I do know that the Spirit is working through individuals that the church I’m part of and love has excluded in some way or another. And I know that exclusion has caused pain that I really can’t begin to grasp. Perhaps this special session of The United Methodist Church could look back to that special session in Acts 15. If we’re going to spend a few days quoting scripture at one another, that seems like a good one focus on.