The Methodists, slavery, and homosexuality: is history repeating itself?

I grew up United Methodist. I was baptized and confirmed United Methodist, and remained a Methodist until my early adulthood, when I attended the Disciples of Christ briefly before joining my current denomination (the United Church of Christ).

One of the main reasons I have not considered rejoining the UMC in recent years is because of its stance on GLBT matters: in short, the current (2012) Book of Discipline states that

“the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church” (220).

The denomination extends this doctrine to same-sex marriage, so it was perhaps not surprising last week when a United Methodist minister was convicted and suspended by the church for 30 days and ordered to renounce his support for same-sex marriage.

It’s inevitable that at some point the United Methodist Church will openly affirm gay and lesbian marriages and clergy. Why? Because its own history and methodology (pun intended) point in that direction.

As I’ve written about before, American Protestantism is divided between ecumenical and evangelical camps. The ecumenical denominations are those we now consider “mainline,” and include roughly those denominations that belong to the National Council of Churches. The evangelical groups are those that, in contrast, have received the bulk of the attention (and membership) over the past fifty to sixty years or so. These are the denominations, led by the very large Southern Baptist Convention, that typically disallow women clergy and have been most vocal against homosexuality and abortion, and which defend these positions by appealing to a central, albeit relatively new, doctrine: that of Biblical infallibility.

It’s no coincidence that an approach to the Bible is at the fore of what distinguishes mainline and evangelical Protestantism. It was the embrace of science and scholarly Biblical criticism in the 19th century by the former, and their rejection by the latter, which led to the split that has in many ways defined Christianity in America ever since. Conservative Christians were (and still are) anxious about the revelations that have come from said scholarship: insights into the authorship, sometimes over generations, of specific books of the Bible before thought to have been written by a single, prophetic individual; insights into parts of the Bible that simply weren’t there in their original forms; and of course, the overall humanness that is revealed by studying the Bible critically in the same way we do any other piece of ancient literature.

These differing approaches are often revealed in subtle ways. You might hear a conservative, evangelical pastor refer to the Bible as “written by God,” or in the very least, he (for it’s always a he) will refer to “Matthew” writing the gospel named after him. But mainline ministers will more often refer to “the author” (because he is in fact anonymous) and “the authors of the Bible.” Even though mainline clergy certainly believe, as a whole, that the Bible is inspired, this distinction cannot be exaggerated. For mainline Protestants, the Bible was written by men, which requires us to examine its pages in light of history, contemporary literature, and scholarly criticism.

In this, the United Methodist Church is on pretty much the same page as any other mainline Protestant denomination. On page 82 of the Book of Discipline, the Methodists affirm:

We are aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we work with each text, we take into account what we have been able to learn about the original context and intention of that text. In this understanding we draw upon the careful historical, literary, and textual studies of recent years, which have enriched our understanding of the Bible.

Like other mainline Protestants, then, the Methodists defer to modern scholarship. And this deferral takes shape most often with respect to historical context: parts of the Bible simply reflect the ancient ideologies of the authors when it was written. In broader scholarship, this has been extended to cases of homosexuality: what precisely Paul or others were envisioning when and if they spoke of homoeroticism is still an open debate, since the nature of sexuality in general in antiquity is still very much an open debate (and in any case will probably never be concluded to coincide perfectly with our own concepts of sexuality).

And while evangelical denominations speciously claim that Scripture prohibits abortion, the Book of Discipline, while reluctant on the issue, nevertheless affirms the legal right of abortion and trusts its members to enter into prayerful consideration when faced with such a decision:

“We call on all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy” (113).

If the UMC can trust its members to act in accordance with their conscience on an issue as explosive as abortion, how can it continue to draw a hard line on homosexuality, an issue whose Biblical proof-texting is at least as questionable?

In fact, the Methodists (and most mainline Protestants) pay little heed to superficial proof-texting. As the Book of Discipline goes on to say:

While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.

These four — scripture, tradition, experience, and reason — are the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, named after the denomination’s founder and the cornerstone of its methodology. In short, continued hostility toward homosexuality only meets one criterion of these: namely, tradition. As illustrated before, Methodists defer to mainstream Biblical scholarship, and there is hardly consensus to suggest that the “homosexuality” as understood by the ancients is the same kind of homosexuality with which we are dealing today. Reason also fails to hold up, as all medical, scientific, psychological, and other assorted scholarly professional disciplines agree that same-sex attraction is a perfectly normative expression of human sexuality.

Experience should be increasingly the most obvious persuader: the stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is increasingly out of step with the experiences of millions of people, whose gay friends, neighbors, and family members exhibit Christianity better than many. It is also increasingly out of step with the Methodists’ own clergy, who keep getting prosecuted for officiating same-sex ceremonies, leading thousands of ministers to petition the UMC hierarchy for an end to such trials.

And so, as Paul says to the unnamed interlocutor in Romans 2:1 who applauds or perhaps even utters the infamous condemnations of Romans 1:26-27, the Methodists are “without excuse.” Tradition is all that stands in the way of fully embracing gay and lesbian clergy and weddings, and tradition has been challenged before: women did not gain ordination rights in the Methodist Church until 1956 (and not in the Evangelical United Brethren Church until it merged with the Methodists in 1968). And even after taking a brave stance against slavery at the famous Christmas Conference in 1784, the Book of Discipline apologetically notes that “regrettably, the church gradually retreated from that courageous stand,” no doubt because so many considered slavery to be an institution sanctioned by the Bible. The church would go on to split over slavery, a north-south division that may well happen again over homosexuality.

If a split comes, let it come. There are times when courage should be shown even in the face of possible membership decline or financial loss (something that has already greeted most mainline denominations that have done the right thing); more and more Methodist clergy are coming around to that historic stand. Here’s praying there are many more willing to join them, so that a future Book of Discipline needn’t offer the same contrition it now feels over slavery.

Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

  • Shank’d

    wow. you managed to write an opinion that also informed. that’s a rare beast on this internet thing. There’s a lot to think about here. thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • satxdude

    Is history repeating itself? In a word….YES.

  • Juan Lopez

    This article is unfair. I have been to many different denominations and the Methodists are by far the most progressive. There are some traditional Methodists left (mostly the old ones), and believe me, they annoy us just as much as they annoy you.

    • Vicki Dalton

      Then change it.

    • Summer Lynn Smith

      I think the article was hopeful for the impending change… not unfair at all. Intentionally pointing out that, based on the history, something’s gotta give ;)

  • JenellYB

    I am not and have never been a Methodists, but, such things are not unique to any one denomination. Whether the marginalizing or excluding of any particular category of people causes a ‘split’ or not, it has always had the effect of separating more and more people, not only those directly marginalized or excluded, but others connected to them. In denominations of my own background, I was one so marginalized and even outright excluded for having early in life, divorced, and then remarried. That resulted in not only myself out of the church, but since I was excluded, so were my children. While I kept my faith in God and raised my children with that, they have no early church experience, and so are unlikely to ever become “churched,” and of course their children are not “church raised” either. Some things have changed, now at 65, I know some churches no longer exclude those divorced/remarried, yet even now, I am still excluded from active participation in any capacity such as Sunday School or Bible Study teacher, on that reason alone in those denominations and any others. Every time ONE category of people, every time ONE person, is excluded from the church, for any reason, a LOT of others, present and future, related of connected to them in any way, are gone from the church, too, usually forever and for future generations. And the churches now moan about how they are loosing what members they have left? Something to think about.

  • Pubilius

    The challenge in the UMC is the huge and growing number of African (conservative) delegates who vote on policy affecting the church in the US and worldwide (actually the African conferences (dioceses) have more autonomy than the US conferences.) At the end of the day, it’s not about marriage equality, it’s about the millions of LGBTQ youth in the church that are being bullied, sometimes to death, and the current UMC policy, intentionally or unintentionally, supports the culture of intimidation and bullying for our most vulnerable people. And, as more liberals are being driven out of the church (by leaving or trial) the voice supporting our LGBTQ youth is weakening.
    That said, I argue that a schism has happened: the UMC is losing what’s left of its left-wing: how many clergy have been defrocked? how many have left for the UCC and TEC? How many members have taken their time,talents, and tithe to another church or just gave up altogether? Forget the legal definition of schism, it’s here, all the conservatives need to do is open their eyes and see it.

  • RevJR

    This article is clearly written from a biased point of view.

    While the idea in the quoted phrase from the BoD, stating that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is repeated in the “Social Principles” (paragraphs in the 160′s), there the statement is immediately preceded by the statement, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.” Also, it is immediately followed by a statement of the fact that, “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Therefore, since the article here refers to “continued hostility toward homosexuality” in the context of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, it loses credibility to anyone who has studied BOTH sides of the issue.

    In fact, regarding the “inevitability” of a schism, note also that the preamble to this section of Social Principals states, in its last paragraph: “We acknowledge that, because it is a living body of believers, gathered together by God from many diverse segments of the human community, unanimity of belief, opinion, practice has never been characteristic of the Church from the beginning to this day…. We commit ourselves to stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In that confidence, we pledge to continue to be in respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons, and to tell the truth about our divisions as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things.” Thus, the denomination as a whole is committed to “respectful dialogue,” and those pastors who are defying the BoD (and thereby bringing their own integrity into question, since they swore to uphold the Discipline and maintain the covenant with the other clergy of the denomination when they were ordained, licensed, or commissioned) are violating the spirit of the Church.

    I could go on (mentioning such things as claiming factual status to points which, themselves, remain “still very much an open debate”) but my point is made, that this article does not, in itself, present a sound argument.

    • Don M. Burrows

      I’d love to hear what you claim is stated as fact while “still open to debate.” Asserting that while failing to make an argument is specious at best. I mentioned that sexuality in antiquity is still debated — are you suggesting it is not? Where are you going with this?
      As to your other points, I never claimed that Methodists don’t allow for gay and lesbian believers to have access to grace, but rather that the BOD still holds hostility toward homosexuality. Do you deny that? How can it be said not to, while saying that it is not in keeping with Christian teaching, and while disallowing gay clergy and same-sex unions.
      I disagree that those pastors who have disobeyed the Book of Discipline have shown a lack of integrity. I think it takes a lot of integrity to know that a church rulebook is wrong and act accordingly, even if it means professional alienation. Has the BOD been wrong before? Yes? So then, when it was wrong, were those who sought to change it undermining its message and showing a lack of integrity?

    • Mark

      Is Don making any false statements about the BoD? I don’t think he is, and I agree – as a lifelong member of the UMC – that it does not welcome LGBT people on equal standing with heterosexuals. I also feel strongly that this position will change in time, and that UMC clergy and congregants should continue to work diligently to effect that change sooner than later. Perhaps many of the clergy which you claim are “bringing their own integrity into question” have prayerfully come to a new understanding on this matter, and as a matter of their integrity, can no longer support the UMC’s outdated and discriminatory position.

    • Gregory Peterson

      Condescending inequality is still about denying for others what you allow for yourself.

  • doctorchrysallis

    One pastor of a United Methodist congregation in Dallas, TX, estimates that some 100 persons have left his congregation over the course of time, whenever the UM General Conference repeats its vote to exclude gay people—telling them that they are incompatible with Christianity–and to deny them full equality and justice. Yes, the UM Church will continue to lose the younger generation at an exponentially rapid rate, because young people today don’t buy into the rhetoric that the sexual orientation of gay persons is incompatible with Christian self-identity.

  • Dan Wilkinson

    Thanks for this thoughtful look at an important issue.

  • Amy Hoag

    I am a Methodist and I am one of those people who am ready for our denomination to get off the fence and take a stand that states that we embrace our gay brothers and sisters in Christ. I really don’t know how it’s all going to play out but I hope that we embrace the motto we promote:Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.It remains to be seen on how it will play out but it’s time to deal with the issue and see where we land… I hope to stay Methodist but if we take a stern anti-gay stance then I will have to re-evaluate my membership.

  • Gregory Peterson

    The Church had a race segregated organizational structure, apparently a legacy of its 1939 merger with the Southern Methodists, until its merger with the EUB, so there is a rather disgraceful legacy of excessive conservatism.

  • Gregory Peterson

    If American denominations split over slavery and are splitting apart over equality of sexual minorities…why bother with Christianity in general? What do I need it for? Who needs the aggravation and the maintenance? (I actually can think of reasons, but…you tell me.)