Which Body: Gay Marriage and Christian Unity

Which Body: Gay Marriage and Christian Unity May 12, 2015

Last week, Adam Hamilton shared this post about gay marriage in the United Methodist Church. Hamilton is a public figure, an authoritative voice not just within his own denomination, but within all of mainline Protestantism. He’s a popular author and speaker, and having grown his church to ‘mega’ status—mostly unheard of outside of fundamentalist circles—his voice carries.

His take on LGBT inclusion is that local congregations and area conferences should be empowered to determine their own policies around marriage and ordination; and that sacraments should be performed (or not) at pastors’ discretion.   walls and halls

I appreciate Hamilton’s sense that a “one-size fits all” policy for the larger Church is neither practical nor desirable. As I’ve seen within my own denomination, directives from an institutional body do not always translate to real life, every day ministry.  For the most part, a statement of inclusion is just that: a statement. Trying to “enforce” certain practices in every context of ministry simply does not make sense. Insisting that everyone within the body must agree is never going to end well. Creating freedom for smaller bodies to engage in their own discernment will, hopefully, move the UMC out of stalemate mode. We’ve all been there. It’s not fun.

Concerning Christian unity, Hamilton—and others like him—are right: we do not have to agree on this one thing, or any one thing, to be the Church together. We should be able to serve the poor together; to sit next to each other and share a hymnal; and, as the Disciples of Christ have been saying for a couple of centuries, we should all be able to share communion and remember that God doesn’t pick favorites.

But sometimes, it is not the unity of Christ we have in mind when we make (or fail to make) denominational policies.

Ultimately, this is not just about Hamilton. It’s not about the UMC, or any of our institutional bodies. It’s not even about gay marriage or ordination, broadly speaking. It’s about what any of us really means when we talk about this kind of unity and ‘agreeing to disagree.’ Are we truly seeking the wholeness of the body of Christ?

Or are we talking about preserving an institution?

It can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Especially when conversations at the institutional level center around practices, while the local ‘body’ is left to deal in the messy reality of relationship.

Even within more progressive UMC (and other) congregations, LGBT folks are ‘welcomed’ through the doors… but often cannot become members, cannot participate in the sacrament of communion, and cannot serve in leadership roles. That side of ‘unity’ sounds a lot like disunity. That sounds like Christian hospitality losing out to ‘let’s just all get along.’

You may wonder why I care… When I am free to marry, bury or baptize anybody I choose, why does it matter to me/us what the Methodists down the road or the Baptists down in the valley think?

Because: the numbers are out. Not that we expected GREAT news about the state of religion in America, but still… The Pew Forum tells us that the number of people in the U.S. who identify as Christian is down about again. And the number of people who identify as Mainline Protestant is down even more.

This ship is sinking, folks. We are bailing out water with tiny communion cups, but it is going down.

And it isn’t because technology has drawn us out of community, or because Millennials are hopelessly selfish (other people’s theory, not mine), or because so many people have soccer practice on Sundays now and the stupid Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day. No, we are an increasingly faithless nation because the culture, at large, is evolving. As a species, we are moving past the trivialities of moral code, in the interest of our own survival. In this age of globalization, people are increasingly aware of global suffering, inequity, and rapidly melting ice caps. If they look to religion at all, they look for real transformation— for a body of people who will speak up for justice, care for the aging planet, and embody life-giving love and compassion… and we, the People Religious, come up short again and again.

Why? Mostly because we’ve been too busy playing house, trying to keep our doors open, fussing over the bylaws and deciding who gets in. We have failed to evolve with the rest of our species.

I don’t know that we can ‘bring back’ the post-exodus masses… But what we can do is hear them. We can acknowledge that we have used our resources, our time, our precious breath for all the wrong things. We have cast out where we should have drawn in. We have judged more than we’ve connected. We have fretted over our own infrastructure and who the hell is sleeping with whom, while our neighbors were hungry, hurting, isolated.

If healing of the Body is possible, it has to start with that acknowledgement. And a large measure of humility, as we recognize that ‘we’ are a growing minority, and no longer hold the authority to shape culture. The world is not looking to us for answers. They are looking to see if we practice what we preach.

While we are over here figuring out policies/ procedures, this much is true: we cannot afford to lose one more person—not another single one—because of who they love. We are dying, because we are actively cutting off parts of our Body.

Within religious organizations, formal rites like weddings and ordinations are tricky. Maybe, as Hamilton says, those things are works in progress. We can all hang out together while we figure it out. But in the meantime, all of us—the UMC, the DOC, the UCC, and all those other acronyms that mean nothing unless you know the secret handshake— are called to affirm the full humanity of every person. The gospel compels us to let everybody come to the table, whether we “agree with their lifestyle” or not. Otherwise, we are just holding a roof up over some cracked linoleum floors. That smell vaguely of spilled coffee and stale bread.

I’m grateful when high profile men with authoritative voices start to crack the door open for this conversation. Hamilton is calling for the Church to, at the very least, get out of the way where progress is possible.

But I would also challenge people in such positions to say, without reservation or apology, that the Church has been spinning its wheels in mud of human controversy for far too long; and that, for exactly this time, and this place, we are being called out and upward, to be a whole body of Christ—aching and aged though we might be—and to do that, we will have to stop actively cutting off our parts.

And you know, we can afford to do that now. We can let go of our defining structures and guidelines, our crumbling windows and walls, and use all that air and light and space to do some good in the world. We can give up the fight for this dying old institution… because it seems like she breathed her last, awhile ago now.

She told us to be well, and move on.

Edit: A newer statement from Adam Hamilton, from April 2016

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  • OklahomaDad79

    Thanks for the breath of fresh air. Makes me want to go to Church on Sunday =)

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      Well, I would certainly invite you to Saint Andrew, but I’m guessing from your screen name you live a little south of here? message me and i’d be happy to help you find a church with similar values in your area.

  • Brian Foster

    “We have judged more than we’ve connected.” This is such a powerful statement, and will stay with me for a very long time!

    • Phyllis Rectum

      Unfortunately, the people who NEED to hear it, won’t.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Love what you say in the paragraph about declining church numbers. What I have come to discover in my context (Frankfort, Kentucky) is that many people who still look to the church for help are focused on their own personal salvation (heaven when we die or personal self-fulfillment), making sure their kids learn some values, or a kind of feel good experience. I just don’t see the people you describe as being concerned about larger justice and common good issues finding their way into church. I wonder if many of them are so disillusioned with privatized and superficial religion that the church is the last place they would think about going for help with such concerns. There is a segment of the culture that I think is more evolved morally than the church that is caught up in “me” religion.

  • I agree with you: “agree to disagree” isn’t Christian unity, it’s avoidance. Our disagreements are too important for that. The question is how do we keep (meaningful) communion as we discuss our disagreements openly and honestly? All too often, those discussions end with charges of faithlessness and apostasy.

    I frequently engage in the public conversation about the sanctity of gay relationships. Trying to keep communion with those whose beliefs differ from mine sometimes feels like trying to date someone who’s broken up with you.

  • Rust Cohle

    Mainline Christianity has diminished the supernatural immortality story, and Evangelicals have kept it, as fantastical as it is. People want the immortality story, as 400+ empirical studies in the field of Terror Management Theory shows. http://www.tmt.missouri.edu My advice: start offering a big heap of supernatural fantasy again, whether it makes sense or not.


    • Wiseandcurious

      Tank you for that video, that was really inspiring. It expresses very well my attitude to death after seeing loved ones die and finally coming to terms with what it means to be and live.

  • Curtis Martin

    FYI – my UCC church welcomes gay folks into full fellowship, full communion and the pulpit.

    • crashtx1

      I’m sorry.

  • mintap

    We all know from first hand experience that humans are limited imperfect irrational beings. Trying to make policy that hinges on what autonomous humans think makes for lack of progress. Progress comes from humility, appealing to the inerrant Word of God’s revelation.

  • Everett Kier Jr

    with this line of logic I see no need to worry about the ‘church’–if we are going to be the society just do it then your numbers are big…what’s the big deal?

  • Eric Thorson

    I am not surprised or particularly dismayed that the numbers of people identifying themselves as Christians continues to go down. The church was never more phony than when America thought of itself as a Christian nation. Jesus imagined that we might be like salt and leaven – minority ingredients in a much larger loaf of bread. Institutions die, denominations break up, merge, rinse and repeat. In our little congregation, we have decided that only full inclusion of LGBT people can be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We don’t have a lot of churches around (even in our own denomination) who agree with us. No matter. We focus on trying to be faithful and loving as well as we can today. Tomorrow, the bank might foreclose on us, but the Gospel keeps calling, gathering, and enlightening us, one way or another.

    • crashtx1

      Do you call these people to repentance as you would someone in other sexual sin such as adultery? Or do you just skip all that annoying stuff?

  • R. F. Grant

    Does the soul have a gender? Perhaps this is a question Abrahamic religions should be asking.

    [www.RFGRANT.com – Published | Award-Winning | Spiritual | Fiction for an Often Disenchanted World. Visit and read now. Nourish your soul.]

  • oldk

    This is not about “who the hell is sleeping with whom” as
    the author stated but it is about what has God told us through the Bible. We
    are warned often about false teachers and to not change what the Bible says. It
    is not about sleeping arrangements.

    Looking at our out of wedlock birth rate, our murder rate
    and our abortion rate, I question if our species is “evolving” as the author
    says it has or if it is regressing.

    “The ship is sinking”? The Bible tells me God has a plan. As
    I read Revelations I can see that all will not always remain with the church
    being the ultimate word as the norm.

    We don’t lose people because of “who they love”. These people
    are lost because they do not acknowledge God as #1 in their life. If you want
    to dumb down God so that he is everything to everybody, then the ship will
    sink. The message of Christ has been with us for 2,000 years and will be here
    long after we are dust.

    To bring back the “mass exodus” we have to reach them on
    where they are hurting and that is relationships. We have to talk to them in
    the mediums they listen to: TV, music, movies, and People magazine.

    We are not talking about “preserving an institution” but
    about preserving God’s word and God’s truth because that is how He is with us.
    If we lose that we lose all.

    • Abigail Azua

      Honestly extremely well said! I believe that God has made us to love everyone and everything. We should also accept everyone in our churches but, in saying that we should never conform the Word of God to the ways of this world. We are called to be a light for those who are lost and teach them what God has taught us. Christians are not supposed to agree with what the world thinks is acceptable when it is clearly going against God but this should not stop us from loving and pouring out to people who live worldy life styles. We are called to love, share the Gospel, and let God take care of the rest because in reality only He can change the hearts of the lost.

  • Skip Johnston

    All of this is just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. However, it’s not Christianity that’s sinking, just Protestantism. Christianity is doing what it’s always done throughout its history: evolving. Just as Roman Catholicism coalesced out of the schism with Orthodoxy and Protestantism evolved out of Catholicism, a new voice is growing out of traditional Christianity. Protestantism is collapsing back into its “Bible-based” Reformation roots. Something different is evolving.

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      yes! It’s here and it’s comming…

  • lizzysimplymagic

    Animals in captivity will often “hide” food from themselves so they can “search” for it later – it’s just not enough to be fed, they seek the challenge of foraging. I wonder if the problem isn’t simply that Mainline denominations ask too little of their congregants – believe what you like, show up if you feel like it. If not, it’s cool, but be sure to like the church on Facebook!

    Embracing our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is a MUST, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think that’s the whole cause of the hemorrhaging numbers. We keep trying to make faith comfortable and easy, but maybe that’s not what people want. A lot of people are converting to Islam, a beautiful faith to be sure, but one that happens to be pretty darn demanding: tithing, ritual cleansing, five formal prayers per day, pilgrimage, dietary and dress restrictions, etc.
    Doing something hard, every day, with other people, is what really builds community and camaraderie – not sitting next to folks in the pews you see on occaissional Sundays, counting the minutes to the coffee hour, and carefully avoiding any kind of discussion that would reveal how little you actually have in common.

    Bottom line: faith is hard. It’s supposed to be. Embrace it. If there is no challenge at church, people will seek it elsewhere.