As United Methodists enter the final week before our called General Conference on queer sexuality, I wanted to ask some questions of my traditionalist counterparts with as much sincerity and humility as I can muster. I’m not trying to land zingers and create a spectacle, but rather to engage in dialogue as respectfully as possible. So here are my questions.
1. Do you feel as ambivalent and confused as I do?
I know that most of you are not like the angry old men I come across in the United Methodist clergy Facebook group (who themselves are probably kind, gracious humans elsewhere). One thing that has always perplexed me about conservative evangelicals is how sure of themselves they seem to be. But it occurs to me that I am probably making false presumptions that could just as easily be made about me based on my public persona.
I experience a lot of anguish, ambivalence, and uncertainty about my theological views in general. Since I grew up evangelical, I am goaded by the evangelical narrative about church growth and decline. When my campus ministry has trouble retaining people, my first assumption is that the gospel that I’m preaching is not compelling.
I’m additionally ambivalent about the consent-is-the-only-criterion sexual ethics that many on my side have adopted. I believe that how we use our bodies for sex (and everything else) impacts how well we connect to God and how responsive we are to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and sanctification. I just don’t believe in legalistic sexual boundaries that exist for purely authoritarian reasons. I believe that the boundaries prescribed by the Bible are given for the pragmatic sake of improving our reception of divine grace and our ability to transmit that grace to others. So I understand sexual ethics according to that formula of practical holiness. Which is different than saying consent is the only criterion.
So I can’t help but wonder if some of you on the other side are analogously ambivalent about your side’s position or if there are actually different variations of your position when from my vantage point it looks entirely opaque and monolithic. For instance, what would you say to a pair of men or women who wanted to marry as a lifelong covenantal commitment to one another and remain sexually celibate within that marriage (a quiet practice which actually exists in some quarters)? What about intersex people who are born with non-binary physical anatomy? I know several transgender gay college students whom you would presumably classify as heterosexual, so if a transgender gay person wants to marry a cisgender gay person, does that work for you?
Of course none of these theoretical distinctions have to do with the emotional ambivalence that I’m honestly hoping you feel at least a little bit. When I’m angry at your side, I just want us to break up even though I would lose a large chunk of my ministry’s funding. But when I spend face-to-face time with traditionalists who are unequivocally loving people, I get confused and ambivalent. I don’t like the way that we dehumanize each other. I don’t like the person that I become when I do that.
2. Why is queer sexuality where you draw the line?
A common talking point among traditionalists is that queer inclusion is not the “real issue” but it’s just a “presenting symptom” of bad theology. Setting aside the sting of calling real human beings a “presenting symptom,” it’s hard for me to understand why this issue is where you draw the line. Why aren’t we having a debate about what the cross means and whether Jesus was bodily resurrected? Why aren’t we debating what small group discipleship should look like or how we should interpret scripture in general?
It seems from my vantage point like taking a stand against queer sexuality is functioning symbolically for you as a proxy for taking a stand against secular humanism. What about having a queer-inclusive interpretation of scripture means that we have utterly abandoned the Bible and not simply made a distinction between timeless theological principles and first-century Jewish social mores just like the one United Methodists made when we ordained women against which there is far weightier, more unambiguous scriptural prohibition?
How many of you have presided over a second wedding for divorcees who left previous toxic marriages for complex reasons other than straightforward adultery? I did it for two Catholics who couldn’t find a priest to do the service because they didn’t want to subject their ex-spouses to humiliation through the annulment process. Is it as obvious to you as to me that Jesus wouldn’t tell people they have to stay single forever after a failed marriage just because he made a tough pronouncement for the sake of protecting women who were being thrown away by their husbands in a very different time?
United Methodism gives us the latitude to think pastorally and graciously about so many matters even when it involves crossing what some more conservative denominations consider to be a clear authoritative biblical teaching. If it were Jesus, I’m pretty sure he would say, “The Sabbath is made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”
3. Do you worry about creating a stumbling block for evangelism?
Evangelical Christians David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons wrote a book about a decade ago called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity And Why It Matters. In it, they shared research data which showed that “anti-homosexual” is the adjective most commonly used by young adults to describe Christianity. That was long before gay marriage became the law of the land and “religious freedom” became synoymous with the right to discriminate against gay people.
It is hard not to suspect that the rapid religious disaffiliation of young adults today is a direct result of the anti-gay fixation of the evangelical church over the past several decades, especially when the young adults say that it is. Go onto Twitter and type in the hashtag #exvangelical if you want to see the full fury of those who have been pushed out of the evangelical church by anti-gay theology.
I’m not saying that we should make theological or moral decisions based on public perception. But creating unnecessary stumbling blocks for evangelism is something that Jesus says he will judge us harshly for doing. Is the cost of officially allowing a diversity of views about queer sexuality in our denomination greater than the cost of continuing to drive young adults away from the church by engaging in what they consider a form of discrimination analogous to racism and sexism?
In other words, are you sure enough that you’re right and that the gospel itself would be compromised irreparably by queer inclusion that you would rather see people turned away from Christianity altogether than corrupted by queer-inclusive Christianity? Is queer-inclusive Christianity not Christianity anymore to you?
I suspect that when you hear that, you hear me putting secular pragmatism over fidelity to scripture. If you read through my blog, you’ll see that my perspective is thoroughly rooted in scripture, however much you might disagree with my interpretation. When I read the Bible, I always read it with the objections and challenges of my students in mind. I am always trying to figure out how to knock down stumbling blocks that get in the way of their evangelism. I want the gospel to make sense to today’s generation, which is completely not the same thing as simply changing the gospel to what they want to hear.
My concern is that you are doing the opposite of evangelism out of a conviction that the gospel is inauthentic without stumbling blocks. Is it possible that in your zeal for orthodoxy, you are creating unnecessary litmus tests that may be fulfilling your existential needs while they sabotage evangelism? Evangelism isn’t the only consideration, but it is what gets the most weight with me due to my gifting and calling. And part of my duty as an evangelist is to push back against Christians whom I see making orthodoxy more onerous than it has to be.
4. What will you lose if your side doesn’t get its way?
One very basic question needs to be asked in an age when our pastoral sensibilities have been completely colonized by the secular leadership culture of corporate management and marketing. Is spiritual vitality the product of coherent branding a.k.a. “doctrinal clarity” or is it a gift of the Holy Spirit? To what degree should we expect a Spirit who creates cacophony and chaos throughout the book of Acts to manufacture simple, uncomplicated doctrinal unity in our church? Yes, there is one spirit, one baptism, and one body of Christ, but the body of Christ has many members, each of which needs to be equipped differently for different roles.
If I didn’t think doctrine was critically important, I wouldn’t write 2000 word blog posts trying to tease out the intricacies of it. But I believe that I’m a better Christian when I’m locked into covenantal relationship with people who are passionately committed to doctrine that clashes with mine. So it’s hard for me to understand why theological diversity is a crisis in and of itself. Maybe you can help me understand better what you’ll lose if United Methodism officially proclaims a diversity of views and practices regarding queer inclusion.
I suspect that you will lose some congregation members to the non-denominational megachurches if the One Church Plan passes. And it’s true that the more conservative members tend to be the biggest donors. But will any of them stop being Christian altogether?
What I’m concerned about if United Methodism reaffirms its rejection of queer inclusion is that my queer students will stop being Christian. If we lose even one of our queer students because of this General Conference, that will be a tragedy.
Perhaps you feel vindicated when people on the other side leave the church because it shows their theology is weak or something like that. As for me, every sheep that leaves the flock burdens my heart, and I not only want to chase after them, but I want to wrestle hard with whatever it is that pushed them out. Even if you disagree with my views, please pray that my students won’t be pushed away.