Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Did the UMC really elect a lesbian Bishop? A primer on UMC-speak

Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Did the UMC really elect a lesbian Bishop? A primer on UMC-speak August 31, 2016

Bible-with-XDear Thoughtful Pastor: My question: I have been an active member of the United Methodist church for years. I know that the discipline is supposedly BIBLICALLY BASED but the recent appointment in Arizona of an openly lesbian to a Bishop position is TOTALLY CONTRARY TO WHAT I KNOW THAT THE BIBLE TEACHES! I am considering re-thinking my position of belonging to the United Methodist Church. I even looked up the difference in the United Methodist and Methodist church hoping that the decision was made for the regular Methodist church and NOT THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH. But,that WAS NOT THE CASE. This took place in a United Methodist Church in Arizona.

Readers: you will have to wade through some confusing terminology here to understand both the question and the answer.

One: The “discipline” the questioner refers to is The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the UMC’s rule book which guides the functioning of this 12,500,000 world-wide member denomination. The book is a long, confusing, contradictory in places, many-times amended document, similar to the US tax code.

Two: There are other Methodist groups, but none nearly as large as The United Methodist Church.

Three: The General Conference (GC), meeting every four years, is the one place that changes to the Book of Discipline can be made. The GC met in May, 2016. I served as a reporter for that Conference and learned first-hand the nightmarishly difficult process of making changes, similar to getting the US Congress to actually pass helpful legislation.

Four: The Judicial Council (see below) functions in The United Methodist Church in a similar manner to the Supreme Court in the US. The Judicial Council rules on the validity of various decisions made by the UMC. It is not uncommon for the Judicial Council to strike down major legislation passed by the General Conference.

Five: The most hotly debated parts of the Discipline concern language about human sexuality. These debates threatened to completely shut down this past General Conference. The UMC was at the brink of dissolution when a motion was passed to refer all legislation connected to sexuality to a committee to be appointed by the Bishops. The committee with brings their findings and recommendations to a specially called General Conference. While the decision to refer kept the UMC intact, it also left a great deal unresolved and heightened tension.

Six: “Jurisdictions” refer to groupings of US states where Bishops are elected and appointed to serve in various Conferences, smaller groupings within the larger Jurisdictions.

UMC Jurisdictions. Photo courtesy of UMC Communications
UMC Jurisdictions. Photo courtesy of UMC Communications

So, as the questioner notes, this summer a married lesbian pastor, the Rev. Karen Oliveto, was elected to serve as a Bishop. The election took place in Arizona as delegates, both lay and clergy, from the Western Jurisdiction gathered for that task. After her election, she was appointed to serve the Mountain Sky Area, which includes both Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences.  As of September 1, 2016, Rev. Oliveto stepped into her new role as Bishop over Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado plus one county in Idaho

Shortly after her election, delegates from the South Central Jurisdiction, (Texas is a part of that grouping) filed a request for a “declaratory decision” by the Judicial Council that essentially asks them to strike down the election. The Judicial Council will address the request in the spring of 2017.

So, now what? That’s what this question poses for the questioners, for many in the UMC, and for many other Christians who find themselves troubled by the increasingly complex issues surrounding the Bible and the nature of human sexuality.

Unquestionably, parts of the Bible appear to condemn any same-sex intimacy. Do an Internet search for “clobber passages” The verses condemning and punishing homosexual activity will pop up instantly.

Unfortunately, other verses also indicate support of slavery, promote genocide, encourage polygamy, suggest that the sun revolves around the earth, and insist women should be silent in church gatherings.

Biblical interpreters address and resolve most of the challenging passages by recognizing their unique cultural settings. Nonetheless, there are religious groups today who believe those verses accurately describe God’s plan for humanity and the nature of the universe.

That pretty well sums up the many passionate discussions and arguments over the human sexuality issue: while a significant number of US Christian scholars think that the “clobber passages” do not describe loving, same-sex couples of today, another significant group, especially those in African churches, believe exactly the opposite.

ask-the-thoughtful-pastorThe UMC stands at a complex crossroads. If it splits over this, it won’t be the first split. It also split over slavery. In a gross over-simplification, the southern church supported it, the northern church did not. SMU, Southern Methodist University, has its roots in that split.

All Christians, including the United Methodist who wrote me, must decide how to interpret the Bible today. This process will not end, ever. We can, however, show respect and generosity to different opinions and decisions.

[Note: a version of this column is scheduled to run in the Sept 2, 2016, edition of the Denton Record Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. Please email questions to:]

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  • Bob M

    Interesting reading. I am a former UMC, for a variety of reasons, and am happily a Presbyterian Church -USA, also one of a number of “Presbyterian groups” and like the UMC the largest. We’re not perfect and while we do ordain openly LGBT people, it is not universally accepted. We have lost congregations and there are even spit off new groups who believe the PC-USA is in contrition to the Bible. We, too also split over slavery, we spit over ordaining women.

    I found the person asking the question interesting and you were good to translate a number of things. I don’t think I had ever heard the Book of Discipline referred to as being “Biblicaly based…”

    It is interesting that a whole Jurisdiction voted to appoint this new Bishop. I know that there have been individual pastors brought before local conference Judicial bodies and placed on “trial” for being LGBT. One happened here in the Philadelphia area a number of years ago. With this happening on the Jurisdiction level, it brings the conversation to an entirely different place.

    One of the things I have learned about being Presbyterian is that we believe that people are called by God to ministry and this call is confirmed by the local church or regional body. As a pastor once said, during the debate about ordaining women, ” The sense of call is between an individual and God, it is not our place to say to someone that their call is cannot be valid, it is our job to help the individual confirm the call, not judge it. It is between God and the individual.” We do this through prayer and waiting on the Holy Spirit for guidance. To say otherwise may be the church standing in the way of what the Spirit is doing in the church.

    The road ahead is certainly going to be a rough one, I don’t imagine the Judicial process will be a smooth one and what ever happens, there will be angry people on either side. There will be calls for the church to split, there will be gnashing of teeth about “loosing” members. The important thing to remember is that God may just be doing something new and it is my hope and prayer that the Church will be willing to step out into what ever path into the future.

    • Guthrum

      At some point the teachings of the Bible have to be faced. Our church left the ELCA some time ago. It was not just the gay marriage issue. Over the last several years we got tired of seeing the leadership contradict totally what we were hearing in the pulpit and Sunday school classes on Sundays. So we voted to leave. This is being repeated in the mainline denominations as millions have left for new churches and organizations that teach and preach the Bible as the authority, not cultural theology or whatever is popular. I recall the PC – USA at one time as a respected, influential denomination. But the leaders began to move away from Biblical authority and ignored the opinions and views of their members. Now it is in total decline, as is the ELCA, and Episcopal Church US. Maybe the UMC can learn from those denominations’ mistakes and avoid disaster.

      • I do understand the need to leave when it appears that the leadership has violated basic tenets and covenants. This is why I’m pretty sure the UMC will split–the disagreements have reached a point of being unbridgeable.

        • Gregory Peterson

          Of course if the UMC splits over equality for a minority population as it had once split for freedom for a minority population (as other American Protestant denominations did…and are doing), perhaps that says something about American Christianity in general, something not all that flattering…

          Guthrom wrote: “One solution would be a separate division but would still be within the UMC.”

          That has been done before. It was called the “Central Jurisdiction” and was created when the Methodist Episcopal Church merged with the white supremacist, segregationist Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

          I’m not sure that officially reestablishing a segregated Jurisdiction structure is all that moral of a solution, even if the minority group being segregated is multi-ethnic.

    • Thank you for posting. Yes, we are indeed in for a rough ride in the future and I hold little hope that the UMC will stay “united.” I do hope, however, that out of the ashes from its death, we will indeed see the miracle of resurrection.

  • RandyBurbank

    This quote from your blog: “Unfortunately, other verses also indicate support of slavery, promote genocide, encourage polygamy, suggest that the sun revolves around the earth, and insist women should be silent in church gatherings.” You could have added that those who take these positions have taken those passages out of context. Simply because some take passages out of context, does not eliminate God’s intended design before the fall. Progressives in our Tribe have neither scientific nor Biblical contextual support for their position. I await the report from the Commission (if it is ever convened) before I make a decision on which path I will finish my life journey with.

    • Your point about God’s intended design before the Fall is well taken. Certainly those verses in Genesis do paint a picture of male/female companionship of beautiful intimacy.

      • Gregory Peterson

        I would disagree with that. “God’s intended design before the Fall” is about making patriarchy as “God’s intended design.”

        Notice that Eve is created as a help mate, that she doesn’t consent to her marriage, and is passive to Adam’s aggressive seizing of her in that scene, setting a pattern for Biblical marriages.

        It’s also rather witty, with a man who has never had parents, or fathers and mothers which had never existed, talking about leaving parents to become as one flesh with a woman who was his own flesh.

  • Stupid Atheist

    Ms. Thomas is to be applauded for eschewing the 1 Tim 2:12 mandate that “she shall be quiet” and not deign to instruct us menfolk on matters of scripture. I share her disregard.

    That said, the Biblical prohibition is that a man shall not lie with another man as he would a woman. If the author is willing to risk further angering her Lord with her impudence, I’d be curious to know where the scripture speaks specifically to the crime of lesbianism…

    • I would guess many would suggest that Romans 1:26-27 might be cited, “For this reason God game them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged nature intercourse for unnatural and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”

      Glad you share my disregard for the verses that insist I be quiet! I lived in that world for a long, long time and it nearly killed me.

      • Stupid Atheist

        I appreciate you taking the time to reply!

        And while Paul (or Tertius if you wish; I have no dog in that fight) chastens the women’s “unnatural” intercourse, he doesn’t do us the courtesy of defining it, risking that each reader of these letters will define it for themselves.

        I’m all FOR that of course, because it leaves me free to demand that sex is only unnatural for women if it isn’t with ME. Not many people accept that assertion. Those that do are featured prominently on my Facebook Friends list. 😉

        The KJV version is more blunt: “…even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature…” suggesting everything from bestiality to bedding Michael Moore. But again, we’re left to our own devices to arrive at lesbianism as being verboten.

        Men are even admonished not to lust after women (or other men) where, again, women suffer no such prohibition. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that Yahweh seems to dig horny lesbians, but draws His line in the sand solidly, and solely, at the base of Brokeback Mountain…

        • I am genuinely tickled at your interpretation of the sexual leanings of Yahweh!

    • Gregory Peterson

      I won’t speak for all Gay men, but what Gay man would lie with another man as he would a woman? Why would he want to? A straight man might, however.

      Since Leviticus 18 is about the ancient politics of Jewish identity, of not doing as the Egyptians and the Canaanites do (but obviously don’t anymore), I’m guessing that the verse is about some strange Moloch sacrifice ritual that I read about somewhere (wish I could remember), where a man would lie with a cross dressing priest to offer up his male “seed sacrifice” to the god.

      In any case, it’s not about sexual orientations and today’s ideal of loving, mutually consenting relationships and marriages. (Not a lot of mutually consensual relationships in the Bible.)

      • Stupid Atheist

        “…what Gay man would lie with another man as he would a woman?”

        Great point! I’d not considered the logistics of the situation…

  • mspktoo

    I know the South Eastern Jurisdiction asked for clarification of the election of the lesbian bishop. Did the South Central Jurisdiction also ask for clarification? Since you only mentioned one – the South Central, were you referring to what the South Eastern did, or were there two seeking clarification of the action contrary to the BOD and the vows of the clergy? I had not heard about the South Central so was just wondering.

    • Dale White

      Yes. The SCJ was in session at the time of the election and submitted a request for a declaratory ruling to the Judicial Council.