Dear United Methodist Friend,
I’ve never been one of your number, though I’ve always been a fan. I grew up Pentecostal (among other things), where we found your personal and social holiness traditions to be fertile soil to grow our experiences of the Spirit stirring in our midst. During my years fermenting intentional house church communities, I discovered Howard Snyder’s The Radical Wesley: The Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker. Snyder’s portrait of your co-founder John Wesley’s great love for his mother Anglican Church, combined with his powerful encounter with the Radical Reformation lineage in the Moravians, was encouraging to me as I was trying to plot trails between my many spiritual homes. In my current life, my 7,000-volume theology, spirituality and history library is being hosted by Haw Creek Commons, a partnership between Bethesda United Methodist Church and the Missional Wisdom Foundation in Asheville. And—perhaps most significantly—my late maternal biological grandfather, Dave Robb, was a UMC minister and prolific hymn-writer. So while I’ve never officially been a part, we roll deep.
Your Recent Decision to Further Exclude the LGBTQ Community
At 7 million or so U.S. members, you’re the largest Mainline Protestant denomination in the United States. Your practices and your policies matter. Since around the turn of the 21st century, you’ve had a—I hope this isn’t too crass a way to frame it—marketing slogan, Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. Many folks from many backgrounds took you at your word, and have found spiritual solace in your spaces. But this inclusion has never been un-contested space, has it? Officially, “on the books,” your denomination only had about four years since its merger-founding in 1968 where you had no official stance on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer (LGBTQ) folks in your congregational life. But beginning in 1972, there has been some variety of restriction—and, my LGBTQ friends would say, discrimination—inscribed in your Book of Discipline, even though there have always been dissenting ministers, congregations, and entire regions.
There was hope that at last week’s worldwide meeting of representatives of your 12-million-member global denomination—your General Conference—that you would approve something my LGBTQ friends and allies called the Simple Plan, whose “primary purpose is to remove the language that excludes LGBTQ persons from full participation in the church.” If this was too far a reach, they at least hoped you’d approve the One Church Plan, which, again in the words of Methodist reporter Jeremy Smith, “attempts to resolve the current impasses over church unity and the inclusion/exclusion of same-gender-loving people by giving annual conferences, congregations, and clergy greater flexibility to make decisions based on individual and communal convictions as well as the needs of specific ministry contexts.”
My UMC friends penned wise treatises born from compassion and experience, urging you to move forward in one of these general directions, in unity, truth, and love. If you haven’t read them yet, United Methodists Divided (by my alma mater Berry College chaplain emeritus and current sociology professor, Dale McConkey), and Rooted in Grace: Essays on Dialogue Without Division, by members of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, are still worth diving into.
But this isn’t what ended up happening last week. Your Conference—made up of ministers and congregants, but notably not bishops—voted instead for the Traditional Plan, one which greatly intensifies restrictions against LGBTQ folks and their allies within your denomination, opening the door to discrimination, ordination removal, lawsuits, and ministers, individuals, and congregations departing The United Methodist Church in droves.
I can’t encapsulate my response better than my friend, Islamic Sufi and U.S. Civil Rights scholar, Omid Safi:
To all #LGBTQ friends with broken hearts over the decision in #UnitedMethodistChurch, I see you & I love you.
And to the friends and allies of all LGBTQ friends whose hearts are also broken over delegates’ decision, I see you, and I love you.
More importantly, God loves you.
To see your #Methodist church, the place where you call home, the place where you go to bow before the Divine, exclude human beings is heartbreaking.
What We Have in Common
If you’re reading this and have been part of the United Methodist Church, it’s quite likely that you share in my heart-break over this recent decision. You’re likely wrestling in your soul with whether you’re going to stay and continue creating beloved community in the church you’ve loved, or go to a space where your gifts, story, and being will be implicitly honored.
But if you’re a Methodist who takes comfort in the Traditional Plan, or perhaps a long-time friend or reader of mine from another Christian background who’s tracked with me since before I woke up to my own complicity in the dampening of our LGBTQ siblings in Christ, it’s you that I’d like to address in the rest of this Open Letter. Because I’m guessing that you’re wrestling, too: with what it means to love God, love people, and have a grounded sense of what’s good, true, and beautiful in our shared life together.
If that’s the case, we have this in common. Me, too!
Like you, I also share a love and respect for the Scripture of our faith. From my faith-formation growing up amid the various Protestant streams of the Bible Belt in the U.S. South, I know what it’s like to be with each other in the messy, important work of interpretation. Because I take Scripture seriously, I find it part of my calling as a spiritual communicator (and…gulp…teacher?) to question my answers and look past easy assumptions of what I hear second-hand that ‘the Bible says.’
How to Change Your Mind…If You Want To
I’m going to level with you: I’m guessing we see the biblical witness differently when it comes to whether Scripture affirms the giftedness, dignity, worth and qualification of LGBTQ folks to be full participants in the life of the Church. My study, interpretation, and conscience is clear that the Bible does indeed bless consensual and convenatal love between all varieties of people. If you’re curious how I—as someone who immerses myself in the narrative and teaching of Scripture—can arrive at this place without reservation, I’ll share three resources with you.
If you want something straight to the point, popular, and online, check out my friend Kathy Baldock‘s excellent Canyon Walker Connections website, especially this portal to the six most-often-cited Bible passages used against LGBTQ folks. See also my friends at Father’s House Ministries – they’ve just written a concise, yet entirely thorough, exegesis of these six passages, too. Everyone who takes Scripture seriously owes it to themselves to interact with this.
If you want something that shows how a real-life congregation wrestled with the full testimony of Scripture and example of Jesus around these questions, I encourage you to check out Jesus, the Bible, and Homo
And if you want something that takes into account the sexual ethics of Scripture, Old and New Testament alike, in an in-depth, scholarly way, take the time to read Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today by William Countryman.
Even if you don’t end up agreeing, these resources can help you see why United Methodists and other aspiring Jesus-followers feel so strongly that we’re all in this together, regardless of who we love.
How the Wesleyan Quadrilateral Makes Me a More Loving Christian
At the same time, I’d be telling you an incomplete truth if I said that the manifold witness Scripture was the only reason I’ve come to the convictions that I have about our LGBTQ sisters, brothers, and non-binary siblings. Growing up a fundamentalist in the Bible belt with a vague nod to Magisterial Reformation notions of ‘Sola Scriptura,’ I thought that the Bible was the only tool in my tool belt, and I naïvely thought that our (whichever ‘our’ I happened to belong to at the time) interpretation of the Bible was the Spirit-led, common-sense interpretation, held by Real Christians™ from Jesus’ resurrection onward.
I was so grateful in college to discover a framework that named the multiple ways that people of faith do, in practice, come to our respective conclusions—including Scripture, of course, but other key elements as well.
And so a fuller truth-telling of my journey to full embrace of our LGBTQ family would actually be grounded in that quintessential Methodist discernment tool, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It’s one of the richest ideas in the Methodist tradition, brilliant in its simplicity. In a nutshell, the Quadrilateral illuminates how we hear from God in the life of the Church—imperfectly, ‘through a glass darkly’ and always in-process, but still in ways that we can reliably discern.
The Quadrilateral names four key avenues of hearing God speak as being:
- Reason, and
Scripture we’ve already briefly discussed above.
Tradition as you know contains multitudes. The history of religion contains both those who abuse the ‘faith handed down to the saints’ to reinforce the power of those who oppress, as well as those who see in our history the power to bring about change. Christians sadly were involved in the slave trade and civil rights suppression of people of color on our continent, but aspiring disciples—including Wesleyans, including Methodists—were among those who joined with indigenous Black Church traditions (including the African Methodist Episcopal Church) to struggle for abolition and civil rights. The same can be said for the rights, dignities, and gifts of women to participate in the life of the church, and the same can be said for LGBTQ liberation movements within the church.
Reason is a God-given facility; I don’t think that as disciples we’re asked the check our brains at the door. Quite the opposite! John Wesley knew this, Francis and Clare knew this…there’s alot we can discern through reason simple observation of the world around us. Nature—called by our tradition the other Sacred Book of revelation—teaches us that there’s an endless variety of gender and sexual expression across species, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals—even primates, even us, created in the image of God. As a communicator called to name the Good News of God’s reconciling all things in Christ, who am I to tear asunder what God has called “very good” in the ongoing act of Divine creativity? This is where reason, grounded in the very best of scientific exploration and consensus, brings me.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it isWhen families dwell together in unity! …It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion;For there the Lord commanded the blessing— Life forevermore.
(from Psalm 133)
Vitality in Difference
There is genuine strength when we affirm unity, not only amid but of difference; without this many-corded strand, we’re missing out. Absent this, we are spiritually anemic. Misfits, ragamuffins, and those who don’t quite fit in ‘proper’ society—including those whom culture considers ‘queer’—have been present from the very birth pangs of Pentecost, the reversed curse of Babel affirming Divinity amid difference. I’m continually challenged, inspired, and straight-up blessed by the presence of the Queer Divine in the life of my faith community, Circle of Mercy church in Asheville. I’m encouraged by the early (and varied) signs of holy resistance I’m seeing this week across the United Methodist family, including GLIDE Memorial, Costa Mesa First UMC, the Missional Wisdom Foundation, and indeed, the entire Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is my heart, friend. This is my hermeneutic. This is what it looks like for me to publicly embody what I aspire to in my private life—a friend of God, a follower of Jesus, a person animated by Holy Spirit to love my neighbor as my self.
While I’m saddened that you are seeing this differently, there’s something I here I respect: that you felt a conviction, and acted accordingly. In seeking to maintain a faith community that can edify you, challenge you, meet your needs, and give you opportunities to serve, I get it. I resonate. And if you’ve been blessed to find such community in your United Methodist Church, hopefully you can see why it’s so important that my Methodist friends struggle so valiantly to co-create this same brave space for them. Many believers across North America with convictions mirroring yours have no difficulty finding like-minded congregations. But for those in the LGBTQ community, it can be far more challenging to find real discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian community amid the clamor of culture wars.
We might never come to a meeting of the minds about this matter, whose very framing we probably see so very differently. But if we can agree that, minds being what they are, it’s God who has our hearts, can we commit to pray for each other? That mind and heart alike continue to seek truth in love? I’d like that.
Thank you for considering,
Thank you for a thoughtful writing and encouragement. Help stay engaged and loving
I am a hetrosexual Methodist (I cannot use “united” in the name of my church any more). I had and now have gay and lesbian friends. And, I have a close relative who is lesbian. How can I talk with them about the behavior of some of the leaders of our church? I am brokenhearted that the church I grew up in, and 30 years ago decided to stay with, is so fractured. I am again making a decision about whether I can stay with the Methodist church. Thank you for your well-written comments.
Fran, this is a wonderful, heart-felt question. Questions like yours have inspired me to dedicate an entire follow-up post addressing this – “What do those of us who are LGBTQ or aspiring allies do when churches draw these lines?” Stay tuned!
Very well said. It takes courage to reexamine what you were taught. This nonbinary sibling thanks you for being an ally!
Thank you for your article and beautifully written from compassion.
i always have to go back to the Scripture when I am feeling unsure – and of course, how did Jesus treat people, the sinner, the saint, the Pharisee, the woman, the man, the lowly, the Kings or leaders? We all know the answer the that !!
I am so so glad He loves me a sinner. He saved me when I was a sinner and I was completely critical of the church and disbelieving of God. What a miracle.
My belief is that He wants to change us, renew us, transform us, and bring us to the best that we can be. The bible is clear on the only sexual relationship that it condones – marriages between a man and a woman (sometimes more than one woman – however, this was not Gods plan from the beginning).
We cannot go against God’s words- we always love the sinner. Sometimes we call the sin out (if a couple in your church were committing adultery, stealing from the offering, watching porn or entering into a wrong relationship – you would call it out – speaking the truth in love). Sometimes you would leave it to God – you have to be sensitive to the Holy spirit.
Every church on this planet I believe would have people in it sinning – homosexuality is called out as a sin, but so is envy, greed, drunkenness: how many people at my church are caught up in pornography, hitting their children, lying on their tax returns, or just lying ? Who knows, we know ourselves and our own sin.
I don’t believe the bible is ambiguous about sin – it is clear. It is clear homosexuality is a sin, as is divorce, green, disobedience – homosexuality is not a special sin.
In my mind and in my observance, and in reading of Gods word: we love everyone in our church, in our fellowship, we would not however give someone actively in sin a position of leadership.
Being a Christian is not for the faint hearted, God asks many things of us that are difficult, and giving up your sexual desires may be one of them. How many Christians cannot meet a life partner, are forced to be celibate, or do have homosexual desires and remain celibate? Many I would contest.
If you cannot give up your sexual desires, then how can you life for Christ.
In Hebrews Chapters 11 and 12:
when we hear of the great people of faith we hear much bigger trials than this: stoned, sawn in two, murdered by the sword, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, the world was not worthy of them, as they lived in caves, holes in the ground.
They were commended of their faith because God provided something better for us (even better than sexuality, marriage, children, a career or church leadership) . only with God do we reach perfection: surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also get rid of EVERY weight and entangling sin. Focus on Yeshua, the perfector of our faith . Dont focus on what you “feel” (I feel homosexual, I feel I should be a woman not a man, I feel … etc).
In struggling against sin (Hebrews 12:4) you have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed – God disciplines the one He loves. It is for discipline that you endure.
We are weak – for some of the temptation is alcohol, for some sexuality, for some homosexuality, for some pornography – sexual sin is a common sin – we can overcome, we can endure.
Your identity is NOT LGBTQIA – or heterosexuality, or celibacy – that is NOT your identity. Your identity is in Jesus Christ – He is your Lord, He is your Saviour and He is the ONLY one you will answer to ultimately, and for eternity.
To Mike Morrell..I have no idea who you are. However, to hear a different view of LGBTQ…
It is one thing to be gay; I know gay people who are simply regular people with an alternate sexual preference. It is quite another thing to be identified as LBGTQ. You could consider that some don’t see this as a brother/sisterhood, but as a politically active self-contained group, with membership far greater than those who are gay, and with a specific agenda that doesn’t include people of faith in the long term.
Consider Muslims, another politically active self-contained group far greater in number than Muslims of real faith. Would they be welcome to bring their agenda into a church, as would the LBGTQ with their agenda?
This isn’t saying there is anything opposed to either group. However, their goals are in different directions. One can be born of a Muslim country and be a church member. One can be gay and be a church member. The difference is what is professed. I know former Muslims who identify as Christian. I know gay people who identify as Christian. But a person who identifies as a Muslim and makes that their primary agenda, tough to be a member of a church. And one who identifies as LBGTQ and makes that their primary agenda, also tough to be a member of a church.
The Christian agenda is to go forth and spread the faith on a voluntary basis. We aren’t very good at it any more, as exampled by the lack of drive to reverse abortion. The Muslim agenda is the same, go forth and spread the faith, with a bit more drive, as in some cases be a Muslim or be dead. The LBGTQ have their own agenda, and work more with the legal system to obtain their goals. LBGTQ has a history of turning against people if those people don’t accept their agenda. That does not make for success.
In the US, these and more agendas try to coexist, with the hope of all to overcome the others. Maybe there are Muslims who are LBGTQ, but it sounds quite complicated with opposing agendas. Although Christians are less opposing, still quite complicated.
If the LBGTQ became the LBGTQS (for straight) and mean it, like really be diverse and all inclusive, maybe they could include a more welcome audience. But right now, they are more focused in crushing opposing agendas, not sharing them.
You are asking an open group to welcome a closed group and to welcome their agenda, to which they are very much attached, and to which they will expect all to adhere.
Good plea, Mike. (A bit long.)
As a straight guy married for over forty years to my first wife, I found myself the butt of a cosmic joke. Several years ago we came on holiday to Mexico, when this Bible-believing liberal Christian (not an oxymoron!), me, had long advocated a live-and-let-live gentle Christian witness, saying that gay people (all people!) get to love and marry whomever they choose. (“But I’ll stay out of their way.”)
Well, I booked a b&b in southern Mexico with Doug and Kerry, and you shoulda seen my jaw bounce off the floor when they opened the door. Yep. Two gay guys were our landlords for three weeks. And they were legally married, in Canada. So we got to see what gay marriage really looks like. (And, they’re atheists, but who can blame them, considering the way churches treat gay people.) Well, these guys are still our very close friends. And I’ve had some deep conversations with one, about the nature of consciousness – readily translatable as logos (reason). No, this was not an attempt to convert, but merely to reason together.
So, if bigots of any brand-name denomination wish to worship together in an exclusive meeting, I’d say let’em. Jesus certainly wasn’t picky about whom he mixed with! Yes, the Methodist decision is sad, but God is patient. S/He has a special remedial classroom for those who won’t get along, which gives them a double portion of themselves!