Monday, January 12, 2015

The Bounds of Christianity

"A community with no boundaries can neither have a center
nor be a community." Thomas Oden

"Boundaries aren't all bad.
That's why there are walls around mental institutions." Peggy Noonan

Orthodoxy: of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc.; of, pertaining to, or conforming to beliefs, attitudes, or modes of conduct that are generally approved.

The loudest debate in the American arm of The United Methodist Church over the past several decades has been over the issue(s) related to chosen sexual behavior. Specifically, many United Methodists have disagreed with the Church about whether or not active homosexual relationships are valid within the framework of Christian discipleship in a United Methodist context.

The Church maintains in Article IV of our Constitution that, "...all persons are of sacred worth." That is vital to understanding United Methodist exegesis of Scripture through the lens of Wesleyan theology.

The Church also maintains in paragraph 304.3 of our Book of Discipline, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." This is equally important to understanding United Methodist exegesis & is in line with the rest of the Church Universal and her teachings on sexual ethics and behavior. The United Methodist position is hardly unique or groundbreaking.

The "conversation" has been marred at times by various acts of ecclesial disobedience from pastors & bishops which has forced the Church to strengthen its prohibitions against homosexual choices rather than have any meaningful dialogue. Many faithful United Methodists hope & pray that these acts will cease in order to facilitate a real conversation.

And there IS a conversation that is not only worth having but necessary for the Church as we engage 21st century American culture. It may not be the conversation many want to have, but it is nonetheless vital if we are to speak to one another in any meaningful ways.

The question which must be asked - in as loving & as gracious a way as possible - is this:

Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Certainly, historic orthodox Christianity, of which the United Methodist tradition is a part, has not affirmed sexual behavior outside the covenant of a marriage between a man & a woman. There is biblical precedent for this teaching as well as theological support throughout the 2000 year history of the Church; there's no need for me to
re-present that here. This is simply the default teaching of Christianity, and is founded on faithful biblical exegesis by many intelligent, well-meaning saints over many years.

Breaking with the Christian faith on this issue - which progressives admit is vitally important - may be quite dangerous for The United Methodist Church.

Other faith movements have broken with orthodox Christianity in the past. The history of the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups are filled with well-meaning persons who were and are very sincere about their faith and who wholeheartedly believe that they stand in divine favor. They should be respected as persons of integrity and conscience...but that does not make them orthodox Christians.

Mormonism, for example, has been dealt with by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church which in 2008 stated that, "...the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presents itself as a faith tradition outside the parameters of historic, apostolic Christianity," and that Mormons seeking to become United Methodist must first receive the sacrament of Christian baptism as their LDS membership is not considered within the bounds of orthodoxy (see Resolution #3149 in our 2008 Book of Resolutions & the related teaching document Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

There is also precedent for considering social issues & behavioral choices to be outside orthodoxy. Few would consider Westboro Baptist Church's extreme hate speech as perfectly orthodox, in spite of their faithful adherence to Dordt Calvinism. Likewise, most people on both sides of the political aisle would agree that pederasty is unorthodox behavior.

The wisdom of the Church, then, teaches us that allowing theology or practices deemed outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity to be accepted or normative within the Church is a threat to our identity as the covenant Body of Christ. At the point of acceptance of non-orthodox theology or practice, that branch of the Church ceases to be the Church & becomes a new religious movement, perhaps utilizing Christian language & concepts but distinctly non-Christian.

The question is thus a crucial one for us to discuss. Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Surely, the Safe Sanctuaries policies of the Church have reminded us that boundaries matter; not every behavior is acceptable in every context. The Church has the responsibility to determine what is appropriately Christian behavior and what is not.

The imperative debate, then, is not about whether the Church should bless weddings of persons who have chosen homosexual behaviors or partners, nor is it about whether the Church should ordain to the pastorate those who are actively engaged in homosexual behaviors. The debate concerns the very nature of the choice of those behaviors & whether they can be deemed at all to be within the bounds of Christianity...ever.

I take very seriously my ordination vows & the doctrinal standards which I swore to teach & uphold. Not only must I as a United Methodist pastor teach the Church's position on the appropriateness of homosexual behavioral choices, but I also personally agree with the Church's position which, as I've stated, is based on 2000 years of Spirit-led, Spirit-driven quality Biblical exegesis by faithful saints & should not be dismissed lightly.

Nevertheless, I am happy to engage in this critical discussion with friends who disagree with the Church. I am willing to listen & consider. Granted, the witnesses of Tradition, Reason, Experience & (especially) Scripture make it very, very difficult for those who disagree with the Church to change my mind (and the minds of other United Methodists who are much smarter than I am & are equally committed to orthodox Christianity), but I am willing to engage.

But let us not debate the wrong questions. Let us consider instead whether or not it is even possible for the Church to approve of chosen homosexual behaviors while still remaining faithfully a part of the covenant Body of Christ. That is a conversation worth having.


Brett said...

Excellent, my friend. Thanks for keeping it real. An no, I'm not a robot.

Anonymous said...

Keith, I appreciate the tone of this post and a serious engagement with the issues that are before us. I have, and continue to hold, reservations about making the church's acceptance or rejection of monogamous LBGT relationships a matter of orthodoxy or heterodoxy. Chiefly this is because the ecumenical creeds from the first centuries of the church did not weigh in on ethical matters, but stuck to doctrine. This doesn't mean the church did not take serious ethical stances, but that she tended not to put them on par with things like the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Holly said...

I am wondering whether you (we) should accept the baptism of a person who seeks to transfer his or her membership from a denomination that is "affirming"--such as the MCC, the UCC, or the Episcopal Church?

Keith H. McIlwain said...

That's a good question. I suppose it will depend on whether or not it's determined that affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices is still within the bounds of orthodox Christianity.

Unknown said...

So you claim to welcome and minister all, but the only question related to homosexuality suitable for debate is this last one as you've narrowly framed it here? Meanwhile your default position is that folks who affirm same sex marriage are not Christian. I can't see how you'll lead any married gay folk to Christ or otherwise further they journey into discipleship. Sad to say so, Keith, as I've enjoyed ourselves interactions and many of your previous writings, but I feel like you've wandered far from the rails of fair discourse here.

I have previously recommended you read three 2014 books by Gushee, Renfroe and Harper. Have you a chance to do so yet? If you read just one, I guess it is clear which one (they were suggested as a balance set).. I would implore you to read carefully Steve Harper's For the Sake of the Bride.

Unknown said...

Ps: odd typos in previous comment with help of iPad autocorrect. 😄

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Dave: Yes, as all United Methodist pastors do, I welcome & minister to all people, regardless of their pasts or what sins they have committed. All of us are sinners in need of grace.

I didn't say the ONLY question re: homosexual behavior is the one I have asked in this post, but it IS an urgent question & probably key before any other meaningful questions can be debated. I can't see how it's unfair in any way.

I also didn't say my default position is that those who affirm homosexual choices as theologically valid are not Christian; I merely asked the question. The Church's position on the appropriateness of those choices is pretty clear.

It is the intention of the Church to lead people to Christ, yes...and that also involves penitence for sins & mercy offered in his name. That is my prayer for all people regardless of what sexual choices they've made.

I'm sorry you don't think the question I've posed is a fair one, but I think it's one the Church must grapple with before any meaningful conversation or substantive change. Peace.

Unknown said...

Keith, you wrote “I merely asked the question,” but can’t you see how some might hear that as akin to saying “I didn’t say you beat your wife, but I’m merely asking the question?” Can you find a more fair-and-balanced way to frame the question “is it orthodox?” It is inappropriate to make repeated reference to LDS, Unitarian-Universalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses where their challenge to orthodoxy is over issues of creeds and Christology? It's inflammatory to suggest that gay-affirming UMCers are perhaps pursuing “a new Christianity-like religion”? Why not just ask for dialog on "how is affirming same sex marriage compatible with Christian orthodoxy?" without stacking the deck rhetorically?

Still I must apologize to you for the way I opened my comment writing “you claim….” I wish I had said “you try….” Writing “you claim” seems to carry a charge of insincerity, and I do not think you are insincere. I do think you welcome all as best you can. What I doubt is the effectiveness of that welcome where the LGBTQ community is concerned and how that undermines our ultimate goal of making disciples. My sense from your other writings (particularly on Wesley and Arminius) is that you have great understanding and ability to convey prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. All our mission field need to hear that message. But we differ on our approach to LGBTQ people because no matter how nuanced one tries to be (e.g., stressing only “behavior”), the traditional approach to gay folks fails. I surmise that you are an effective pastor in your local setting. Other local settings are better served by other approaches. I see UMC as a big tent denomination, and I value being in communion with you regardless of our difference on issues of homosexuality and heterosexism .

So with that that, and appreciating your willingness to engage on the other questions in due course, let me give you the courtesy of answering the question you posed:

Yes, it is possible to affirm monogamous same sex marriage and still remain faithfully part of the covenant Body of Christ: (1) The historic creeds that are foundational to ecumenical orthodoxy make no explicit mention of homosexuality or same sex marriage. (2) Whilst there is debate among biblical scholars over the context and extent-of-applicability of the anti-homosexual so-called clobber passages, no one finds any explicit discussion of homosexual orientation or of same sex marriage in the ancient biblical texts. (I believe that both affirming and non-affirming scholars make valid and respect-worthy exegetical points and hermeneutical conclusions, but let's be honest about what's just not there explicitly). (3) While it is true that centuries of Christian tradition have condemned homosexual behavior, it is also true that reason and experience of recent decades are countering the traditional view of homosexuality in ways that are compelling to many in our communion. (4) Past traditionally-grounded Christian views have been overturned based on science (e.g., movement of planets in Galileo's time and the mechanism of evolution vs. 7-day creationism in our grandparents' time. (5) Past traditionally-grounded Christian views supporting discriminatory policies in slavery and patriarchy/sexism have been overturned by reason and the progress of time in our parent’s time. (6) Already some mainline Christian denominations have affirmed same sex marriage, and the UMC is still in communion with them.

So we've been at this juncture many times before -- where there is growing acceptance of a social change running counter past church teaching. We've surmounted the "centuries of tradition" challenge before. Yes, “it is possible” to do it again and remain faithfully a part of the covenant Body of Christ.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Thx Dave. A few responses to your points:

1) The creeds ARE crucial to orthodoxy, you're right, but they don't define ALL of orthodoxy. They're great summaries, but orthodoxy is more than the creeds. The fact that they don't mention sex at all doesn't mean that some sexual decisions are more appropriate than others.

2) Yes, those passages are hotly debated, which they should be. I'm all for that. But to date there hasn't been an exegetical consensus that swings away from traditional interpretations.

3) I agree with that point, which is why I think the Church MUST debate the question I've posed.

4) True, but IMO the Church shouldn't necessarily discuss the science of attraction. It may well be that someday we identify a gene that definitively leads to same gender attraction, but that doesn't mean a person MUST engage in certain behavior. We HAVE identified a gene for alcoholism; that doesn't mean we allow loved ones to just drink themselves to death. A person is still responsible for the behavior they choose. I am inclined to be very attracted to Halle Berry, for example, but if I cheated on my wife with Ms Berry, I'm still responsible for that behavioral decision.

5) The comparison to race is a non-starter for me, to be honest. The pigmentation in a person's skin is not the same as a person's chosen behavior. The issue isn't inclination; it's about choices.

6) Yes. Is that appropriate? I don't know.

I appreciate the engagement!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Also, Dave...I see your rhetorical point & your reframing of the question to "how is affirming same sex marriage compatible with Christian orthodoxy", but my overall point is that we may not be to the place yet where we can even entertain that reframing. We haven't yet even DISCUSSED in the Church whether or not affirming homosexual decisions is within orthodoxy; we've skipped over that crucial step & it has led to additional confusion & conflict.

My proposal is that we go back & revisit that missed step before debates about gay marriage or ordaining active homosexuals, which by nature HAVE to be contentious until we deal with the crucial question of orthodoxy.

Unknown said...

Hi Keith,
Likewise I appreciiate your engagement. I wasn't trying to be sneaky with the marriage angle. Just seems like a stacked deck question without it. I was trying to make your question something I could begin to engage. As a parent, I want to point both my straight and queer kids towards love and commitment which marriage best supports.

I don't want to encourage you in your lustful inclinations toward Halle Barry, but if Ms. Barry goes for it, I'll definitely reconsider the persuasiveness of all your other arguments. I mean this lightheartedly. ;)

Peace, brother.