The recent judicial invalidations of Proposition 8 and DOMA highlight the rapid liberalization of American attitudes about sexual morality. Against such a cultural backdrop, many see any continued disapproval of homosexual practice, or pre-marital sex, as hopelessly outdated. Some United Methodist ministers have recently made high-profile challenges to denominational policies against same-sex unions, including retired Yale Divinity School Dean Thomas Ogletree, who faces a possible church trial, while others say that the United Methodist Church, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, is truly the one on trial.
But this minority within United Methodism is dramatically losing ground in our governing General Conferences. It is widely agreed that our balanced stand—that all individuals are of sacred worth and that sex is only for “the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage”—will remain for the foreseeable future.
Intra-church sexuality debates reflect deeper, irreconcilable differences over Scripture, Jesus Christ, human nature and the character of Christian discipleship.
While I am not an official spokesman, here are key reasons why a growing majority of United Methodism supports our increasingly counter-cultural standards and why some, like me, have even renounced previous liberalism on such issues:
We believe in repentance. We realize that all of us are fundamentally sinners (members of the LGBTQ community no more so than me), in desperate need of the restoration uniquely available in Jesus. Methodists were historically known for recognizing that we also need a Christian community who loves us enough to challenge us when we sin.
We submit to Jesus as Lord. If He is truly Lord, then no area of our lives can be off-limits to Him. Jesus spoke strongly about the centrality of self-denial in following Him, which often means dramatic personal sacrifices, including not acting on powerful desires for things outside of God’s best for us. This is rather different from just seeking religious endorsement for how we have already decided to live our lives. But Jesus and new life in Him are more than worth it.
We are a biblical church. Our core doctrine calls the Bible “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Even liberal biblical scholars now agree that the Old and New Testaments are very clear in their moral disapproval of homosexual practice. I will never forget the courageous witness of a same-sex attracted friend I got to know while earning my master’s at Harvard Divinity School. After a relative asked him what more he could possibly expect the Bible to say to convince him of its position on homosexuality, he committed himself to celibacy and went on to faithfully serve in ministry. More fundamentally, Scripture paints a beautiful picture of marriage as a holy covenant of intensely intimate, self-giving community between man and woman, uniting the two most basic, equal categories of humanity.
We are a church in the historic Christian tradition. So we cannot jettison 2,000 years of remarkably consistent church teaching, including from Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, on homosexual practice and the definition of marriage.
We are connected to each other. Our clergy choose to make a covenant commitment to respect each other, even amidst disagreement, by submitting to certain agreements for how we live together and processes for potentially modifying these agreements. Those who unilaterally break this covenant, but lack the integrity to surrender their ordination, effectively declare that their word cannot be trusted and they will not honor United Methodists of different perspectives.
We are a global church, with members in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Overwhelmingly white, liberal American United Methodists have desperately worked to marginalize the growing millions of largely orthodox sub-Saharan African United Methodists, but such structural racism is unsustainable. Dr. Ogletree’s suggestion that our historic, global church should set its morality according to politicians and corporations in one nation (ours) at one point in time is strikingly ethnocentric.
Finally, we want the best for all of our neighbors. We mourn the breakdown of the family, which has been especially devastating for the poor. Recent advances in redefining marriage are part of the wider problem of marriage being treated as a human-made contract—which involves two autonomous human parties devising arrangements for their own benefit to last until one feels unfulfilled—rather than a sacred covenant in which man and woman sacrificially commit themselves to each other under the authority of the creator of marriage, ratify the covenant through the gift of sex as God designed it, and stay lovingly together for life regardless of difficult circumstances or changing feelings. So the United Methodist Church is on record as “support[ing] laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” and being “concerned about high divorce rates.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously exhorted Christian leaders to be like the early church, which was not “a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion,” but a thermostat that took its cues from God rather than the surrounding culture, and thus powerfully influenced that culture.
I am thankful to be part of a denomination that still formally stands on a more solid foundation than the ever-shifting sands of American secular culture.
John Lomperis is Director of the UM Action program of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.