by Rev. Andy Call, a Pastor in the East Ohio Conference
A number of people have spoken to me recently about their views on what the United Methodist Church should do regarding human sexuality and their hopes for the outcome of the special session of General Conference this week. One repeated concern is, “We need to be faithful to scripture and not simply bow to the culture.”
That’s a pretty loaded statement. There is much that can be said about being scriptural in our approach to church doctrine, and typically people who refer to what scripture has to say on any given topic are of the opinion that there is only one position articulated by the Bible. Any reading of scripture requires interpretation whether we are aware of it or not. We all read through the lenses of our experience, reason, and tradition, whether we are conscious of doing so or not. I could speak on this at length, lifting various passages of scripture and applying them to our present question, and few if any people who read this would be moved to change their present position. Suffice it to say that, while there are many things that differentiate Traditionalists and Progressives, it is not true that one perspective follows scripture while the other does not. The teaching of scripture is essential to our identity as Christ-followers. I pray that whatever outcome is determined in St. Louis is rooted in scripture.
Let’s deal instead with the second part of that statement, regarding bowing to current culture. As Christians, we understand that we have been called to a way of living that is frequently contrary to the prevailing culture around us: Placing God before everything else. Loving others at least as much as self. Caring for the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. Recognizing that, in God’s eyes, the last are first and the first are last, that we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow. We are, by nature, counter-cultural.
Typically, in relation to our present question, people who express a hope that the denomination will not bow to culture mean something along the lines of holding to traditionally-held positions on same-sex relationships instead of becoming more tolerant and accepting of same-sex relationships in the church. I want to be fair to this perspective; few people who express this view desire to be hostile to LGBTQ+ people, and I believe most to be genuinely loving and desiring the best for everyone. They tend to feel, however, that society has become more accepting by normalizing same-sex relationships and different sexual identities in a way that has led us away from what the Church has taught. For many of these folks, not all, separating from the denomination is preferable to staying if the church changes its position, even by allowing local churches to decide for themselves.
There is another cultural norm we should consider, however. Increasingly, our society is bifurcated into factions on any number of issues. We are bombarded by messages that tell us one side is right and the other is not only mistaken, but inherently bad. Whether political, theological, or social, these messages promote a kind of tribal mentality that isolates us from one another, creating “camps” wherein we maintain relationships with those who are like-minded and break relationship with those who disagree.
I am grateful to serve a church where people of lots of different opinions work together toward a common mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In our congregation, we understand our unique calling is “bringing new life to greater heights,” at least partially a play on the name of the communities from which we largely draw: Cleveland Heights, University Heights, and Shaker Heights (and lots of other “Heights” on the East Side of Cleveland). We don’t do that because we all agree about everything, but because we agree about the main thing: being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ on a mission to offer hope and redemption to the world
We don’t agree about everything; we agree about the main thing: being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Culturally, we are out of the norm. I don’t believe we are alone in this. Many other churches are made up of people with diverse ideas. And yet, there is now a prevailing idea that we cannot be in relationship with people who disagree with us on some points; well, one point in particular in this case – whether and how to be in ministry with gay and lesbian people.
The culture dictates that this should cause us to divide, to separate into factions that identify on one side of the ideological spectrum or another. Some church leaders feel the same way. But if we separate, how will any of us grow? Where will we encounter ideas that challenge us? How will we move the needle on any particular question if we have no relationships to build on? Not to mention, the natural outcome of continued separation because of disagreement inevitably ends with each of us in a very small room… alone.
What if, instead, we chose to be counter-cultural, to stay together when the rest of our culture dictates it is time to separate? What if, instead of being easy to associate with the Right or the Left, the United Methodist Church challenged that false dichotomy and made the bold claim that we stand for the kingdom first and seek to learn and grow along the way? That’s the kind of cultural revolution we desperately need in our world today.