By Kristen Johnson
The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (The Book of Discipline, United Methodist Church.)
Recently, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected an openly gay Bishop, the Reverend Karen Oliveto. Immediately following her election, the southern conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) -staying in session late just to find out about the election- filed a complaint. A number of similar complaints have followed. The UMC has 7 chargeable offenses for Church leadership, this being one of them.
Last night, the senior pastor of my local UMC congregation held a seminar to discuss Reverend Oliveto’s election, what it means for the future of the UMC, and a bit about the history of the UMC. The Book of Discipline is our rule book, so to speak, and it did not address homosexuality until 1972. Since that time, General Conference meetings (every 4 years) have shown discussion back and forth on the issue, but ultimately the result has been language that is discriminatory toward gay Church members, and specifically gay clergy.
To give just a little more history of the Church, we have really only been (re)united since 1938 with an additional unification with another similar denomination in 1968. The UMC started in the US in 1784. The Church split in 1844 over slavery. I would guess that the pro-slavery faction used scripture to back their claims to rightness. Here are some sample verses that may have been used at the time:
Leviticus 25:44-46 (NRSV): 44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 45 You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.
Ephesians 6:5 (NRSV): 5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ;
Titus 2:9-10 (NRSV): Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, 10 not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.
And now, as in 1844, my Church is moving towards a split over inclusiveness of gay persons in the congregation, ordaining gay clergy, and gay marriage. And my heart is broken. The life and work of my Church is beyond important to me. Although I was raised a Christian, I never felt or experienced God until I returned to the Church after a 15-year absence as a young adult. That closeness to God has only ever happened for me in the United Methodist Church. Bigotry, fear, and discrimination within Church leadership and some congregations fills me with nothing but despair.
I asked my Pastor after the presentation what to say to people who argue about homosexuality using Bible verses. Her response to me was that she chooses to focus on the gospel message, rather than a few verses written by the Apostle Paul which most scholars feel were referencing pedophilia. I don’t have all the answers, but focusing on the gospel message seems like sound advice to me.
So, as always, I choose to focus on the gospel message above all:
Mark 12: 28-31 (NRSV): 28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
What are the commandments the scribe was referencing when he asked Jesus his question? The Ten Commandments:
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall not make idols.
- You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet.
I pray that the Reverend Oliveto will serve God and our Church community to the best of her ability, with God’s help. I pray that the fear and divisiveness within the UMC will soon be a thing of the past. I pray that the mission of the Church will remain the focus and I have no doubt that Reverend Oliveto knows the mission of the UMC well:
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Serve all with love.
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