It has been a long journey for me to get from conservative evangelical to — well, whatever I am now. And it’s certainly not a trip that started with the “gay marriage debate.” In fact, rethinking my position on homosexuality might have been the last step. And no, none of this was because the gospel was too hard. So please, don’t drop that on me. The problem wasn’t that it was hard; the problem was that it didn’t make sense. It didn’t work anymore. So I could either keep embracing the God I was being taught — who was getting less loving and more cruel by the day — or I could start from scratch and figure out exactly what did I believe. What was true.
It all came back to how I had been reading the Bible. And so began a decade-plus long re-thinking. Of unlearning what I was taught, and listening again for the voice of the Spirit.
The Spirit. You know, Jesus never promised us a book that would guide us in all things. He promised us a Spirit – to be fair, a Spirit that spoke to early followers who wrote stuff down, to our great benefit, and a Spirit that has since spoken again and again to us through that book. But the book did not come first; the Spirit did. And the Spirit didn’t stop speaking once we got that book.
And if we’re going to be brutally honestly, a number of thing people have “heard” the Spirit speaking through that book have turned out to be garbage instead of the Word of God. It’s happened more times than we can count.
“The Bible clearly says…” When you hear those words, the alarm bells should already be going off in your head. It’s a phrase that would be funny if it hadn’t been used so recklessly so often. You mean the same Bible that clearly endorses slavery? That Bible? Or the one that white supremacist leaned on, cherry picking statements from first the Old Testament, and then from the Apostle Paul’s clear statement that God “determined the bounds of [men’s] habitation” to support their own bigoted policies of Jim Crow and segregation? Or maybe you mean the plain reading of scriptures that has been used, and still is used today, to marginalize and silence women, because it “clearly says” that women are to be silent in church, and are not to have leadership over men. The plain reading of Scripture has even been used to authorize and endorse physical and emotional abuse within families in the name of Spiritual headship. After all, isn’t a wife supposed to submit to her husband in all things? Doesn’t the Bible clearly say that?
And let’s not even get into what the Bible “clearly says” about tattoos and lobster and polyester and covering your head in church and rich people getting into heaven.
Clearly, the Bible “clearly says” a lot of things, some of which are clearly contracted in the same book where the first clearly occurred, as in 1 Corinthians when Paul instructs these supposedly silent women on how to behave when they are prophesying. (Sign language, perhaps?)
But sometimes it takes hundreds of years, a move of the Spirit, and much literal bloodshed to get to the point across to us, to get us to the point where we are finally willing to admit: yes, I know what the text says, but it can’t possible mean that. Because it also says that there is no Jew or Greek, man or woman, slave or free. So maybe owning other people is wrong, no matter what the rest of it says? Maybe women really should have equal rights? Maybe — maybe we’ve been too wound up in protecting our own power and our own systems and our comfortable prejudices than we have been with expanding the Kingdom of God?
Now, maybe the people who wrote were just trying to communicate God’s truth the best they could. Maybe their message was only for a certain people at a certain time. Or maybe they didn’t see the whole picture.
Or maybe sometimes — well, maybe sometimes they just missed it. Maybe they got it wrong. It’s no great shame. Everybody makes mistakes. So why do we think the people who wrote what has become accepted as Scriptures were immune to this most basic human trait? Because here’s the thing: with any message, there is a giver and a receiver. And even if the transmitter sends a perfect signal, the message is limited by the quality of the receiver.
The latest issue to challenge our status quo is the Scriptural understanding of homosexuality. It’s been a long time coming, with the first discussions in the Methodist Church taking place in 1972, just four years after the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church. Generally speaking, we have sided with an inclusiveness of words, if not deed. You can be gay and be a full member. You are not restricted from serving, or being served the sacraments. But you cannot be a pastor. You cannot be married by one of our clergy, and you cannot be married in one of our churches. And while we say we support “simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law,” we also say that no “board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” Which, to me, sounds like it kind of undercuts all those lofty social justice goals we just stated. Now, to be fair, it goes on to say that we also don’t give money to anti-gay groups either. We take a stand by …standing still?
And of course the coup de grace comes in the Book of Discipline, where we make explicit the second class status of Gay Christians. “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” In case you were wondering, I did do some searching, but I couldn’t fund any similar paragraphs addressing gluttony. So, good news! The potlucks and cookouts can continue as planned.
The issues involving homosexuality will be up for debate again in 2016, during the General Conference next summer. It is without a doubt the most important General Conference in my life time. You would have to be blind not to see the sea change of opinion of this country, and not all of it is driven by demographics of younger people being more accepting of gays and lesbians. It is also driven by older people rethinking long-held positions as they confront questions which are no longer academic questions. So in the next part of this series, I wanted to take a moment to walk you through my personal journey.
Part III – A Different View