In what has become something of a hobby for me, I want to take some time to respond to the misrepresentations, and outright inaccuracies, in a pastoral letter from a Bishop. Keep in mind that in the United Methodist Church a Bishop is a Bishop for the whole church, and that part of their duties are to defend the faith of the church. In this case, it is Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling and her letter.
Before moving forward however, let me make a couple of things abundantly clear. There are very real people who are hurting, as I think most of us are to some degree. Their pain should not be discounted. Whatever the future of the UMC is, it will end poorly for some. There will be pain, and we should recognize that and make space for it. That pain however can not become, as all to often it does, an excuse to demonize those whom we disagree with. That is what happens in this letter.
She begins with a quote from Isaiah 43:1-3. The choice is interesting only because near as I can tell, no one has argued that the Creator God is the savior of Israel, or us all for that matter. It’s a strange image to begin the letter with all in all, but at least she tries to build upon it with the first sentence in her words. “The turbulent waters of marginalization have swelled and the scorching fire of rejection laps at the heels of the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer members, friends, and allies within The United Methodist Church.” I have absolutely no problem with polemic writing, and do it often myself. One guarantee about it though is that wen you engage in it, the response, agree or not, will be equally so. In this case, the very first sentence does nothing to calm the situation and everything to fan the flames…not the flame of our church, just the flame of division and anger. I dare say that is not an appropriate response. Beyond that however, we have the words that I trust were carefully chosen. Let’s for example, take “marginalization”. Let’s make sure that we have a working definition for the word. “treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.” (Oxford living dictionaries) Nothing in the decision of the GC has done this. There is no group singled out. If the UMC had declared that no LGBTQ individual was fit for ordination, that would indeed be marginalization. The UMC has not, contrary to the popular narrative of those whose theology regarding sexual ethics are less traditional than mine, done this. The UMC has qualifications for pastors. That is no different than any other denomination, or even the scriptures themselves where the qualifications for deacons and elders are laid out. There is a long tradition, rooted in scripture, that hold those in leadership roles such as pastor to a higher standard. In the UMC, those standards are based in chosen actions and beliefs, not an accident of birth (gender, sexual orientation, hair color, etc.) if you will. I am really tired of Bishops telling lies about what the church says and does. Frankly it is not only a failure of their vows, but it is slanderous toward the Bride of Christ.
The Bishop goes on to say “Since 1972, our beloved denomination has inserted these words into our Book of Discipline: “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This statement is either completely ignorant of what the discipline says, and has said, or purposefully wrong to stoke anger. Either way, it is unseemly for a Bishop of the church , let alone anyone. It is a lie. The BoD has never said what she quoted. In 1972, the following language was passed. “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are person of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Further we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured, although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Bishop purposefully leaves out, and I say purposefully as I do not believe her to be ignorant of the church and it’s beliefs, the language that clearly separates actions from identity. Yes, there has been much said over (the really poor) language “practice of homosexuality”, but at the time of it’s passing it was understood and it has been continuously updated and reexplained in subsequent years. Also important to understand is that this phrase was added only because some were questioning if sex between two of the same gender was inherently sinful in the first place. The understanding had been, and remains, that sex between two of the same gender is part of a list of sexual activity that is prohibited which collectively is known as sexual immorality. Such immorality has always been forbidden pastors. Trying to insinuate that this is somehow a new thing is false, and trying to say that it is elevating one sin above another is also disingenuous as it is those who would now be described as liberal or progressive theologically were the original cause for the phrase. Also worth noting is that this language was a compromise between the liberal and conservative (theologically) factions of the day to best articulate the church’s position. History matters and either the Bishop doesn’t know it, or relies on others being ignorant of it. So, in essence, she is either uninformed, or things so little of those she is writing to that she assumes they are. Either is unacceptable.
“With those six words, we have laid on the altar of polity an entire group of persons and told them that their lives are unholy and damned. There is simply no other way to interpret it.” As discussed at some length above, those six words are not the language that was passed, so this entire statement is based then on a willing misrepresentation. Absolutely nothing in the doctrine of the UMC says that an LGBTQ individual is damned. Nothing. More lies. At this point, if she’d throw in a few statistics, I could quote Twain.
“Persons who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer are created in the image and likeness of God, as are all others. They do not choose to be who they are;” Nothing in the theology and statements of the UMC says otherwise. This is a common red herring refrain that may incite some to argument, does not reflect what the UMC actually says. “they are living as they were created to be. They do not choose a gay lifestyle; rather, they are living as God created them.” Another red herring type of argument that theologically is pretty sketchy. I don’t know what a “gay lifestyle” is, and I don’t really care to. We are all created by God. We are all created in a fallen world in deep need of restoration. None of us are fully living as God created us to be because that restoration has not fully taken place yet. We are all, to quote the articles, inclined toward evil and continuously so. The question is not what desires we were born with, but rather what we do with those desires. I know that some will say that it is not fair that an LGBTQ person can not engage in sexual relations, or marriage, with the person of their choosing. I agree, it is not fair. One of the hard truths of scripture is that we all do not carry the same burdens, or even equal burdens. We simply do not. The promise is that God will provide the strength and endurance to over come those burdens. To be as perfectly blunt as I can be, marriage and sex is not promised to each of us. No it does not seem fair, but, as in all things, we trust the promise that all will work toward good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
“We have cried with them, prayed with them, and attempted to remind them that the General Conference is the law-making body of our denomination, but it is not the church.” It may not be “the church” but it is the only voice that the church speaks through. All other voices, including mine, when they contradict what the General Conference has decided, are not the voice of the church, and do not speak with her authority. The the ecclesiology of a Bishop is so terrible, and that a Bishop so blatantly defies the voice of the church they have taken a vow to defend is simply unconscionable.
“To say that you cannot remain in relationship with “sinners” is to deny the reality that our denomination, as is the case with any denomination, is filled with persons living in ways some would define as sin.” Pardon my language briefly, but the only words that I have for this characterization is bull shit. That is not what has been said, and the Bishop well knows it. No one has said they can not be in relationship with sinners. Traditionalists have said that we can not be a part of a denomination that blesses that which is sin. Huge difference. The Bishop knows it as it has been explained numerous times, over and over. She has either become so tone deaf that she refuses to hear, or she is willingly choosing to ignore what has been said repeatedly in essence calling all those who have said it liars. If it is the second, that’s ok with me, just come out and say it. If it’s the first, then she is woefully unable to be a Bishop of the whole church.
“Our current disciplinary language simply elevates one perceived sin above all others and castigates some to the exclusion of others.” To be honest, this looks to be true on the surface. For all the talk of the important of context however, the Bishop seems to forget the context here. The only reason that this is singled out is because there were arguments over what was sexual immorality and what constitutes marriage, thus clarifying statements were needed. Has such arguments not arisen, such statements need not be made. You fight the church, the church clarifies, then you condemn the church for clarifying. That is pretty juvenile really.
“We have traversed this road before. Our church law and God’s grace have been divergent on many occasions. The Methodist Church divided over whether it was sinful to purchase and own other human beings in the practice of chattel slavery.” It did indeed. The Belief of the church was, and had been since it’s founding, that slavery was wrong. It was not enforcing it’s beliefs. It finally had the courage to do so, and the church split with those in disagreement with the church leaving. The churches law was not at all in disagreement with God’s grace in any way. It’s enforcement was woefully lacking. Funny how this is brought up as an example as it mirrors exactly what is happening now. Those unwilling to submit to the discernment of the church are raising all manner of trouble.
“The Methodist Church at one time required its ministers to sign an oath of abstinence from tobacco use. We argued over divorce and whether those who had been could serve as clergy.” Frankly, I have no issue with either of these as a standard as they are based in actions seen as to not uphold the highest standards of Christian living. We can argue that they should be there or not, but the argument is properly based in chosen actions, much as it is with LGBTQ individuals. The problem with the Bishop is that she is not making an argument based in action, but with appeals to emotion and sentimentality.
“Our denomination wrestled with the inclusion of women in the ordained ministry.” As mentioned above, basing such things on accidents of birth is, and always will be wrong. There is simply no comparison here.
“I believe those words, supported by the Great Commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” are the heart and soul of the Gospel. That love is unconditional. It includes all.” Loving God in the Old Testament, where the first and greatest commandment originated, was never separated from obedience to the word of God. Likewise in the New Testament Christ affirms this when He tells us that if we love Him we will obey His commands. Love of God is never separated from obedience to God. Never. Love of neighbor is the same in many ways. It is indeed unconditional, but the attachment of approving of all actions as necessary for love does not in any way, shape, or form, reflect the Scriptures. When Jesus met the rich young ruler, he gave him the conditions of following. The ruler was not prepared to do so, and he walked away. It is clear that Jesus did not approve of this action, yet I have no doubt He still loved Him, and in no way loved him less. The whole idea that in order to love people we must endorse and celebrate all of their actions is not only silly, not only does it not reflect scripture, it does not reflect how any of us actually live. The Bishop would have to not love me if this were reality as I did not support the OCP. I assume the Bishop loves those in the church. There are actions we all reject and yet all claim to love the people who make those actions.
After editing, this is still to long, and I apologize for that. I do believe that whatever the future of Methodism is, it will require a theologically educated laity not swayed by emotional appeals, but rather grounded in truth as the church understands it. When well known pastors and Bishops spread misrepresentations and in some cases outright lies, it falls upon the faithful to speak the truth in the midst of those likes. Disagreeing is one thing, but the unfounded vilification of others should not ever be acceptable, and we all should love the Bride enough that we would not consider slandering her.