“For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. “
(Although I owe a final meditation on Being Christian in America, I am pausing to respond to the chaos in the UMC today. Of no small irony, that chaos is the inevitable outcome of the state of American Christianity, and in this sense, fits well in the short series. This meditation, however, is not the third installment as promised last week.)
Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but for three consecutive days, I sat glued to my iPad and watched the livestream video of the Special General Conference of the UMC in St. Louis. In addition, I am one of about fifteen or sixteen clergy and spouses in a messaging group through some app I had never used before, and I read an estimated 3,000-4,000 messages beginning last Saturday (Feb. 23). The only thing worse would be to have been there in person. I think it is safe to say that not one person walked away from the conference in a good mood. If we are all miserable – and we are, and if infighting in the denomination is a terrible witness to Jesus Christ – and it is, then why not just say “yes, all sexual expression is equal and God-ordained?” Why not?
Clearly, such a response would be exponentially easier. In the last few days, traditionalists have been vilified, insulted, and spat upon. We (for, yes, I am certainly traditional in my beliefs as I write and teach to recover ancient Christianity) have been called haters, homophobes, close-minded, evil, and (my personal favorite) a virus in the UMC. So, why is it that, in the face of such unrelenting vitriol, do traditionalists hold the line on sexuality? Why go through this over and over again for the last 47 years? The progressives are equally as miserable as the traditionalists. They feel rejected and excluded in ways I am sure I do not fully understand. Lord, have mercy, but we have heard the Scriptures quoted to support every viewpoint, and I am not going to quote them again here. We all know the biblical proscriptions against certain sexual behavior, and we all know the exegesis to counter those teachings.
Instead, here, I am going to try to give an apologetical account of the traditionalist point of view. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to like me. But I want to defend those who stood in St. Louis and stoically accepted the degradation of angry invectives repeatedly hurled their way. Why not just say “yes”? What follows is the abbreviated version of the answer. I will try to touch on each point, but I can hardly do justice to a full defense of each. Even at that, this meditation requires more time and space than I normally allow, which is already more than most other devotional material. But, so it goes… I do not believe anything in life is as simplistic as we would like it to be.
I begin with the passage above, not because it is part of any argument for or against sexual expression, but rather, because it is a statement of the intent and purpose of our God in and through His Son, Jesus Christ. It is also, in so many ways, a critical key to understanding traditionalists and the way in which they view ministry.
“For God so loved the world…” One of the most favored and widely-known verses in the entirety of Scripture, God loves our world. He doesn’t just love the world into which His Son was born. He loves this world, and if we would follow Him, then we also must love this world. Thus, when the woman tweeted that she was waiting to discover her value in the UMC, she was confused. The UMC has determined her value is one of sacred worth, and life sacred to God is of infinite value. That is the value of the woman. She is precious, and she is beloved of God. It is a grievous error to claim that LBGTQI people are excluded by traditionalists. Every traditionalist pastor I know, and they are many, welcomes all people in his/her congregation. I have never once heard any pastor say an LGBTQI individual was or is not welcome, not a single time in 25 years of ministry. To the contrary, I have witnessed great compassion for the Queer community among my colleagues, which is not the same thing as saying any and all sexuality are acceptable and ordained by God. Even as traditionalists vote no, they are unhappily aware that our vote is the cause of someone else’s pain. That brings me to the next clause of the verses above I want to use to explain.
“He gave His one and only Son… that the world should be saved through Him.” Our world is desperately, terribly broken, so much so that God sent His Son to save it. There has never been a world not in need of saving, no generation, no culture, no political system, no language, no time when the world did not need to be saved. In the middle of that world stands the Church, and it too is full of sin, for it is full of human beings. The Church lives under the constant threat of the prowling lion in the midst of the darkness, chaos, and confusion that reigns around us. The battle to be and to remain the light of Christ to and in the world is both an individual and corporate battle. When Jesus called us sheep, He was not complimenting us. We are so easily led astray, and the only hope we have of continual faithfulness is continual prayer. The world is full of glitter that is not gold. Ideas bombard us from every direction, and discerning how to be a faithful Christian takes constant prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit.
Christian faith and life are not determined by popular vote or polls or petitions. We are called by Christ Jesus out of the world to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. The opinions and ideas of today’s world make no difference. They have never made a difference to disciples of Jesus Christ. We follow a God Who was crucified by the world. Eventually, we are going to be in conflict with our world. Moreover, our world is only rightly understood when seen through the lens of the Gospel. We need to realize that all the trend-setting institutions in our society (media, entertainment, and such) are unquestioningly secular, meaning they are godless. Without God, nothing has value, not human beings and not sex. The reason the UMC is in such straits is precisely because we have absorbed so much secular thought into our faith, and cannot see the deep contradictions between Christianity and our secular society. (That’s why I decided to write the short series on “Being Christian in America” in the first place – to draw attention to our confusion.) Contrary to the hypersexual focus of our society, a human being is not required to have sex to be fully alive. That is a notion that has gained ground in our society because we have lost the dignity and majesty of the human being. Animals have sex. Christian sexuality entails the whole of the person – heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is not a purely physical act. Just because our culture has reduced sex to that does not mean Christians need to agree. In fact, Christians must bear witness to the wonder and beauty of Christian sexuality in direct contradiction to our culture’s understanding of a biological activity not unlike eating.
Turning to God’s intentions in creation, I want to address the issue of the Image of God. Genesis 1:27 states that we are “made in the Image of God, male and female.” Though one can hardly claim this is true of all heterosexual marriage, the closest reflection we have to the communion of the Godhead is the marriage lived in Christ between male and female. Both male and female reflect God, and together, when both persons seek to live faithfully in Jesus Christ, their marriage offers our closest hint to the fellowship of the Godhead. It is not complete. It is not clear, but the glimpse of divine communion remains. The only other offer in the New Testament is the committed, celibate life lived in full dedication to Christ Jesus, i.e.: as seen in monasticism today.
Genesis 2:24 states that “they become one flesh.” That reference is indeed to the act of sex, but this sexual act is the means through which we co-create with God. Nothing, nothing, more perfectly expresses “one flesh” than a baby born of the mother and father. That whole, new, little being is the one flesh made entirely from the flesh of the mother and the flesh of the father. To be sure, we have the science to assist the Queer community with procreation, but it cannot be done with male and female contributions. Science simply provides LGBTQIs the illusion of one flesh.
Having identified God’s intentions, we need to remember that what God created is now fallen. Who and what we are, are subject to sin. Thus, when we hear people claim to be born with a particular inclination, a gender preference, I believe that is entirely possible. I have no reason to argue with that statement. However, when we begin to use “born this way” as a defense for behavior, we are skating on very thin ice.
Creation in the Image of God is not the equivalent of who we are at birth. Human beings are born with the seeds of death within them. Whether it is heart disease or cancer or diabetes, the human body possesses these potentialities at a cellular level when born. The same is true of moral agency. Moral failure is sown in our birth as part and parcel of our fallen world. You do not have to teach your children to lie. They do that spontaneously. We do not have to teach selfishness. It comes naturally to us. The whole of Christian life is dedicated to being saved from what we are at birth to become who God intended in our creation. We are born creatures of death, and we are reborn by the Spirit as creatures of Life. If we attribute sexuality to a fluke of birth, genetic or moral, the next logical step to argue is that God ordains that babies be born with anencephaly and children be born to lie. The appeal to birth bears witness to the depth of the challenge faced by LGBTQI Christians, but it does not justify sexual behavior. Because I was born selfish does not mean that it is acceptable to God that I live selfishly. Because I was born genetically inclined to heart disease does not mean God desires heart disease in me. God came to save the world… God came to save me from all to which I am subject, even those things that I so completely enjoy. If we attribute our appetites from our birth to God’s intention, we are one step away from making God the author of evil, regardless of what we mean. We cannot have it both ways.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and growing in His likeness require the death of self. Jesus is unequivocal about that. All human beings are made in the Image of God. We possess the capacity to love, to think, to imagine, and the like. Human beings can be atheist and still possess the Image of God in this way. But to grow in the likeness of Christ requires that one die to self and allow the Holy Spirit to work within to transform and change the individual. We are called to live as Paul described when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20a)
So, what am I suggesting? Conversion therapy? If evangelicals are guilty of anything, it is oversimplifying how hard transformation is. ‘Just keep praying, and everything will be fine.’ That is not so. Transformation is hard. Dying to self is hard. Sometimes, God leaves the thorn in our flesh in order to keep us humble. Does God change orientation? Nothing is impossible for God. But it is difficult, and you really have to want change. Sometimes, we simply don’t get our way, and we must struggle under the burden of our humanity. I remember a friend telling me he prayed to quit desiring cigarettes, and it worked. He just stopped smoking, no problem. I, on the other hand, prayed to quit wanting cigarettes, and I must have quit smoking a dozen times before I actually stopped. I have no idea why it was easily granted to him and not to me. But I do know that I liked smoking. A lot… What we cannot do is take away the possibility and promise of being made new. If the power of sin in us cannot ever be broken, then there truly is no reason to be Christian. Therefore, if there is sin in any form, our God has the power and the will to heal. But only a very few enjoy the miraculous healing. Most of us just have to fight against its allure.
What I am truly suggesting is that, whatever it costs, however much it hurts, dying to self and rising in Christ are worth the price. There is all joy. There is all hope. There is all love. There is all acceptance. Life in Jesus Christ is everything, and it is offered to everyone without price. I am certain that Queer people experience Jesus Christ’s grace and mercy, forgiveness and love. However, the demand to normalize LGBTQI sexuality reminds me of nothing so much as the rich young ruler who approached Jesus. He did everything he was supposed to do, right up until it came to his worldly treasure. The Queer lobby in the UMC is prepared to be Christian right up until it comes to their worldly treasure: their sexuality. It is the trophy of secular Christianity, the embracing of what the world desires over and against what God intends, with the hope of making people feel good about themselves. Christianity is not about self-esteem, and there is nothing wrong with guilt. Christianity is about being saved from death, which is the inevitable price of sin.
Finally, I want to turn to the clause, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world.” I am certain that the LGBTQI Methodist community feels rejected and condemned by traditionalists, and that is truly tragic. But simply because they feel that way does not make it true. Traditionalists cannot walk away from the promise of life in Jesus Christ for those who are willing to die to self. This is the centerpiece of traditionalists’ spirituality: “not my will, O Lord, but Yours…” I have no idea what is the centerpiece of anyone else’s spirituality, and that is my point. I am no one’s judge. Perhaps progressives are right and traditionalists are wrong. But we are being asked to turn away from the Gospel we received, the Gospel that is saving us today. And that, we cannot do. We are not called to condemn, but to love, and love is not always sweet. Love does not always give us what we want. Love does rejoice in truth.
It would indeed be so much easier to say “yes,” but that is not the pathway to life. The pathway to life goes through death to self. That is the essence of our salvation, and the Son of God took the journey first. We, as His disciples, must take the same path.
In Christ –