The Wording Of The Discipline (I Am Not A Lawyer)
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enable reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. – United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2012 ed., Part V, Paragraph 161, F, partial, p. 111 (emphasis added)
In the midst of all our discussions, I have seen a paucity of discussion of the actual wording in The Book of Discipline that is at the heart of our contretemps. It is a single sentence in the middle of a paragraph. The sentence uses odd language, singling out a particular type of human behavior as existing outside “Christian teaching”. The sentence jumps out of a paragraph attempting to express United Methodist love, grace, and desire for community with all persons. In the middle of the paragraph, however, this jarring sentence appears, insisting that particular acts of physical love exist outside the bounds of that love, grace, and exclude from loving community by their very nature. The paragraph continues to insist we should all get along, loving and ministering to all, while never forgetting that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” This sentence, in the context of the paragraph in which it appears, is more than anomalous. It is contradictory. This sentence is phrased in a way that no longer reflects our understanding of human sexuality, including same-sex attraction. This sentence insists that a particular form of human sexuality, unlike so many others, exists outside the bounds of Christian teaching and that those who participate in acts of physical love with persons of the same gender condemn themselves through these acts in a way that is unique not only among human sexual love, but any human action whatsoever. Insisting it is “incompatible with Christian teaching”, persons who persist in acts of physical love with others of the same gender are separating themselves from the blessed community, regardless of the desires of the Church to keep them within that community. Persons who “practice” homosexuality are not persons of equal worth; the grace of God is not available to them unless they cease having sex with persons of the same gender. They cannot be accepted in Christian community because they continue to defy “Christian teaching” by engaging in acts of sexual love with persons of the same gender.
This sentence not only discriminates theologically, without any reference to any larger Biblical, doctrinal, historical, or experiential source. By its very wording, it makes a lie of the paragraph within which it appears, demeaning the love of a particular group of human beings, and dehumanizing them by declaring that their expression of physical love for others uniquely disqualifies them not only from membership in loving community, but the very grace of God we claim is available to all persons. The sentence is dehumanizing in the worst possible way, insisting that though created by God to be the persons they are, nevertheless their expression of their sexuality destroys in a unique fashion the Imago Dei that no other sin can or does.
Part of the problematic nature of this sentence lies in its antiquated wording. When first constructed and inserted in the Discipline in 1972, the idea that persons are born attracted to others of the same gender wasn’t entertained. Same-sex acts were not understood as part of the experience of human sexuality lived out with integrity. While it was generally understood, thanks in no small part to the Kinsey Report, that experimentation with same-sex acts was common, it had only been in the previous year or two that the American Psychiatric Association had taken “homosexuality” off its list of mental disorders. Among too many, the idea that same-sex acts were integral to full personhood was (and still is) unthinkable. We know more about human sexuality, about the spectrum of romantic and physical attraction, and the reality that some people are attracted to others of the same gender. From a theological perspective at least, this brings up a host of issues for our doctrine Creation, our doctrine of Humanity including Christian teachings on human sexuality, and our Wesleyan perspectives on justification and sanctification. I believe we are still wrestling with these doctrinal issues even while the language in the Book of Discipline continues to reflect an antiquated, and no longer tenable, understanding of what it means to be human, and express our sexuality.
That is only the first part of the sentence. That some particular human act is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is neither here nor there. Most human acts, even those we cherish as expressing our best selves, are “incompatible” with Christian teaching when done outside an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, of justification and sanctification, and without being clear about the mixture of sin and righteousness that attends all human action this side of the New Jerusalem. Yet the Book of Discipline is at great pains to point out that “the practice of homosexuality” exists in a particular category of sin. All human sexuality, however, is incompatible with Christian teaching at some level. We United Methodists hold up celibacy in singleness as what is proper Christian sexuality. I believe this completely, for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being my own experience of sex prior to marriage. Even marital sexuality, no matter how blessed and filled with love and devotion is tainted by lust and simple physical desire. Fidelity in marriage in no small part is reinforced by precisely this – mutual affection and physical desire as much by a more elevated adherence to the principles of the marriage vows. To say, however, that “the practice of homosexuality”, rather than any expression of human sexual love outside a committed marital bond, is incompatible with Christian teaching singles out this particular kind of sexuality without sufficient reason.
We are creatures existing in two worlds. We live with the taint of original sin, all the while working through the Spirit, who is the mutual love of the Father and the Son, so to live that our actions might yet flow always and only from that Love that saves us. Our love is tainted by sin, even as we work, with and through the God who has created us, who saves us, and will perfect us. Our acts of mercy and charity are sinful. Our worship is never true worship. Our prayer is nothing but muddled words, as St. Paul himself noted. Yet in all this, as St. Paul also noted, we are more than conquerors through Christ who saves us.
Yet, the United Methodist Church continues to insist that a particular category of human actions, practiced by a particular kind of human being created by God in the Divine Image are outside the bounds of the grace we claim is available to all. Unless, of course, they cease “practicing” “homosexual activity”. In other words, we as a church demand some persons live other than as they were created by God. Thus, the sentence violates not only a clear understanding of Creation, of salvation, of sanctification, of our unique Wesleyan understanding of grace. At heart, it muddles our understanding of who God is, creating confusion in our doctrine of God. For all those who insist on doctrinal purity, it seems to me that only by removing this sentence from the Book of Discipline, and creating policies that truly welcome all persons in to Blessed Community, will our doctrine be consistent, our understanding of who God is and how God acts in love be clear, and our ongoing pursuit of Scriptural Holiness, both personal and social, not be sidetracked by the artificial limits placed upon it by our rejection of part of humanity.
Removing that sentence, changing the Discipline, will not change things overnight. Nor will it erase bigotry, ignorance, or our history of exclusion. Our end is not changing the language of The Book of Discipline. Our end is being more faithful people of God called Methodist. Changing the language of The Book of Discipline is only the first step in a much longer, more painful journey we must take. It is only through fire that metal is purified; this is the fire through which we United Methodists must go. On the other side is precisely what Wesley envisioned – a people on the way to perfection in love in this life.