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Commentary: Church at impasse on homosexuality

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Russ Whaley*

Jan. 3, 2008


The Rev. Russ Whaley

As The United Methodist Church prepares for its 2008 General Conference, perennial issues related to sexuality are again popping up.

Last fall, a letter urged me to work with my congregations and draft petitions to General Conference that get really tough on homosexuality. In short, I was asked to rally my people to stand firm and say that homosexuals who wonít repent of their lifestyle are not fit for membership in the church.

I havenít received any letters from "the other side," but I imagine theyíre making similar efforts through similar avenues.

Homosexuality has been a contentious issue in The United Methodist Church and at every General Conference since 1972, soon after the denomination officially came into existence in 1968 through a merger.

What has happened in the 36 years of debate since?

Not much. While denominational policies have slowly become more conservative, roughly the same proportions of votes for or against have occurred every time. Neither side is gaining ground.

In other words, my friends, itís a stalemate.

'Enough already!'

How does one resolve a stalemate? Quit fighting, and find a different way to confront the problem!

"We are losing all ability to work together for the greater glory of Godís Kingdom because weíve gotten so divided and distracted on one issue."

Am I going to lobby on this one? You bet! But Iím going to lobby in a manner different from what the lobbyists urge. And I would appreciate my United Methodist brothers and sisters arising and telling both sides firmly, "Enough already!"

Do I have an opinion on homosexuality? Of course I do, and I am sure that you do, too. I arrived at my conclusions after a great deal of prayer, study of Scripture and consultation of historic church tradition, as well as current thought on the issue. I'm sure others have done the same. My opinion on homosexuality is not a primary point. I donít think yours is, either.

My point is that a lot of people have been so focused on this issue that they miss the real point. We are losing all ability to work together for the greater glory of Godís Kingdom because weíve gotten so divided and distracted on one issue.

If you really want to know my position, ask me privately, and I will tell you privately. If we donít agree, that's fine. I love you even when we arenít eye to eye on something. Isnít that part of the nature of the true church?

I would think that declining United Methodist membership since 1968 might serve as a glaring warning that we need to do some serious "getting together." If we are to do that, we need to lower our swords and let them be plowshares.

Casting stones

I do not believe the right answer is simply to deny church membership to people of homosexual orientation. Simply put, itís not godly.

If I toss out gay people because of their unrepentant attitude, there are a number of unrepentant persons who, in all fairness, I should also excommunicate. For instance: members who gamble or wonít stand against gambling, though they know full well the United Methodist position on the practice. Also, members who use tobacco (our Book of Discipline says that use of tobacco is not a morally indifferent issue) or alcohol (after all, we did start Prohibition).


A communion chalice, broken in protest of the church's stance on homosexuality, is mended and returned to the 2004 General Conference altar in Pittsburgh. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

Some members recite membership vows in the presence of God to support their church with their prayers, presence, gifts and service. Then they never show up in worship or contribute in any way to the life of their congregation, although they still expect the church to be available when needed.

The list could go on, but I think you get the point.

Iím a pastor. What shall I do with all these sinners? Oops. I guess I also should give myself the old heave-ho since I wrestle with sin as much as anyone.

Please donít misunderstand. I am not attempting to make sin less important. The Bible is clear that "all have sinned and fall(en) short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23 NIV)

Sin is sin. Whether you cheat on your spouse, murder your neighbor or steal ó itís all sin. If we are going to "get tough" on the practice of homosexuality because, as the Discipline states, it is "incompatible with Christian teaching," perhaps we should, in all fairness, get more specific and tough on all sin, whether controversial or not.

An instrument of grace

Itís a God-given truth that if you want to receive Godís salvation, you must repent of your sins, devote your life to following the Lord Jesus Christ and give up conscious sin. There is no salvation apart from Christ and His church, and a place of eternal misery awaits those who will not accept Jesus as Lord.

But it's also a God-given truth that there is grace for those who truly seek transformation. As the "children" of Methodism founder John Wesley, we understand this to be the process of perfection in grace: how God, by His grace, transforms us into the persons He always meant for us to be.

The church is an instrument of Godís grace. No one should be deprived of the place where itís most likely that you will be influenced to turn to Christ and live for Christ. The final judgment of the condition of our souls will be made by God on Judgment Day. Let Him handle this one.

This doesnít mean unrepentant sinners should be able to go anywhere or do anything in the church. A person unwilling to repent of clearly identified sin should not be a leader in the Body. The Bible is clear on this. But why on earth should we shut him or her out and away from what is needed the most?

Expelling people because theyíre stuck in sin denies them the opportunity to truly experience a holy transformation they wonít find elsewhere.

Thorn in the flesh

This debate is going nowhere in the church, nationally or locally, despite all of the "politicking" on both sides. Weíre stalemated. It is time to consider a different tack.

"Perhaps itís time we United Methodists ask ourselves, 'Why isn't God removing this thorn from our flesh?'"

The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians about a thorn in his flesh that God would not take away, no matter how much Paul asked Him. Perhaps itís time we United Methodists ask ourselves, "Why isn't God removing this thorn from our flesh?" Perhaps it's time that we work for peace in our "valley" by first celebrating what we hold in common: the foundation of our unityóthe salvation of Jesus Christ.

The next step is that we do ministry and bring glory to God instead of giving the media ammunition to report on "who attacked whom at the General Conference."

We may never reach consensus on this issue. Why not use all of this energy differentlyóand create peace instead of division? We surely will bring more glory to the Father in this way than by breaking the Body.

This is my hope and prayer. Peace, my friends.

*Whaley is an elder in the Dakotas Annual Conference, currently serving the Pembina-Joliette-Humboldt Charge.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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