What is the burden of proof in the #Methodist #homosexuality debate?

Gay-Symbol-WallpaperIn the American justice system, all defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt. Defense attorneys do not have to prove their client’s innocence; they just have to find enough holes in the prosecution’s argument to establish that they have not been proven guilty. But in the debate over Biblical interpretation on homosexuality, the burden of proof falls entirely on the defendants to prove their innocence. What if my fellow Methodists who are anti-gay had to provide not only isolated proof-texts and speculative translations of obscure Greek words but a coherent Biblical ethical explanation of why chaste monogamous homosexual partnerships are “incompatible with Christian teaching”? I think that would be a much more just and legitimate burden of proof. Continue Reading

Looking Back on 2012: April-May

In March, I fasted from blogging for Lent. April and May of 2012 were dominated by thoughts about our United Methodist General Conference. There was also a series of violent tornadoes that John Piper decided to interpret as God’s wrath against America for homosexuality or abortion (I can’t remember which one). Since homosexuality dominated the conversation around General Conference, I wrote a few pieces about it, striving to be both faithful to scripture and faithful to people I love who are gay. I also preached a sermon comparing and contrasting the uniformity and top-down vision of the Tower of Babel with the chaos of Pentecost. So here are the 10 from April and May. Continue Reading

Did Paul obey his General Conference?

If Peter was the first Pope, then Paul was the first Protestant. In the original church as today, there are two basic conceptions of Christian authority: apostolic succession and the priesthood of the believer. Paul represented the latter; he gave himself a lot of discretion as a pastor in the different congregational contexts in which he ministered. He didn’t mail a single Book of Discipline to Corinth, Ephesus, Colossus, Phillipi, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Rome. Each epistle that would make its way into our Biblical canon was practical and contextual though there are theological threads which develop and solidify over the course of Paul’s writing. In Acts 15, in what Methodists like me might call the first General Conference of the church, a council of apostles and elders convened to consider the debate between Judaizers who were teaching that the Law of Moses was necessary to salvation and Paul who was teaching salvation by faith. The compromise adopted by the council was to require Gentiles to avoid sacrificial meats, blood, meat of strangled animals, and pagan sexuality (Acts 15:20). In response to this decision, Paul doesn’t simply obey; he comes up with his own creative, contextual interpretation for at least two of the four items on this list. Continue Reading

Letter from a gay Christian classmate

This is a letter from a guy named Chase Bannister who went to school with my wife Cheryl and me at Duke Divinity School. Chase is gay. That’s why he left the United Methodist Church. Cheryl and I have other friends and seminary classmates like Chase who are beautiful people with amazing gifts that have left the Methodist church because they’re gay. I’m sharing this letter because Chase is a person, not an issue. And because he said in his letter, “Remember me,” like the thief said to Jesus. Those words condemned me because I’ve often tried to forget friends like Chase, since my life as a Methodist pastor would be easier if I had never known them. In any case, whatever you believe about this issue, I hope that you’re willing to listen to a person whose life is directly impacted. Continue Reading

Don’t hate our purple UMC

In 2 Samuel 12, when Bathsheba’s first son was dying, David fasted and clamored with the Lord. After he died, David washed himself, ate a meal, and tried his best to move forward. That’s the position that many of us in the United Methodist Church face after several decisions made by this year’s General Conference. I feel like I made the best case I could on several issues (and I probably lost my credibility with some people I care about as a result). My church has made a decision, and I will move forward. I realize there are young adults who are wondering whether or not to leave the UMC at this point. I’d like to make a case for staying, because I think our vocation as a church right now is to occupy what Bishop Scott Jones calls “the extreme center,” as frustrating as that might sound. We are the only purple major Protestant denomination in the country right now. Every other one has split along theological or ideological lines into “left” and “right” or even further into “moderately conservative” and “fanatically conservative.” The reformed branch of Christianity probably has more sects than I have toes and fingers. What the body of Christ and our nation as a whole needs right now is a whole lot more purple and a whole lot less schism. Continue Reading

What prevenient grace is and isn’t

“We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all –– that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Yesterday, the United Methodist Church General Conference added this statement to the preamble of our social principles by a vote of 532 to 414. The blogosphere lit up with incredulity that 414 GC delegates had apparently rejected our Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. But the tweets that came out during that vote revealed a difference of opinion over what the General Conference statement actually means. There are important nuances to the doctrine of prevenient grace that are worth considering. Continue Reading

Biblical and inclusive: Methodism wrestles with homosexuality

“No scripture can mean that God is not love and that His mercy is not over all His works.” This statement, from John Wesley’s sermon “Free Grace,” forms the foundation for how many United Methodist pastors like me were trained to interpret the Bible. We are burdened with understanding and explaining how God’s mercy and love are at stake in everything He tells us to do in the Bible. Methodists who follow our Wesleyan heritage cannot say with Dan Savage that “parts of the Bible are bullshit,” but neither can we settle for shallow, decontextualized applications of scripture that aren’t understood and appropriated as expressions of God’s mercy. Sadly, the debate over homosexuality at the United Methodist General Conference has devolved into a shouting match of sound-bytes rather than thoughtful conversation about Biblical interpretation. The question that no one seems to accept the challenge of answering is how the prohibition of homosexuality expresses God’s love and mercy. Continue Reading

What must inclusivity exclude?

“All means all.” It’s a battle-cry that is appropriately Wesleyan. Since we believe in prevenient grace rather than predestination, we understand God’s infinite love for all humanity as the underlying truth that explains everything else about Christianity. Prevenient grace is what leads us to slogans like “Open doors, open minds, open hearts” and the concept of inclusivity for all. The question is what inclusivity really entails, because for everyone to have safety and dignity, sinful behaviors that hurt the community must be excluded. Continue Reading

How will you avoid creating a CYA culture, #GC2012?

Tom Berlin, a pastor and clergy delegate from my conference for whom I have a lot of respect, just posted a blog piece called “Facts are our friends,” which seeks to address the elephant in the room at General Conference that’s behind young clergy anxiety: how will a more strictly quantifiable method of evaluation impact our career as pastors over the next 30 years when we will face a diminishing “musical chairs” game of appointments unprecedented in the history of our denomination? Tom related the experience of using attendance data at his church diagnostically to make some adjustments that worked. Using data to make improvements makes sense; the question is how it will be used. Will it be diagnostic or evaluative? For improving or making a career decision? I’m not sure if this question is dealt with by any of the GC proposals being considered, but if the United Methodist Church ends up using data in lieu of a more subjective, pastoral evaluative process, then we will create the same kind of Spirit-killing CYA (cover your ***) culture that has ravaged the public school world I used to inhabit in the wake of “No Child Left Behind.” Continue Reading

Bullying and humanity at General Conference

First off, I’m aware that I didn’t witness what happened tonight in person. Mark Miller, one of the UMC General Conference worship leaders who is gay, stood up and gave an emotional speech about a climate of bullying that he saw taking place in the legislative sub-committee conversations about homosexuality. He was ruled out of order when he asked other delegates to stand with him by a bishop who then prayed for the situation. Not being privy to what did or didn’t take place, I can only say that I hope humanity wins over ideology at General Conference. I’m not even talking about the decisions are ultimately made, but the dignity with which the delegates treat one another as fellow members of the body of Christ, rather than ideological adversaries in the only politically and theologically diverse denomination left in our country. Continue Reading