There’s still a lot of conversation around the Connectional Table’s recommendations regarding LGBT inclusion in the United Methodist Church (here’s our coverage). While most responses focus on LGBT inclusion, at their core, the recommendations acknowledge that the United Methodist Church is a “unity in diversity” and seeks to make United Methodist polity reflect that reality.
Reflecting on whether a “unity in diversity” is an accurate description of United Methodism, the following is a guest post written by a senior pastor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thanks for reading.
Homosexuality and the United Methodist Connection
Rev. Brady S. Whitton
The question of whether United Methodist pastors should be permitted to perform same-gender weddings, or whether or not we should ordain self avowed practicing homosexuals is a complex one. Sound historical, biblical, and practical arguments can be made on either side. Good News is correct when they state, “We need to recognize the reality that we – laity, clergy and even the Council of Bishops – are divided and will remain divided” on this issue (Regarding United Methodism’s Future, May 22, 2014).
There are a variety of proposals suggesting how we might move forward as United Methodists, including one by the UM Connectional Table which proposes:
- allowing individual clergy and congregations to decide whether they will perform, or allow the performance of, same gender weddings in their churches; and
- allowing annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain self avowed practicing homosexuals.
In a recent blog post, Dr. Ben Witherington suggests that the UM Connectional Table “is prepared to give up on our connectional and covenantal system entirely” with its proposal. Dr. Witherington is an accomplished scholar and exceptional teacher of the New Testament and, I have no doubt, a faithful and committed Christian and United Methodist. I disagree with his suggestion, however, that what holds us together as United Methodists is uniformity of thought and practice, i.e. “if we do this . . . we no longer accept that there are church wide standards for such matters that the bishops of the church should enforce in all the conferences.”
I’ve served seven UM churches in two annual conferences in my 18 years of professional ministry, three in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and four in Louisiana. Each of these congregations were similar yet distinct. Each congregation was composed of people who held different political, social, and theological leanings — people who had different opinions about the death penalty, abortion, nationalized health care, women in ministry, etc. — but they were unified by their love of Jesus Christ and, for many, a sense of common identity under the United Methodist banner.
United Methodists pastors too have different opinions about political, social, theological and other issues. There are United Methodist pastors who allow openly gay persons to become church members and those who do not. There are United Methodist pastors who hold to a verbal plenary inspiration view of scripture and those who do not. Our appointive process, although imperfect, has always managed to deploy these different pastors to different churches and through the years I have been increasingly impressed by the ability many show to live with the tension of multiple Christian perspectives.
To suggest that what holds us United Methodists together is uniformity in thought and practice is simply not true.
What we have in common…
So what does hold us together?
- In the 18th century, an Anglican Priest named John Wesley and his brother, Charles, were part of a movement of the Holy Spirit that has today grown into many expressions and branches. We have a common heritage and history.
- John Wesley took the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church and edited them down for the fledgling Methodist movement in America. Our BOD states, “For generations, the Doctrines and Discipline cited only the Articles as the basis for testing correct doctrine in the newly formed church: the charge of doctrinal irregularity against preachers or members was for ‘disseminating doctrines contrary to our Articles of Religion’” (2012 BOD, ¶103, p 61). We have common doctrinal standards (which we would do well to discuss and revive).
- Thirdly, we have a common church governance which is laid out in our Constitution.
I suggest the proposal by the Connectional Table does not strike at the heart of who we are as United Methodists or our connection. It does not change our common history, does not change our Articles of Religion, and does not change our constitution and polity.
I am one who believes we do not have to physically divide over the issue of homosexuality. I have dear friends, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who I do not agree with on this issue. But we are united in our love for Jesus Christ, and a sense of common identity under the United Methodist banner. I served recently on a Kairos weekend with people who have different views than I do on the issue of homosexuality. The Holy Spirit used us in a powerful and transformative way!
Now there are surely those – on both sides – who will decide not to live with a compromise and will leave the church. In my opinion we will be poorer without them, but they are free to make their choice.
In closing, in one of my congregations there was a married couple who both served in elected public office. One was a Republican, the other a Democrat. As you might expect, they had very different views and practices on a variety of subjects – but they remained faithfully married. My hunch is if there was a political conversation worth hearing it was the one that occurred around their kitchen table!
I love Jesus Christ, and I love the United Methodist Church. I love that beyond a set of basic “ground rules” we are not required to be uniform in thought and practice. I see this as a strength and not a weakness. I hope you can too.
Rev. Brady S. Whitton is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, LA. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion and a Master of Divinity from Drew University. Brady is married to Dr. Natasha Whitton, who teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University. Together they have three children ages 10, 7, and 4. When he’s not being a pastor, husband, and dad, Brady likes to collapse and watch a good movie!
Thoughts? Post your responses in the comments or on social media!