The Way Forward
Rich Morris, Pastor
It started with Harvey Weinstein. And then it was Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, and various others in politics, media, and entertainment. Revelations of people, mostly men, being accused of sexual harassment. When I say it started with Harvey Weinstein, of course, it didn’t start then. People, mostly men, have behaved badly in regards to sexuality since, well, forever. The pop icon, Hugh Hefner, recently died. He was credited (or blamed) for helping to usher in the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1970’s. This was the beginning of “open marriages” and sexual experimentation and the mainstreaming of what was previously taboo. It hasn’t helped.
For reasons that are many and simple, the Church is dealing with the effects today. The simple reason is that the Church is always called to minister to the context in which she lives. A year or so ago, I read a letter from the pulpit from our Bishop, Bishop Park, speaking to the fractiousness of our times over issues of sexuality and gender. One of our young adults asked this question from the pews, “Why are we always talking about this stuff?”
I have asked myself that question many times and the answer I come up with is, this is the issue for our times. The early church had debates over the nature of God. John Wesley argued with John Calvin over free will vs predestination. We argue over sexuality. But it is important to remind ourselves that, though there is a particular current expression of these issues, fundamentally, in the words of the prophet, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Every generation tends to think that it has discovered the right way to think and act about particular issues. Certainly this is true when it comes to sexuality and gender. Every generation tends to look at previous generations with mild pity or outright scorn, thinking them naïve, outdated, or downright oppressive. They didn’t know what we know now is what we say.
There is truth in that statement. Knowledge has increased. But there is also a fair amount of naivete as well in that statement. For example, if you could go back in time and join the Apostle Paul as he walked the streets of first century Corinth, you would see things in regards to sexuality and gender that you’ve never seen on the streets of New York City, let alone, the streets of Duncansville. The point is, human beings are human beings, and most of the things we talk about today have always been around in one form or another.
What does this have to do with the Church? We must decide how we will minister to and with people and how we talk about and understand issues of sexuality and gender in our times. The United Methodist Church seems to be at a crossroads over these issues. Our Council of Bishops appointed a special task force called The Commission on a Way Forward. This Commission has been meeting for the past year and recently issued a report outlining possible ways that the denomination could go forward in varying degrees of unity and dissolution of ministry. No one yet knows what will happen, but it is clear that the denomination is going to look very differently in say, five years, than it does now.
John Wesley said his goal, and the goal of the Methodist Movement, was “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” For Methodists, the truth of scripture is primary. He said that he didn’t fear the end of Methodism so much that he feared it would continue to exist “with the form of godliness but denying its power.” He was alluding to this passage from 2 Timothy 3:
“You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money. . .lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” 2 Timothy 3.1-5
Both St. Paul and John Wesley are applying this truth to the Church. The Church is called to holiness in Christ. As we think about matters of sexuality, we look to what is clearly expressed in scripture. We denounce pornography. We denounce adultery. We denounce lewdness and vulgarity whether it is of the heterosexual or homosexual variety. We see the beauty of persons as we are understood in Christ, everyone having sacred value. But we also understand that there are some gifts that are only for marriage. There are other gifts only for singleness. When we try to produce our own standards like “as long as people love each other” we can say what we want, but it is not the truth of scripture.
I heard author Rachel Held Evans speak in State College last month and she said something telling. She was asked if there was “A Third Way” for the Church to take in matters of sexuality. She said she didn’t think we couldn’t really “Third Way” this. There will come a point when a gay couple will ask to be married in your church and you have to make a decision, yes or no. Rachel Held Evans and I disagree about the answer, but I agree with her that decisions have to be made.
I believe that LGBTQ persons should have the same basic human rights as everyone else. They have rights to work and live and be free of violence and discrimination. There are also reasonable rights of religious freedom. The Church has reasonable expectation to define itself without persecution. The Church has a right and responsibility to decide who it will and won’t marry.
Michael Wear, who was director of religious outreach for President Obama, argues that LGBTQ persons and evangelicals can move forward with better mutual understanding if they stop listening to the most extreme voices at either end of the political spectrum.
“Advocacy groups and politicians,” Wear writes, “raise money off of demonizing their opponents.”
As the Church, we are decidedly not in the business of demonizing anybody.
I have a vision of Hicks Church as a scriptural, grace-filled, community. We don’t shut out anybody over issues of sexuality. If we believe that what is revealed in scripture is really God’s best for all persons, then how would it help to bar anyone from participating in the life of the church? Conversely, if we believe what is revealed in scripture is God’s best for all persons, how is ignoring God’s call to holiness in Christ and failing to wrestle with these issues in community helpful to anyone?
We have to do more than have right opinions. We must actually pursue holiness and love together. It is hard to do. But it is worth doing. Jesus reminds us that our actions, more than our words, are what define us.
“You will know them by their fruits. . . every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” Matthew 7.16-17
When facing an uncertain future, with divided opinions over difficult issues, the most important thing we can do is to build trust by dealing with each other honestly and kindly. How we treat each other will speak much more loudly than our words or the words of any politician.
As for the future of the Church, pray, but do not worry too much.
“The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
As the great Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “Christendom has had a series of revolutions, and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”