The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers it to be incompatible with Christian teaching.
That’s the sentence at the heart of it all. This sentence in the United Methodist “Book of Discipline,” was added in 1972 via a last minute amendment offered by lay delegate Don Hand at that year’s General Conference. This sentence is why the UMC has adopted our discriminatory policies, denying same-sex couples the right to be married in United Methodist church buildings, denying United Methodist pastors the right to marry same-sex couples, and denying people who are gay the right to be ordained to serve in the church.
That sentence is why we had the sound and fury that was General Conference 2019.
So let’s take a minute with that sentence, and dig into it to think about what we really mean. Let’s parse that sentence in the most Methodist way possible, using Scripture as the primary source, illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience. Let’s just see what we mean by that.
For this project, I’ll unpack four individual phrases in the sentence.
- “…does not condone…”
- “…the practice of homosexuality…”
- “…incompatible with…”
- “…Christian teaching…”
1) “Does not condone”
“Does not condone” is a flaky phrase. What does it mean to “not condone” something? Well, it isn’t quite neutral, right? To say that I condone something is to say that I will allow it to continue, to sanction it, to approve of it. So to “not condone” something is to “not allow it to continue.” It’s just phrased a bit awkwardly, and not as clearly as it could be.
The opposite of “condone” is “condemn.” A more direct, clearer statement would be, “The United Methodist Church condemns…” It begs the question: Why was that stronger language not chosen in 1972 when this phrase was added? Did it seem kind of un-Methodist to actually “condemn” something? Was it theological, in that only God can condemn, not us? Was it perhaps an attempt to soften the harm that the author of the phrase inherently knew would obviously be done by adding it?
Of course, one can only speculate. Suffice it to say that there was something about the word “condemn” that did not appeal to the author of the phrase way back when. When the idea is placed in context, however, it becomes clear that “condemn” is exactly what is meant here. The real life implications of this statement are ample evidence that condemnation is intended.
So in this case, “does not condone” means “condemns,” and I will use the clearer language in the remainder of this project.
2) “The practice of homosexuality”
The United Methodist Church does not condemn homosexuality directly. It is really important to realize that same-sex sexual orientation itself is not condemned by the denominational statement. The big deal about that is that The United Methodist Church acknowledges that sexual orientation is a real thing.
Many people still do not believe the science behind sexual orientation. Many people still think that being gay is a choice. You can tell when somebody thinks this way because they use phrases like “that lifestyle.” However, the United Methodist Church has, since 1972, affirmed that homosexual orientation is a real thing. Any United Methodist who thinks being gay is a choice is technically therefore in violation of the Book of Discipline.
It is “the practice” of that one particular sexual orientation that is in question here. So what does that mean? Well, since I am straight I try to think about in terms of my own orientation. What does it look like for me to “practice” my heterosexuality?
Every morning I give my wife a kiss. We send text messages during the day that say, “Could you pick up some milk?” and stuff like that. We hold hands sometimes. When we can finagle a babysitter we might occasionally go out on a … what are those called? … oh yeah, a date. We have sex sometimes. We give each other hugs a lot. We sit on the couch and watch TV shows together. We argue about bills. We worry about our kids. And so forth, and so on.
This is what it looks like for me to “practice” my romantic attraction to my wife, to “practice” my heterosexuality.
And so, these public (and private) displays of affection are condemned by the United Methodist Church if you are romantically attracted to someone who is the same gender as you. In other words, The United Methodist Church does not condemn your orientation, it just condemns your expressing it in any way. The United Methodist Church officially believes that you have to stay in the closet if you are gay. You have to repress any expression of romantic attraction you might feel for someone. You do not have to deny who you are, but you have to deny any outward appearance of who you are.
This statement says nothing specifically about marriage, by the way. However, marriage is clearly one way that one “practices” their sexual orientation. And so later in the Book of Discipline, when marriage is specifically forbidden, it refers to this particular sentence to do so. The word "practice" also plays a part in ordination discrimination. In our wonky policy language, we say that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" are forbidden from being ordained. Again, it isn't the orientation that is condemned but rather the practice thereof.
Now, some will say that the statement is really about sex only. Some will say that the intent of the sentence is to apply only to actual sex with someone of the same gender. And often tangled with this interpretation is a thought that the sole purpose of marriage is sex, or procreation. Again, any thought about the author’s original meaning is only speculation. The plain truth is that the statement doesn’t condemn only sex; it condemns “the practice,” which includes much more.
In fact, the word "practice" appears twice in the sentence, which reinforces the idea that romantic attraction to someone of the same gender is acknowledged and not condemned, but merely the various expressions of said romantic attraction.
3) “Incompatible With”
Actually I’m going to come back to this one, and do the last one next. So…
3) “Christian Teaching”
This phrase could mean a lot of different things. In the original motion the phrase was "Christian doctrine;" it was changed to "teaching" via a friendly amendment. At its simplest, “Christian teaching” is the teaching of Christ. So that would mean that somewhere in the things Jesus said we should find a teaching about a person expressing their love for someone of the same gender.
The problem is, it’s not there. Sometimes marriage traditionalists cite Matthew 19 to claim that Jesus did, in fact, say something about same-sex marriage. However, Matthew 19 is not about same-sex marriage. It is about heterosexual marriage, opposite-sex marriage if you will. He is asked a direct question about a man divorcing his wife, and he answers that question. It is an interpretive leap to claim that this Christian teaching is about same-sex marriage. It is directly connected to opposite-sex marriage, clearly.
(As a side note, the church has not taken Matthew 19 seriously for years. Divorced pastors are numerous; divorced Christians are welcomed into full inclusion of the church without question. To actually take Matthew 19 as seriously as many marriage traditionalists say we should would decimate our church membership rolls.)
And if we’re talking about Matthew 19, we should talk about a bit later in Matthew 19, when Jesus says something that could quite easily be interpreted as actually affirming a gender non-binary, non-heteronormative perspective: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth” (NRSV). And, it should be noted, such are not condemned by Jesus.
Okay, so if we’re not talking about the actual teachings of Jesus himself, we could be talking about the New Testament, right? The New Testament is often called the “Christian Scriptures” to distinguish from the Old Testament, referred to as the “Hebrew Bible.” The books of the Bible from Matthew to Revelation, therefore, are distinctly “Christian teaching.” And since we have already eliminated the words of Jesus himself, we are actually talking about the books of Acts to Revelation.
What about the Hebrew Bible though? Sure, you could make the case that the entire Bible is “Christian teaching,” however the Old Testament books are also “Jewish teaching.” This would be referred to as “Judeo-Christian teaching,” if anything. But the Book of Discipline says only “Christian teaching,” and to also include the Old Testament in that category would require an interpretive step away from what the text actually says. Which is fine, but needs to be said aloud.
And further, nothing in the Hebrew Bible speaks directly to same-sex marriage or homosexuality anyway. Genesis 2 is about two straight people whom God joins together as life partners. Genesis 19 is about gang rape. And the Levitical laws are about national purity and idolatry, not to mention the whole “pick and choose” aspect of citing those 2 mentions and leaving out others.
However, “Christian teaching” could also include the teachings of the church, right? The doctrines of the church over time comprise “Christian teaching” on a second tier down from the Bible, but are nonetheless “Christian teachings.”
The problem here is that there in not one, clear doctrine of the church to refer to. Which version of church doctrine would be meant here? Which era of history? Arranged marriages? Wives submit to husbands? And which region of the world? The Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church? The Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church?
Marriage traditionalists would say the doctrine in play is the “one man, one woman” definition of marriage. But the actual doctrines of the church around marriage have changed over time, are different in different places, and are much broader and more diverse today than ever before. One can pick and choose various church doctrines based upon one’s preconceived belief. If we go to church doctrine to define “Christian teaching,” it becomes more complicated, not less.
So maybe we stick to the New Testament as what comprises “Christian teaching.”
So, to recap, we know this – The United Methodist Church condemns expressing your romantic attraction for someone you love if that someone is the same gender as you, and this condemnation is based on something found in the books of Acts through Revelation in the New Testament. With that, let’s think about the final phrase.
4) “Incompatible With”
For two things to be “incompatible” means that they are so opposed to each other that they are incapable of occupying the same space. If software is incompatible with your computer, it won’t run. One just doesn’t work with the other.
So the United Methodist Church thinks that it is impossible to both express romantic love for someone of the same gender and also ascribe to the teachings contained in the New Testament.
It is impossible to do so. Incompatible. If expressing romantic love for someone of the same gender is software, it won’t run on Christian computers. It simply cannot be.
Except of course, it is. There are a whole lot of Christians who are gay and who express their love for their significant others every single day.
Incompatible? Here Inigo Montoya might say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” It is obviously not “incompatible” to both be gay and also follow Jesus. People do. I mean, just look around.
And secondly, to make such a claim is a pretty bold move. It is blunt, it is direct, it leaves no wiggle room. There must be multiple overwhelmingly compelling passages somewhere in there that make it abundantly clear. Surely it says over and over in there that expressing your romantic attraction to someone of the same gender is a bad thing. In order to make a claim such as this, the evidence has to be pretty overwhelming, right?
Romans 1. 1 Corinthians 7. 1 Timothy 1.
Only three places. Hm.
But still, those three places must be crystal clear in their condemnation, in order to support a statement indicating such a direct and unequivocal incompatibility. Right?
Well actually, not so much. A full reading of Romans 1 reveals that it is actually a discussion of idolatry, and the verses in question are describing what happens when people exchange faithfulness to God with the pleasures of this world. Thus Paul describes lust and impurity, degrading and shameless acts, unnatural intercourse.
In my book, none of those describe a romantic relationship, period. Same-sex OR opposite-sex. There is nothing degrading, shameless, and unnatural about the covenant of marriage. Paul is writing to tell us that succumbing to degrading, shameless, and unnatural sexual acts is the consequence of God abandoning some people who were not recognizing God’s primary place in their lives.
Simply, Romans 1 is not about being gay.
The other two New Testament passages are lists (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10). The lists in both places mention two Greek words that are very difficult to translate. Different versions use different English words, so it is actually really easy to find a version that aligns with your preconceived notions.
It is fascinating to trace the history of translation, to discover how those two passages changed over time. The word homosexual didn’t appear in there until 1946, in the Revised Standard Version. The New Revised Standard Version, published in 1989, changed it to “sodomites” with a footnote about a “pederastic” relationship – an older man paying to have sex with a young boy. In other words, child abuse.
Other words chosen to interpret this word, both in historical translations and modern ones, are numerous. Obviously, it is not clear what these words actually meant to Paul when he wrote them, much less what they should mean to us today.
All said, rather underwhelming.
In fact, none of the New Testament passages in question describe a loving, gracious, mutually respectful, covenant relationship between two people. None of the three verses in play have anything to do with expressing a romantic attraction.
I understand that not all Christians interpret the Bible the same way I do. Some interpret the Bible as affirming only heterosexual romantic relationships. My question is, given that there are alternate interpretations (like mine for example), why have they chosen the one that does harm to others?
So, back to the originating question, it seems to me that there is nothing in “Christian teaching” with which the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible” and therefore no reason the United Methodist Church should “not condone” it.
Discriminating against people who are gay by denying them the right to be married or ordained in the United Methodist Church is undergirded by a fatally flawed statement. The statement is neither Biblical, nor reasonable, nor aligned with real life experience, nor has any clear connection to Christian tradition.
And so, the phrase needs to go. It needs to be deleted from our Book of Discipline. And if that phrase goes, the policies connected to it need to go also. It’s time. It’s actually long past time.
As long as there is a venue in which to work for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people, I will work there. If that means in the current version of the United Methodist Church, I will work there. If that means in the creation of a new expression of Methodism that is fully inclusive, I will work for that creation.
Because it’s time.