The Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church will meet in St. Louis later this month to debate proposals offering paths forward through our impasse over human sexuality. Yours truly and the podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice will be there— someone was dumb enough to give us press passes.
To get ready, I’ll be writing about the issue from a biblical and theological point of view, new posts and old posts from over the years. I’ll leave the bureaucractic questions and the headaches they induce to someone else.
My muse and friend, Stanely Hauerwas, says that “whenever United Methodists talk about grace— which is all the time— they know not what they’re talking about.”
I think how we engage this debate is Exhibit A for Stan’s point. In all our arguing about the way forward, I can’t help but wonder if what the Church needs most is to go backward.
St. Paul writes to Timothy about the urgent need for interpreters of scripture to be able to divide rightly the Word of God, and the Protestant movement began 500 years ago largely as a preaching movement that had at its core the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Echoing the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther said there is no other higher art than making that distinction between the two words with which God has spoken and still speaks to us.
When it comes to the debate about sexuality in the Church, not only do I not hear alot of nuance I don’t hear much distinction being drawn between God’s two words.
Instead, what I hear from both conservative and progressive sides is a lot of Gospel-flavored Law laying the net result of which is a muddled message, Glawspel, rather than the grace-centric proclamation that is our reason d’etre as Protestant Christians. Anything goes in this debate, the stakes are so high, because, as advocates on both sides often insist “the Gospel is at stake.” For conversatives, the Gospel is at stake in the sense that the authority of scripture is up for grabs. For progressives, the Gospel is at stake in that the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians is a justice issue.
The Gospel is at stake, I think.
Just not in the way either side imagines.
I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church. Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.
I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ. In the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.
I’m just aware that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.
On the other side of the debate, frankly it makes no sense to me to baptize babies if the Church is not prepared for them to exercise their Christian vocation once they’re grown, and ordained ministry and marriage are but two forms that Christian vocation takes. If we’re not prepared for gay Christians to live into their baptism as adutls we shouldn’t be baptizing them as babies, which means we shouldn’t be baptizing any babies.
Nonetheless, I think progressive Christians who insist that their fellow Christians see this as exclusively as a justice issue make the same mistake their conservative counterparts make.
Namely, they tie our righteousness as Christians to being ‘right’ on this issue.
It’s in this sense that I believe the Gospel is at stake in this debate because, thus far, the debate has obscured our core message that our righteousness comes entirely from outside of us by grace alone through faith alone. Put another way:
You would never come to the conclusion from how both sides engage this debate:
Grace gives us the right to be wrong.
To the extent that is obscured, the Gospel is at stake in this debate.
The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.
In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-
I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:
Everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.
I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.
The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.
The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sexuality.
Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. Almost by definition then, it’s a stupid issue with which to obsess. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.
As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, shouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.
In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.
I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law. The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law. The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.
I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.
I care about scripture and tradition, sure.
But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.
I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.
I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.
Every last one of us.
More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.
I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys the same message the sale of indulgences did on the eve of the Reformation: that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing. Maybe the way forward is the backward.