One of the recent controversies in the UMC is over a Virginia pastor who has been removed from ministry for not allowing a homosexual man to become a member of the church. I’m not a member of the Virginia Annual Conference and am not familiar with the details of the case. I have not had the experience of not allowing someone to join the church but I can imagine how such an action might be thought out. Others, including Woody Woodrick of the Mississippi United Methodist Advocate, cannot.
Woodrick begins his piece:
Oh, how my heart hurts. One of my fears for The United Methodist Church appears to have come true. A pastor in the Virginia Conference has been suspended from his pastoral appointment because he would not accept into the membership of his church a man living in a homosexual relationship. Much to my dismay, conservative groups within the denomination have criticized Bishop Charlene Kammerer for her decision to suspend the pastor.
Members of the church quoted in news stories have supported the pastor. The defense for not accepting the man seems to center around his refusal to renounce his sexual orientation. So a group of Christians has turned him away. From the church!
I guess Woodrick knows more than he’s letting on. I was under the impression that the pastor had not turned the man away from the church, but from becoming a member of the church. I realize that contemporary practice in many UM churches takes membership to be a privilege, but on my reading of the Discipline, our liturgy, and even the Bible, membership might better be described as a responsibility.
As the debate within the church over homosexuality has raged, my fear has been that someone would draw a line in the dirt and say, â€œWe donâ€™t want homosexuals in our church.â€ Until now that statement might have been in folksâ€™ minds, but it wasnâ€™t said publicly. Now it has.
Again “in membership” is taken to be the same as “in the church.” I know many UM pastors who support our Discipline’s assertion that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian practice.” I don’t know any who because of that stand refuse to let homosexuals participate in the life of the church.
I am bewildered. How can a church that professes to love God and its neighbors reject anybody? Best as I can determine, no new member is required to state a sexual preference to join a United Methodist church, just profess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Last time Ilooked, lots of folks who believe that with all their hearts were committing sin and not repentant.
I know I have a lot of sinners in my congregation. I even have a few that are unrepentant. I don’t know of any who declare that they are unrepentant. Again, I don’t know the details of the Virginia situation, but I can imagine that perhaps this person who wanted to join thought his practice of homosexuality was perfectly compatible with Christian practice and thus in no need of repentance. I suppose one might argue that something can be “incompatible with Christian practice” and not be a sin – after all, the Discipline doesn’t come right out and say that it’s a sin. If someone comes to join my congregation and says, “I confess Jesus as my lord and savior, but I intend to keep practicing adultery/gossip/malice/etc. ” I would have to think membership to be inappropriate and that they don’t understand what the means by confessing Jesus as lord.
How can a church minister to alcoholics, drug addicts or the imprisoned but reject homosexuals? How can a church justify accepting one group of sins as acceptable,
or at least redeemable, but not another? How can we turn our backs on someone who seeks fellowship with other Christians?
I was taught that the church is the exact place where sinners should be; the church was the one place where we are accepted. When the church turns away sinners,
they find solace where ever they can. Where does that leave them? Where does that leave us?
So does Woodrick agree with the Discipline that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian practice”? He certainly seems to take the position that it’s sinful. I suppose Woodrick’s practice of taking in members contains something like, “Today we welcome X into church membership. He/She is a practicing drunkard/liar/usurer/homosexual and is currently unrepentant. We will therefore do all in our power to help him/her discover the destructiveness of this practice and lead him/her to repentance.”
My take on the main fault lines in the church are that they are different than what Woodrick identifies. On one side are those who think homosexual practice is sinful and to be repented of. On the other are those who think homosexual practice is perfectly acceptable, needing no repentance. Although, as I’ve said, I know many who take each position, I don’t know anyone (till now) who thinks the best way to pursue the first position is to treat the second as perfectly acceptable. I teach that one of the signs of a healthy church is to have obvious sinners in attendance. I also teach, however, that the transition to membership is a change that indicates repentance and faith. Perfection? By no means. That comes later. I also teach my people that we need to be in ministry with all people – whether thy’re easy or hard to work with, whether their sins are social acceptable (each community seems to have its pet sins that it rationalizes) or not. But I also tell people that we will love them and minister grace to them even if they never become members.
I suppose it’s possible this Virginia pastor had been teaching that membership in his church was necessary either for salvation or to be a recipient of ministry, leading the rejected man to think he could receive either no other way. In such a case I can understand why he was relieved from duty, though the issue should have been heresy, not mere insubordination.
Understand, Iâ€™m not condoning this manâ€™s lifestyle. However, I know Iâ€™m not worthy of Christâ€™s saving grace. Iâ€™ve seen the evil in my soul. I wrestle with it every, single
day. I rationalize my behavior every, single day. Iâ€™m sure there are things in my life I donâ€™t consider sin, but God does. I dread the day when the section in the Book
of Life devoted to me stands open. I am dropping my rock and silently slipping away.
Yet, despite how sorry I am, Christ accepts me. He longs for me, and He never rejects me. If Christ accepts my sorry soul, how can He not accept this man in
Virginia? How can I not accept him? If God can accept this man as he is, with all his imperfections and shortcomings, how can we not accept him? Heâ€™s good enough
for God, but not good enough for us?
If membership were coterminous with salvation or grace, I might side with Woodrick here, but I don’t imagine that people have to be members of the church to receive or experience grace or to be saved. Whether Christ “accepts” the man in Virginia, I don’t know. Since I’m not a universalist, I don’t believe everyone will be saved. Some people – even church members (even pastors!) – may persist in sin in such a way that it constitutes a rejection of Christ.
Why does Woodrick need to “drop his rock?” Why is he even carrying a rock? Or does he assume that the identification of sin as sin – and that in a particular life – is an evil to be repented of? Are all membership standards to be rejected? Are United Methodists no longer a disciplined people? (Or does being “disciplined” simply mean we have a large book full of instructions and rules for the way we do things?)
Not long ago, our Sunday school class discussed the
â€œworstâ€ sin. Have we just committed it?
Which sin is that? Having standards for membership? Being disciplined? Identifying sin as sin? Thinking that church membership is necessary for receiving God’s grace and being saved? Though there are likely some out there, I don’t know any UM pastors who think homosexual practice is the worst sin. I have heard of some who think saying – and acting on the belief – that it is might be the worst sin.