Last April, I publicly disagreed with James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer (who used to write a column in the liberal mainline journal Lectionary Homiletics, to which I subscribed early in my ministry), over the issue that threatens to divide our denomination in 2019. Dr. Howell wrote a blog post in which he said that, irrespective of our convictions on the subject of human sexuality, it isn’t a question of “essential” Christian doctrine. Therefore, why should the UMC divide over it?
He never responded to my objections, unfortunately.
Yesterday, in an unrelated Facebook thread, we disagreed on a different matter. He wrote the following:
I thought about ignoring it, but why? Do I believe that unrepentant sexual sin risks excluding someone—eternally—from God’s kingdom? Do I believe that to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that it’s better for us pastors to tie a millstone around our neck and throw ourselves into the sea than to cause believers to stumble?
So I wrote the following (no response yet):
If that’s true, then I trust that you’ll search the scriptures and understand why our church’s doctrine on human sexuality is, indeed, a non-negotiable “essential” of the faith—just as it was for the Jerusalem Council when the church retained the Bible’s proscription against “porneia” [translated “sexual immorality”], even as they ruled that Gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised or follow other ceremonial aspects of the law.
If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then surely you’ll agree with me that our church can’t place the need for “unity” ahead of holiness, just as Paul himself refused to do in 1 Corinthians 5, for example, when dealing with the man committing incest. Since incest is condemned in the identical context alongside homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20, it’s difficult for those of us who embrace the authority to scripture to believe that one is a serious enough sin to divide over but not the other.
If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then you’ll understand why appeals to the Articles of Religion or the creeds or anything outside of scripture ring hollow when determining what is “essential” and what isn’t. Unrepentant sexual sin, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom. Nothing less than heaven and hell, therefore, hang in the balance. That being the case, surely you and I agree, committed as we both are to the authority of scripture, that the issue that is dividing our church counts as “essential.”