By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?
Some argue that it is a non-essential issue, that Christians can disagree about the definition of marriage, can function differently with regard to what marriage ceremonies clergy should perform, and still live together in the same denomination. This group is often called “compatibilists” because they can live compatibly together with Christians who believe and practice differently than they do. Compatibilists often cannot fathom why we can’t all just get along. They often blame “incompatibilists” on both ends of the spectrum for dividing the church (in their view, illegitimately).
I would like to make the case that the church’s teaching on marriage and same-sex relationships is an essential issue, one over which churches may legitimately experience division. I approach it from the standpoint of one who affirms the current position of the church that all LGBTQ persons are loved by God and of sacred worth. That affirmation stands on its own.
Simultaneously, I affirm United Methodism’s teaching that same-sex relations are contrary to God’s will as expressed in Scripture and the teachings of the Church down through the centuries. I could just as easily make the case that this is an essential issue from the standpoint of those who affirm same-sex relationships and would perform same-sex marriages. The ongoing and escalating disobedience we see in The United Methodist Church is a sign that many progressives, too, believe this is essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let us establish from the start that the actions of believers and the teachings of the church are closely related. Our beliefs matter because they affect the way we live. Because we believe that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” we renounce racism and all forms of ethnic and gender prejudice (Galatians 3:28). We oppose certain behaviors as unchristian because they contradict essential doctrines that Christians believe.
We often think that Christian orthodoxy is defined only by assent to certain essential doctrines alone. But James reminds us that “even the demons believe” there is one God (James 2:19), but it does not make them Christians without the deeds that spring from faith.
It is instructive to notice that the requirements the early church placed on Gentile believers were not doctrinal, but ethical. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29). John Wesley prioritized right actions over right beliefs. “Right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, (which properly and directly consists in right tempers, words, and actions,) and frequently it is no part of religion” (Letter to the Bishop of Gloucestershire).
This does not mean that doctrine is unimportant. But right doctrine or orthodox beliefs must result in right actions in order to be spiritually effective. So orthopraxis is just as important as orthodoxy.
So why is the church’s teaching on the nature of marriage and the acceptability of same-sex relationships an essential matter—part of an orthopraxis that defines who we are as United Methodist Christians?
First, the affirmation of same-sex relations would call into question the reliability and authority of Scripture. As noted New Testament scholar Dr. Richard Hayes summarizes, “The few biblical texts that do address the topic of homosexual behavior, however, are unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.” And “we must affirm that the New Testament tells us the truth about ourselves as sinners and as God’s sexual creatures: marriage between man and woman is the normative form for human sexual fulfillment, and homosexuality is one among many tragic signs that we are a broken people, alienated from God’s loving purpose” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 381, 399-400, emphasis original).
Several interpretive schemes have been proposed to reinterpret the biblical evidence in such a way as to allow same-sex relationships to be affirmed. However, they have all been refuted by biblical scholars far more knowledgeable than I (and beyond the scope of this article to address). The fact is that the Bible is unequivocally clear about this question. To say that the Bible is wrong on this matter is to undermine its reliability as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Article IV of our Confession of Faith goes on to state, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” For the church to affirm same-sex relationships would be to make something an article of faith that is not revealed in or established by Scripture. As a contravention of our doctrinal standards, that is an essential matter.
Second, to redefine marriage in a way that is different from the biblical definition opens the door to further revisions. Once we have discounted the Bible’s teachings that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman, what is to prevent us from discounting teachings about the need for exclusivity within marriage or the number of people who can participate in a marriage? Once the line is crossed, there is no other line that cannot also in theory be crossed. At that point, the Bible ceases to be our supreme authority, and we have allowed other considerations to outweigh the teachings of Scripture. Again, this is an essential issue as a repudiation of our doctrinal position that Scripture is our primary authority for faith and life.
It is not unreasonable for people to believe that the church’s teaching is an essential matter about which there must be agreement in order to have denominational coherence. I will explore this matter further in Part II of this blog.