United Methodist news circles and the blogosphere have been roused of late regarding same-gender marriage ceremonies. The news, however, is mostly only news to us United Methodists. My casual, un-scientific poll of people outside of the UMC tells me that this is largely unnoticed by the greater society. Outside of the UMC and a few Facebook pages, few really care or are even watching. Overall, United Methodists are losing their influence on America. In 1970, there were over 10 million UM’s amidst 203 million Americans. In 2010 however, that number was down to 7.6 million UM’s.. amidst 308 million Americans (from the General Commission on Archives & History). We are in decline in the U.S. No wonder few are losing sleep over what the United Methodist Church does or does not do.
It’s not that same-gender ceremonies are an unimportant issue. They are — regardless of what “side” you might support. But most of the arguments that I am witnessing on blog pages, on Facebook, and in denominational articles come from an American perspective. For some denominations that’s the only perspective that matters, but for a long time now, the United Methodist Church has been a worldwide denomination, and in the UM conferences of Africa, West Africa, Congo, and Philippines, membership has gone up 3 million people since 1999 (State of the Church Report, 2011). While it is always hasty to make broad generalizations, these areas of our church tend to be more traditional in theology and doctrine.
The worldwide nature of the UMC sets up a situation that most American UM’s are unused to and frustrated by — something that transcends our either/or, Democrat/Republican, Harley Davidson/Japanese motorcycle, Duke/Kentucky basketball way of thinking, for there are others to think about or argue with besides ourselves. Such are the realities of being a world-wide church.
I haven’t found that social media has helped the situation much; indeed, I think it has made finding common ground even more difficult. To borrow from Martin Buber, some have left an “I-Thou” way of seeing others and adopted an “I-It” demeanor on this issue. By doing so, we objectify those who disagree with us.
For some UM’s, same-gender marriage ceremonies represent a civil rights issue. For other UM’s, it is not about civil rights but rather an ecclesial and doctrinal matter. For our African brothers and sisters, however, many take great offense at equating same-gender marriage and civil rights, as they live with the reality that Apartheid resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands South Africans. For them, there is no comparison. In African provinces, homosexuality is not just a doctrinal/ecclesial matter, it is a legal one as well. With conviction, they cannot be party to changing church doctrine on the matter, as their societies make such actions not only illegal but punishable by imprisonment or even death. For us as American UM’s, to ignore this part of the argument is to ignore a large part of our United Methodist Church. Again, such are the realities of being a world-wide Church. There are more issues, more cultural aspects, and more contextual realities than just American ones.
To love God is to love people. All people. Regardless. But it also means to embrace tolerance. Tolerance is not kowtowing, tolerance is to offer respect amidst the differences. And inclusivity – as opposed to being generic – means embracing all as children of God.
The question that we face is how tolerant and inclusive can we be as a denomination? Can we still see others as brothers and sisters even when they are as convicted as we are in matters where we do not agree? Are those who strongly advocate same-gender marriage willing to say that they have the absolute truth on the matter (in light of Reinhold Niebuhr’s words that to be Christian means living in the tension of having and not having the truth)? So sure that they are willing to disrupt UMC gatherings of likewise faithful and convicted people?
I’ve always maintained that the Church is to be counter-cultural and “maladjusted” by worldly standards. No matter what the polls or opinions or trends say, we are called to be in the world while not of the world, and our discernment of what God wants should trump popular opinion. At the same time, we are likewise called to support the civil rights of individuals as a concern for social justice. These things are not diametrically opposed.
The reason why I have no problem with states deciding whether or not they issue a marriage license for same-gendered couples is because such (getting a marriage license) functions under civil authority. It is a state issue – not a church issue, (which a Christian marriage ceremony is). It doesn’t mean I agree with it — indeed, I don’t agree with how easy the state makes divorce, or abortion, or how cavalierly some states deal with capital punishment. While we Christians should never water down our beliefs or witness, we dare not depend on the state to make our stands for us – we are Christians first, and citizens second. Our calling to be Christ’s is a higher calling. I love my country – but I love God much more. And while the Church is a human institution, hopefully it is led by people led by the Holy Spirit – and I continue to believe that it is the best hope of making disciples for the transformation of the world. Being United Methodist is, for me, the best expression of the Christian faith. I stand by its beliefs and submit to its authority – even when it pits me against friends and family. It’s what I vowed to do.
When it comes to doctrine and belief, the theological milieu in the UMC gets muddier still. Some are liberal. Some are orthodox (or generously orthodox, rigidly orthodox, or neo-orthodox). Some are conservative. Traditional. Postmodern. Post postmodern (always something new – or nothing new – under the sun). Some think Christ was really born of a virgin. Some say that’s an ancient legend (and everything in between). Some say Christ was really crucified and risen. Others say that miracles violate the laws of nature and must be discounted. Further, and most confusing to the average person in the pew, some say that Christian beliefs are based less on any one truth and more upon your “circle of interpretation.”
My goodness. Where do we stand?!?
My short, inadequate, but I think faithful answer is this: I don’t see how Christians can place themselves anywhere else other than the middle. Not the middle as we Americans define middle. More than just the via media. The REAL middle. The place where Jesus was on Calvary. Crucified between a man who wanted Jesus to prove his power and fix things, and a man who knew that one day, he would get far better than he deserved.
I think that’s where God would have us: holding the hands of both. It’s not clean, in fact it’s quite messy. Yet, I’d rather stand in the middle and place myself in God’s will rather than my own, because left to my own devices, I’ll end up wanting a Jesus who will fix things rather than trusting Him to take us where we need to be.
That is the danger of taking the extreme positions on either side in our denomination – we run the risk of going where they want, rather than where God would have us.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.