Our Doctrinal Standards and Sexuality
AT ISSUE: What does the scriptural confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord, as interpreted according to United Methodist Doctrinal Standards, require of us regarding the recurring debates on sexuality and Christian Marriage?
As the one and only Lord of all, Jesus Christ reigns over creation and history, and hence over every aspect of human existence, including human sexuality.
During his earthly ministry Jesus taught: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? so they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6 NRSV). This is basic Christian truth regarding human sexuality. Marriage is an enduring covenant between one man and one woman. Marriage, according to Christian teaching, is a bond with a solemn promise of mutual commitment. Marriage is able to provide a living environment for the welcoming and raising of children, the most precious gifts that come from human sexuality.
The moral relativism of our time rebels against Jesus Christ’s gracious rule over human sexuality. This relativism and rebellion have found their way into the United Methodist Church. There are those in the Church who understand marriage as a short-term contract, who desire to legitimize homosexual practice, and who care little about protecting the unborn child and mother. In some quarters of our denomination, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and serial marriage are silently tolerated. A confusion has arisen in our Church between the Lordship of Christ and the reigning cultural virtue of tolerance. The Confessing Movement challenges the misuse of the principle of tolerance to set aside the authority of Scripture and Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
Scripture and Sexual Relativism
One result of the confusion over tolerance is that the Church is continually being pressured to make decisions which abandon the normative teaching of scripture with regard to homosexual conduct. The argument is frequently made now that the biblical prohibitions against same-sex acts are irrelevant because they are part of a pre-modern cultural context. But the normative moral force of biblical texts on sexual behavior cannot be explained away by reference to changing cultural contexts. While every sacred text is written, delivered, and shaped within some cultural context, its moral force is not reducible to that context.
For example, many advocates for a Christian acceptance of homosexual behavior argue that the prohibitions in Leviticus against same-sex acts are part of the Jewish law from which the gospel has released Christians. But Paul clearly did not believe that such sexual behavior was a part of the ritual purity code of Levitical law that was transcended by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The Mosaic moral tradition still exercised normative guidance for Christians. Paul wrote, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom. 6:15). He understood that grace did not do away with morality; it provided the energizing power for it. “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” (Rom. 3:31).
Those who would legitimize homosexual acts within the Church often base their arguments upon a re-interpretation of Romans 1, arguing that it is not applicable to contemporary understandings of homosexuality. Yet many responsible biblical scholars, as well as the Church at large have not been convinced by these new interpretations. Indeed, Paul’s profound analysis of sin in that text rests on a powerful analogy between homosexual behavior and idolatry. Homosexual behavior denies our identity as male and female, just as idolatry denies our identity as creatures of God. John Wesley himself called attention to this analogy (Notes Upon the New testament, p. 522), arguing that just as idolatry brings dishonor to God, so homosexual behavior brings dishonor to the body created for the union of male and female in marriage.
Another argument which is put forward to justify the “blessing” or “marriage” of same-sex partners is the claim that people of homosexual orientation would be denied full personhood or integrated identity if they were denied sexual gratification. To accede to such a claim would amount to a denial of the possibility of celibacy. It would dishonor the life and ministry of generations of Christian singles, and worst of all, it would deny the integrity and full personhood of the Incarnate Lord himself.
The normative character of scripture which our United Methodist doctrinal standards uphold requires that we challenge the current attempts to render the sexual ethics of the Bible as ambiguous and culture-bound. Confessing United Methodists believe that our Church’s requirement for “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage” is a valid biblical principle which should be defended.
Reaffirming long-established Disciplinary Maxims
The Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church affirms and supports the balanced language of the 1972 and all subsequent United Methodist General Conferences and Disciplines.
- Our Discipline since 1972 has been right to affirm that homosexuals are “persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment.”
- At the same time, our Discipline since 1972 has been right to hold unambiguously to the conviction that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” This principle has been sustained by stable or increasing majorities of between 66% and 80% when tested, and must be upheld wherever challenged.
- The 1976 and all subsequent General Conferences have been right to withhold funds from “any ‘gay’ organization or use any such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
- The 1984 and 1988 General Conferences were correct in adopting as a standard for ordained clergy the commitment to “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness,” and in stating clearly that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” And the 1988 General Conference was right to “affirm that God’s grace is available to all.”
- The 1992 General conference was wise not to overturn this stable tradition of interpretation in favor of a neutral stance that would have surrendered the Church’s long tradition to the pressures of current moral relativism.
We commend the following principles for delegates to the General Conference to consider in the continuing debate over sexuality:
- On the principle of continuity and congruity of precedent with our previous decisions on sexuality, we urge the General Conference of 1996 to continue to hold fast to the Disciplinary language and balance of the five points indicated above.
- Classic Christian teaching grounds sexual behavior and marriage in the creation story. Therefore, to “bless” committed same-sex unions as if they were valid holy matrimony would be a departure from the biblical understanding of marriage. Such liaisons must not receive the Church’s blessing. This should be clearly set forth in our Discipline.
- Our Discipline should strongly affirm for all persons (laity and clergy) the church’s standard of sexual morality: “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”
Dear Reader: You may or may not agree with all that is said above. But we know you love the church and we invite you to join us as we think together about doctrine and our life together. “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”