HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE CHURCH HISTORIC (all)
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE CHURCH HISTORIC – Complete document
What Does the Tradition Component of the Quadrilateral Have to Say Regarding the LGBT Debate?
Free Methodist Study Commission on Doctrine, 2014 Dr. Bruce N. G. Cromwell
Philipp Melanchthon, the great German reformer and quite possibly the first systematic theologian of the Protestant movement, famously said, “In necessary things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity.”1 As debate surrounding the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) community grows and intensifies, such counsel is no doubt wise and necessary.
While in graduate school I read John Boswell’s work, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe.2 Boswell gained prominence in 1980 by receiving a National Book Award for his investigation into what he saw as a historically accurate overview of homosexuals, their challenges, and their freedoms up to the fourteenth century.3 Within Same-Sex Unions he tried to demonstrate that in the first millennium of the common era communities had, within the structures of Christianity, actually allowed same-sex couples to cohabitate and live functionally as married. Talking about the cultural ethos of the Greco- Roman world and the development of marriage rites and liturgical practices, Boswell attempted to demonstrate that examples of the recognition and blessing of same-sex unions are neither novel nor exceptional. Unfortunately, his argument lacks a smoking gun and conveys no conclusive proof. We all read from a particular bias, with particular cultural and religious assumptions. Boswell, who sadly died from AIDS- related complications shortly after the release of Same-Sex Unions, comes across at times as an apologist for the LGBT community and as proof-texting history to legitimize his own lifestyle.
For example, at one point Boswell claims that not only was there no general prejudice against homosexual persons within the earliest Christians, there was no reason for Christianity to adopt a
1 Melancthon’s dates are February 16, 1497 – April 19, 1560. The origin of the quotation is somewhat debatable, as Augustine of Hippo, 17th Century Archbishop of Spalato Marco Antonio de Dominis, German theologian Rupertus Meldinius, and Puritan Richard Baxter are all given credit from various sources. Seedbed Publishing out of Wilmore, Kentucky, has even attributed the quote to John Wesley, titling their new series of publications on contemporary discourse, “In All Things Charity.”
2 Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1994.
3 Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1980.
hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior. To the latter point I say, “Amen,” as I would hope no Christian would ever seek to do anything in the name of Christ that could be construed as “hostile”. When Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons wrote in unChristian that 91% of non-Christians surveyed said “anti-homosexual” accurately describes present-day Christians and that Christians show “contempt for gays and lesbians,”4 I, like many others, winced and grieved. How can anything associated with Jesus ever be seen as hateful? But with regards to Boswell’s former point, however, I believe we have but to barely scratch the surface of Church history to see the plethora of ways in which persons of various Christian cultures and generations have spoken clearly about an LGBT lifestyle, and, though not necessarily full of hate, certainly not in a favorable or approving manner.
The overwhelming witness of pre-Constantinian texts is negative in its judgment of homosexual practice.5 Such tradition is carried on by nearly all the major Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries, including John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and others whom we will quote in short order. In fact, Boswell is unable to give a single reference to an early Christian text that clearly approves of homosexual activity. The two anecdotal examples he gives between members of the same sex (which he calls “love relationships”), that of Paulinus of Nola and Ausonius and the story of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, do not, he admits, actually provide concrete evidence of any kind of sexual relationship. 6
Throughout my pastoral career (which began in 1991) and following my doctoral studies (which I completed a decade later), I have had numerous counseling sessions with men and women who have come to me, wrestling with their perceived LGBT tendencies and their desire to be faithful to their Christian principles. Growing up I don’t recall ever wondering about the homosexual lifestyle. I admittedly was blind to any around me who may have considered themselves part of the LGBT community. But as more and more persons began asking me for input and as I in my ignorance began praying and searching the Scriptures and studying other resources for counsel, I have found myself sitting with a tension in my mind and heart. It’s not a question of my own orientation, but rather a question as to how God sees the person who considers themselves LGBT and how we, as the Body of Christ, are then to respond in love to that same person. I know what I have read in God’s word (Scripture). I know what I think (reason), and I am aware that my thinking no doubt influences my exegesis. I know what my feelings are when it comes to the interaction I’ve had with persons brave
4 Kinnaman, Dave. unChristian. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007, 91.
5 The Epistle of Barnabas, the Apostolic Constitutions, and numerous works of both Clement of Alexandria and Minucius Felix are but a few examples.
6 Same-Sex Unions, 133-35.
enough to openly discuss their sexual journeys (experience). Over the years I have also tried to investigate not only what my Wesleyan theology says about the issue, but what the broader Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian communities have declared (tradition).
There has been no shortage of books to assist in such a study. In 2001, William Webb published Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.7 Many of the current criticisms of the Church in its ministry to the LGBT community center around a perceived inconsistency. Once upon a time Christians defended slavery, as the Bible seems (with a certain reading) to say it is permissible.8 There are many Christian traditions to this day that continue to bar women from certain ministries within the Church, based again on a particular interpretation of Scripture. I am proud that as Free Methodists we have opposed from our beginning the great injustice that is the forced oppression of any people or groups, and we have championed openness to the Spirit of God working in all people, regardless of gender. So, it has been asked, how can we set aside what the Scripture seems to clearly say about women in ministry, for example, but not set aside what it appears to say regarding the LGBT lifestyle?
When we decided to grant women equal ordained status in 19749 we officially rejected the principle that God’s plan for humanity is defined according to gender hierarchy or a complementarian philosophy of male and female roles. We also chose to interpret Scriptural passages which appear to explicitly prohibit women from having leadership as being culturally appropriate for the earliest Christians but not universal principles that need to be followed by all Christians in all places for all time. I, again, applaud this, and in no way want to argue that we erred or should reconsider our position, in part because it is a position I strongly support, and in part because I’m afraid if I did argue for change my ordained wife would throw all my belongings onto our front yard.
Webb’s discussion of the treatment of slaves, women, and homosexuals within the Bible and its implications for Christians today is among the most thorough and thoughtful that I have read. He comprehensively examines the pertinent Scriptures and explains what, to his mind, is the difference
7 Webb, William. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
8 For example, Mark Noll comments that for many anti-abolitionists, to support the abolishment of slavery was to “scoff at the truth and authority of Scripture (Mark Noll, The Civil War as Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, 3).”
9 Women were first granted ordained status within the Free Methodist Church in 1911, but it was a limited ordination. As Bishop Hogue wrote in the first volume of his History of the Free Methodist Church, the General Church voted that women could be ordained Deacon “provided always that this ordination of women shall not be considered a step toward ordination as Elder (218).” They could preach and pastor, but were barred from senior leadership and oversight until the General Conference of 1974 gave women “equal status with men in the ministry of the church (General Conference Minutes, p. 388).”
categorically between the three groups. Though somewhat technical and not necessarily a “popular” work, his research helps advance the conversation tremendously.
Four other recent books in particular have challenged me as I’ve processed ministry to the LGBT community.10 These books are written specifically from a pro-LGBT position, or at least with a more liberal approach to ministry to those in an LGBT lifestyle. The first is Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation,11 written in 2009. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Jason Lee continued the compassionate conversation in 2012 with Torn.12 The foundation on which he writes is the need for context, interpretation, historical insight, and perhaps even other analysis of Scripture in order to properly interpret the text. This leads to the obvious question already mentioned as commonplace today, “How do we know which passages are limited by their cultures and which ones still apply to us?” To simply set aside Scriptural guidance with which we disagree, claiming it as simply a plumb line for an outdated culture, relativizes and diminishes God’s word to mere moral counsel. It reduces our Scripture reading to the ultimate proof text, affirming what we already assume and not challenging or convicting where we may be in error. Lee honestly and openly struggles with when we can authentically view Scripture as cultural and when we need to challenge our desire for a more comfortable truth:
These issues are varied and complex. Underlying all of them, however, is the essential question of how we Christians, having traditionally condemned homosexuality, should respond to a world that is increasingly accepting of it. Some say that the growing acceptance of homosexuality is further evidence of our world’s fallen nature, and that we Christians must hold fast to God’s truth in the face of the winds of change. Others say that we Christians have made a terrible mistake in unequivocally condemning homosexuality, and that a more complete understanding of human sexuality and the Bible’s cultural context should move us to repent and reevaluate our stance. Either way, if we answer this question incorrectly, will we have committed one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the church?13
10 There are numerous books that address this issue from numerous sides. I have prepared an annotated bibliography of many of these resources that is available upon request.
11 Marin, Andrew. Love Is An Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
12 Lee, Jason. Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate. New York, NY: Jericho Books, 2012.
13 Ibid., 10. I found Lee’s personal account of his struggles with homosexuality quite moving, and chapter 4, listing some guidance for parents of homosexual children, was particularly insightful.
In 2013 both Jeff Chu14 and John Shore15 released books that further personalized the LGBT discussion, moving it from the realm of ideology and impersonal orthopraxy and putting flesh and blood on those who wrestle with this particular identity. For those who may not understand or find the ability to comprehend the LGBT lifestyle, these personal accounts assist in processing the experiential nature of our investigation.
Most recently, Howard Snyder published Homosexuality and the Church: Defining Issue or Distracting Battle?16 Though short in length, Howard is lengthy in wisdom and clarity when it comes to addressing some of the more common objections and confusions regarding the Church’s stance on homosexuality. He concludes after careful explanation that this is an important issue for the church to address, and our position on homosexuality is not simply a matter of cultural expediency. As Webb suggested in Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, it also is not simply a matter of equating the LGBT debate to the issue of slavery or the ordination of women.17 It is a conversation that needs to be had with care and compassion, and Howard models it well in the brief 66 pages.
Not surprisingly, he has given us an example to follow and a call to action, as I believe Free Methodism has a voice to be heard within this discourse. Perhaps just as importantly, I believe we have the theological ballast to be an ear and actively listen to all sides with patience and compassion. We are at our best when we remember our Catholicity, for we do hold to Catholic essentials. We are also at our best when we remember our Protestant distinctives, rejecting many of the papal innovations in faith and order. We are a Church of tradition, indebted to the saints who laid foundations long before the founding of our denomination in 1860, continuing to look to the past, both ancient and recent, for the body of our creeds and the great march of history from which we draw our precedents and of which we
14 Chu, Jeff. Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. New York, NY: Harper, 2013. I found this book at once both inspiring and painful, and though I felt Jeff’s search was an amazing achievement for one person to personally investigate, I finished wishing he would have researched other communities and organizations. The book certainly paints a picture of the mindset of many Christians in America today to the LGBT community, but it does so with broad brush strokes.
15 Shore, John. Unfair: Christians and the LGBT Question. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. John solicited feedback from persons who identify themselves within the LGBT community, and then printed their first-hand frustrations, fears, hurts and hostilities in a lengthy appendix. As such, this book does at times get a little graphic. Of course, those who are ministering within the LGBT community have most likely had their sensitivities challenged long before now. My sense is that this is an important book to read, but it most definitely is not for everyone.
16 Snyder, Howard. Homosexuality and the Church: Defining Issue or Distracting Battle? Wilmore, KY: Seedbed Publishing, 2014.
17 Howard begins his book with praise of Webb’s work (see pages 3-5). To be frank, I am still not sure that I’m convinced by either Webb or Snyder in this regard, though such uncertainty is due to my lack of exegetical and hermeneutical processes rather than the strength of their argument. I will try to make sense of how I am currently processing this within my section of “Concluding Remarks.”
are but one of the latest participants. And at the same time we do not shy from the challenges of modernity, for the creeds on which we are based must continue to speak with clarity and conviction to the minds and hearts of our rapidly changing world. We are indeed “free” in many ways and can walk a middle way that brings all persons involved in this discussion together. May this conversation find us exercising that freedom, that charity, in all things, even when we feel the need to be direct and to the point.
Examples from Church History
Throughout history the Church has often been explicit and to the point when it came to an understanding of sin and God’s will, of the nature of Christ and the principles of the Kingdom. The subject of sexuality was frequently addressed, and almost universally seen in a negative light. For example, marriage itself was often frowned upon because of the sexual relations between a husband and wife.
Origen held that matrimony was impure and unholy, a means of sexual passion. Saint Jerome wrote that the purpose of a man was to cut down the wood of marriage with the ax of virginity. Saint Ambrose claimed that marriage was a crime against God because it changed the state of virginity that God gave every man and woman at birth and that marriage was a prostitution of a member of Christ. Married people ought to blush, he said, at the state in which they were living. Tertullian called marriage a moral crime more dreadful than any punishment or death. It was spurcitiae, “obscenity” or “filth.” Saint Augustine stated flatly that marriage is a sin, that birth is demonstrably accursed because every child emerges between feces and urine. Tatian called marriage a corruption, a polluted and foul way of life, and under his influence the Syrian Church even ruled for a time that no person could become Christian except celibate men and that no man who had ever married could be baptized. Years later, Saint Bernard claimed that it was easier for a man to bring the dead back to life than to live with a woman without endangering his soul.18 Again, these were all warnings against heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman! A far cry from the marriage debates that rage today.
18 As amazing as some of these comments appear, they were quite common throughout the earliest years of Christianity. Peter Brown’s The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988) contains far more examples than are called for here. It is the standard for historical scholarship regarding sexuality and sexual renunciation in early Christianity.
Further elaboration of sexual sins is a frequent subject of commentary throughout ecclesiastical history. Unfortunately, homosexuality itself is not as commonly addressed. We can, however, find clear examples that allow us to focus in on the Church’s position throughout the years.
Among the most outspoken in his attacks upon what he perceived to be heretical and beyond the pale of orthodoxy and orthopraxy was Tertullian, who died around the year 225 and is credited with the being the father of Latin theology.19 In condemning Pope Callixtus I for allowing repentant fornicators and murderers to be readmitted into the Church, Tertullian wrote, “All other frenzies of lusts which exceed the laws of nature and are impious toward both bodies and the sexes we banish… from all shelter of the Church, for they are not sins so much as monstrosities.”20
The earliest statement of a Church council regarding homosexual practice and behavior was issued by the Council of Elvira, which met in 305 and 306. It excludes from communion the stupratores puerorum (corrupters of boys), even at the moment of the offenders’ death. Eight years later the Council of Ancyra clearly spoke out against homosexual practices, condemning in Canon 17 all men who “commit [acts of] defilement with animals or males.”21 This particular Council strongly influenced many of the developments within Western Christianity.
Dying in 379, Saint Basil of Caesarea is often credited with writing a definitive rule for Eastern monasticism. Saint Peter Damian, who died in 1073 and whom we will discuss shortly, quoted Basil as saying, “The cleric or monk who molests youths or boys or is caught kissing or committing some turpitude, let him be whipped in public, deprived of his crown [tonsure] and, after having his head shaved, let his face be covered with spittle; and bound in iron chains, condemned to six months in prison, reduced to eating rye bread once a day in the evening three times per week. After these six months living in a separate cell under the custody of a wise elder with great spiritual experience, let him be subjected to prayers, vigils and manual work, always under the guard of two spiritual brothers, without being allowed to have any relationship . . . with young people.”22 Though Basil and some of the councils who came before him could be perceived as offended at pedophilia more than by homosexual actions themselves, a comprehensive reading of their material shows that they, like Tertullian before, considered all such activities as a corruption of nature and a violation of God’s plan for human sexuality.
19 He is often credited as the first to use the term “Trinity.” Quite ironically, this master rhetorician and apologist against heresy (most ardently against the Gnostics) became a follower of the Montanist heresy before he died.
20 Tertullian, De pudicitia, IV.
21 Many of the records of the Church Councils can be found quite readily with a basic internet search, as the Canons are often a matter of public domain. I tracked down the Canons of the Council of Ancyra at www.newadvent.org/fathers/3802.htm.
22 Basil of Caesarea, as quoted by Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus, cols. 174f. 7
This was, from the outset, a common theme in Church history. It certainly was the view of Saint John Chrysostom. In his commentary on Romans, he says that the pleasure of sodomy is nonetheless an unpardonable offense to nature and is, in fact, doubly destructive. Not only does it sow disharmony between men and women, who by the lure and fruition of physical desire are compelled to live together in peace, but it threatens the very existence of the human race by deviating the sexual organs from the procreative purpose for which they were created.23
Moreover, though nick-named “Golden Mouth” for his eloquence and rhetoric, Chrysostom reserved his most severe words for homosexual behavior. “All passions are dishonorable, for the soul is even more prejudiced and degraded by sin than is the body by disease; but the worst of all passions is lust between men,” he said. “The sins against nature are more difficult and less rewarding, so much so that one cannot even say that they procure pleasure, since true pleasure is only the one according to nature. But when God abandons a man, everything is turned upside down! Therefore, not only are their passions satanic, but their lives are diabolic…. So I say to you that these are even worse than murderers, and that it would be better to die than to live in such dishonor. A murderer only separates the soul from the body, whereas these destroy the soul inside the body.” Though he died in 407, Chrysostom echoes what some Church figures proclaim today. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing more mad or damaging than this perversity.”24
Saint Augustine is just as vocal in his condemnation of sodomy and other sexual sins. No stranger to temptations of a sexual nature himself and quite forceful in his warnings against such behavior, he reserved even greater judgment when it came to what he saw as perversions of our natural instincts. “Therefore those offenses which be contrary to nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and punished; such were those of the Sodomites, which should all nations commit, they should all be held guilty of the same crime by the divine law, which has not so made men that they should in that way abuse one another. For even that fellowship which should be between God and us is violated, when that same nature of which He is author is polluted by the perversity of lust.”25 After famously listing the lust of the flesh along with the curiosity of the eyes and the pride of life as the three great sins of humanity, he warned, “You avenge that which men perpetrate against themselves, seeing also that when they sin against You, they do wickedly against their own souls; and iniquity gives itself the lie, either by corrupting or perverting their nature, which You have made and ordained, or by an
23 John Chrysostom, In Epistulam ad Romanos, 1:26-27. 24 Ibid., 4.
25 Augustine. Confessions. Book III, Chapter 8.
immoderate use of things permitted, or in burning in things forbidden to that use which is against nature. ”26
The use of Sodom as the example of depravity and sinfulness was common in the Early Church. Saint Gregory the Great, whom John Calvin once referred to as the “last good pope”, 27 used the powerful imagery of the judgments God inflicted upon Sodom as a warning for those who committed similar sins in his day. “Brimstone calls to mind the foul odors of the flesh, as Sacred Scripture itself confirms when it speaks of the rain of fire and brimstone poured by the Lord upon Sodom. He had decided to punish in it the crimes of the flesh, and the very type of punishment emphasized the shame of that crime, since brimstone exhales stench and fire burns. It was, therefore, just that the sodomites, burning with perverse desires that originated from the foul odor of flesh, should perish at the same time by fire and brimstone so that through this just chastisement they might realize the evil perpetrated under the impulse of a perverse desire.”28
Among the venues for Councils within the early and medieval Church, few locations hosted more gatherings than Toledo in Spain. From the fifth century to the seventh century, about thirty synods were held there. The sixteenth Council of Toledo first met on April 25, 693, and was quite brief, concluding on May 2. Ergica, the king of the Visigoth people, summoned the Council because of a rebellion led by the archbishop of Toledo in which he tried to install a new king. Giving strict direction to the clergy in attendance, Ergica declared that any officials who betrayed the trust of the Gothic people would be driven from office and enslaved, forfeiting all their property to the realm. He also opened his remarks with clear exhortation against homosexual practices. “See that you determine to extirpate that obscene crime committed by those who lie with males, whose fearful conduct defiles the charm of honest living and provokes from heaven the wrath of the Supreme Judge.”29
No survey of the history of the Church’s approach to the LGBT community can ignore Saint Peter Damian and his Book of Gomorrha, addressed to Pope Leo IX in 1051. It is on the whole a work against homosexuality. Regarding the treatment of clergy who give in to homosexual tendencies, he writes, “Just as Saint Basil establishes that those who incur sins [against nature]… should be subjected not only to a hard penance but a public one, and Pope Siricius prohibits penitents from entering clerical orders, one can clearly deduce that he who corrupts himself with a man through the ignominious squalor of a
27 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book IV. Given that Calvin was writing in the early 1500s and Gregory died in 604, with nearly a millennium of popes between them, that is saying something!
28 Gregory the Great. Commento morale a Giobbe. Book XIV, Volume II, 371.
29 Quoted in Williams, Henry Smith. The Historians’ History of the World. BiblioLife Reproductions, 2010, volume X. Williams originally published this massive 25 volume work in 1907.
filthy union does not deserve to exercise ecclesiastical functions, since those who were formerly given to vices… become unfit to administer the Sacraments.”30
Regarding the homosexual act in itself, he paints a frightening picture, labeling it both “the most pestiferous queen of the Sodomites” and an “atrocious beast”:
This vice strives to destroy the walls of one’s heavenly motherland and rebuild those of devastated Sodom. Indeed, it violates temperance, kills purity, stifles chastity and annihilates virginity… with the sword of a most infamous union. It infects, stains and pollutes everything; it leaves nothing pure, there is nothing but filth…. This vice expels one from the choir of the ecclesiastical host and obliges one to join the energumens and those who work in league with the devil; it separates the soul from God and links it with the demons. This most pestiferous queen of the Sodomites makes those who obey her tyrannical laws repugnant to men and hateful to God. It humiliates at church, condemns at court, defiles in secret, dishonors in public, gnaws at the person’s conscience like a worm and burns his flesh like fire…. The miserable flesh burns with the fire of lust, the cold intelligence trembles under the rancor of suspicion, and the unfortunate man’s heart is possessed by hellish chaos, and his pains of conscience are as great as the tortures in punishment he will suffer. Indeed, this scourge destroys the foundations of faith, weakens the force of hope, dissipates the bonds of charity, annihilates justice, undermines fortitude, and dulls the edge of prudence. What else shall I say? It expels all the forces of virtue from the temple of the human heart and, pulling the door from its hinges, introduces into it all the barbarity of vice…. In effect, the one whom this atrocious beast has swallowed down its bloody throat is prevented, by the weight of his chains, from practicing all good works and is precipitated into the very abysses of its uttermost wickedness. Thus, as soon as someone has fallen into this chasm of extreme perdition, he is exiled from the heavenly motherland, separated from the Body of Christ, confounded by the authority of the whole Church, condemned by the judgment of all the Holy Fathers, despised by men on earth, and reproved by the society of heavenly citizens. He creates for himself an earth of iron and a sky of bronze. He cannot be happy while he lives nor have hope when he dies, because in life he is obliged to suffer the ignominy of men’s derision and later, the torment of eternal condemnation.31
30 Peter Damian. Liber Gomorrhianus. Patrologia Latina, col. 174f. 10
Perhaps the most explicit set of regulations against homosexual activity in the Medieval Church came from the canons of the Council of Naplouse, which convened on January 23, 1120. It was called by the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin, and the patriarch of Jerusalem, Garmund. Concerned about some of the things that had happened to their city, sermons were preached about the evils that had befallen Jerusalem, the earthquakes, the plagues, the attacks by the Saracens. All, it was argued, were punishment from Heaven for the sins of the people. And what were these sins? The Council issued twenty-five canons against sins of the flesh, with four relating directly to homosexual practices. According to canon 8, any adults engaged in homosexual behavior, whether they were the active or passive party,32 should be burned at the stake. But there were some concessions. If the passive party was a child or an elderly person, canon 9 said that only the active participant should be burned and the passive party need only repent of their sin, assuming they were involved against their will. This repentance must happen, and happen openly. Canon 10 said that any who kept the act a secret, even if it was against their will, were judged as guilty. And canon 11 allowed for an offender to repent and avoid punishment, but if a second offense was committed the person would be allowed to repent but nevertheless be exiled from the kingdom.33
In 1179 the Third Lateran Council declared in canon 11, “Anyone caught in the practice of the sin against nature, on account of which the wrath of God was unleashed upon the children of disobedience (Eph. 5:6), if he is a cleric, let him be demoted from his state and kept in reclusion in a monastery to do penance; if he is a layman, let him be excommunicated and kept rigorously distant from the communion of the faithful.”34
Among the most famous of the scholars of the Middle Ages was Albert the Great. He enumerated four reasons why he saw homosexual sins as the most detestable that could be committed. “They are born from an ardent frenzy; they are disgustingly foul; those who become addicted to them are seldom freed from that vice; they are as contagious as disease, passing quickly from one person to another.”35 Though he died six years later than his most famous student, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great’s emphasis on the uncontrollable nature of this vice strongly influenced Thomistic thought and much of Medieval understanding of homosexuality and sexuality in general.
31 Ibid., col. 159-178.
32 The text specifies “tam faciens quam paciens.”
33 From Mayer, Hans E. “The Concordat of Nablus.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 33 (October 1982), 531-533. 34 As quoted in Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Schools. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006, 72.
35 Albert the Great. In Evangelium Lucae XVIII, 29.
Aquinas, writing about sins against nature and clearly writing out of the shadow of his instructor, further explained the almost irresistible urge. “However, they are called passions of ignominy because they are not worthy of being named, according to that passage in Ephesians (5:12): ‘For the things that are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of.’ For if the sins of the flesh are commonly censurable because they lead man to that which is bestial in him, much more so is the sin against nature, by which man debases himself lower than even his animal nature.”36
Saint Catherine of Siena, a religious mystic of the 14th century and one of the first women to be declared a Doctor of the Church, wrote about the priests and monks who gave in to homosexual temptations. Writing in the vein of the prophets of old, she speaks as though speaking the words of Christ Himself. “They not only fail from resisting this frailty… but do even worse as they commit the cursed sin against nature. Like the blind and stupid, having dimmed the light of their understanding, they do not recognize the disease and misery in which they find themselves. For this not only causes me nausea, but displeases even the demons themselves, whom these miserable creatures have chosen as their lords. For me, this sin against nature is so abominable that, for it alone, five cities were submersed, by virtue of the judgment of my Divine Justice, which could no longer bear them…. It is disagreeable to the demons, not because evil displeases them and they find pleasure in good, but because their nature is angelic and thus is repulsed upon seeing such an enormous sin being committed. It is true that it is the demon who hits the sinner with the poisoned arrow of lust, but when a man carries out such a sinful act, the demon leaves.”37
Four hundred years after Lateran III, the Fifth Lateran Council reaffirmed its decision and echoed Saint Catherine’s concern about clergy, saying that any member of the clergy caught in “that vice against nature” should be removed and forced to do penance in a monastery. Moreover, “we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be executed as mandated by law, according to the appropriate punishment for laymen plunged in this abyss.”38
36 Thomas Aquinas. Super Epistulas Sancti Pauli Ad Romanum 1, 26.
37 Catherine of Siena. El diálogo. As quoted within Obras de Santa Catarina de Siena. Madrid: BAC, 1991, 292.
38 A full listing of the canons of Lateran V can be found at www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/LATERAN5.HTM. In 2011, Richard Joseph Michael Ibranyi published a paper called “The Catholic Church’s Teachings Against Homosexuals.” Within it he lists several examples of “secular authorities” and various civil legal codes which speak about and, often, against homosexuality. For example, on December 16, 342, Emperors Constantius and Constans issued a law that was included in the later Theodosian Code: “When a man marries and is ready to offer himself to
So prominent had the sin of homosexuality become in the years of the Renaissance that Pope Pius V, from the very beginning of his papacy, wrote several documents against it. Ludwig von Pastor, a German historian and diplomat who became one of the most important Roman Catholic historians for his History of the Popes, wrote of Pius V, “In the first year of his pontificate, the Pope had two preponderant concerns: zeal for the Inquisition and the struggle against ‘this horrendous sin whereby the justice of God caused the cities contaminated by it to be consumed in flames.’ On April 1, 1566, he
men in a feminine way… we order that norms be established, that the law be armed with an avenging sword, and that these infamous persons… receive the supreme punishment.” Emperors Valentian II, Theodosius, and Arcadius decreed on August 6, 390, that “All persons having the shameful custom of condemning a man’s body to play the role of a woman (for they seem not to be different from women)… shall expiate this type of crime in avenging flames before the public.” On December 30, 533, Emperor Justinian said, “In cases of penal suits, public prosecution will be guided by various statutes, including the Law Julia de Adulteris… that punishes with death not only those who violate the marriages of others, but also those who commit acts of vile concupiscence with other men.” Five years later Justinian linked the judgment of God on certain Biblical cities with the sexually immoral actions of its citizens. He proclaimed, “Whereas certain men, overcome by diabolical incitement to practice among themselves the most unworthy lewdness and acts contrary to nature, we exhort them to be fearful of God and the coming judgment, and to abstain from such illicit and diabolical practices so that the just wrath of God may not fall upon them on account of these heathen acts, with the result that cities perish with all their inhabitants. For Sacred Scriptures teach us that similar impious acts caused the demise of cities with all their inhabitants.”
Ibranyi goes on to demonstrate how the influence of the Justinian Code continued for centuries, as Blackstone, within his nineteenth century Comment on the Laws of England, states, “The crime against nature [is one which] the voice of nature and of reason, and the express law of God, determined to be capital. Of which we have a special instance, long before the Jewish dispensation, in the destruction of two cities by fire from heaven; so that this is a universal, not merely a provincial, precept. In the Old Testament the law condemns sodomists (and possibly other homosexual offenders) to death as perpetrators of an abomination against the Lord, while in the New Testament, they are denounced as transgressors of the natural order and are disinherited from the kingdom of God as followers of the vile practices of the heathens.”
Ibranyi further cites jurist Pietro Agostino d’Avack, who drafted several laws intended to “protect the State against the vice of homosexuality.” In great detail, d’Avack affirms: “No less severe and scathingly repressive laws against such sexual aberrations are found in the centuries following [the Roman Empire] and emanated from all civil , authorities from the earliest medieval times up to the modern age. Thus, the Lex Visigothica condemned to castration and jail those [men] ‘who carnally united with men’ and prescribed, if they were married, that their goods should be immediately inherited by their children and heirs. After the castratio virum, the law also prescribed capital punishment.”
While giving multiple further civil references, Ibranyi concludes in a wonderfully expansive list that “during successive centuries, this lay civil legislation was substantially unaltered and was nearly identical everywhere, whether in Italy or in the other European States, as attested to by the Statutes of Bologna in 1561, those of Ferrara in 1566, those of Milan, Rome and [the Italian province of] Marche in the seventeenth century, the Florentian Tires of 1542, 1558 and 1699, the Sicilian Pragmatics of 1504, the Carolingean Criminal Constitution of Charles V, the Theresian [Constitution] of Marie Thérèse, the Royal Portuguese Ordination, the New Spanish Recompilation, etc…. For their part, the Florentian Statutes, ‘execrating the indecency of the great crime that is the sodomite vice and wishing to extirpate it,’ approved the institution of eight officiales honestatis (officers of decency) who were designated for six months specifically to repress such crime.”
I share these examples in a footnote rather than the body of the paper as they are supplemental and supportive but do not carry the weight of ecclesiastical authority. As William Hosmer said in support of B. T. Roberts, “Civil government cannot bind the conscience… [it cannot] release man from his responsibility to God… or change the nature of vice and virtue (Quoted by Howard Snyder in Populist Saints: B. T. And Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006, 368).” We must obey God rather than people, right?
ordered that sodomites be turned over to the secular arm…. The various imprisonments of sodomites impressed Rome and frightened especially well-established people, for it was known that the Pope wanted his laws enforced even against the powerful. Indeed, to punish for vices against nature, the torment of the stake was applied throughout the pontificate of Saint Pius V…. An earlier papal Brief mandated that clerics who were guilty of that crime be stripped of all their posts, dignities, and income, and, after degradation, be handed over to the secular arm.”39
Two years later Pius V continued his rigorous assault on homosexual offenders. “That horrible crime, on account of which corrupt and obscene cities were burned by virtue of divine condemnation, causes us most bitter sorrow and shocks our mind, impelling it to repress such a crime with the highest possible zeal.”40
Interestingly, in the mid-1600s the English Quakers focused not so much on the offense to nature or the abuse of children or even the inability to resist temptation that was so common in earlier ecclesiastical pronouncements. Their basic thesis was that homogenital acts are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. They should be judged, it was argued, not by their outward appearance or in isolation from the personal relationship within which they occur. It is the nature and quality of the relationship in which the act occurred that matters. As current Quaker scholar Alastair Huron has pointed out, whether among homosexuals or heterosexuals the Quakers condemned “seduction and even persuasion and every instance of coitus which, by reason of disparity of age or intelligence or emotional condition, cannot be a matter of mutual responsibility.”41 For them, the core issue was whether or not an individual was exploited or marginalized sexually. Such an argument influenced those who continued to see homosexuality as inherently contrary to God’s order to be mindful of the effect on the individual, and has certainly found considerable momentum within many LGBT apologists in recent years, as well.
Regarding the increased awareness on compassion toward the person in the LGBT community, Pope Pius VI approved the “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics,” which stated, “In the pastoral field, these homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society. Their culpability will be judged with prudence. But no pastoral method can be employed which would give moral justification to these acts on the grounds that they would be consonant with the condition of such
39 Von Pastor, Ludwig. Geschichte der Päpste seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters. Vol. 18. The work he references from Pius V in 1566 was Cum Primum.
40 Pius V. Horrendum Illud Scelus. August 30, 1568.
41 Huron, Alastair, ed. Toward a Quaker View of Sex. London: The Society of Friends, 1963, 26ff. A similar viewpoint is adopted by Gregory Baum, “Catholic Homosexuals.” Commonweal 99 (February 15, 1974) 479-82.
people. For according to the objective moral order, homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality. In Sacred Scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God (Rom. 1:24-27; cf. also 1 Cor. 6:10, 1 Tim. 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved.”42
Such guidance needs to be heeded yet today. There is an objective moral order to the Church’s position on homosexuality, our stance as Free Methodists is clear and unambiguous and ought to be respected. But yet there is also a subjective moral order that should orient the pastoral action of the Church. We need to treat each person within our care with love and grace and dignity and respect. No less than the Roman Catholic Church, which is often accused of being violently opposed to the LGBT community, has stressed this with several recent publications.
On October 1, 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its second document on the subject. Signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II, it was called a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” Within it, Cardinal Ratzinger (who, of course, later became Pope Benedict XVI) carefully distinguished between homosexual tendency and behavior. “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”43
Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to reiterate that this is in accordance with Catholic doctrine. He also states that “homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.”44
Nevertheless, he argues, we are to love all persons and be generous with our grace. “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals
42 This document was issued December 29, 1975 and written by Franjo Cardinal Seper who was Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1968 to 1981, a position that was subsequently filled upon his retirement by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.
43 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, 3. The document may be found at www.newadvent.org/library/docs_df86ho.htm.
44 Ibid., 7.
a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”45
Point 15 of the document is especially worthy of note:
We encourage the Bishops, then, to provide pastoral care in full accord with the teaching of the Church for homosexual persons of their dioceses. No authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin. We would heartily encourage programmes where these dangers are avoided. But we wish to make it clear that departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve. An authentic pastoral programme will assist homosexual persons at all levels of the spiritual life: through the sacraments, and in particular through the frequent and sincere use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, through prayer, witness, counsel and individual care. In such a way, the entire Christian community can come to recognize its own call to assist its brothers and sisters, without deluding them or isolating them.46
On July 24, 1992, the newspaper of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, published the third document of the Congregation on the subject, entitled “Some Considerations concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons.” Reinforcing the need to serve out of love, with wisdom and discernment, it advocates that persons within the LGBT community be recognized as having rights on the basis of being human persons, but not on the basis of homosexuality.47 It says that “homosexual persons, as human persons, have the same rights as all persons, including that of not being treated in a manner which offends their personal dignity. Among other rights, all persons have the right to work, to housing, etc. Nevertheless, these rights are not absolute. They can be legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct.”48
45 Ibid., 10.
46 Ibid., 15.
47 This and other issues regarding ministry and approach to the LGBT community are addressed within Curran, Charles E. Readings in Moral Theology, No. 8; “Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching.” New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1993.
Recently, two of the largest Protestant denominations have made explicit declarations regarding ministry and approach to the LGBT community. The Episcopal Church, USA, is part of the world-wide Anglican Communion. It drew immediate attention when it approved ordination of openly gay individuals. The core problem arose from disagreement over religious authority. Anglicanism, in general, considers six factors when developing or changing religious beliefs and practices: specific biblical references, actions of biblical leaders, general biblical themes, church traditions, scientific findings, and personal experience.
“Conservatives” within the Episcopal Church tend to stress the first three factors, examining Scriptural truths and concluding that same sex behavior is among the most serious of sins. “Liberals” tend to stress the latter three factors and conclude that sexual orientation is in itself morally neutral, that approaches to persons in the LGBT community or sex acts which are unsafe, non-consensual, manipulative, or illicit, are the real problem to be addressed.
At the General Convention of 2003, the Episcopal Church considered whether persons who identified themselves as LGBT and were in committed relationships could be eligible for ordination, and whether church ritual would recognize and bless committed same-sex unions.49 Its decision was a qualified “yes.” Delegates confirmed the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, who was in a long- term, committed relationship with another man, as bishop of New Hampshire. They also officially approved the blessing of LGBT couples, in part because priests had been performing blessings of gay and lesbian couples in some American dioceses for some time.50
The United Methodist Church has also considered the issue of sexual orientation and church polity. On October 31, 2005, the Judicial Council51 ruled on two issues related to the LGBT debate. Irene Elizabeth Stroud was a United Methodist pastor who had her ordination status rescinded when it was discovered that she was a lesbian. The council upheld that decision. Second, it ruled that a Virginia pastor had the authority to deny church membership to a gay man.52 Some protested this decision, arguing that it contradicted both the Constitution and membership policies of the United Methodist
48 “Some Considerations concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons”, 12. The document may be found at www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/ documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19920724_homosexual-persons_en.html.
49 The actions surrounding resolution 2003-C051, entitled “Consider Blessings Committed, Same-Gender Relationships,” may be read at www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution-complete.pl?resolution= 2003-C051.
50 Such a move is not surprising, as changes in official positions often follow widespread practice in local parishes. 51 The United Methodist Judicial Council is made up of nine women and men who have ultimate decision power regarding church law. It is currently composed of four lay persons and five elders.
52 Decision number 1032. The complete text of this ruling can be found at archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp? mid=263&JDID=1098&JDMOD=VWD.
Church which stipulate that membership shall be open to all persons “without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.”53 Previously, it had determined that “status” applied to LGBT persons.54 This appeared to overturn that ruling.
Recently, one of the Annual Conferences of the Free Methodist Church, USA, has faced a similar dilemma, though it centered not on whether a local congregation could refuse membership on the basis of orientation but whether someone who identified themselves with the LGBT community could be received into membership. After much discussion and conversation, the MEG issued a statement of guidance that essentially reached the same conclusion as the United Methodist Church. It determined that “as a connected community of faith (conference), it is wise to allow the judgment of the spiritual community ministering to such people to respond with justice, mercy and humility in ways that may not look the same from one place to another. Trusting the royal law of love to lead in a manner that assists in untangling those knots is the task of pastors and church leaders everywhere.”55
Scholars such as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud have all demonstrated the various places in which our understanding of God’s world and God’s ways are influenced by a variety of largely subconscious, self-interested desires. Each of them helped point out that when we dare to make absolute claims concerning what we believe, protesting that we are simply being open and objective, we are deceiving ourselves. Our understanding is always an interpretation of the information we perceive and receive. As stated earlier, we all carry baggage, and what we ultimately believe is always affected by what we bring with us to the table.
For instance, in the image below one may see either a duck or a rabbit but not both at the same time. And once it is known that both a duck and a rabbit can be perceived, it is impossible to see the lines of the picture devoid of one of these images. In a similar way, it might be said that the world can never be seen as it really is (symbolized by the lines) but only and always through the meaning we place or have had placed upon it (symbolized by the duck or rabbit).
53 Constitution of the United Methodist Church, Division One, Article IV- Inclusiveness of the Church.
54 Decision number 1020. The complete text of this ruling can be found at archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp? mid=263&JDID=1100&JDMOD=VWD&SN=1001&EN=1072.
55 The full document can be found at the North Central Conference website: fhv1.fhview.com/imageroot/50000/ 1000/613TH/File/ToolBoxDocuments/Membership%20and%20Sexuality%20NCC%2012%202013.pdf.
This is sometimes called the “critique of ideology” because of the way that it questions the extent to which any existing understanding of the world is able to be truly objective.56
I wonder sometimes if our struggle with the LGBT question can be similarly critiqued. It has been said that history repeats itself, that those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it57. But this is not universally true. Sometimes history corrects itself, and what was true given the understanding of one age is not true in the insight of another. In 1633 the Church was so convinced that the earth was the center of the universe that Galileo was convicted of heresy for claiming that the earth actually revolved around the sun. Are there situations today that the Church has spoken about with veracity and fidelity but with limited understanding which potentially may be broadened and even changed over time? Is the LGBT question such an issue? Is there room for doubt in our discussions?
I would hope so. In contrast to the modern view that religious doubt is something to reject, fear, or merely tolerate, I’d like to suggest that doubt, or better, openness, can be celebrated as a vital part of faith. As a pastor of a large congregation I am blessed to be able to officiate many wedding ceremonies. I have yet to counsel with and perform the marriage of anybody that is not firmly convicted their marriage will last as long as they both shall live. Whether or not to get married is a non-question, they are certain of their love and assured of their future happiness and commitment. They aren’t choosing to get married, the choice has already been made.
I wonder if perhaps a healthier approach is to recognize that all relationships face hardships, that the future is very uncertain and there are no guarantees. Far from preventing a decision to still get married, this is when an actual decision is necessary. The vows that are spoken are not simply affirmations of what the bride and groom think will happen but promises that both will work toward ensuring that it indeed will come to pass. To decide for marriage and commit to one other person for the rest of one’s life, despite all the factors that may work against it, is to truly make a covenant vow. It
56 For a clear discussion of the “critique of ideology,” see Rollins, Peter. How (Not) to Speak of God. Great Britain: Paraclete Press, 2006, 10.
57 Spanish philosopher George Santayana is often credited with this quotation.
is in the uncertainty, even the doubt, in which the true love is demonstrated and tested. A love that requires contracts and absolute assurance in order to act is no love at all.
I would hope that the principle mark of our ministry to the LGBT community is a love which works toward the end of presenting everyone mature and complete in Christ, rather than throwing up our hands in frustration and confidently declaring, “There is no hope for you and your sinful lifestyle!” Augustine said that nothing can be loved unless it is known.58 Are we willing to know the people we serve, to know persons within the LGBT community?
Equal consideration is not given to each of the legs of the Quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture bears and brings the most weight and draws the boundaries for how we use our church traditions, logical reasons, and personal experiences. And yet Augustine also wrote59 that the basic principle we should look to for guidance in interpreting Scripture is the one Jesus gave us when He said that “all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands (Matthew 22:40; CEB),” that of loving God and loving “your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:39; CEB).” It is crucial to ask if in any way our understanding and approach to the LGBT community undermines the authority of the Bible, and if that same understanding and approach is born out of a love for God and others.
In the movie Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum plays a scientist who specializes in chaos theory. After learning that the park’s scientists have learned how to duplicate dinosaur DNA, he cautions that they were “so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I wonder sometimes if we wrestle with whether or not we can speak plainly and openly about the LGBT lifestyle as sinful when perhaps the better question is whether or not we should. I have eaten quite a bit of shrimp and pork at church events, and do so without in any way feeling as though I am undermining Biblical authority. I am grateful for the example of my parents that we not stone our children for being disrespectful, and I try to model that with my own two sons. And of course I’m speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I am simply pointing out what has already been urged, that though our polity and the plain sense of Scripture with regards to homosexuality is clear, we must make sure that in all things we exercise charity. How often do I preach about gluttony? Do I even consider whether or not to take into membership a person who is an admitted over-eater and does not see a reason to watch their diet, who refuses to repent of that particular sin? How do we maintain our
58 Augustine. De Trinitate. Book X, Chapter 1.
59 Augustine. De doctrina Christiana. Book I, Chapter 1, 26.
position, grounded in Scripture and affirmed in tradition, but yet minister in a way that does not yet again define us by what we are against? How do we speak of what we are for to the LGBT community?
I’m straying afield of the Church historic, I realize. I’m rambling in a somewhat personal way. But the LGBT issue and ministry to the LGBT community is personal for me. And, as mentioned earlier, it has become personal for some of our Free Methodist congregations as well.
One of the Annual Conferences of the Free Methodist Church, USA, responded to a local church that received into full adult membership two openly lesbian females. I contacted one of the women involved and asked for her permission to share her story as part of this survey of history, her story which she sent out to the conference MEG and others of us who have been following with interest this discussion.60 She agreed.61 Here is her testimony, with particular names removed so as to focus on the process and less on the persons:
I am one of the individuals at the focus of these conversations. Until now I have felt the need to sit on the sidelines and let [my pastor] lead the conversations as he is the shepherd of our flock here….. But as much as I prefer to stay secure in the somewhat anonymity of the flock, there comes time when one of the flock needs to step out.
I’ve been reading along as best I can with the documents that have been presented. I admit I have not fully read through Dr. Wayman’s work62 but have started. I also admit I am not a theologian by any means of the definition. But I have been led to share a part of my story. As I read Bishop Kendell’s response, a question came up… Did [my pastor] fully explain the beliefs of the Free Methodist Church with regards to homosexuality?
The simple answer is… Yes, he did. But this question and the greater discussion deserves a more rounded answer. So here it goes…
60 She prefaced her remarks with the following: “I have remained a bystander to the ongoing conversations but now I believe it is time for my experience to be heard at the table directly from me and not me as a third party to conversation. I invite you to read the attached document and keep it in mind in future discussions. It is my prayer that my story will help the FMC grow into a stronger more thriving organization that continues to reach out and spread the Word of the Lord to all of the hurting and lost.”
61 In an e-mail to me dated January 8, 2014.
62 She is referring to Denny’s paper prepared for SCOD on “God’s Love Expressed and Experienced.” I shared it with her pastor in an effort to give him further understanding of how he might serve her. I explained where it came from and how it was generated, that is was simply a paper for SCOD to consider and that it should only be seen as one viewpoint. I intended it just for his eyes but did not specify that it should be kept as such, and, I suppose somewhat expectedly, he circulated it to those involved in the conversation. Miserere mei.
Shortly after… my life partner of 15 years and I started attending [church] on a regular basis, before membership ever discussed, I requested a meeting with [my pastor] to share personal history. I was very much lost and was seeking a better, perhaps more spiritual path. Christianity was a path that I had intentionally diverged from in my early adulthood believing I could “take care of myself.” Knowing the common understandings within churches in relation to the topic of homosexuality, I wanted to make sure the community I was becoming increasingly comfortable in was going to be supportive and safe.
In that first conversation, [my pastor] was very specific about where the FMC stood. But at the time that wasn’t an obstacle for me. I just wanted a place to belong and just be me and to see where this new path would lead.
Fast Forward some >> In an attempt to grow on my journey, [we] started attending a discipleship class that [my pastor] led on Wednesday nights as a more in depth discussion after his Sunday sermon. I admit I came to these classes with hesitancy but I was seeking something and it seemed to something that [my pastor] was cultivating with success at [church]. If it meant getting out of my comfort zone, my humanistic zone, to find that something, then there was where I needed to be.
Eventually the discipleship class ended and the next class that was being offered was the membership class. The first day of the class, [my pastor] asked the attendees why were there. I was upfront with him and the others in attendance that I was there to learn, to engage, to grow, and membership might not be for me. Actually, membership was not even in my plans because I did not yet consider myself a believer.
I was still a seeker. But, should that change, as I held out hope that it would, I wanted to understand what membership entailed.
We were given a Free Methodist Membership Participant Resource handbook as part of the classes. After reading that, we were pretty clear where the FMC doctrine stood on the topic of homosexuality.
The first lesson of the discipleship class had been to “not react to other people but respond to Jesus Christ as Lord.” That was the response I was choosing in moving forward with continuing in the membership class. I would listen, learn, and grow without that one point, which is a significant part of my core identity, especially at that point, becoming an impediment. This allowed me to learn about John Wesley and the
foundations of Methodism as well as the history of the beginning of the FMC. I learned how the FMC was established to allow free (or ”equal” as I heard it) access to pews in the pre-Civil War era and how civil rights has always been a critical tenant of the FMC. These connections hit a strong resonance with me as a descendent of Mexican migrant farm workers, my Mother as a child and teen had worked alongside her parents and siblings, who worked cotton fields during the 40’s and 50’s. This connection to civil rights and equal justice was a factor for me in the end of wanting to become a member at [the church].
Through the course of the discipleship and membership classes, as well as participation in [a church] mission trip to Moore, OK, I was slowly building, or re- building, my relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I had grown comfortable having a healing power in my presence to help me through my struggles. I was feeling their presence around me more and more. A presence I was cherishing. I was talking to them in growing frequency; I was working to make changes in areas of life where sin had taken hold.
As a child, I had grown up in rural Oklahoma where Christian values were a vital part of my upbringing. So as the mission trip to Moore concluded, [my partner] and I chose to continue in Oklahoma to visit family and friends. This included visiting folks who had been important influencers in my youth. Some I visited in person. Some I visited at their gravesites.
It was during this time I finally realized my Heavenly Father had never left me. I had left Him… and it was time for me to accept Him as the driving force, my purpose, for life again.
After we returned to [church], the membership classes began to wind down. While I had returned to the fold again, the question of my sexuality and membership became a point that could no longer be overlooked. In the last membership class, [my pastor] reviewed the membership questions we would need to answer. At this point I was a believer and all the questions except one were easy to answer in the affirmative. The one that I was hesitant on was: “Do you accept the Articles of Religion, the Membership Covenant, the goals for Christian conduct and the government of the Free Methodist Church, and will you endeavor to live in harmony with them?”
After reflection and prayer, I realized the answer to that was yes as well because aside from the topic of homosexuality, I felt connected to the teachings of the FMC. Even if I disagreed with the FMC stand on this topic, I still respected the process it took to establish it and, most importantly, I was willing to continue my growth with an open mind and an open heart. This would allow God to work to change me as He desired or to work through me to effect changes according to His plan.
Either way, I felt becoming a part of the FMC through [my church] and following a path not of my choosing was where I was being led.63
In a recent regional AAR presentation, Free Methodist pastor Joseph Cunningham reminded us that “crucial to Free Methodism’s public charism during the early 1860s was promoting justice and equality within the body politic and the religious body by taking stands against moral, political, and social evils, as well as serving the poor and adhering to higher principles. Indeed, intolerance toward social and political inequalities is ingrained within early Free Methodist teaching and tradition and thus forms an integral part of Free Methodism’s religious identity.”64
The open and honest confession above of an ongoing journey in and toward grace fits squarely within the best of what we hope from all Free Methodists. There is no reason for the Free Methodist Church to not continue to stand on the witness of ecclesiastical history and proclaim that an LGBT lifestyle is not consistent with God’s plan for human sexuality. There also is every reason for Free Methodists to vocally resist intolerance and inequality when it comes to seeing all persons as created in the image of God. As stated before, there is an objective moral order to the Church’s position on homosexuality, our stance as Free Methodists is clear and unambiguous and ought to be respected. But yet there is also a subjective moral order that should orient the pastoral action of the Church. We need to treat each person within our care with love and grace and dignity and respect. May we, like those before us, continue to speak the truth as we perceive it, but do so with great, great love, reflecting the One who gave and gives so much love to us.
63 E-mail sent November 15, 2013.
64 Cunningham, Joseph W. “Free Methodist Responses to Political Violence during the Civil War Era, 1860-65.” Regional AAR Presentation, November 23, 2013.