Monday, January 27, 2014

Letter to the Editor: On a colleague being defrocked

The recent announcement that the Rev. Frank Schaefer’s credentials have been revoked by his annual conference has elicited strong reactions.  The Board of Ordained Ministry of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference took this action in response not only to Schaefer performing the 2007 marriage of his son and his same-sex partner, but his stated refusal to abide by the Book of Discipline on this matter in the future.

Following hard on the heels of this story is the suspension of Phil Robertson from the wildly popular Duck Dynasty show on A and E.  The family patriarch was suspended by the network for remarks he made disparaging homosexuality.  Fan sites immediately lined up to support Robertson and the show.  Bobby Jindal, governor of Robertson’s home state of Louisiana has come out in support of Robertson.  Conversely, Robertson was denounced by GLAAD spokesperson Wilson Cruz.  "Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe," Cruz said. Though the stories of Rev. Schaefer and Phil Robertson are different in so many ways, they both illustrate one thing pretty clearly – this is an issue that won’t go away.

Is Wilson Cruz right?  Do all “true Christians” (read “progressive Christians”) believe in the GLAAD cause?

The issue of rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people is often framed as a civil rights issue.  Comparisons are made to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust or the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the 1960’s.  The comparison is fair in that all persons in our society have inherent dignity and a right to be protected from violence.  But the comparison doesn’t work beyond that in a fundamental way.  Nazi Germany never appealed to the Scriptures to justify its violence against Jews.  The Nazis sought to tame the Church and make it impotent.   Even Hitler knew that the Church was ultimately his enemy.  He certainly knew that the Bible wouldn’t support his evil.

The comparison of rights for LGBT persons and the civil rights of African Americans in our own country doesn’t work either, likewise because of the voice of Scripture.  Dr. King appealed to that voice when addressing Southern Christians by asking them to be true to their Christianity.  He knew that Christians who supported the racist status quo were not being true to the Scriptures that they professed were authoritative in their lives.  He challenged them to live out the Gospel by loving people of a different skin color than their own.

And here’s the thing:  Scripture never tries to tell us that homosexuality is one of our options.  The practice of homosexuality is uniformly condemned as sin.  This is the same Scripture, I would remind, that affirms the value and dignity of all human beings in the eyes of God.  We understand that God can love us and still disapprove of our actions.  We understand this in regard to so many other weaknesses.  Why can’t we understand this when it comes to homosexuality?

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who has spoken in favor of full inclusion of LGBT persons in ministry, notes that, say what you will about the issue, you can’t make Scripture say that homosexuality is okay.  It just doesn’t say that.

So what do we do, Church?  We love all persons.  We love persons who struggle with same-sex attraction.  We welcome them into communities of faith.  We strive to teach and live a Gospel that declares God’s love for everyone and how God loves us so much that God wills transformation for us.   God wills that we go on to perfection.  And we admit that we all have a long way to go to perfection.

Those who advocate for full inclusion of LGBT persons and the change of our Book of Discipline sometimes frame themselves as prophetic voices who are willing to suffer the consequences rather than violate their conscience.  They assure us that their honesty has led them to disobey the teachings of the church.  What is rarely noted is that there is a certain arrogance in saying, “I am right and the Scripture and doctrine of the Church that has been here for ages before me is wrong.”  And yes, there is an arrogance of chronology when we assume that our age or our culture is always more enlightened than others.  Ask the United Methodists from Africa what they think of our cultural wisdom.

These so-called prophetic voices who want to change our standards, who “sacrifice” themselves in honesty for the cause, curiously, never see their honesty leading them to leave the church.   Their honesty never causes them to say, “I understand that this is Christianity as revealed in Scripture, Doctrine, History and the Experience of so many over two thousand years of the Church.  And I can’t live with the authority of that witness anymore so I must respectfully leave and go someplace else.”  I’m not saying that scenario never happens.  But you don’t hear about it much.  If we did, I would give more credence to this being truly an act of civil disobedience and a civil rights struggle.

Bishop Peggy Johnson, resident bishop of the Eastern PA Conference said that our Book of Discipline is discriminatory in parts and that we appear to the world to be speaking “out of two sides of our mouths.”  I agree with the Bishop on that latter point.  It is time for the Church, and specifically the Bishops of the Church to find their unified voice.  They are called to teach the doctrines of the church faithfully.  They are called to lead and not keep repeating the same statements of “we are a church of many opinions.”  Of course we are.  That tends to happen when you get a couple million people together around a purpose.  But the fact that we have opinions is beside the point.  What matters is this treasure that we carry in jars of clay called the Gospel and the authority which it possesses over time and place and culture.   What matters is faithfulness to the person of Jesus Christ and the mission to which we’ve been called.

I welcome discussion on this issue.  I don’t think we get to discuss theology enough.  I imagine that lay people assume pastors are discussing theology all the time with each other.  Ask your pastor whether that is true or not.  Ironically, we have kept our opinions to ourselves “inside the church”, perhaps fearing to offend.  Meanwhile persons continue to voice their opinions to the media that, whether they desire it or not, are viewed as representative of our church.   We need more holy conferencing and less microphone posturing.

I stand by my take - if we follow the culture completely on the issue of homosexuality we will sacrifice a more vital vision, i.e. that the Scripture is still authoritative and relevant to people today.  To willingly turn our backs on Scripture is to walk out of the will of God.  And to walk out of his will, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “is to walk into nowhere.”

— Rich Morris, Hicks Memorial Duncansville

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