Tag Archives: lgtbq

Council of St. Louis?

or What the Council of Jerusalem can tell us about General Conference 2019.


After Easter, I’ve been exploring Acts with my congregation. The concept was ‘let’s see what people did with the news that Jesus rose from the dead’. The second understanding was that Pentecost gave the Holy Spirit-the fiery courage to take the gospel to all the world, but the resurrection of Jesus was the content of the Gospel. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses,” Peter testifies on Pentecost (Acts 2:32).

God’s Invitation to the Apostles from the Gentiles

It’s interesting how Acts tells the story of the Gentile’s inclusion in the church. The notion that God is with Apostles is quickly turned on it head. It’s as if the Holy Spirit burst out of the Upper Room and the Apostles just couldn’t keep up.

God appears to Cornelius in a dream first before God says anything to Peter. And Peter has to be thrown into an hallucination before he would dare enter Cornelius’ territory. It is ultimately Cornelius who invites Peter. Peter testifies with aplomb. A second Pentecost breaks out and Cornelius’ household are all baptized. It’s as if this was for Peter’s awakening as much as Cornelius’.

Ananias was approached by God to relieve Saul of his blindness. Saul/Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. A vision of Ananias was given to Saul/Paul before their meeting. The testimony is that God is clearly acting on behalf of the Gentiles that God wants to receive the gospel.

The gospel gets to the Gentiles by accident again after the stoning of Stephen. As a precaution, the fleeing Apostles only taught in the synagogues. It was in Antioch that Hellenists heard the Gospel. By crossing a language barrier, the gospel inevitably crosses an ethnicity barrier as well. The swelling of the church in Antioch prompts Barnabas to go get Paul. The two of them minister in Antioch for about a year. God readies the Gentile people before Barnabas and Paul minister to them.

This issue of gentile inclusion leads up to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where leadership from the entire Christian planet gathers for a special general conference on inclusion of Gentiles in the church. By this time, God has on numerous occasions directly intervened to clear the way for Gentiles to be included. It would require a massive revision of Hebrew law.

Don’t Look Now, but the Quadrilateral gets Upended in Jerusalem

Not everyone was of one mind regarding Gentile inclusion in the church. A group of Pharisees insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised. To us, that sounds complete preposterous. But the Pharisees had scripture on their side.

Circumcision as the emblem of the Covenant

Remember, circumcision was the sign that the Hebrews were serious about following God. Abram was 99 years old when the sign of circumcision was given. And it was ordered as a serious custom from early on. It was a law before there even was a law. Circumcision was the threshold into the family of God.

Did you know that foreigners were allowed to observe Passover in ancient Israel, but only if they were circumcised? “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48). You can’t have the promised land without the pain.

Circumcision was also a saving grace. Did you know that en route back to Egypt, Moses wrestled with God the same way Jacob did (Exodus 4)? But in a twist, God not only overwhelms Moses, but is on the brink of killing him. Moses’ wife Zipporah sees what’s going on and performs an emergency circumcision on their son. Touching the freshly butchered foreskin to Moses “feet”* (feet in the OT is often a euphemism for genitals) God’s wrath is satisfied. Moses then goes on to free the slaves from Pharaoh. Apparently God really cares about circumcision.

The biblical record (at least as Peter and Paul understood) was very clear on circumcision: it was required. The default setting in Jewish theology was that circumcision marked one as part of the family of God. It was the foremost symbol of Israel’s relationship with God. Circumcision and the covenant went hand-in-hand. Before Passover, before the Torah, there was circumcision. It identified. It saved. It purified. It marked you as God’s favored one.

On the anti-circumcision side, the only answer Peter has was what he observed. From Acts 15:

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

Paul and Barnbas testified to what they observed in Antioch. James added a prophetic interpretation. In all, the Council of Jerusalem concluded that circumcision was not required. A letter was sent the churches throughout the world to explain the conclusion and to encourage Christians to steer clear of sexual immorality. I wonder how an intercultural church would have interpreted “sexual immorality”. Certainly Jews and Gentiles differed greatly on this.

This is no small matter. Through experience and a touch of reason, a major biblical and traditional emblem was discarded. Paul later details in Romans how the Law was really great at convicting one of sin, but otherwise terrible at actually saving anybody (Romans 7:7-12).

A Revolutionary Angle

Since Advent, when I gave myself a crash-course in the Maccabean revolt, I’ve had an altered view of the Pharisees. The Maccabeans ousted the Seleucids who were formidable world conquerers in the centuries before Christ. The Maccabeans were able to set up their own miniature dynasty (Wikipedia actually has an excellent summary here) until the Romans came along. Part of the Maccabean success was attributed to their penchant for their legal purity. They studied the OT prophets and concluded that their demise was due in part to God’s unwillingness to protect them. They rededicated themselves to their food laws and only begrudgingly chose to fight on the sabbath. They were able to defeat a grotesque and terrorizing army through their dedication to the covenant (the Law) that God had with them.

The Pharisees are the heirs of the Maccabean way, even as the Hassmonean dynasty splintered into factions. Their dedication to the law was not just for greed or power, they had good historical reason to believe that this was the way to oust the Romans and have their land back. It worked in the days of Exile, it worked in the days of the Maccabeans, this is clearly the way God will save us. For Jesus and then Peter and Paul (a Pharisee even!) to say that the Law was no longer necessary not only thwarted God’s word, it risked the continued occupation of the Romans in the holy land. The stance made at the Council of Jerusalem had far-reaching radical consequences.

What does this Mean for Saint Louis?

I say ALL of this to get us to General Conference 2019 in St. Louis.

I don’t know what is going to happen. But I feel as though there is a contest not unlike the Council of Jerusalem. The black-and-white readers have the book on their side (kinda). I personally believe that what the Bible says about homosexuality is ultimately apples and oranges since the Bible doesn’t recognize that homosexuals can actually mutually love each other. The scripture conflates homosexuality with other matters like violence or wanton lust…or worse. And what we now know about genetics is not accounted for in scripture. Nevertheless, those who see the Bible as unquestionably right do have a few lines of prohibition on their side. (Though it seems portions of the early church had found fault with that thinking.)

But is the Holy Spirit done? This seems to be the rebuttal. The harm assumed by including LGBTQ+ people in the church is not born out by the evidence. The good is hard to account for since all LGBTQ+ contributions to the church are couched in their being marginalized. What if Jorge Lockward was not marginalized? We simply do not know all that we’ve lost as a denomination. When I observe LGBT+ clergy in other denominations being just, loving, compassionate–all the things Jesus was–I do two things: I celebrate the ministry and I mourn my church for being so stubborn. When I observe LGBT+ married couples being joyful, mutually sacrificial in their love, raising kind-hearted children–putting to rest the stereotypes against them–I have two thoughts: I celebrate their family and I mourn my church for not having the eyes to see what’s going on. It is not Christian to be so nose-down in the Bible that you can’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the world around you.

I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis. The ramifications are huge. But so too are the hurdles for change in either direction! How can members of a family that are fused in their positions find peace?

The Council of Jerusalem sticks out to me as a similar battle. The potential for a flood of losers seems high. Then again, Peter, Paul and the like were then able to go to their constituents and say “Yes, we recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing here. Let us break bread in peace.” Perhaps that day is coming when we in the UMC can share the bread of with our LGBTQ+ neighbors without prejudice or shame.

On Bishop Oliveto

Everything I’ve ever learned about loving my LGBTQ neighbors as myself, I learned through the United Methodist CHurch. Everything I’ve learned about fully including, welcoming and valuing LGBTQ people in the church and society at large, I learned through the UMC.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS Bishop Karen Oliveto (left) leans over to speak with her wife, Robin Ridenour (behind Oliveto) prior to a meeting of the United Methodist Judicial Council in Newark, N.J. The denomination’s top court ruled on April 28 that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law. At right is Bishop Elaine Stanovsky.

This weekend, while the church was spinning from the Judicial Council’s decision regarding Bishop Karen Oliveto, I was with the United Methodist Women training to teach Mission U this summer. There was a wild convergence of my life in the church. This convergence of representatives from my life in the church intersected with this current matter of Bishop Oliveto’s consecration to provide an internal history lesson.

I saw people from my old conference, West Virginia there. That conference raised me and is a primary lens for my understanding of life, God, home, church and morality. I remember debating in UMYF whether it was okay for a gay person to be a parent. I argued yes, while still believing homosexuality was a sin (that assumption was never challenged).

I saw an old friend from my days at the GBGM who was a US-2 and is now with the Women’s Division. She reminded me of my own US-2 experience and the richness of knowledge that era gave me regarding gay and lesbian people. I had never encountered gay people in the church, much less leaders and activists. As a US-2 I encountered an openly gay clergyman who ministered to our class during mid-term and end-term conferences. He was gentle and heartbroken over what he saw among LGBTQ students on the campus where he ministered. He shared his wisdom and Holy Communion with us. I also had to confront internal biases I didn’t even know I had. I used the term ‘gay’ in a derogatory way one time and got seriously chastised by a classmate. I had to come to grips with the fact that I conflated homosexuality and pedophilia, which I now know is a horrendous charge. I came to realize that no one ever taught me that association. I have since concluded that I picked it up at college where Christian students often harbored strident views on purity. I witnessed the struggle for acceptance among LGBT youth where I served as a US-2. Another classmate debunked my immature understanding of genetics and sexuality. My classmates were an amazing bunch on many levels. On this matter, I am deeply humbled that they received and accepted me as their friend while I struggled to understand. I’m now 20 years older and I don’t see that happen very often.

I saw another friend at Mission U training who went with me when I lived in the UK for a year through the Time for God program. While there, I encountered for the first time a transgender woman in church. The congregation’s gentleness with her was natural and easy and a great lesson in acceptance for me. The pastor at the time was a very caustic personality in a very demanding church that had both extraordinarily gracious people and extraordinarily petty critics. Regarding the transgendered woman, the pastor displayed immense understanding and patience, even compassion. He was aware of how this woman was likely treated in many aspects of society and yet was at church regularly in search of God. I clashed often with that pastor. But his lesson on compassion to trans persons has stuck with me. My Time for God friend later joined that US-2 program while I headed to the GBGM. The GBGM was full of committed, gracious, non-straight Christian people operating this amazingly fruitful wing of the church. It was also during my time at the GBGM that I witnessed someone “come out” for the first time. I saw how painful and courageous such a confession could be. I also saw how the church itself-this thing I loved so much-was the sole source of this young person’s pain. Ironically, the church had grown me so much that I was able to see the dissonance of these two truths about the church: it could raise amazing servants of God AND it was perfectly willing to cast aside those servants based on an outdated, immature and ultimately false view of humanity and sexuality.

While with the UMW this weekend, we also sang a hymn by Mark Miller, professor of Sacred Music at Drew Theological School. Mark was commissioning the organ in Seminary Hall when I visited as a prospective student. We studied a lot of liberation theologies at Drew. Mark shared with one class his story of being a gay United Methodist. He shared about the overwhelming graciousness of his dad when he came out. He shared about being at General Conference as an openly gay United Methodist There were other LGBT faculty members at Drew who were each amazing scholars in their fields. Drew was where my ideas and beliefs about sexuality were finally deconstructed. Debating scripture, tradition, experience and reason with some of the best theological minds has proven to be fruitful training. It was while at Drew that Judicial Council decision 1032 came down. That decision stated that a pastor could deny membership to a person based solely on their sexual orientation. I recall an emergency meeting of UM students and the electricity in the air over 1032. I immediately recalled the story of Bishop Elijah Jones, who was a clergyman when the Methodist Episcopal church split over slavery. Jones was pastoring a black north church in New Orleans. When his DS came to visit, the DS who was white had to lodge with a white ME South clergyman in town. Jones’ decision to stay in the church has stayed with me. Why should I give ‘my church’ up to the forces of exclusion?

Furthermore, we sang another song that was arranged by Jorge Lockward. I had worked with Jorge at the GBGM. Jorge was the musician and worship leader for Annual Conference in WV after I had returned as a clergyperson. Jorge was well received and immensely effective. He was slated to lead another event when his sexual orientation was discovered. A controversy arose and many calls were made to rescind his invitation or boycott the event. I remember defending his ministry at a clergy picnic. We attended the event. Every time Jorge arose to lead a hymn, a section of people would leave. There was room in the church for adulterers, but not a homosexual. Also as a clergyperson in WV, I encountered numerous parents of gay and lesbian children and saw the agony they experienced from the church through their children. I heard the vitriol toward LGBTQ people at Annual Conference. It was after I had decided to move west that I finally was open about wanting LGBTQ people to be fully included in church and society.

Then, I met people from Oregon, where I served as pastor for 1 year. That church, Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church in Portland, OR was the only reconciling church I’ve served. They were quite small at the time but were quite active in RUMs: Reconciling United Methodists of Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. RUMNs held their annual meeting at Sunnyside on “What is trans?” a seminar educating people of issues relating to transgendered people. I was impressed with how in flux the matter is. Nevertheless, trans people have their own difficulties and their own need for grace. And yet, the church is a primary source of exclusion. I saw at Sunnyside an immense dedication to living faithfully and living out the Micah 5:8 charge to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Finally, I was part of a contingency from my current conference, the Pacific Northwest. I serve a long-standing congregation who dedicates itself to serving the poor. This issue of sexuality in the church seems likely to demand a stance from us soon. Part of our contingency is the former pastor of Orchards, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. I see her current work in ecumenical circles and see the beauty of the church at its best: understanding, intelligent, truthful, just and peaceful. I see our conference trying earnestly to do justly by our LGBTQ neighbors. I see us on the wrong end of church history, perhaps having to endure a period not unlike what Elijah Jones endured: cut off, ostracized and belittled based on the color of one’s sexuality. I’m not resigned to this fate, but I am prepared for it.

In the end, I can see why Bishop Oliveto was elected. She has been an amazingly fruitful minister of the gospel for a long time. She has been openly gay for a long time. It’s notable that no one has questioned the quality of her ministry. No one questions if she loves her partner. All of those deep down spiritual matters are beyond reproach. All that’s left are matters of ‘legality’, wrapped in church-lawyer language.

At some point, perhaps in the not so distant future, it seems likely that all United Methodists will have to choose where they stand on these matters. Each jurisdiction will ask each conference which will ask each congregation which will ask each member and clergyperson to state their place in the debate. It seems like the time for honest reckoning is approaching. When that time comes, this personal history of the church’s lessons on what is right and wrong for LGBTQ people will carry my own position.

It’s a Good Day for Frank Schaefer but only a Partially Good Day for Methodism

I support the decision by the Judicial Council to uphold Rev. Frank Schaefer’s reinstatement to Ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. But let’s be clear: it was a technical win. The changing of hearts for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church remains the chief goal and the tougher work. [Insert cold water here.]

As a disciple of Jesus Christ as well as one Michael G. Scott, I’m still holding out for a win-win-win scenario. A win-win-win scenario would involve not only the changing of rules, but also the ending of hatred toward LGBTQ people and their allies and the end of animosity over LGBTQ inclusion in the church. This is where the church must distinguish itself from secular society. The church is to provide a foretaste of the kingdom of God. As such it is not an entity governed by the rule of law but an entity dominated by the law of love. Governments make and change laws. Institutions make and change rules. Churches change hearts and minds.

The winning of hearts and minds defeats the threat of unjust laws and rules. Sing Amazing Grace and know that this was written as a heart was changed from slave-holder to abolitionist. It was the redeemed sinner who penned the words that we sing over a variety of struggles.

Had the struggle against racism ended after the Voting Rights Act, there would still be racism. As it stands, the Voting Rights Act was turned away because the work of ending racism in the heart is unfinished.

In the end, the decision today was a technical one. It was about interpreting a rule. It was not so much about Rev. Schaefer or gay marriage or even fatherly love. No good thing was upheld and no bad thing was turned away. It was about how much punishment was appropriate for Rev. Schaefer. We should still mourn that he was punished at all.