Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2020

I just read a news report in the Washington Post, “United Methodist Church is expected to split over gay marriage disagreement, fracturing the nation’s third-largest denomination.” According to this article, the decision appears to have been a mutual one among the two major UMC factions, one that seemingly gives both sides much of what they want. That is, of course, if the new proposal is affirmed by the denomination’s legislative process.

I don’t have any close contacts in the UMC and have not been following the drama closely these past several years. So this article comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t have any insights to offer on the Methodist drama. But the news strikes me as very interesting, and it has triggered a few reflections.

Can “schisms” be good?

I experienced first-hand, in a very small way, some of the anxiety related to churches splitting about 30 years ago. I began my first pastorate in a tiny Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon, in 1987. After my first year, I was up for consideration for ordination. Conservative elements in the regional conference had an advocate on the conference leadership committee who blocked my ordination. One of the tools in his arsenal that gave him some power was the threat that a number of conference congregations would leave the conference if I were ordained.

After three years of painful deliberations, I was finally ordained. About the same time, two women pastors (one a congregational minister, the second a chaplain) were also ordained (the first women to be ordained in the conference, over the objections of many conservatives). As threatened, a couple of congregations did leave the conference. However, in a delicious irony, the congregation the leadership committee member pastored refused to leave the conference. Instead that pastor was asked to leave the congregation.

This was all pretty traumatic for me, and when the opportunity arose to pastor elsewhere, I did so—leaving Oregon in 1994. Over a quarter of a century later, I still deeply miss living in the state of my birth. However, I am grateful for the opportunities that opened up after we moved on. Continue reading “Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]”

Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda. Continue reading “Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

One of the best books yet: A response to Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage

Ted Grimsrud—May 24, 2016

I tend to think it is a good thing that the North American Christian debate about whether churches should be inclusive or restrictive in relation to LGBTQ folks has generated so much literature. The sheer mass of writing is too much to keep up with, but out of this ferment have come some good materials. One of the very best books I’ve yet read on this theme is by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and theologian, Mark Achtemeier.

The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox, 2014) has many strengths. It’s of manageable length (131 pages), clearly written, based on solid research, a nice mixture of personal engagement and theological reflection, and coherently argued. I would recommend it as a solid book to help those already in the inclusive camp to understand better how the Bible is actually a positive resource for faith communities that have already made a commitment to be inclusive. I would also recommend it for those who aren’t sure what they believe and would like to check out the best advocates for inclusion. And, as well, I would recommend it for those who are confident of their restrictive convictions but would like better to understand the strongest arguments for inclusion. I believe it will contribute to a more accurate and fair-minded conversation going forward.

An evangelical’s change of heart

Part of the appeal of this book is that Achtemeier himself used to affirm the opposite point of view. He cites an article he published in 1996, “The Upward Call of God: Submitting Our Sexuality to the Lordship of Christ,” that was written in support of the movement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to forbid ordination to openly gay and lesbian ministers. Not long after that article, though (which did contribute to the formal reinforcement of restrictive denominational policies), Achtemeier began to change his view. In time he became an advocate for overturning the restrictive policies concerning marriage and ordination—which happened in 2011.

It would have been nice to learn a bit more of Achtemeier’s heart and mind as a restrictive advocate, but he keeps the book focused on his constructive argument for affirmation of same-sex marriage—which is a strength of the book. Achtemeier uses his thinking process in his emerging affirmative view as a device to drive the narrative. This makes the book more readable, though at times it may feel a little contrived. Continue reading “One of the best books yet: A response to Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage

A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, Neil Young recorded a song, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that protested social circumstances in Reagan/Bush America. It included this line, referring to the language of the Bush campaign calling for a “kindler, gentler America” and pointing to “a thousand points of light” that reflect the goodness of the country: “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man, we’ve got a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand.”

Young called out the Bush campaign for its misleading message, its claims to seek a more humane country that was contradicted by the actual policies that only exacerbated the dynamics leading to homelessness and that sought expanded militarism.

I’m a little uneasy with using this rhetoric in relation to the current discussion in evangelical Christian circles about whether and how to be welcoming toward sexual minorities. However, I think the question raised by remembering Young’s critique applies.

Is the effort Preston Sprinkle makes (echoing numerous others) to emphasize the call to love gay people actually a signal of a “kinder, gentler” evangelical community—or is it only reflecting a façade of “kindness” that does not actually signal much of a change at all? I’m afraid my reading of the book People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015) leaves me with a strong impression of a deeper-seated “machine-gun hand” that remains solidly in place.

Do actual people really matter much?

Sprinkle is a New Testament scholar with a PhD from the University of Aberdeen and is currently an administrator at Eternity Bible College (Boise, ID). He has written several widely circulated books. He begins and ends People to be Loved with attractive reflections on the need to “love the sinner.” But he also spends the large majority of the book focused on how the Bible supposedly clearly describes and condemns the “sin” that must be hated. These dual foci, “love the sinner; hate the sin,” widespread in evangelical writing on these issues, are difficult to reconcile.

Continue reading “A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2015

This past Sunday, January 18, I had another chance to talk about same-sex marriage in a Mennonite congregation. I was invited to speak at Oak Grove Mennonite Church, near Smithville, Ohio. My assignment was to give a talk to a large Sunday School class, preach the morning sermon, and respond to questions in an early afternoon session. It was a good experience for me and, I hope, for the congregation.

One interesting aspect of the visit was how this congregation is really in the middle of the road (or maybe, several roads). Within the congregation, it appears that the more common view would be inclined to what I call the “restrictive” side of things—believing that full acceptance of, say, same-sex marriage, is not appropriate. There seem to be many, though, who likely would tend more to the “inclusive” side and be open to accepting same-sex marriage. However, the point of the visit was not for them to reveal their views to me, but for me to share mine with them.

I put my presentations together so that the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” would speak in more general terms about the centrality of hospitality in the Bible, concluding with a focus on Jesus’s teaching. The sermon does not address same-sex marriage directly, but sets the stage for the lecture by establishing a benefit of the doubt in the Bible toward a welcoming stance in general, especially toward vulnerable people. Then, the lecture (“The Bible and same-sex marriage”) would focus more directly on marriage and make an argument for why Christians should embrace same-sex marriage and apply to it the same kind of moral framework as they do to opposite-sex marriage.

I have posted the two presentation on my Peace Theology website (here are links to the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” and to the lecture, “The Bible and same-sex marriage”). To follow the argument I tried to make, one should read the sermon first and then the lecture.

Reflections on the experience

The discussion that followed, the presentations and personal conversations helped me to see how I could have perhaps reshaped what I did and made the argument more clear. I also continue to wonder about the overall utility of such discussions—as well on the character of the argument I try to make and the appropriateness of me doing such presentations. Continue reading “Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible”

Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2015

 A recent book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Baker, 2014) by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, makes the case that Christians should reject same-sex marriage. The main reason for this rejection is that God has an ironclad “design” that allows only for male/female marriage. This “design” is revealed in scripture and in the nature of human intimate relationships, most importantly in the possibility for procreation that only male/female partners have.

How persuasive is this book’s argument?

Some good points

One of the main strengths of the book is that it strives for and largely achieves an irenic tone. While it is hard to imagine the main argument of the book being persuasive to someone who doesn’t start out agreeing with it (which to me is not necessarily a flaw; I don’t think the authors are necessarily trying to convert same-sex supporters), those who don’t agree with the book’s argument might, nonetheless, well find the book readable and interesting. If someone who accepts same-sex marriage wants to understand the arguments against it, this book would be a good choice. And certainly those who don’t like same-sex marriage will find in this book strong bases for their opposition.

McDowell and Stonestreet (henceforth, M&S) recognize that evangelical Christianity faces a public relations problem with its opposition to same-sex marriage. So they want to counter the impression that “anti-homosexual” is an accurate description of present day evangelical Christians while nonetheless making the case for opposing same-sex marriage. This is a delicate balance to try to achieve, and they are not particularly successful in doing so. But in their effort, they do mute the typical negative rhetoric a great deal.

As well, they (fleetingly) make a number of concessions that earlier evangelicals on the restrictive side (most notably Robert Gagnon in his widely circulated book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice—tellingly not referenced in Same-Sex Marriage) were loathe to. For example, they write: “Many Christians insensitively repeat over and over that [homosexuality is a choice], but to many of the men and women we have talked with who struggle with same-sex attraction, it isn’t. They look at their lives and say, ‘I would have never have chosen this. I can’t choose not to feel this way. I’ve tried to feel straight, but nothing has changed.’ We believe them.” (p. 118). M&S don’t actually wrestle much with the implications of this concession, but it is progress that they have made it.

The basic argument the book makes against the acceptance of same-sex marriage seems pretty straightforward. The basic rationale for M&S opposing same-sex marriage is clear and hence can be wrestled with.

The core argument

This is what M&S present as the heart of their concern: Christians—and everyone else—should reject the notion that people of the same sex can enter into a marriage relationship. Churches should not bless such marriages, and the state should not recognize them as legal unions (there are a couple of hints that M&S would not oppose “civil unions” as long as they are not called marriages; it’s too bad they don’t address that issue more thoroughly). Continue reading “Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?”

Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind

Ted Grimsrud—December 19, 2014

Back in 2003, David Gushee co-wrote (with Glen Stassen) what became a standard text book on Christian ethics—Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Published by InterVarsity Press, this book especially has been widely read in evangelical circles. I liked the book a lot and wrote a quite positive review (Conrad Grebel Review, Spring 2004, 108-10). I didn’t like the book’s discussion of “homosexuality” (it affirmed the “restrictive” view—somewhat in tension with the generally liberative tone of the book as a whole), but all I said in the review was that it was “rather superficial”).

Several years after the book’s publication, I had a conversation with Glen Stassen and mentioned how much I appreciated the book. Glen told me that they were working on a revision. He said Gushee had written the section on “homosexuality” in the first edition and Glen was hoping to be more involved in rewriting that part—and moving it, he implied, in a more “inclusive” direction. I don’t know how close to finishing the revision the writers came before Stassen’s recent death. But based on a new book by Gushee, Changing Our Mind (Read The Spirit Books, 2014), even if a revised version of Kingdom Ethics was to continue to use only Gushee’s views on “homosexuality,” the content would be quite different than the first edition.

The long subtitle of Changing Our Mind makes it clear that Gushee has shifted his views in a major way: “A call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.” With refreshing directness, Gushee describes how his views on this issue have done an about face. He now affirms same-sex marriage and expresses regret about the hurt his earlier writing caused: “I end by apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask for your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here” (p. 126).

Gushee dates his own “change of mind” to just the last couple of years, though obviously this change is the culmination of a much longer process. So this short book is kind of a preliminary expression of his new thinking. It is actually made up of a series of opinion pieces (blog posts) published online by Baptist News Global from July to October 2014. So the book has the advantage of being lively, current, accessible, direct, and winsome. What it’s not, though, is a detailed, scholarly, in-depth analysis of the many issues.

I find a lot to appreciate in Gushee’s book. I welcome its publication. In fact, I am delighted that a prominent evangelical leader would take such a clear public stand. The raises several questions for me though. The first is about evangelicalism—Will Gushee remain an “evangelical leader”? Will he want to? Is a book like this going to be part of a significant shift within evangelicalism and a movement within that arena toward more openness? Or is it more going to lead to a shift with the boundary lines of who counts as an evangelical—with Gushee now located outside the evangelical circle?

It is clear that Gushee here still wants to take an “evangelical” approach to sexual ethics in general—the only change, he would say, is that he now wants to include same-sex marriage on the “morally acceptable” side of the clear line he still affirms between appropriate and inappropriate sex. But I wonder about this approach. I also wonder about Gushee’s strong effort to remain irenic and reasonable throughout. While admirable in many ways, might such a thoroughly irenic approach leave some of the key issues unaddressed? Let me elaborate on these questions.

Continue reading “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind

God and the (conservative) gay Christian

Ted Grimsrud—November 2, 2014

I imagine that for those who most oppose the growing openness to same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the churches, including in leadership roles, one of the most challenging arguments would be one that argues on the basis of the Bible for such inclusive practices. It seems easier (maybe for both sides when the debate gets polarized) simply to assume that the debate is whether Christians should follow the Bible or not.

I suspect that it is because Matthew Vines’s recent book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Relationships, is so conservative theologically that it is receiving such sharp opposition from many evangelical supporters of a restrictive approach to these issues. Writers who grant that the Bible is opposed to “homosexual practice” but then want to move the churches in a more inclusive direction based on other criteria (the experience of grace in the lives of LGBTQ Christians, for example) are easier to dismiss.

Muddying the waters

When the debate concerning inclusiveness vs. restrictiveness can be reduced to a debate about Christian orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy, it’s going to be an easier path for those on the side of maintaining the status quo. Vines’s book, though, muddies the waters.

This is a book that situates itself square in the midst of the evangelical churches, claiming to argue from a conservative, orthodox, and traditional biblical reading strategy for the acceptance of “same-sex relationships.” Hence, it is getting much more negative attention than earlier books that argued with more liberal, non-orthodox, and contemporary reading strategies. Continue reading “God and the (conservative) gay Christian”

Jesus’s love and gay Christians: Jeff Chu’s journey

Ted Grimsrud—October 6, 2014

We Christians continue to struggle to embody Jesus’s way of peace in relation to sexual minorities. Surely a necessary part of this struggle is the need to humanize the people this affects. That is, especially, to humanize those we disagree with and those who we may agree with but still perceive as strangers.

Jeff Chu, a professional journalist and gay Christian, has written a fascinating book that helps with this task of humanization. The greatest contribution of the book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (Harper, 2013), surely is how it helps us see actual people as they struggle and advocate. Chu manages to present people across the spectrum in sympathetic ways and helps these people tell their stories.

Chu writes well and obviously is a solid journalist. He does not come across as a deep thinker and does not seem to be especially interested in the intellectual elements of our wrestling. That lack proves to be a problem, as I will discuss below. But for a look into the hearts of those on the front lines of the current ferment among many types of American Christians this book is worthwhile—and I recommend it for that reason.

Poignant vignettes

Several times in the book Chu is especially successful in helping the reader see into the soul of the struggle. For me, one of most moving of the stories he tells is that of Kevin Olson, a gay Christian in Minnesota who feels the call to remain celibate even as he accepts the irreversibility of his affectional orientation. Now, while we obviously are at Chu’s mercy in how he tells Olson’s story, I do sense a profound respect on Chu’s part for Olson’s commitments. Nonetheless, the picture that Chu paints seems to me to be quite sad. Continue reading “Jesus’s love and gay Christians: Jeff Chu’s journey”

More thoughts on same-sex marriage and Christianity

Ted Grimsrud—July 2, 2013

I read two articles yesterday that provide a couple of interesting perspectives on the continuing unfolding of the discussion about same-sex marriage.

Virginia Mennonite pastor Harold Miller’s “A right that is wrong” (published in the June 24, 2013 issue of Mennonite World Review—the on-line article is accompanied by a remarkably civil and lively discussion from various points of view) reiterates the case for seeing same-sex marriage as inherently wrong for Christians.

Gabriel Arana is a senior editor with the liberal current affairs journal, The American Prospect. His article, “The Religious Right’s terms of surrender” (published on the on-line version of the Prospect on July 1) points to the various leaders among America’s political conservatives who seem to concede the inevitability of the acceptance of same-sex marriage. At the same time, the rank-and-file, especially Christian conservatives, continue to fight against this acceptance.

The final rationale for opposing same-sex marriage

To some degree, though writing with a more irenic tone than many who share his views, Miller represents the sentiment Arana discusses, where Christian conservatives are as yet unwilling to show openness toward acceptance. Continue reading “More thoughts on same-sex marriage and Christianity”