A SPECIAL REPORT/Lifewatch (12/99)

SALVATION AND SEXUALITY
WHAT THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH TEACHES


From time to time, issues and social movements—be they philosophical or theological, political or economic, or cultural or moral in nature—arise in society and require address from the Church. On occasion, such issues and movements can press and push so vigorously on the Church that she is wise to return to her foundations, reconsider her basic doctrines and moral teachings in light of the urgent questions of the day, and engage the matters at hand on the basis of her foundations. Slavery in nineteenth century America was one such issue. National Socialism in Germany, during the 1930s and 1940s, another. And the civil rights movement in twentieth-century America was a third.

A movement pressing for the acceptance of homosexual practice has developed in contemporary societies, including the United States. This movement, led and supported by many people of good will, can be found both in American society and inside the American churches, including The United Methodist Church. Following the civil rights movement for racial justice and the sexual revolution of the last several of decades, the movement for the acceptance of homosexual practice is quite aggressive. Indeed, as made clear in the recent church trial, conviction, and defrocking of Rev. Jimmy Creech (for conducting, contrary to disciplinary guidelines, a same-sex union service), leaders of this movement are unafraid to sacrifice for their cause. It must be addressed, with truth and in love, by The United Methodist Church in our day.

We need not enter this address in a state of fear—fear of the movement, fear of each other, fear of schism in our denomination, or fear of division in our conferences. After all, addressing the movement now advocating the acceptance of homosexual sex is not like fighting a battle in a war. Rather, this task is simply a part of being Christ's Church. It has to do with practicing Christian discipleship, and with speaking and listening as Christ's disciples. Therefore, we can enter this time of discipleship and teaching with confidence. Confidence! Confidence based on Jesus Christ's reign and guidance and grace!

We can be confident that God will accomplish good and great things when the Church teaches truthfully and lovingly. After all, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is with the Church as she teaches and loves. Over the years, God has made us sisters and brothers, part of the family of the Church, through the waters of Holy Baptism. God have given us the mysterious yet real presence of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. And God gives us the Holy Spirit to teach and to listen, and to live together and to struggle against each other, as brothers and sisters often do. We can be confident that God will use this time of teaching for the purpose of renewal. We can be confident that God will use this time of teaching to renew His Church in the faith and in the new life He has given, gives, and will give to us.

So let us now turn to the Church's teaching. In what follows, I will offer what The United Methodist Church's teaches on salvation (which is church doctrine not just theology) and sexuality (which is moral instruction from the Social Principles). Remember that what follows is derived—imperfectly, to be sure—from the authoritative sources of The United Methodist Church. Furthermore, what follows should be in line with the witness of the Bible, with the Wesleyan tradition, and with the Great Tradition of the Church catholic. That is, what I will offer is ecumenical in content; it can be found, more or less, in churches across the ecclesiastical spectrum—from Pentecostalism and Evangelical Protestantism to Classical Protestantism to Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism.

Mind you, what I will offer is not just my personal or private opinion. Rather, it is what we, as The United Methodist Church, with the Church universal, hold to be true.

The Article of Religion on the Church declares that the Church is to preach (and teach) "the pure Word of God" (XIII). This is a very high standard to which bishops, clergy, and lay preachers and teachers aspire. What I will offer here is what I, as a United Methodist elder and pastor, have promised to preach, teach, and defend. In addition, what I will present here is constitutionally protected, by The Book of Discipline, in The United Methodist Church. I have not made it up from scratch. Instead, I have received this teaching from God, from the Church, from the Bible, and from the Tradition; and I will attempt to pass it on anew and afresh. Though I will certainly fall short in many ways, I am attempting to be a servant of the Word of God and of the Church.

What the Church Teaches: Doctrinally

What I will teach about salvation is doctrinal in nature. That is, I will teach what is for the whole church, for all of us. Certainly, there is much room in our church for the doing of theology. But theology is more experimental and more exploratory for individuals and groups in the church so inclined. But doctrine is for all of us. Doctrine is our foundation.

The Church's basic message of salvation, in brief, goes like this. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1: 1, RSV here and following). Through God the Spirit and with God the Son, God the Father created light, day, and night; sun, moon, and stars; waters and lands; plants and animals. Finally, God created "man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (1:27). At the end of this magnificent, marvelous, creative work, God paused and "saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (1:31).

But the drama of God creating all that is did not end the story. Rather, the drama increased. For man neglected God's command not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Though created in God's image, man caved in to temptation. Man disobeyed. Man displayed pride. Man overreached. That is, man fell from perfect harmony with God, as did all of creation. St. Paul describes the consequences of man's fall in this way: "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:23). That is, man left the one, true, living God and adopted other gods to serve. "Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!" (Romans 1:24-25)

The fall has a deep, profound influence on all men and woman, all boys and girls. Our Article on Religion on original sin states that because of Adam's fall, "man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually" (VII). With the fall, more than a little negativism, more than a few bad choices, entered the human scene. With the fall, all mankind, while created in the image of God, became flawed and distorted, always and everywhere. With the fall, even man's free will was destroyed: for "man cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us," as the Article of Religion on free will declares (VIII). In other words, with the fall, man entered captivity to sin. Man lost all hope, except for the false and temporary hopes that he might drum up on his own. Man became man in rebellion against God. No choices. No exit. This is the Christian truth about man.

But again, the drama does not end here. Again, the drama increases. For God does not leave man alone, trapped in self, sin, and death. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Similarly, St. Paul proclaims: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them..." (II Corinthians 5:19). This is the Gospel! This is the radical love of God for the world, for man. This love of God is not a feeling. Not a sentiment. Not a good intention. Not an aspiration. This love of God is Jesus Christ, who is "very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us..." (Articles of Religion, II). so the love of God is, in particular, Jesus Christ crucified: "The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required" (Confession of Faith, VIII).

The love of God means salvation for man. And salvation means God's great and graceful gifts of justification, sanctification, and perfection. Though today we do not often use these fifty-cent words in our churches, we should! They are good words. For they help to carry Good News to the world and to us. These great and graceful gifts from God—justification, sanctification, and perfection—are received by man through faith, through trust, through an open heart. Only and solely because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross, we are justified or "accounted righteous before God" (Articles of Religion, IX and Confession of Faith, IX) or pardoned, as John Wesley often preached. Justification brings sanctification, which is ongoing growth in God's grace. 'We believe sanctification is the work of God's grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and enabled to live in accordance with God's will..." (Confession of Faith, XI). Furthermore, we believe that "[e]ntire sanctification [or perfection] is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one's neighbor as one's self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift...should be sought earnestly by every child of God... The Christian must continue on guard against spiritual pride and seek to gain victory over every temptation to sin..." (Confession of Faith, XI).

Church and Bible, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, proclamation and prayer, are given by God to serve the purposes of man's salvation in Jesus Christ. To employ them rightly is to be in communion with God and with the People of God. To employ them rightly is to gain a foretaste of the final redemption, in which God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. And he who sat upon the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new... It is done I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end"' (Revelation 21:4-6). This is the coming of the Kingdom of God in fullness and the coming of the King in glory. This cosmic redemption is the triumphant end of the drama, which began with creation.

What the Church Teaches: Morally

Salvation in Jesus Christ results in a way of life lived out in the Church and in the world. That is, salvation in Christ involves discipleship. As United Methodists, we believe that confessing Jesus Christ requires following Jesus Christ—in all aspects of human experience and endeavor. In all areas of our lives and our life together, we strive, by grace, to follow Jesus Christ. Even in the area of human sexuality, we are followers of Jesus Christ. That is, we are not just autonomous individuals, not just sovereign selves, alone in the world.

The Church's basic teaching on human sexuality is not complex or complicated. It is based on a word from Jesus. In responding to questions about divorce and by relying on Old Testament witness, Jesus states the standard for His Church: "[F]rom the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female."For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder"' (Mark I0:6-9). Jesus describes one man leaving his family of origin, one woman, and the joining of the two into one flesh by God. The Church understands this to mean that sexual relations are reserved exclusively for the marriage covenant. The Social Principles restate this Biblical truth when they note that "sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond" (Paragraph 65G, Social Principles). Therefore, according to Christian teaching, sexual relations outside the "marriage bond" are problematic, indeed sinful. Contained in this teaching on sexuality is the Good News: God and the Church love us and help us to live holy lives, even in the area of sexuality.

Here it must be noted that, in the area of sexuality, as in other areas of human life, we all stand in need of God's forgiveness and restoration. Sexuality is a highly complex and volatile part of human existence. Created and given by God, human sexuality is good, but it is often endangered by sin, by lust, by the drive toward self-satisfaction. Therefore, all of us enter this discussion as sinners in real need of God's constantly forgiving and restoring love.

The Church's teaching on homosexual practice is a part of this larger teaching on sexuality. The Social Principles express it well: "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth... Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons" (Paragraph 65G, Social Principles). This is a trustworthy, brief summary of the will of God for the Church. While understanding homosexual activity to be sin (just as are many, many other activities and dispositions are sin), the Church understands those who engage in such activity are people made in the image of God and subjects of the Church's forgiving, redeeming ministry. The Church, here as elsewhere, is challenged to offer truthful love and loving truth.

It is important to note that United Methodist teaching on homosexual practice resonates with ecumenical teaching on the same subject. Though Christian truth requires no majority, an overwhelming number of communions preach, teach, and practice the aforementioned outline of Christian sexual morality with regard to homosexual practice. Indeed, Professor Wolfhart Pannenberg, the world-class, Lutheran systematic theologian, has noted: "If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" (Christianity Today [11/11/96] and Pro Ecclesia [Fall 1997]).

We must be bold to admit that, in the context of the modern world, the Church's teaching on salvation and sexuality is rather unconventional. Especially odd to contemporary ears is the notion that a community has real, authoritative teaching. Modernity has encouraged the growth and development of "the religion of the sovereign self ' (Richard John Neuhaus), this self-based religion has no authoritative teaching outside the self's own religious opinions and preferences. Therefore, it considers all authoritative teaching suspect. Furthermore, contemporary hearts are accustomed to embracing love as a feeling, a sentiment. However, the Church understands love, agape love, in a more willful way. According to the Church, Christian love is more about the sacrifice of self for the good of others than the realization of self for the good of self. Therefore, even the most delicate presentation of the Church's teaching, on salvation or sexuality or anything else, will not be found persuasive to all, even in the churches.

But in the face of some opposition, the Church teaches, in love, what she knows to be true. After all, the Church knows that her teaching on salvation and sexuality are matters revealed through Scripture and supported by Tradition. But also, the Church observes that her teaching on salvation and sexuality helps Christian people to flourish, to be good human beings, to be better human beings than they would otherwise be. Therefore, the Church teaches, in the loving hope, to reach out to others, and to offer to one and all the joy of salvation.

Conclusion

I want to stand with the Church—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I want to stand on the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—even when that truth is difficult. At the same time, Christian truth does not silence its challengers or its skeptics. Christian truth is not that insecure.

My task—indeed, our task—is also conversational, dialogical. To be open and honest, civil and conversational, in the community of the Church and in the context of the Church's teaching, is a necessary act of love. Certainly, dialogue takes time, energy, and scarce resources. To be sure, we can grow weary of dialogue. But dialogue we must.

All along the way, my hopeful prayer is that, as United Methodists, in our teaching and in our Christian conferencing, we will continue to strive to serve Jesus Christ, to build up the Church of Jesus Christ, and to witness to the Kingdom of God coming in fullness.

Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth*
Lifewatch Editor
902 Pinckney Street
Whiteville , NC 28472

All references to the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and the Social Principles are found in The Book of Discipline ( 1996).


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