Guest Post: Are United Methodists in Violation of Wesley’s “Do-No-Harm” Principle?

By Rev. Franklyn Schaefer, pastor, activist and author of Defrocked: How a Father’s Act of Love Shook the United Methodist Church

Just this past week, the highest United Methodist court, the Judicial Council, chose to defer a ruling on the question on whether the United Methodist (U.M.) Church’s rhetoric on homosexuality is unconstitutional, specifically the phrase: “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Council explained that the Annual Conferences who submitted the question “did not have the authority to ask for a ruling.” Therefore, the Council felt no obligation to answer it. [1]

I have felt very strongly about raising this question for years, especially as a pastoral care giver who has been in ministry with LGBTQ persons.  Does the U.M. rhetoric and doctrine on homosexuality harm gay and lesbian persons in its care and therefore violate the “Do-No-Harm” Rule as formulated by John Wesley, founder of Methodism? If they do, these policies can actually be considered unconstitutional, since the Do-No-Harm Rule is part of the U.M. Constitution (Article III). [2]

The following discussion of these questions is from a presentation I gave at Dickinson College, PA on October 26, 2017, entitled An Indictment of the United Methodist Anti-Gay Doctrine. (Watch the video-taped lecture here.)

Harmful Rhetoric: The “Incompatibility” Declaration

The U.M. Church calls the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” [3] I am not aware of any other activity being labeled in this way in the Book of Discipline. The practice of homosexuality is obviously not considered equal to other “sins.” This choice of words rather seems to assign it to a special category of “sin.” (I put the word sin in quotation marks because progressive Christians including myself, do not consider the practice of homosexuality to be sinful).

Whenever an item is set apart by such a strong label, it is deemed special, in this case, worse, than others. What doubtlessly magnifies the harmful effect of this rhetoric is the fact that some conservative faith communities call homosexual practice forthrightly the worst sin and often use distinctive language for it including the derogatory term “abomination.”

And this is what I am seeing in my pastoral care practice: gay and lesbian Christians feel the pain of discrimination, they describe feeling labeled as a member of a special group of sinners. Sometimes they even perceive the Church’s message as stating that their sin is beyond grace.  Whether this concept is openly stated or whether it is an unwritten, underlying message, it is often unfortunately part of the conservative church culture within the U.M. Church. And such a condemning message can be exceedingly harmful to gays and lesbians, especially to adolescents in their formative years.

Growing up in the United Methodist faith, particularly after being exposed to the debate over human sexuality at an annual conference, my fourteen-year old son, Tim, came to believe that as a gay person he could not enter the kingdom of heaven. For years, he prayed and pleaded with God to change his sexual orientation. When nothing changed, he thought of ways in which he could take his own life. His faith was very important to him, yet he believed his own church condemned him. He felt like a freak and just wanted to end it all; he didn’t want to bring shame on his family and his local church. Fortunately, he did not follow through with his plan and, in time, found a supportive community even within the U.M. Church. Remarkably and despite his struggles with the church, he is now in seminary studying for the ministry.

The Church’s Gay Marriage Ban Can Be Harmful Too

I have also witnessed the harmful effect of the Church’s gay marriage ban in gay and lesbian couples. Take Bernie and Chely, two female members of my current congregation, for example. I recently performed a ceremony celebrating the renewal of their vows. This ceremony meant so much more to them, though – when they were married nine years ago, they were denied a church ceremony as their pastor at the time refused to marry them on “religious grounds.”

How were they spiritually harmed by the church’s gay marriage prohibition? Bernie and Chely felt rejected and marginalized and eventually left their church. They stopped going to church altogether; they did not try out other churches for fear of more rejection.  Through common gay friends, they finally found a new spiritual home at University U.M. Church, where all people are welcomed, accepted, and supported.

As people of deep faith and spirituality, they had always felt as though their marriage wasn’t quite legitimate without the blessing from the church. Following their vow renewal ceremony, Bernie described the marriage blessing they finally received in terms of a redemption:

Just having that blessing put on our family, I felt like God was redeeming our marriage in a sense, and new life is being breathed back into our marriage by having that blessing. To walk without the blessing of God is a tough road. [4]

[Watch interviews and part of the ceremony: Bernie & Chely Forever]

Harmful Coersion: Abstinence as a Requirement for Equality

Traditionalists argue that the U.M. Church’s prohibitions regarding homosexuality cannot be considered discriminatory or harmful because they do not condemn homosexuals as persons. Neither do they condemn same-sex attractions. Only the practice of homosexuality is considered a departure from the norm for sexual behavior. [5]  And, as the argument is developed, even if you are an out and proud gay person you you can be a church pastor and leader – as long as you remain abstinent. [6] Therefore, traditionalists claim, one cannot say there is harm done to gay and lesbian persons since no specific group or person is singled out. We are all equally sinful and need God’s grace. What some gay and lesbian Christians go through in terms of remaining abstinent is admittedly difficult, but will ultimately prove redemptive and rewarding to them.

I strongly disagree with this traditionalists viewpoint. Gays and lesbians are singled out and expected to fully deny their sexual tendencies. Nobody else is expected to remain abstinent; rather, everybody else is free to express their romantic love and find a partner in life.  But if gays and lesbians want to be fully included in the life and ministry of the U.M. Church, they are expected to abstain from expressions of romantic love and the natural desire for intimacy and to share life with a partner. According to Dr. Dorothy Benz, a lay leader of M.I.N.D. (Methodists in New Directions), “You are who you are, you are who God created you to be, so to say that it’s ok that I’m gay that I want to have sex with another woman, but its not ok that I actually have sex with her, that makes no sense, and even if it did, it would be cruel to say that this portion of the population should be deprived of the basic human need for love and intimacy.” [7]

For gays and lesbians it is not just about about whether they are allowed to become ordained clergy, it’s about their very salvation. The church’s position is clear in that practicing homosexuals are considered living in an “incompatible,” sinful state. Traditional theology maintains that God’s grace and forgiveness is available for repentant sinners – sinners who turn away from their sin. God’s grace is not expected to extend to sinners who remain in a state of sinfulness.

According to the U.M. Church, then, if you want assurance of salvation as a gay or lesbian Christian, you must live a life of abstinence. In my understanding, this is spiritual coercion. We must not underestimate the psychological power contained in the threat of losing one’s salvation. Homosexual Christians are spiritually coerced to comply with rules that ask them not only to deny their basic human desire for intimacy and companionship, but also part of their identity.

Our sexual orientation is an integral part of who we are as humans. When a homosexual person is asked to deny their natural attractions by living a life of abstinence, he or she is forced to deny part of who they are. Anybody who does not fully embrace their identity, experiences an isolation of self which often leads to a severe identity crisis. This has been adequately described by the report of the American Psychology Association on patients of religious conversion therapy. [8]

Conclusion:  

The spiritual coercion of gays and lesbians as well as the “incompatibility” rhetoric expose the U.M. Church policies concerning homosexuality as discriminatory. They systemically harm gay and lesbian persons under the Church’s care and are, therefore, in direct violation of John Wesley’s “Do-No-Harm” Rule.  The anti-gay policies and rhetoric in the Book of Discipline must be indicted and corrected. They are unconstitutional according to U.M. Church’s own Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.

Frank Schaefer is the author of Defrocked: How  a Father’s Act of Love Shook the United Methodist Church

Sources:

[1] United Methodist News Service, Court maintains stand on ministerial candidates

http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/court-maintains-stand-on-ministerial-candidates, Oct. 28, 2017

[2] United Methodist Foundational Documents: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/foundational-documents  (John Wesley’s “Do-No-Harm” Rule)

[3] Book of Discipline statements on Homosexuality by the United Methodist Church, UMC Official Website (umc.org): http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/homosexuality-full-book-of-discipline-statements, 2016

[4] Rubio-Rodriguez, Bernadette in Bernie & Chely Forever – The Spiritual Quest of a Same-Sex Couple, Schaefer, Frank, ed., 2017

[5] Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Revelation and Homosexual Experience: What Wolfhart Pannenberg Says About this Debate in the Church, Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/november11/6td035.html

[6]  An Understanding of the Biblical View on Homosexual Practice and Pastoral Care, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary Position Paper, 2015  page 17

[7] Sheppard, Scott, dir. An Act of Love A Father. A Church. A Movement (documentary) Virgil Films, 201

[8] Glassgold, Judith M. PsyD, Chair, Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, 2009: http://www.apa.org/pi/gay and lesbiant/resources/therapeutic-response.pdf

Deep Solidarity: Beyond Charity and Advocacy

By Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies, Vanderbilt University

In a recent book, Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger and I are proposing that the time is right to move beyond charity and advocacy (Unified We Are A Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities, 2016). Our work on labor and religion is the basis for the argument.

Joerg Rieger

While charitable giving is widely appreciated, it is neither the only nor the most helpful response to the problems of the world. To put it bluntly in the language of Christianity, which is one of the religious traditions we discuss in the book (in addition to Judaism and Islam): Jesus preached good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed rather than charity (Matt. 11:5, Luke 4:18). What is good news to the poor and the oppressed? Is it receiving handouts? Or is it that they will no longer be poor and oppressed?

Charity is at its best when it does not remain a one-way street. When the eyes of those who engage in charity are opened to the causes of the problems, we are one step closer to good news to the poor. That this step is a move in the right direction is evidenced by pushback. As Dom Hélder Câmara, a former Roman Catholic Brazilian bishop, put it: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Unified We Are a ForceCharity tied to a deeper understanding of the problems of the world often leads to advocacy, which means speaking out against injustices that cause these problems. Such advocacy is solidly grounded in many religious traditions and may constitute a more faithful approach than charity. Many of the Jewish prophets speak out against injustice, challenging those who “trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain” (Amos 5:11).

Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks of God’s advocacy when she proclaims that the God who lifts up the lowly pushes the powerful from their thrones and fills the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53). Her inspiration is Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10), recognized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Advocacy brings us one step closer to good news to the poor, although there are still limits. Advocates sometimes overestimate their own power, acting as if they could solve the problems alone, and they can stifle the agency of those for whom they advocate.

Good news to the poor is not complete without what Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger and I are calling “deep solidarity.” The message of Amos and Mary can also be interpreted in this way. Deep solidarity includes both charity and advocacy, but it reaches further.

Deep solidarity is not a matter of the relatively privileged trying to help the underprivileged and to solve their problems; rather, it is a matter of understanding that nothing will change unless we are addressing the problems of the world together. And deep solidarity is the recognition that we might be in the same boat.

Mary provides a first example. She realizes that she is one of the lowly ones and she sides with them. Jesus, likewise, is aware of his lowly beginnings as a construction worker born in a barn and he never renounces them. His ministry takes place in solidarity with the people. Amos, too, is not afraid to side with those who are getting a raw deal in his time. That an injury to one is an injury to all is also a time-honored insight of the labor movement.

Perhaps the most telling embodiment of deep solidarity is Moses, whom the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, hold in high esteem. Raised as an Egyptian prince, Moses wakes up when he sees Hebrew slaves being abused by their taskmasters. Later, when he hears God’s voice from the burning bush, Moses accepts the charge to join the solidarity movement of God and slaves, working for liberation (Exodus 3:1-12). As a result, good news is brought to the poor and the exploited.

Where does that leave those of us who engage in charitable giving and advocacy? Deep solidarity puts us in a mutual relationship with those we intend to support, helping us realize how much we share in common. In the current economic climate, even the middle class is waking up to the fact that the problems of the world are no longer passing us by as our children, our parents, and our communities are taking hits, as are more and more of us.

The ever-growing need for charity and advocacy should make us aware the extent of the problem and that there is no easy fix. In many of our large cities like more than a third of all children now live below the poverty line, while most of their parents are working (in Dallas, TX, for instance, 38 percent of children are directly affected by poverty). And even college graduates find it more difficult than ever to find and keep a job and pay off their burdening debt. As we begin to address these problems together, our differences do not fade away but can be put to use productively.

Those who are experiencing the problems of our time in the most severe ways—like the many working families wo have trouble making ends meet—can help us see what is really going on. Their perspective can serve as a lens that helps us see how our stories are connected: low-wage work depresses all wages, fear of deportation creates easy opportunities for worker rights violations that creep into all job sectors, problems that are compounded by race and gender. When we begin to realize this, those of us who still enjoy some limited privileges can begin to put them to use for the community.

The 1 percent are not excluded from all of this but are invited to take the side of those who are struggling. If our Abrahamic religions traditions are right, God does so as well.

Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger have worked for decades in movements of resistance to power and domination, both in Germany and the United States, with the intention of providing genuine alternatives. Joerg is an author and professor of theology, and Rosemarie is a community and labor organizer.

Buy United We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities now.