Following a four-month period of “prayer, study, [and] discussion” billed as the “Summer of Great Discernment,” one of United Methodism’s most prominent churches has concluded that the United Methodist Church’s restrictions on homosexual marriage, and by implication the Christian faith’s long-held doctrines related to marriage and homosexuality, are “inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
A policy statement (PDF) approved last week by Washington, D.C’.s Foundry UMC argues that a United Methodist rule prohibiting clergy from officiating at union ceremonies for same-sex couples “exclude[s] gay and lesbian members from the full life of the church” and therefore is inconsistent with Christ’s teachings.
The Foundry statement does not cite any specific teaching from the gospels or the other New Testament books in which the words of Christ are recorded.
The United Methodist Church’s prohibition on officiating at a union ceremony for two men or two women is found in Paragraph 341.6 of the denomination’s Book of Discipline. That paragraph also prohibits conducting same-sex union ceremonies in UM church buildings.
Foundry’s statement, passed by a 367-8 vote, further asserts that the UMC’s prohibition on homosexual marriage violates the denomination’s own Constitution. By failing to affirm same-sex unions, the United Methodist Church is contravening Article IV of the UM Constitution, the Foundry policy statement argues. Article IV says (in part) that “no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.”
In a “special edition” of the Foundry Forge newsletter (PDF) published just after the vote, the church’s senior pastor Dean Snyder, who has served at Foundry UMC since 2002, said the congregation’s decision to reject Paragraph 341.6 and embrace homosexual marriage is “the right thing” to do.
“We’ve studied, discussed, and voted. We’ve done the right thing,” he wrote. “We will have beautiful weddings here for all of our members and friends who want to be married here.”
The outcome of Foundry UMC’s “Summer of Great Discernment” was not unexpected. In 2008, Foundry began “recogniz[ing] same-sex unions in special ceremonies that [fell] just short of an official wedding,” according to a United Methodist News Service report.
A year later, Foundry was one of seven churches that sponsored a resolution on human sexuality that was approved by the Baltimore-Washington Conference but was later overturned by the United Methodist Judicial Council.
The resolution, which said United Methodists are “divided regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality,” effectively “negated the church’s clearly stated position,” the Council ruled.
Foundry UMC has been affiliated with the homosexuality-affirming Reconciling Ministries Network since 1995. RMN is an unofficial group that “mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
The Reconciling Ministries Network has been involved in repeated attempts to change official United Methodist doctrine related to sexual practice. “RMN works for full equality in membership, ordination, and marriage for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children,” according to the group’s website.
Earlier this year, shortly after same-sex weddings were declared legal by the District of Columbia City Council, another RMN-affiliated church in D.C., Dumbarton UMC in Georgetown, announced it would “honor and celebrate” weddings between two men or two women (text of statement by the Dumbarton UMC church council). “We celebrate love and loyalty wherever it is found,” Dumbarton’s pastor Mary Kay Totty said.
In a 2009 case arising from the California-Nevada Conference, the United Methodist Judicial Council effectively ruled (Decision 1111) that even in states or jurisdictions where same-sex unions have been deemed legal, UM clergy who perform such unions are nonetheless acting in disobedience to the Book of Discipline.
Last week’s action by Foundry UMC, though focused on United Methodist policy, challenges nearly two millennia of church teaching on homosexual activity.
Some of the earliest-known examples of such teaching — from church leaders such as John Chrysostom, Cyprian, and Theodoret of Cyrus — are summarized by UM scholar Thomas C. Oden in Staying the Course: Supporting the [United Methodist] Church’s Position on Homosexuality (Abingdon Press, 2003), a collection of essays by UM leaders and theologians.
Below are excerpts from Dr. Oden’s essay about the church’s historic teaching on the first chapter of Romans, in which the apostle Paul discusses homosexual behavior as an outgrowth of humanity’s tendency toward idolatry.
The [Romans] passage divides itself naturally into two parts: the foolish and idolatrous exchange of God for creaturely images; and the exchange of natural for unnatural passions….
Paul writes in Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.”
Paul first clearly asserts that they (all humanity, of whatever sexual practice) “knew God.”… Yet precisely those who knew God as God “did not honor him as God.” This is the tragic story of all humanity enmeshed in the history of sin…. In this way all humanity… “became futile in their thinking.”….
The foolish exchange is set forth in verse 22: “Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.”… “Having a high opinion of themselves, and not being patient enough to go the way that God had commanded them,” wrote John Chrysostom, “they became immersed in a way of thinking which made no sense” (Homilies on Romans)….
Romans 1:24: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” Who is “they?” Not homosexuals in particular, but the whole history of idolatrous humanity. Theodoret of Cyrus: “By gave them up [paredoken] Paul means that God permitted this to happen. He simply abandoned them because they had fallen into extreme ungodliness.” (Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans)….
Up to this point we have been describing not homosexual practice specifically, but the general condition of humanity: idolatry and foolishness. Now a major transition occurs in Paul’s argument. He is going to illustrate the general principle with a specific example.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?
(New International Version)
Romans 1:26: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural.”Here homosexual practice (they “exchanged natural relations for unnatural” [metellaxan ten phusiken chresin eis ten para phusin]) specifically enters for the first time into Paul’s discussion, as a dramatic case in point, illustrating the larger human predicament (idolatry).
Ambrosiaster recognized and explained Paul’s distinction between what is natural and what is unnatural sexually: “Paul tells us that these things came about, that a woman should lust after another woman, because God was angry at the human race because of its idolatry….” (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles)….
Romans 1:27: “And the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” When men are consumed with sexual passion for other men, the reason is not merely lust, but idolatry: “It is clear that because they changed the truth of God into a lie, they changed the natural use of sexuality into that use by which they were dishonored” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles).
What specifically are these “shameless acts”? The context makes it unavoidable that these are acts that men commit with men, and that they are sexually focused. This demeans human dignity. Cyprian regarded “men committing shameless acts with men” as “an indignity even to see,” from which one naturally turns one’s eyes away…. (Cyprian, To Donatus)….
This is costly for men. What did they give up? The natural for the unnatural. They left behind “natural relations with women” [ten phusiken chresin tes theleias]. Men lusting for men “receive in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”…
Paul was writing to the church in Rome. He knew that Rome had a homosexual community, according to Severian of Gabala: “Paul did not say this lightly, but because he had heard that there was a homosexual community at Rome” (Pauline Commentary From the Greek Church), so this example was not pulled out miscellaneously, but intentionally addressed to the Roman Christians as a warning….
Contrary to normal sexual desires, homosexual practice turns the sexes against each other, and intensifies the war between the sexes…. This is the work of the devil who “was bent on destroying the human race, not only by preventing them from copulating lawfully, but by stirring them up to war and subversion against each other” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans). The devil does not like natural and normal sexuality between a man and a woman in covenant fidelity looking toward the protection of children….
The result of idolatry was to drag down both men and women, pitting them against each other, and promising but not delivering pleasure, and eliciting in them a heightened readiness to tolerate other accelerating evils. Romans 1:28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.”…
The willingness to tolerate many sorts of sexual distortions is a staple aspect of homosexual consciousness and history, as Ambrosiaster recognized. He portrays the homosexual life as one that nurses the improbable fantasy that God will look the other way: “Because of the error of idolatry they were handed over to doing evil things with each other…. And because they thought they could get away with it, …Paul adds here that they were more and more reduced to folly and became ever readier to tolerate all kinds of evils, to the point that they imagined that God would never avenge things which no one doubted were offensive to humanity as well….” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles).
Here Ambrosiaster correlates Paul’s comments on female and male homosexuality with the longer list of offenses [in Romans 1:29-30] that become more easily tolerated….
“Paul put wickedness at the head of the list, because he thought that evil and covetousness depended on it. He then added malice, from which flows envy, murder, strife and deceit. After this he put malignity, which generates gossip and slander” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles)….
Homosexuals do not have the excuse that they are being prevented from licit intercourse by God, because they themselves have chosen an unnatural way: “No one can say that it was by being prevented from legitimate intercourse that they came to this pass, or that it was from having no means to fulfill their desire that they were driven into this monstrous insanity” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans).
Elsewhere in his Staying the Course essay, Dr. Oden noted that he is “praying for the grace of charity in respect for all homosexuals, each of whom is created in the image of God, and [is] an intended recipient of the atoning love of God.”
Nonetheless, “I do not hide behind the claim that these consensual views [of earlier theologians on homosexual practice] are not mine,” he wrote. “I joyfully confirm them as true to the apostolic tradition.”
Thomas C. Oden (bio—PDF) retired as Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in 2004. His teaching career included positions at Yale, Southern Methodist University, Phillips University, and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dr. Oden has served as the general editor of InterVarsity Press’s 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. His most recent book is How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 2008 — Google Books preview).
Staying the Course: Supporting the [UM] Church’s Position on Homosexuality features essays by, among others, Leicester Longden, Joy J. Moore, Richard B. Hays, William J. Abraham, and Maxie Dunnam. The table of contents is here.