After the Vote: A Guide to Gracious Conversation in Your United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church voted yesterday in global conference to maintain biblical standards on same-sex marriage and ordination of gays. African delegates carried the vote. A U.S.-only decision would have gone the other way.
So now, United Methodists, the debate returns to your local church.
My heart aches for what we’ve been through in these years of debate. Yet it isn’t over; it’s only changed in some ways. The discussions will continue in real time, starting already this week. You’ll be talking about it in midweek church services, in Ad Council, in Staff-Parish Committee, and in the narthex, the hallways, and the sanctuary — not to mention the coffee shop and the Facebook groups.
If I may, I’d like to suggest some guidelines for gracious yet truthful discussion. I am speaking to those who, like me, believe the church made the right decision, and are grateful for it.
The Truth that Prevailed
Relax; be gracious. This fight is over; the biblical position has prevailed. There’s no need for you to fight it any longer. Others may bring the fight to you, and if so it’s probably fitting that you respond. Otherwise, you do not need to bring it to them. It’s time to move on.
Celebrate sensitively. What happened yesterday was good — very good — yet the pain that led to the debate in St. Louis will only increase for many. There is place here for grief as well, for divisions are bound to intensify.
So let your celebrations be focused on the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. Reject gloating. Open your ears to others’ disappointment. Listen even to those who are angry. God calls us to love one another, whoever we are, and listening is one of the greatest acts of love.
See it as God’s victory, not yours. This has been a spiritual battle, and it will remain so. It’s not your side or mine that has won. It’s the position that God has clearly revealed as His own. It’s only by His grace that you or I may claim fellowship with Him in anything at all — and that includes a decision like this one.
The word, in short, is humility.
Expect anger (maybe). This will vary. I do not say it will happen everywhere, but it could happen in your church. It could even come from the pulpit, for your church may be — as the church of my upbringing was for several years — a conservative congregation led by a more liberal pastor. Respond with grace, wherever anger may arise. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
The Continuing Debate
You may still hear charges like these.
“Excluding People.” This whole debate has been fraught with misstatements. A pastor in the last United Methodist Church I attended complained about “the group that only exists to exclude people from leadership.” I raised a gentle reminder that he had badly distorted and misrepresented this group’s purpose. Exclusion is an unavoidable side effect of choosing to follow God’s revealed way. It is not the main point of it.
Besides that, inclusiveness isn’t God’s only value. He invites everyone, and He welcomes all. But we must come to Him on His terms, not ours. Even Jesus spoke of excluding people from His kingdom for not coming on His terms.
He is God. He alone decides.
“Hate.” Others will say this is a decision of hate. I trust that’s not what’s going on in your heart; if it is, then you have repentance to do before God. Normally, though, the “hate” charge is mere rhetoric. It’s loaded. Activists choose to use this charged word where the more neutral “disagreement” would be a lot more accurate.
If disagreement really did mean hate, then gay activists and supporters in and out of the church would “hate” you and your biblically-based identity, just as much as you “hate” them. Wouldn’t it be better instead to say that’s not true of either side? Because I don’t think it is. Not for the vast majority of us.
“Division.” Some will say this move “divides the church.” You may remind them (again, gently) that the denomination was perfectly united on these matters for centuries recently. It wasn’t supporters of the Traditional Plan who proposed the changes that have proved so divisive. It’s plain to see who has moved away from historic United Methodism; who has caused the division, in other words.
Steps Forward From Here
Your church may have some hard decisions to make now. I won’t presume to speak to how you should decide, only to how Christ’s people should continue to treat one another in the process.
Speak truth with love.
If a fellow church member, or even a pastor, keeps pressing the debate, stand on biblical truth. It’s the only solid foundation. Pastors deserve respect for their position, but they do not get a pass for speaking falsehood. Find appropriate ways to remind them you will follow God’s revealed ways, and urge them to do the same.
Let your prayers continue, yet with tears for division in the body.
Yet keep standing for the truth of God, revealed in His word.