The United Methodist Church is currently engaged in a debate about amending our constitution. Without getting too far into the tall grass, the General Conference that meets every four years voted to recommend several changes in 2008, and they must be ratified by a popular vote taken at our Annual Conference Sessions of 2009. One amendment in particular is referred to as "All Means All." The Peninsula-Delaware Conference is my home conference, and the vote was 189 in favor and 199 opposed. The final vote will not be known for many more months as sessions are held around the world.
The amendment in a nutshell is to remove all of the categories previously listed as folks we would not discriminate against for membership. The list as it now stands includes race, color, notional origin, status, and economic condition. The amendment would instead say simply that we don't discriminate. (See below for full proposed text).
This seems simple enough. In fact, I think it really is simple enough. Here is why: basic, orthodox Christianity states that we are all sinners, saved by grace. We preach, teach, and believe that "all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved." When someone comes to faith in Christ, orthodox Christianity teaches that baptism is the appropriate way to enter into covenantal relationship with our Lord and Savior. Since profession of faith and baptism mark the start of a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ, the United Methodist Church does not practice baptism apart from church membership. To claim faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is by definition to enter into a life of discipleship. Simply put, Orthodox Christianity does not discriminate about whether or not someone who professes faith in Christ can be baptized and become a member of the Church. If a person has faith, there is really nothing more to say other than "welcome to the family."
The United Methodist Church has been doing battle over homosexuality and the church's response to it for more than 30 years. This amendment is the most recent battle zone. And I find it the most frightening. I say this because we are now down to debating whether we will refuse membership to a gay person who professes faith in Christ. I do not believe that homosexuality in and of itself is a sin. I know many committed and faithful gay Christians. Sexuality in general can be the grounds for sinful behavior. But how God created a person- gay or straight- is how God created them.
Even for folks who believe differently- that homosexuality in every form is sinful and a choice- this still should be debated within the bounds of orthodoxy. The church long ago wrestled with questions of how to address "sinful" behavior among church membership over something far more controversial than homosexuality. It wrestled with this issue over martyrdom. It was called the Donatist Controversy.
Here is the basic story: when people were choosing between professing their faith in Christ and dying for the faith, or denying their faith and living, there were folks who did both. When persecution would end, folks who had denied the faith to save themselves would show up in church again. Imagine being a person who had lost a loved one, sitting in church next to someone who had denied the faith instead. A split developed, and an alternate church, the Donatist Church, was born. For a time, on the continent of Africa, it was larger than the Orthodox Christian Church. The Donatist Church was based upon a sinless clergy, and members who did not sin. Guess what? That proved to be impossible. No surprise there.
St. Augustine was the early Church Father who gave voice to the teaching that ultimately emerged: we are all sinners saved by grace. We are all in need of forgiveness. There is not a person alive who does not need the forgiving, healing love of Christ. And there is no way a Church can stand based upon purity. Unity and forgiveness are the basics of Orthodox Christianity. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Rom. 10:13)
As St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8 "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." Who are we to judge that someone who is professing faith in Christ is not worthy to be baptized into membership? Who are we to say that one sin is greater than another, and the basis for excluding and judging?
To be fair, I think I know where the confusion lies. For those who believe homosexuality is a sin, the confusion lies in the definition of justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Justifying grace is the grace that brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ. Justifying grace is saving grace. If someone professes faith in Christ, orthodox Christianity is clear about the Church's response. (Even if the UMC is currently confused.) The response is that we baptize them and welcome them into a life of discipleship (church membership).
It is sanctifying grace that we live in after we have become disciples. This is the grace that makes us more holy, more like Christ. This is the grace that continues the work of transformation that is begun in prevenient and justifying grace. I understand that folks who believe that homosexuality is a sin are concerned about a person continuing to live in sin, without repentance or effort to leave their sinful ways behind. But it doesn't change our basic doctrines. If someone professes faith in Christ, then they are saved. The Church's response is baptism and therefore discipleship=membership. What happens after this is the substance of church ministry.
I firmly believe that once we profess faith in Christ, are baptized, and commit to a life of discipleship, sanctification is a serious matter. In fact, it is the only matter. It is the grace by which we live our very lives for the rest of our lives. However, even if a person believes that homosexuality is a sin, it is still orthodox Christianity to baptize them in the Spirit of love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Every person in the church is leading a life of sin as well a life seeking after holiness. We don't debate whether to deny an active alcoholic baptism and membership. We choose instead to believe that they, and we, are all better off seeking after grace. We are all sinful broken people.
Of course, there is a lot of fear driving this debate. Fear of people who are different. Fear of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Fear that the authority of Scripture will be undermined if we accept gay Christians. The truth is that the authority of Scripture requires a more thoughtful and studied approach than the homosexuality debate typically comprises. We already have a more studied response to slavery (very well supported biblically), women in the church, and divorce. We cannot simply say "homosexuality is a sin because of this verse of Scritpure." That is superficial.
Here is the bottom line for me: this is not a debatable point. People on all sides of the "homosexuality debate" claim Orthodox Christianity as their own. There is no way to make the case that ANYONE who professes faith in Christ can be refused the grace of God and God's church. It is simply un-orthodox. I know folks who believe homosexuality is a sin who say they wish that gay folks would come to their church so they could teach them about repentance and the power of Christ. I find that they understand orthodox faith, even if I do disagree with their position in homosexuality.
So I find it enormously disheartening that the vote count is currently razor thin, with a slight advantage to passing this amendment. If this fails, it will be a testament to a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian faith. And that is more disturbing than I can find words to express.
If approved the constitution would read:
Inclusiveness of the Church- The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons should be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members. All persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or constituent body.