This Saturday United Methodist delegates from around the world will meet in St. Louis, MO for a special General Conference to find the denomination’s “way forward” in regards to its life with people of LGBTQ+ identities. We’ve been in a vicious 40+ year fight over these matters. Real harm has been done and continues to be done because of this.
This week we will (hopefully) get a clearer picture of what our future as a denomination holds. There are three primary plans before the conference, which range from churches and pastors being able to fully and freely include LGBTQ+ identities, all the way to more strict enforcement on denying LGBTQ+ identities. A commission has been working hard for years to find a “way forward” for us. In no way do I want to diminish the hard and holy work they have been about. Thank you, Commission!
But I am struggling.
In all of this, I continually hear the primary push to be to “stay unified”. These efforts and sentiments toward unity are well intended and speak to a heart that longs for peace. It is in many ways the good and right thing to call for. Unity is a beautiful thing. It’s a noble pursuit, and we should heed the Apostle Paul’s words to “mak[e] every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, NRSV). Unity is good. Unity is of God. Jesus even prayed for it (John 17:21, NRSV). So, yes, let’s pray for and strive for unity.
But if I’m honest, I’m not sure unity is possible at this point, and in fact, may even be a stumbling block for us. The “One Church Plan” appears to be the most palatable and practical solution going forward at this point, and I am in support of it. At a minimum, it removes the harmful language from our Book of Discipline and allows for some congregational and pastoral autonomy for those of us seeking full inclusion and vitality of those who identify as LGBTQ+. That’s good. I need that. If you are a delegate, vote for the One Church Plan. It’s our best shot at progress.
However, when it comes down to it, I want justice more than unity. As I said, unity is good, but can I really be united with a congregation that, because of my uncompromising ally-ship with the LGBTQ+ community, would never have me as its pastor? The abject exclusion and denial of LGBTQ+ people is not a mere “theological difference”. It is a fundamental difference in how we view the mission and work of Jesus Christ and subsequently the call of the church. We’re not talking about predestination and free will here. We’re talking about who gets to participate fully in God’s mission.
While Jesus did pray “that they will be one”, let us not forget that Jesus also said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And let us not forget that he came to the religious establishment in a 36 verse tirade saying things like “Woe to you… For you… have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). Jesus isn’t interested in unity here. He wants justice. Or perhaps better stated, Jesus is not going to let a facade unity sedate the hard work of justice, equality, and equity.
Jesus’ “sword” is not a literal broad sword meant to kill and destroy, but it is a small metaphorical sword meant to make precise cuts- cuts that cleanly and carefully split. It is a sword that cuts between those who desire to maintain rigid boundaries on the “Kingdom of Heaven” and those who desire to follow Jesus in breaking those boundaries wide open. That is the work Jesus is about in the Gospels. That is the good news: that Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and its borders are breaking wide open.
How do I truly unify with people who seek to guard the borders of the Kingdom while I feel called to break them down? In times like these, though intents may be pure and noble, unity can too much function as a paralyzing sedative for justice. Too often we silence voices and sedate passion in the name of maintaining unity. That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.
The harm has already been done, and the subsequent division is already among us. Even with the passage of the One Church Plan, I am hesitant to call LGBTQ+ people into a “Church” where colleagues and churches in our connexion still may see them as less than. I appreciate the autonomy, but I think we need to be honest about the degree to which this autonomy is naming a separation more so that claiming unity. And that’s ok. Let’s just name it. Let’s just name that we have irreconcilable differences.
Chalking these differences up to mere “theological diversity” is a harmful kind of unity as it reduces categories of humans down to a theological debate. It asks those identifying as LGBTQ+ and their allies to accept the abject rejection of them as mere “theological differences”. At best it leads us to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” way of being, but regardless, it continues to silence and marginalize and harm. I recall what Bishop Sally Dyck said at General Conference 2016, “As United Methodists, we have one category of humanity that we declare to be ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’. And when I read this Gospel story [Matthew 9:1-13], all I can say is… that seems incompatible with Christian teaching.” Where is there unity in incompatibility?
These differences come with real harm in a church that traditionally demands, “do no harm”. I want unity. I really do. But I want justice more. If I have to choose between unity and justice- a choice I would rather not have to make- I choose justice. If it separates me from you because of these significant differences between us, that’s ok. Let’s just be honest about it. Let’s not continue to silence in the name of unity.