EDITOR’S NOTE: I publish this with an apology to Paul. He sent it to me on Nov. 11. I just saw it yesterday. This is how backed up I was over the last couple of months, with my father’s rapid decline and death. It looked like it still had some shelf life, so here it is.
By Paul V. DeMarco
The founding vision of the UMC, of which I have been a member for more than thirty years, made perfect theological sense. The power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is not that the Samaritan was good but that he was a Samaritan, a group despised by the Jews. When they created it in 1968, the UMC’s founders were convinced that its members would make real the transformation toward which the parable points us, redefining whom we see as our neighbor.
The UMC was born into an inflection point in the nation’s racial dynamic. Landmark civil rights legislation was providing blacks legal access to a range of previously forbidden opportunities. The UMC was poised to build upon the changes that were reshaping secular society and accelerate them. United Methodists had a power greater than any human statute. We had God’s Law and the inexorable power of Jesus. Our faith could move mountains. Our integrated congregations would lead the nation into a more just future.
The trouble was, 1968 was too late to reverse centuries of Methodist segregation. White and black Methodist churches had long histories and traditions of which they were protective. Many UMC members found the idea of integration to be much more appealing than the reality.
As the decades passed, it became clear that black and white churches wanted little to do with one another. They were rarely successful in recruiting new members of the other race. In recognition of the racial petrification of local congregations, the UMC tried in 2001 to rebrand itself with the tagline “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” The campaign had no impact: more people moved out of our open doors than into them.
Next year, without a miracle, our faltering church will divide itself.
You would be forgiven if you assumed the split would be over race: it is, after all, our founding vision and our most obvious failure.
Instead the schism, at least publicly, will be over gay marriage and gay clergy. But we are arguing over gay people simply because it’s easier to talk about than the real issue.
There is scant scriptural imperative to divide millions of United Methodists over homosexuality, which is mentioned explicitly only seven times in the Bible. Two verses in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) are the most well-known. In these verses to “lie with a man” is to commit an “abomination.” The latter verse requires that two men engaged in homosexual activity “shall be put to death.” In the third verse (Romans 1:26–27), Paul condemns “men (who) abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” The other four are perfunctory (1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:10), oblique (Genesis 9:20–27), and bizarre (Genesis 19:1–11). Theologians (which I recognize I am not) debate the meaning of these passages on many levels, including whether they are primarily about the sin of lust rather than loving, committed gay relationships.
I often hear the argument, “Hate the sins, love the sinners.” But that’s not what Leviticus 20:13 demands. It wants us to hate the sinners so much that we kill them. Thankfully, even the most zealous Christians don’t act on this command. They accept that the Bible reflects first-century mores, some of which are today seen as harmful and unjust.
The UMC has from its beginning admitted the cultural bias of some scripture relating to women. To give just one of many examples, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul specifically enjoins women from being ministers, saying “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Again, I’m not a theologian; this and other verses about women are hotly debated in those circles. But to a layman, this seems a direct, unambiguous injunction which the UMC commendably ignores. The UMC affirms the equality of woman and their ability to preach and lead in every realm of ecclesiastical life, including as bishops, the highest position in the church. If we can reject a plethora of Biblical teaching on women as outmoded, why are we fighting so intensely over the meager teachings about gays?
The heart of the matter is the reach of God’s grace. Who is included in his love, and more practically, who do I want sitting next to me in the pew?
One side doesn’t see inclusion as a virtue or a moral obligation. They are comfortable in a church focused on individual salvation composed of people who look and think like them.
The other side wants all of God’s people in the sanctuary. They are disappointed that the UMC has given up on its original vision of racial reconciliation and, in its present form, appears to lack the ability to bring God’s grace to the gay or any other marginalized community.
I love people on both sides. I’ve worshipped with my current church family weekly for almost thirty years. We have shared the stories of our lives with each other. We have broken bread together, laughed together, and mourned together.
But soon I will be forced to choose. Here’s how I will make my choice: One of the most remarkable aspects of Jesus’ ministry was his willingness to go where he should not have gone, to associate with people shunned by polite society. In his day these were tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners and outcasts of every kind. We still have outcasts in 2021 – the queer, the trans, the brown-skinned, the immigrant, the HIV-infected. The church I will chose will welcome them all, bless their marriages, and invite them to serve their Lord both as followers and leaders.
Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This first ran as a column in the Florence Morning News.