Jorge Acevedo is Lead Pastor at Grace Church, a United Methodist multi-site church in southwest Florida, and a speaker at our upcoming national gathering, Awakenings: The Life of the Church for the Sake of the World. He served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward for the United Methodist Church.
I greet you in the name of our great God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This past week, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in St. Louis for a special called session to address the ongoing impasse in our denomination around the extent of LGBTQ inclusion in our church. In our system of church governance, the only group that “speaks for the church” is the General Conference. This representative body of our 12 million member global denomination was charged with seeking a way forward.
I would describe the denomination’s current position like this. If you could imagine the following spectrum:
A “full exclusion church” would not welcome LGBTQ persons into church membership or discipleship as well as not marry or ordain LGBTQ persons. A “partial inclusion church” invites LGBTQ persons into membership and discipleship, but would not do LGBTQ weddings or ordain practicing LGBTQ persons as clergy. A “full inclusion church” would welcome LGBTQ persons into membership, discipleship, marry them, and ordain as clergy.
Using my spectrum, the current official United Methodist Church position is partial inclusion, and has been for nearly 50 years.
A Way Forward Out of an Impasse
At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, the Conference asked the Council of Bishops to lead us through this 50 year impasse. They formed the Commission on a Way Forward, made up of 32 pastors, Bishops, and lay persons to develop potential plans to move us forward in our denominational dilemma. I was selected by the Council of Bishops to serve on the Commission and gave more than 1,000 hours traveling domestically and internationally to 9 meetings over 17 months.
The Commission on a Way Forward offered three potential plans to the General Conference to consider: the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan.
- The One Church Plan would allow for difference in practice within our denomination around performing same sex marriages and LGBTQ ordination based on contextuality.
- The Connection Conference Plan was a complicated plan that would create at least three non-geographical branches based on ideology around human sexuality.
- The Traditional Plan affirmed our current position and increased the amount of accountability for compliance around our position.
As a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, I was asked to help make the report from the Commission to the General Conference. After four days of worship and prayer, as well as painful deliberation, the 864 delegates from the United States, Europe, the Philippines, and Africa voted to affirm the Traditional Plan.
As you can imagine, not everyone is pleased with the results. Just a quick look at social media would reveal the pain that many are feeling—especially LGBTQ persons, their families, and allies.
Differing Convictions: Can There Be Unity?
As a leader in our denomination who has been a delegate to four previous General Conferences and as an observer of this Special Called General Conference in St. Louis, I am profoundly acquainted with the brokenness and division of our church. I have sought to be a bridge builder in our church between evangelicals, centrists, and progressives. I honestly struggle with our current “winners and losers” culture at General Conference.
There were no winners this week in St. Louis, in my estimation.
My personal convictions are that same-sex behavior is not God’s will for followers of Jesus. The issue has never been a salvation issue for me, but rather a sanctification issue related to same-sex behavior. The question, for me, is not, “Can you be gay and Christian?” I believe the answer to that is “Yes.” The issue before us is, “What does God ask of gay Christians?” I believe a faithful, biblical, and historical response is that God invites all believers to place their sexual behaviors before God.
Having said all of this, faithful, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus do read scripture differently around these issues. In my estimation, there is no space for arrogance or unquestioned certainty in these painful deliberations. We are not simply talking about an issue, but our LGBTQ sons and daughters, neighbors and friends, coworkers and associates. They are children of God and persons of worth. There's no space for unquestioned certainty in convos like this. We're not simply talking about an issue, but our LGBTQ sons & daughters, neighbors & friends, coworkers & associates-children of God and persons of worth. Click To Tweet
N.T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar, was interviewed by Christianity Today. The article asked him about Paul’s passion for unity in his 13 New Testament letters. As it relates to his own Anglican Church struggles with the extent of LGBTQ inclusion, the article stated:
When I ask in particular about debates on sexuality, Wright avoids specific theological pronouncements. He says that “agreeing to disagree” done properly should make demands on people’s charity, but never on their conscience. He warns against a dualism that devalues the goodness of creation and a gnosticism that says “this shabby old body that I have doesn’t matter, what matters is the spark of something different which is inside me which tells me who I really am.” He adds: “We have to remember that the early church didn’t make its way in the world by becoming like the world.”
These ethical problems are not simply trivial, he says, but concern what it means to be fully human, living in the light of God’s new creation.
“You can’t give one line answers to the so-called moral dilemmas of our day, because you need to take several steps back and say that the way the early Christians approached this is so different from how we do moralism in the early 21st century, and if we want to learn wisdom we have to do the hard work of going around that stuff, and not assuming we can either say, ‘Silly old Paul, we don’t need to take him seriously’ or ‘Oh yes, it’s in the Bible therefore bang, end of question.’ It’s the Pauline point again: we have to learn not only what to think but how to think.”
The bottom line is that this is a very difficult conversation that requires deep trust and humility and not simple “one line answers.” There is a tension to be managed between charity and conscience. People of good faith have differing convictions about the extent of LGBTQ inclusion in the church. Grace Church, the church I love and have served for almost 23 years, is committed to continue “to partner with in God in transforming people from unbelievers to fully devoted disciples of Jesus to the glory of God.” This is our primary mission to all people regardless of age, gender, race, economic status, or sexual orientation. We will continue to love and welcome all to come and follow Jesus.
Repentance Comes First
One final word. I’ve argued that the starting place for most traditionalists in the United Methodist Church about our conversation of LGBTQ inclusion is repentance. Over what?
- Repentance of our unkind words and jokes about queer people.
- Repentance of not creating safe places and spaces for queer followers of Jesus to wrestle with the Bible as well as be fully included in the Body of Christ.
- Repentance of our inconsistent sexual ethic especially around divorce, cohabitation, pornography, and adultery.
- Repentance of our theological superiority and elitism.
- Repentance of our idolatry of certainty.
Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be in the holy space where we can have holy conversations with sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we have huge difference about LGBTQ inclusion. Only after much repenting can we have holy conversations with sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we have huge difference about LGBTQ inclusion. Click To Tweet