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UM Pastor Responds To Dishonest Call for Disobedience

In response to Bishop Richard C. Looney's now public statement in support of the United Methodist Order and Discipline, David J. Roberts III has written a letter which further underscores the great divide which currently exists within the denomination. Roberts identifies himself as "one of the original clergy signers of the 'Open Letter'" which urges United Methodist bishops to disobey the Church's Discipline with regards to the prohibition against "same sex unions." While Roberts says he can speak only for himself, it is safe to assume that his position is pretty well representative of the 363 signatories of the "Open Letter."

Roberts sees the church as being "wrong-headed" on homosexuality. However, judging from the tone of his letter, Roberts himself is "hard-headed" and entrenched in his own position. Roberts and company would like to maintain the illusion of steadfastness to their position. However, like any position that is not rooted and grounded in God's unchanging Word, the position of Roberts and company is ever changing in its thus far fruitless attempt to gain popular support within the Church. In the past, we have been treated to creative, often amusing, but theologically vacuous arguments about social justice, compassion and human rights--none of which were sufficiently convincing to cause the Church to consider changing its long-held and biblically grounded position that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." While the pro-gay movement has always included a critique of the Church in its arguments, their main focus has heretofore been the attempt to persuade the Church at large to see the rightness of their position. However, as Roberts' letter indicates, a shift has occurred recently. Rather than arguing for their own position, the pro-gay movement has begun to engage in an outright attack against the Church and its position. Neither bothering to consider the biblical evidence to the contrary, nor offer any evidence to support his own claim, Roberts simply insists that the Church is "wrong-headed." This charge is groundless.

Equally false is Roberts' claim that the Church is "[unwilling] to address these [homosexuality] issues in any creative and theologically sound fashion." But the fact that the Church has not changed its basic position does not mean it has not engaged the issue creatively, theologically and, most importantly, responsibly. No denomination has invested more time, energy and money engaging the various issues surrounding homosexuality than our United Methodist Church. Underlying Roberts' claim is the assumption that if the Church had "address[ed] these issues in any creative and theologically sound fashion," it would have changed its position to be more in line with his own. However, the Church does not engage issues simply for the purpose of theological novelty and innovation. The quarter-century-long debate over homosexuality has, in fact, strengthened the Church's traditional teaching on the subject. At the same time, this debate has increased the Church's awareness of and appreciation for the sacred worth of all persons, and opened the Church's eyes to the need to share the transforming and liberating message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with persons living in the bondage of a homosexual lifestyle. While the seeming endlessness of the debate has often been frustrating for both sides, much good has resulted from the Church engaging these issues. The Church has responded in the way the Church should respond: by standing firm on the authority of Scripture and by reaching out in compassionate witness and ministry. However, the end result is not what Roberts and company have demanded. Therefore, Roberts incorrectly concludes that the Church has been "[unwilling] to address these issues in any creative and theologically sound fashion."

Roberts further asserts that this "unwillingness. . . is leading our church into a dangerous area of sinfulness." Sin, as defined by Roberts and company, is anything which prevents their agenda from being implemented in the Church. "The big sin" the Church has now committed, according to Roberts, is "We have arbitrarily lifted one item from the Social Principles and determined it to be 'church law.'" Perhaps Roberts needs to be reminded that none of the proscriptive language in the Social Principles was even thought necessary until the onslaught of the pro-gay movement and its attempts to legitimize homosexual behavior. It was pretty well assumed, because Scripture alone was quite clear on the matter, that homosexual practice was sinful; that persons actively engaging in homosexual behavior were not suitable candidates for the ordained ministry; and that "same sex unions" were not to be sanctioned by the Church. Only in the last 25-30 years has it become necessary to reiterate in The Book of Discipline what has always been clear in the Bible. The Church has been forced to take such positions because of the challenge of the pro-gay movement and its insistence that biblical authority be subordinated to a misguided and perverted form of "social justice." The Church did not suddenly and arbitrarily decide to single out homosexuality as "the big sin." The Church, rather, was forced to respond when the pro-gay movement singled out homosexuality as somehow warranting special exemption from the "sin" category.

Roberts, ignoring Scripture, focuses solely on the Social Principles and expresses concern that United Methodists who "'disobey' each and every tenet of the Social Principles" will now be brought to trial. Since the prohibition against "same sex unions" appears in the Social Principles, Roberts assumes that the only issue is the Social Principles. This is not the case. Even without the proscriptive language in the Social Principles, "same sex unions" would still be a violation of Church Law because of the clear and unequivocal condemnation of homosexual practice in Scripture.

"The 'Discipline' is clear, very clear," Roberts says, "that 'homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth.'" He suggests that the Church should "pursue clergy who behave badly toward homosexual persons in their congregation with as much vigor as we pursue clergy who determine that they will perform a holy union for two persons who are deeply in love with one another."

Then, let the one without sin cast the first stone, Mr. Roberts. Who are the "clergy who behave badly toward homosexual persons in their congregation?" Might they not be those who tell homosexual persons that there is no hope of transformation in their lives, that they are born that way and ought to see their sexual orientation as a gift from God? Would not lying to and deceiving homosexuals into thinking they are destined to live a life of self-destructiveness be considered "behaving badly toward homosexual persons?" Would not uniting two persons so deceived in a "holy union" simply because they feel they are "deeply in love with one another" be considered "behaving badly toward homosexual persons?" And would not all of this pastoral misconduct also be considered "behaving badly" toward . . . God? During the days when we were not so "sensitive" toward people's "feelings," we referred to such behavior as "blasphemy" and "sacrilege."

It is interesting to note that the phrase "persons of sacred worth" also appears in the Social Principles, but Roberts attributes it to the more general category of the "Discipline." This would imply the "sacred worth" language carries more weight than the prohibition against "same sex unions" (which appears in the Social Principles) or perhaps even the prohibition against gay ordinations (which appears in the section on ordained ministry, a section whose legal binding has never been questioned). If the Discipline can be "clear, very clear" about the "sacred worth" of homosexuals by making a statement of such in the Social Principles, then it is only logical to conclude the Discipline is also "clear, very clear" about the unacceptability of "same sex unions" and the "incompatibility" of "the practice of homosexuality" with Christian teaching by making statements to that effect in the Social Principles. Now, who is really being arbitrary in their application of the Discipline?

Roberts addresses Bishop Looney's concern about the integrity of the United Methodist "connectional system" by attempting to equate the actions of himself and his fellow signatories with the actions of Jesus. "Jesus was part of a 'connectional system' that was erring and straying like lost sheep and he gave his life to confront it (sometimes aggressively) and CHANGE it," Roberts says. "The 'Open Letter' is asking for that kind of leadership from somewhere in the denomination. We want our bishops to be agents of change, not purveyors of the status quo. When the order and discipline of the church is sinful someone NEEDS to say so" (all emphasis original).

There is one fact Roberts overlooks here. Jesus willingly took upon himself the consequences of his actions. Roberts and company are determined to disobey the Order and Discipline of the Church and then pull whatever legal trick they can to avoid the consequences. This was made clear during the farce of a "church trial" which took place in Nebraska last March when Jimmy Creech was acquitted of violating church law when he performed a "same sex union." It is made all the more clear with the "Open Letter," which encourages the bishops to disobey the Discipline and to carefully select jurors for church trials so that convictions for performing "holy unions" would be impossible. Such behavior is more akin to that of the Pharisees, who incited the crowd to force Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus.

Jesus sought to change a corrupt system by changing people's hearts and transforming people's lives with a message of grace, forgiveness and love. Roberts and company are seeking to corrupt a system by changing the rules and deceiving hurting people with a false message that offers no grace, no forgiveness and absolutely no love, leaving them trapped in a dangerous, and ultimately deadly, status quo.

Taking shameless advantage of a most tragic situation, Roberts blames the recent murder of a young gay man in Wyoming on the "homophobic stance" of The United Methodist Church and other churches which do not sanction homosexual behavior. "Homophobic stance," as defined by Roberts and company, is any stance which sees homosexual behavior as sinful. A church is "homophobic" if it believes God knew what he was doing when he created human beings male and female. To blame The United Methodist Church, or any church, for the death of a homosexual is to grasp at what few moral straws the pro-gay movement has left. It is particularly unfair to make such a charge against The United Methodist Church. Dr. Bill Hinson, in a sermon preached the weekend following the verdict in the Creech trial, points out a very relevant, though often overlooked, truth:

"No church in America has spoken with greater grace and tenderness than the United Methodist Church on this complex and pain-filled issue. We have freely acknowledged that we do not know why someone is homosexual. We have been insistent that the civil rights of all persons be ensured. We have been unequivocal in our assertions that all persons are of sacred worth. Every individual is one for whom Christ died. The ground is level at the foot of the Cross. 'United Methodist Churches,' to quote our own bishop, Woodrow Hearn (Houston Area), 'are open to all persons.' We offer the means and grace to every person. There is a place at the table of our Lord for all who repent of their sin and seek to live a new life."

Roberts and company are not asking for leadership from our bishops. On the contrary, they are asking them to accommodate to the culture, engage in and encourage lawlessness, and look with a defiant snub into the face of God.

Roberts concludes his missive by stating, "I pray the Spirit of the Living God might be heard in this time and am thankful that the Living God will continue to pursue all of us and perfect us until we 'get it right.'"

Roberts' prayers are misdirected. Year after year, it has been the Spirit of the Living God which has restrained our church from sliding over the cliff. The Church's continued steadfastness on this issue illustrates that the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak officially for The United Methodist Church, is one of the few sectors of our denomination which has not caved to the unrelenting pressure of the politically-motivated gay lobby. The disruptive behavior of the pro-gay forces at past General Conferences--the foot stomping demonstrations, cat-calls and shouting down of speakers--makes it difficult for one to believe such persons are in any way capable of listening. But if Roberts and company really want to "get it right," they should tone down their rhetoric, silence their tongues, and lend a careful ear to the God who indeed lives and longs to transform them out of their lives of sin.

James A. Gibson, Pastor
Marshallville UMC
Marshallville, Georgia

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