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Man invites church into his heart, church invites man to leave.

November 8, 2005

Oh, how my heart grieves. All of the controversy in my denomination over sexuality has become tiresome. I’m tired of hearing the same old arguments over and over and over from both sides. There truly is no conversation about sexuality in the United Methodist Church. A conversation would imply that the two parties are actually listening to one another, rather than shouting back and forth.

So now in addition to the witch hunt that has ensued over ordination and sexuality, we get affirmation that a pastor can deny membership to an unrepentant homosexual who wishes to join the church. Great. One more wonderful thing the press can beat us up for (and rightly so.)

I find it fascinating that the issue at hand is repentance. What is repentance really? Do we have a truly robust theology of repentance or merely a surface understanding of it? And how Wesleyan is our understanding of it?

I am taking a Theological Anthropology seminar this semester (if you don’t know what that means you’re probably better off), a class exploring who the human being is in relation to God. This exploration has led me to plumb the depths of my understanding of sin, of fallen and broken humanity, the nature of repentance, and the meaning of salvation. Thing is, the further I explore the brokenness of all of humanity, the more I am convinced that repentance is, in its truest sense, something that we experience, not something that we do. Yet pastors and laypersons alike continue to exhort people to repent. This is a little like telling a pair of kids who got caught fighting on the playground to apologize to one another. The apology is often not genuine, even if it is expressed.

No, I believe that true repentance is almost more like something that happens to you. It is, to use cliched language, a genuine turning point. And we shouldn’t confuse a post-repentant state with a post-sin state. Wesley himself pointed out in his sermon “The Repentance of Believers” that “it (sin) does not reign, but it does remain.”

The church, when it truly embodies the grace and goodness of God, receives us as God does – just as we are. The church is supposed to be a place where transformation is possible, where it is experienced and welcomed – not a place where only the already-transformed can sit. I have never met a person who wasn’t unrepentant (in the sense of a true repentance) of some sin in their lives, and I never expect to meet such a person. The person who anwers in the affirmative to the question, “do you plan to stop being who you are?” is a rarity. So even if one presupposes the sinfulness of homosexuality (I don’t), there really is no good justification for denying membership.

What’s next? Turning away those who purchase sneakers made in Indonesian sweatshops? Turning away convenience store clerks who sell tobacco, and won’t quit their jobs? Turning away those who haven’t sold all their possessions and given the proceeds to the poor?

We shouldn’t even be having a discussion about turning people away due to brokenness. We should be relating to one another because of our common brokenness.

Sheesh, I gotta go pray.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    November 11, 2005 6:57 am

    The church, when it truly embodies the grace and goodness of God, receives us as God does – just as we are. The church is supposed to be a place where transformation is possible, where it is experienced and welcomed – not a place where only the already-transformed can sit. I have never met a person who wasn’t unrepentant (in the sense of a true repentance) of some sin in their lives, and I never expect to meet such a person. The person who anwers in the affirmative to the question, “do you plan to stop being who you are?” is a rarity.

    I would have no objections to admitting an unrepentent homosexual into a UMC congregation provided that the church was committed to each member ‘striving on to perfection’ — including removing the sin of homosexual conduct from the new member’s life.

    So even if one presupposes the sinfulness of homosexuality (I don’t), there really is no good justification for denying membership.

    You’ve just provided the justification for denying the person membership — you have no intention of conveying to that person that homosexual conduct is sinful and that the Christian faith requires the purification of that sin.

    1032 might seem like an extreme reaction, but the Methodist Left has given precisely zero reason for us (the conservatives) to believe that ya’ll will take sanctification seriously. If you don’t believe that homosexual conduct is a sin then you are in flagrant violation of the Book of Discipline and the Bible. Expect conservative Methodists to respond accordingly.

  2. Willie permalink
    November 11, 2005 7:40 am

    John, thank you for reading and responding. Well-reasoned, civil discourse is welcomed here.

    I don’t make the leap with you that liberals don’t take sanctification seriously. As a self-identified liberal (not a terribly helpful label), I can say that I personally take sanctification extremely seriously and so do the other liberals I know personally.

    I tend to believe like Leonard Sweet, who writes in his book SoulTsunami that the church needs to operate on a wellness/holiness model rather than a disease/sin model – in other words the focus is on keeping people well and strentgthening what is already healthy. When that happens, sin has this interesting tendency to wither and fall away and holiness of heart and life can truly be embraced. And without sinners in the pews, the church would be empty. That is precisely the reason that I take sanctification seriously – sanctification (which I believe is God’s work, not ours) is offered to us all and the church has the responsibility to welcome and embrace all sinners who desire it. The church is a place where sacred space is created that opens us up to letting God do God’s thing, and I sincerely believe that God invites us all into that space.

    As far as being in violation of the BoD, the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” does indeed contain the letters S, I, and N but not isolated as a single word. As seriously as I take Leviticus and Paul, I also take seriously the story of Jonathan and David. (2 Samuel 1:26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. God clearly invited David to participate in God’s Kingdom in powerful and important ways. If God could deal with David’s foibles, God can deal with mine, yours, and everyone else’s.

    I sincerely hope not to come across as argumentative or belligirent because I certainly don’t intend to be. Again, welcome.

  3. Lorna permalink
    November 12, 2005 10:25 am

    😦 Sad days indeed

  4. John permalink
    November 12, 2005 7:37 pm

    Acht! You’re anything but belligerent or argumentative.

    I agree that a church should be a place of generocity, taking in all sinners, regardless of what a person’s particular sins may be.

    So 1032 may have been flawed. Scratch that — it was flawed. But I don’t see many alternatives. After, homosexual conduct is sinful, and a proper church would welcome in the homosexual, but actively encourage the person to abandon that sinful lifestyle. The same would go for people with other sins, such as adultery, theft, or whatever.

    But you’ve said that you don’t consider homosexual conduct to be sinful. That begs the question: why should conservatives believe that you intend to encourage the homosexual member to stop sinning?

  5. Willie permalink
    November 13, 2005 5:46 am

    One of my profs tells the story of attending an Amish barn-raising near a community where he once lived. To him the most astonishing thing is not that the community banded together to build the new barn, but that they didn’t tear down the old one – they just let it fall in on its own.

    I believe that the world in which we live is so sick with sin that we are powerless over sin on our own. That’s why we need God. To expect anyone in the church to stop sinning is setting the bar far too high for ordinary mortals. We will continue, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly to participate in sinful systems: we will still buy clothes made in oppressive sweatshops, we will vote for politicians whose economic policies keep poor people poor, we will fail to help our neighbors in need.

    Power over sin isn’t ours – it’s God’s. Sin is a barn that we can’t tear down on our own. What we can do is develop habits of holiness – to make every effort to do all the good we can, to do no harm when we can help it, and to attend to the ordinances of God. That’s what I expect from members of the church – to work on building that barn and let God take care of the old one.

    I hope I’m making sense here. I truly believe that through the habits of holiness God can convict us of sin, guide us into a true repentance, and justify and sanctify us by Grace. Our job is to fix our eyes forward, focusing on the newness of life that God calls us into, developing habits of prayer and meditation and study and discernment.

  6. John permalink
    November 13, 2005 2:46 pm

    All of this is true. And does it not also necessitate on calling sin sinful?

  7. Willie permalink
    November 14, 2005 7:07 pm

    I can’t say for sure. I can only speak from experience here. I have seen more spiritual growth in congregations when the focus has been on holiness rather than sin. It’s kind of like a wellness paradigm in medicine where the focus is more on health and prevention rather than on illness itself. Your experience may be different and I wouldn’t discount it, but for now I tend to focus my own pastoral energies on what I’ve seen work.

    Keep coming back – I’m enjoying our discussion!

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