Asbury Theological Seminary’s president Tim Tennant recently put up his input on the debate within United Methodist Church on Homosexuality. It has received a variety of responses, and critique from a more moderate position may be helpful.
The wonderful thing he does is really try to polarize this issue within the church and in fact all of church history into two camps – the orthodox and the heterodox. Polarization usually involves a significant lack of respect for the opposition and a deep hope that some action can be taken soon or immediately if possible. Tim then has become an activist for church split or rather an activist to formalize what he sees as a fundamental split in approach to scripture and theology.
Aristotle once said, “the mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. This to me means that Tim should be able to look a little more gently on his opponents and engage with their way of thinking without accepting it as his own, but he does not do this. A president of a significant seminary decided that he cannot grasp the opposition’s point of view or that that view is fundamentally untenable.
It ignores the history of the church to use monolithic labels of orthodox or heterodox. The church has always been a place of conversation on theology. Origen and Nyssa are considered heretics for particular positions but are incredibly useful thinkers that have been used repeatedly through out the history of the church. Several writers that wrote parts of the language used in the Chalcedonian and Nicene Creeds were partially or completely considered heretics. We still use their words and their ideas and their respect for the faith as basis – a witness of Christ – for our faith today.
As a protestant church member, Tennant makes an interesting move by claiming orthodoxy while not being part of the Catholic forgetting to lament, confess, or repent culpability in the fragmented nature of the church catholic, and not being part of the Catholic Church, either Roman or Easter of some form, using the word orthodox is questionable in the first place. Of course, protestants exist to protest, and now we are often unsure of what we protest beyond taste and are unsure of the value of unity. This gives us the desire to appeal to something beyond taste called “orthodoxy” which only can exist in unity, a unity he devalues.
Now let’s come to the methodist church, it is an entity that ordains women and recognizes the marriages and ordination of the divorced along side full participation of tatooed and non-kosher people. All of which have some biblical passages in support and against, but historically, or as Tim Tennant sees it – orthodox, the church has held back against these practices. There was at one time a vow from within United Methodism to be a teetotaler to be a pastor. These largely have occurred because people had the courage to recognize the Spirit working within the ministry and the altered the theological and anthropology of the church in order to see these issues differently – although this view would have been considered heterodox.
The only issue that genuinely split the church was over the right of bishops to obey the law during the time of chattel slavery. The issue came out particularly because of slavery over the opposition to slave ownership, but the issue did not divide the church over slave ownership which members from both the MEC and MECS supported and opposed. Now that marriage of lgbt people has come to the forefront of the issues facing our church, Tennant thinks we should split again.
However, I believe that the reason the debate is so personal and so polarizing is precisely because we agree on so much. It is like two teenagers who grew up together finding that they like the same exact music except one song. One loves all of Nirvana except “Smells like Teen Spirit”, the other loves that song and all the rest. This cheapens if the metaphor is taken too far, but we cannot keep thinking like Tim Tennant wants us to think. We are not the guardians of orthodoxy against a heterodox group of traitors undermining the faith.
Respecting those who disagree with us is perhaps the hight of humility, I respect Tim Tennant. I know he wants to protect us against sin of a sexual nature. I believe that is why he does not want to protect us against the sin of breaking unity. The polarization he encourages does nothing to strengthen his position, nor would a church split truly help our Church. It would be a messy divorce. I would ask him and all who consider his point to not believe that the people on the opposite side of this issue are breaking with historic Christianity but rather following the example of historic Christianity in reading the scriptures under the guides of tradition, reason, and experience.
“Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” – Philippians 3:15-16
Caveat: I agree with Tennant on the issue of Homosexuality in that I do not believe I can marry or support the ordination of practicing homosexuals at this time. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I do hope that I can be proved wrong, and I know that my reasons are similar only in part to Tennant’s stated positions.
Aside: The debate over lgbt inclusion comes for me as a response to the technology of contraception that changes the mental framework we have to understand marriage. The church taught at one point that sex within marriage served to unite a couple and to procreate. These two are welded together in the Roman Catholic Church, and contraception is therefore a harmful technology. Largely, the methodist church has either ignored this technological development or supported it. This allowed us to see sex as a vessel for unity and procreation together and simplified it to an act of unity. Marriage then became the gateway for this particular act of unity without procreation being taken into account. I will leave this for you to infer what this does for two people attracted to each other sexually outside of our social gender/sex binary constructs.