I write this with a heavy heart, because the church I grew up in and served as a pastor in for 15 years has gone in a direction that I believe goes against the Spirit of the message of Jesus. I am speaking about the recent Judicial ruling against Bishop Karen Oliveto.
I started attending the local United Methodist Church when I was about 5 years old. I would walk next door with my siblings (ages 6, 4, 3, and 2) and go a couple of hundred feet down the street (with our neighbors) to Viola United Methodist Church. It was a tiny church filled with loving (and some not so loving – it was church, after all) people who embraced us completely. We stayed there all morning until it was safe to go home, and as we grew up, we would head back in the evening for Youth Group. It wasn’t a perfect place, but it was church.
I felt called to ministry at around 16, even though nobody thought I was college material, and went to college with no family support – thank God for loans and grants! I attended Drew Theological School, met the beautiful Christina Celli, and was – after first being refused – ordained in the United Methodist Church. I served the UMC as a pastor, campus minister, and college chaplain for 15 years until I couldn’t take the system anymore. At the age of 38 I moved my membership to the United Church of Christ, who gracefully welcomed me into ministry.
As far as I can tell – and I have studied John Wesley with some intensity – the founder of the Methodist movement never wrote about homosexuality. He was, in many ways, a very strict and pious man who lived his life based on scripture first. He was also a very libertarian Christian when it came to women and slavery. One cannot point to John Wesley to support or oppose of this ruling. I also think (my copies of the B of D are packed away) that the ban on homosexuals being ordained did not appear until 1984, the year, by the way, that UMC clergy were no longer banned from the use of alcohol. If anyone reading this knows better, please correct me.
As a student at Drew, I knew Karen Oliveto peripherally (she was 2 years ahead of me) and I was still trying to figure out what I felt about this whole issue at the time. I also did not know her sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of anyone but myself, and I didn’t think it was important information for me or anyone else to know. I still feel this way, and I cannot, for the life of me, understand why so many people are interested in these personal and private matters.
What I do know is this – God has made each of us in God’s spiritual image, and no person can follow every rule in the Old Testament. Jesus changed some of those rules, and told his followers to judge each commandment based on a simple premise – does it allow us to love God, neighbor, and self? If so, keep it. If not, toss it. This is why what we eat or wear has no bearing on our salvation. I can touch a person with a skin disease and not be shut away for a week. I can pierce my ear or tattoo myself without fear of eternal retribution. I can love who I love with integrity and full commitment, forsaking all others, and I believe that God would approve.
The United Methodist Church is a wonderful denomination with deep theological roots and a sincere social justice commitment. It is also deeply divided, and that can be seen in the following quotes. From the Drew Theological School: “We believe that this denomination, if we will return to our Wesleyan roots, can and will be a place where all people encounter the love and transformative grace of God.” From the Wesleyan Covenant Association: “We further call upon those who feel they cannot, in good conscience, abide by the doctrines and discipline of our church, to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.” You can see the problem.
I chose the United Church of Christ because it is a denomination that has been among the first to stand up for social change in the name of Jesus. Whether the issue was slavery, women’s rights, or lgbt rights (among others), the UCC has been bold and prophetic and, often, unpopular. We have lost churches, and my congregation has lost members, because we have refused to give in to the bullies who promote hate rather than love. If you are looking for that kind of church, come on down. The door is truly open.
Peace – Pastor Steve