What does this opinion mean for the Kentucky Annual Conference?
“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” ¶161(F) The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. This statement is from the “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church, which details how we believe we are to live in the world as Christians. Other UMC rules and statements cited below flow from this conviction.
With the recent announcement of the Obergefell vs. Hodges opinion, much confusion and worry has spread throughout the Kentucky Annual Conference. In this opinion the United States Supreme Court held that gays and lesbians have a Constitutional right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment. We must realize that this is an opinion of the highest secular court in the United States. What is important to note is that it applies only in the secular world. It does not apply in the religious world. In this same opinion the court stated:
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. Obergefell vs. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___, 27 (2015)
This means that Christians are free to believe that gay and lesbian marriages are wrong and neither the state nor the federal governments can force the people of the church to abandon this belief. In addition, all churches are free to make their own rules based upon their understanding of principles extracted from the Bible. In fact, the United Methodist Church has declared several such rules and statements about sexual orientation.
The first rule states, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” ¶ 341(6), The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. In essence the Supreme Court is saying that this rule is a statement of our faith and the courts will protect our freedom to believe this. Furthermore, the court is saying that despite the Obergevell vs. Hodges opinion, not even the federal or state governments can force us to change this policy because it is a constitutionally protected belief under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Before the opinion, United Methodist ministers had the discretion to marry or not to marry two people based upon premarital counseling. Ministers were precluded from performing ceremonies of gay and lesbian couples and that rule remains intact after the Supreme Court decision.
Only we, The United Methodist Church, can change this policy at the General Conference held once every four years. In 2016 the United Methodist Church will hold its General Conference in Portland, Oregon. There is little chance that any United Methodist policy on homosexuality will be changed at this conference. It is more likely that some local churches may seek to withdraw from the United Methodist Church in the event they are not successful in changing the church’s rules on homosexuality.
The second rule states “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” ¶304(3), The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. In other words, no one who is practicing homosexual can be a minister in the United Methodist Church. This statement of United Methodist policy is again protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Again, no one can force the Methodists to change this policy except the Methodists themselves at the General Conference. It is unlikely that this policy will be changed at the upcoming General Conference.
The third rule states “. . . no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends’ (¶ 161F).” ¶ 806(9) This rule gives the General Conference the authority to make sure no United Methodist Church money is spent to promote gay and lesbian issues. Again, it is unlikely that this policy will be changed at the upcoming General Conference.
Each of these rules is completely within the realm of the religious world and the federal or state governments have no power to make us change our religious beliefs. In fact, the U.S. Constitution through the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects these beliefs. In other words, the power of the state or federal governments cannot force us to change our beliefs or the way we practice Christianity.
What Is Our Responsibility to Homosexual People In Light of this Opinion?
The New Testament is full of stories of how Jesus interacted with the secular authorities in the Roman Empire. Jesus did not approve of homosexuality, nor did he approve of any sin. Instead, Jesus instructed us “This is my command: Love each other.” John 15:17 Jesus did not tell us to hate homosexuals. The command to love each other appears to apply to every human being including homosexuals. Jesus was very specific about judgment as well. He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1 Jesus seems to be telling us to love everyone and not be judgmental. Implicit in Jesus’ statement on judgment is the understanding that He, God, will do the judging and it is our responsibility to do the loving. This is just not my own thoughts about homosexuality. The United Methodist Church tells me that I should practice this as well when it stated in the Discipline, “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” ¶ 161(F) The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church
I have several friends and acquaintances that are homosexual and I believe that they are loved by God as much as God loves me, but that doesn’t mean I have to condone their lifestyle. I try to treat all people with dignity and respect because I believe that both heterosexuals and homosexuals are all made in the image of God.
What does all of this mean to the Kentucky Conference?
Not much! It has no effect on our beliefs or policies because they are protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. We are still free to believe that homosexuality is wrong based upon Biblical teaching. Nobody can force Christians to believe otherwise. In addition, neither the federal or state governments can force the United Methodist Church to change its stand on homosexuality. Methodist ministers are still precluded from performing same sex marriages and no person can be a Methodist minister who is a practicing gay or lesbian person. This recent opinion cannot and has not changed the policies of the church. In the event a United Methodist minister violates these policies, he or she will be subject to church law and punishment. ¶ 2702(1), The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church
Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22:21 When Jesus made this statement the Pharisees, the religious elders of the day, were trying to trick Jesus into making a statement that would land him in a Roman jail by accusing him of trying to overthrow the government. But, Jesus was way too smart to be tricked by the Pharisees. Likewise, we should be smart enough to realize that this recent opinion on granting gays and lesbians the right to get married belongs to the secular world and does not affect the United Methodist core beliefs. The same nation that grants gays and lesbians the right to get married, grants unto us as Christians the right to believe that homosexual unions and marriages are incompatible with Christian teaching. Our duty as Christians should be as Jesus instructed us: to love and not to be judgmental. Instead, we should engage and demonstrate to gays and lesbians that we believe they are people of self-worth with souls who are made in the image of God just like heterosexuals. ¶ 161(F), The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
Judge Lewis D. Nicholls, Retired
Kentucky Annual Conference Lay Leader
Conference Lay Leader, Judge Lew Nicholls