Living in our contradictions

After the passage of a portion of the Revised Social Principles removing the last of the LGBTQIA+ exclusionary language, supporters celebrated outside the convention center on May 2, 2024, during the postponed 2020 General Conference held in Charlotte, NC. Photo by Patrick Scriven for the Western Jurisdiction.

By Rev. Paul Graves

Over a 10-day period in late April and early May, the United Methodist Church met for its quadrennial General Conference. This meeting of worldwide Methodist delegates determines how we legally organize and set our mission vision.

This time, we took a major step toward eliminating a glaring contradiction that has almost paralyzed our denomination over homosexuality since 1972. Legislatively, we are now a much more inclusive church. Behaviorally, we still have work to do.

Our corporate contradiction officially began at the 1972 General Conference. A last-minute effort successfully included these two statements in what we call our Social Principles: “Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.” (So far, so good.) Then, “Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all.”

But apparently our own grace isn’t?

Is this contradiction as glaring to you as it is to me? Our denomination has been living in this contradiction for 52 years. Unknown numbers of LGBTQ people, their families and friends have been destructively impacted by this contradiction.

I will always grieve for those who have been disowned by family members, dismissed by the church families they grew up in, or even committed suicide. Sadly, our denomination’s contradictory nature has not always embodied that greater degree of God’s grace we profess is a significant part of our Wesleyan heritage.

As I reread the section called “Human Sexuality” in our Social Principles, I found a well-intended effort to acknowledge sexuality as a “complex” gift from God. That complexity requires us to gain fuller understanding from “medical, theological and social science disciplines” about sexuality. Some of us have learned much about homosexuality in these intervening years. Some of us have not. So we all live in our contradictions.

That brings me to consider how our contradictions connect to something St. Paul said in Romans 7:19-20, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me.” This confession is part of a larger statement from Paul (verses 14-25) that I have some theological difficulty with. But the quoted verses pinpoint the dilemma we all face as human beings.

I also remember a pithy quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” When we admit to the conflicts within our own human nature – as Paul certainly does – I believe we have an opportunity about which part of our contradictory nature we’ll choose to follow.

When we choose to follow the fearful part of our being in making life choices – as Einstein’s insight suggests – the consequences of our choices are grounded in irrational fears that usually result in emotional overreactions. I believe this is partly why our denomination has obsessed for over 50 years when it comes to homosexuality.

Fear is what has driven this paralyzing debate for decades. Fear of homosexuality? Fear of “going against the clobber passages” about homosexual behavior in the Bible? Other fears? A likely combination of these? I’m not wise enough to know where all the fear begins.

What I do know is that “fear” is a common word and experience in both Old and New Testaments. Why are we are not allowing our contradictions and fears to be immersed in those biblical admonitions to “fear not”? Or remember that “fear is cast out by love”? Or that God’s grace is sufficient to overcome our fears? 

Can we remember that fear is a basic part of our greatest human contradictions? Yes, we can!

The Rev. Paul Graves is a retired elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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