“In necessary things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity.” This quote has been alternately attributed to Lutheran theologians Philipp Melanchthon and Rupertus Meldenius and Puritan theologian Richard Baxter among others. Although we can’t be sure of the original author’s identity, such counsel is no doubt wise and necessary as debate surrounding the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community grows and intensifies.
The late historian John Boswell attempted in the 1980s and 1990s to make a case that early Christians allowed same-sex couples to cohabitate and live functionally as married, but the overwhelming witness of pre-Constantinian texts is negative in its judgment of homosexual practice. Such tradition is carried on by nearly all the major Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries, including John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome.
Even a cursory examination of church history finds numerous statements from mothers and fathers of the faith regarding sexuality, including what contemporary discourse has identified as LGBT sexual orientation. When it comes to sexual activity beyond the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman, the church has historically spoken with one voice: such practice is not consistent with God’s will for human sexuality, procreation and fulfillment in marriage. As noted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) in a 1986 document, all sexual conduct outside of God’s perfect plan is “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” (fmchr.ch/rcbish).
However, in recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has also been clear and consistent in a call to mercy and compassion. In the same document, Ratzinger urged Christians to love all persons and be generous with our grace: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”
In his 2014 book “Homosexuality and the Church” (fmchr.ch/hsseedbed), Free Methodist historian and theologian Howard A. Snyder demonstrates wisdom and clarity in addressing some of the more common objections and confusions regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality. He concludes after careful explanation that this is an important issue for the church to address, and our position on homosexuality is not simply a matter of cultural expediency.
I would hope that the principle mark of our ministry to the LGBT community is a love that works toward the end of presenting everyone mature and complete in Christ, rather than throwing up our hands in frustration and confidently declaring, “There is no hope for you and your sinful lifestyle!” Augustine said that nothing can be loved unless it is known.
True pastoral care addresses sin, wherever it may be found. It calls people to surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and to confess areas where we live in disobedience to God’s revealed will. It does not turn a blind eye, but it similarly does not turn a cold shoulder. As the “Book of Discipline” states, we maintain a life of holiness that stands counterculture to the world, even while we live and work in the world, yet we believe that “the best way to keep worldliness from invading the church is for the church to invade the world with redemptive purpose.”
There is no reason for the Free Methodist Church not to continue to stand on the witness of ecclesiastical history and proclaim that an LGBT lifestyle is not consistent with God’s plan for human sexuality. There also is every reason for Free Methodists to vocally resist intolerance and inequality when it comes to seeing all people as created in the image of God. There is an objective moral order to the church’s position on homosexuality, and our stance as Free Methodists is clear and unambiguous and ought to be respected. But there is also a subjective moral order that should orient the pastoral action of the church. We need to treat each person within our care with love, grace, dignity and respect. May we, like those before us, continue to speak the truth as we perceive it, but do so with great love, reflecting the One who gave and gives so much love to us.
- Are we willing to get to know people within the LGBT community?
- Is there room for differences of opinion in the church’s discussions about homosexuality?
Bruce N.G. Cromwell, Ph.D., is the lead pastor of Central Free Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan. This article is condensed from an article he wrote for the Study Commission on Doctrine (fmcusa.org/scod) of which he is a member.1