What the Current Schism in the United Methodist Church Says About and Means for Christianity
Part 2b — Gender and Sexuality
The History of the United Methodist Church, Its Record on Issues of Social Justice, and Its Relevance Today
“But may not women, as well as men, bear a part in this honorable service?” Undoubtedly they may; nay, they ought; it is meet, right, and their bounden duty. Herein there is no difference; “there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus.” Indeed it has long passed for a maxim with many, that “women are only to be seen, not heard.” And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if they were only designed for agreeable playthings! But is this doing honor to the sex? or is it a real kindness to them? No; it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty; it is mere Turkish barbarity. And I know not how any woman of sense and spirit can submit to it. Let all you that have it in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too are called of God, as you have time, to “do good unto all men.” Be “not disobedient to the heavenly calling.” Whenever you have opportunity, do all the good you can, particularly to your poor, sick neighbor. And every one of you likewise “shall receive your own reward, according to your own labor.”
— John Wesley, Sermon 98, “On Visiting the Sick”, III. 7.
As with the racial tensions that have played an integral part in the evolution of the United Methodist Church, differences in opinion over doctrines of gender and sexuality have existed since its founding.
The history of the United Methodist Church’s stance on gender equality reflects its overall progressive views on social justice issues in the face of opposition, even from within the denomination. Often, the UMC has been a leader among Protestant denominations on expanding the rights of marginalized groups.
A History of Dissent
Take, for instance, women’s right to vote.
John Wesley had accepted women as class leaders and lay preachers in the earliest days of the church. In 1848, the first Woman’s Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, at the Wesleyan Chapel. Historians mark this meeting as the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement.
According to UM News:
Back then, advocates for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery worked closely together. Sojourner Truth, a former slave who began her public ministry as an itinerant Methodist preacher, was an activist for both causes.
But after the U.S. Civil War, opponents to change successfully drove a wedge between the activists. The 15th Amendment assured only African American men had the right to vote, and even that assurance soon proved weak in the face of states’ Jim Crow laws.
White suffragists, meanwhile, abandoned the fight for racial equality in an effort to advance their own right to participate in the democratic process. In Wyoming in 1869, women secured the right to vote in state-level elections. While a few other states in the West granted them similar rights, their ability to vote in other states and at the national level was still out of reach.
Under the guidance of Methodist women, various groups worked to “improve working conditions in factories, institute an eight-hour workday, raise the age of consent for girls and secure for women the right to vote.” In that view, they recognized that their right to vote was more than an essential freedom, but also constituted a useful tool in expanding their influence in these areas.
Not all Methodists supported this aim, though, including many women in the church.
“The word suffrage comes from the Latin word suffragium, meaning voting tablet. Still, opponents were happy to play on its similarity to another English word. With women’s suffrage, critics argued, men and families would suffer.
— UM News
Still, counted among Methodists membership were prominent figures in the women’s suffrage movement (in addition to the aforementioned Sojourner Truth):
- Harry T. Burn, who at 24 became the youngest member of the Tennessee General Assembly; he cast the vote that tied the count on the law granting women the right to vote and pressured a fellow legislator to give the 49th vote out of 96 needed to pass it; his mother was Methodist Phoebe “Febb” Bur, who had sent him a letter (which he carried in his pocket on August 18, 1920) urging him to vote for suffrage
- Anna Howard Shaw, one of the first women to be granted a license to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church and ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church (though it was later ruled out of order) as well as the first woman to graduate from Boston University School of Theology
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who was born a slave and baptized in the Methodist Episcopal Church, then went to college and became a journalist and social rights activist, frequently bringing attention to the injustice of lynchings
- Frances Willard, who led the temperance movement and was president of the largest women’s organization in the United States; she and five other women were elected to serve as delegates to the 1888 General Conference in New York, though Willard ultimately did not attend because her mother was ill — and General Conference refused to seat the women delegates
- Dorothy Height, who was born in 1912 (eight years before women earned the right to vote) and was known as the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement”, continued the work of earlier suffragists and helped ratify the 24th amendment, which eliminated poll taxes in state and federal elections, and was instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, she was the only woman besides Coretta Scott King on the platform
Women as Ordained Clergy
Similarly, the ordination of women as clergy members in the United Methodist Church was initially met with staunch pushback from the church establishment — a challenge still faced by some women in the church today.
According to the 2016 Book of Resolutions, #3442 Every Barrier Down: Toward Full Embrace of All Women in Church and Society, as shared by UMC Justice:
In 1770, the first Methodist woman was appointed a class leader in the United States; in 1817, women were allowed to hold prayer meetings but denied a license to preach; in 1884 Anna Howard Shaw’s ordination by the Methodist Protestant Church was ruled out of order; and full voting rights for women in the Methodist tradition were not universally recognized until 1956.
From the 2016 Book of Discipline, pp. 22–23, it is clear that the history on the roles of women in the church was characterized by oscillation between endowment and revocation:
Clergy rights for women were debated by the churches [during the era from 1940–1967, when the two churches, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, merged to form the United Methodist Church]. The issue was especially critical in the creation of The Evangelical United Brethren Church.
The Evangelical Church had never ordained women. The United Brethren had ordained them since 1889. In order to facilitate the union of these two churches, the United Brethren accepted the Evangelical practice, and women lost their right to ordination. Methodists debated the issue for several years after their unification in 1939.
Full clergy rights for women were finally granted in 1956, but it took a decade more before the number of women. in seminaries and pulpits began to grow significantly. When Methodists and the Evangelical United Brethren united in 1968, the right of women to full clergy status was included in the plan of union.
While the overall arc of the church’s history (as with that of U.S. history as a whole) has bent toward progress, a certain subset of UMC Conferences and congregations still hold to more traditional views on gender roles, both within and outside of the church.
Richard Hollerman, who is a prolific, ultra-conservative writer on Christian issues, illustrates the general thoughts on the leadership of women in the church from a strictly biblical, conservative perspective in his “The United Methodist Church has been at the forefront of the unscriptural ‘feminist’ movement’”:
We do know that women are fully accepted by God just as men are when they come to Him through Christ Jesus. Paul the apostle wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). He says that both men and women are partakers of the blessing of Abraham (v. 9), partakers of the promise of the Spirit through faith (v. 14), are justified by God through faith (v. 24), are “sons” of God through faith (v. 26), and are “clothed . . . with Christ” in baptism (v. 27). But there continues to be different roles, positions or responsibilities between men and women. People continue to retain their gender and the responsibilities attached to gender. We must never lift a single verse out of its context and force it to say something that we want it to say. This would be eisegesis and not exegesis!
Scripture says that women are to “receive instruction” — and not give instruction to men (1 Timothy 2:11). They are forbidden from teaching and exercising authority over the man (v. 12). They are not to pray in public, since that responsibility was given to men — the male gender (the Greek aner is found in 1 Timothy 2:8). Women are to “keep silent in the churches” and are “not permitted to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34). It is actually “improper for a woman to speak in church” (v. 35). Instead of these instructions being culturally oriented or limited to a geographical location, Paul says that they are commands of the Lord: “Let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (v. 37). Significantly, only men were to be overseers (elders, shepherds) (1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:5–7). Only men were to be servants (deacons) (1 Timothy 3:8–13). Only men were chosen to be apostles (Acts 1:13, 26). Only men were writers of Scripture.
This shows that the modern feminist movement, begun in the nineteenth century and especially accelerating from the 1960s’ radical feminist movement, should have no place in our lives, personally or corporately. However, the United Methodist Church has departed markedly from the New Testament norm. Glimpses of this are found in various places. For example, we read under “Social Principles,” section No 71: II The Nurturing Community,” under “Marriage,” these words: “We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage.”
Is this a rejection of what the Bible teaches about the roles of husband and wife? We know that the Scriptures teach that the husband is the “head” over the wife and the wife is to be in subjection to the husband (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:18–19; 1 Timothy 2:9–15; Titus 2:4–5; 1 Peter 3:1–7). Although this is counter to most contemporary ideas of marriage, it is plainly taught in Scripture. So the UMC not only deviates from the New Testament regarding female leadership in the church, but also rejects the Biblical model of marriage and the family in favor of the unscriptural egalitarian view.
It is unclear what denomination Hollerman ascribes to or claims membership in, but his criticisms of the United Methodist Church’s views on issues of women’s equality are arguably a point in the favor of the broadly progressive perspective it holds to — particularly given the apparently loose adherence to and liberal interpretation of the Bible on these topics.
Nevertheless, women’s roles in the UMC are still far from the settled egalitarianism Hollerman portrays.
According to Great Plains UMC:
Today, 27 percent of United Methodist clergy are female in the United States, as of October 2018, despite being 58 percent of the laity in the U.S., according to the General Commission on Status and Role of Women.
The percentage of clergywomen in the UMC doubled from 1994 to 2017. While the UMC is the largest denomination with female pastors, two denominations — Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ — have numerical equity between men and women.
UMC Justice adds:
Of the 66 active United Methodist bishops around the world, 13 are women [just under 20%]; 11 in the US and 2 in central conferences. Of the US women bishops, nine are white and two are Latina. No other US racial-ethnic group is represented among women bishops. In 2012 the first woman bishop was elected to serve in Africa. Since 2012 there has been no black US woman among the active United Methodist US bishops.
In many ways The United Methodist Church has been a standard-bearer among Judeo-Christian faith communions in terms of full inclusion of women in the life, ministry, and witness of the institutional church and its regional and local expressions. However, if we ask, “Is The United Methodist Church a credible and reliable witness to Christ’s exemplary embrace of all women as valued, respected partners in the total institutional life and global witness and impact of the Church?” — the honest answer is not yet.
We still fall short when it comes to living out the challenge of Galatians 3:27–28, which declares men and women are truly one in Christ. There are still areas of leadership, of professional ministry, of decision-making, and of areas of discipleship for which the Church will not trust, value, revere, or allot resources to women to the same degree as their brothers in the faith.
They provide examples of active discrimination and disparagement of women within the church in recent years, which include:
- some congregations’ refusal to accept female clergy members (particularly those of a race different from the majority of the congregation and those who refused to wear dresses to “prove they are a ‘real lady’”)
- general apathy and dismissal of sexual harassment in the church and ministries related to empowering women and addressing sexism as “political crap,” which “has nothing to do with spreading the good news of Jesus Christ”
- women clergy being called “bitches” [I found multiple instances of this happening across the last 20 years in addition to the example provided by UMC Justice]
- several prominent Church leaders — including bishops — have joined with secular society in decrying “the tyranny of diversity” and retreating from the work of undoing racism and sexism; such things as: “We need to stop worrying about politics and focus on the gospel …” (from UMC Justice: that is, as long as the gospel is interpreted in a way that continues to privilege North Americans, white people, and males); and “We’ll accept a woman or person of color as long as she’s qualified” (again, from UMC Justice: Could this infer that white men are automatically assumed to be qualified and that women and people of color get their jobs because of some other criteria, not because of their gifts and talents?)
- complaints about women, particularly within the context of the organization United Methodist Women, having “too much money and too much power in the hands of a women-controlled board of directors,” which has led to pushback by opponents who have proposed limiting the number of UMW directors who can also serve on the General Board of Global Ministries in the interest of “gender balance”
- complaints of alleged sexual abuse of women by lay and clergy leaders in church settings are on the rise, according to the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women
In addition, they provide statistics that reflect the overall trends of a lack of women in leadership rolls within the church, as well as a decline within the denomination itself:
- in a 2007 survey of local United Methodist congregations, 18 percent said they do not have women serving as ushers (an increase over 2004), and local church chairpersons of the church council, finance, and trustees are still overwhelmingly men and not women
- United Methodist membership in the US is declining among young women (and men) and people of color, particularly among those in low-income communities
- women comprise 54 percent of total members of our denomination, yet account for less than 30 percent of ordained ministers, and only 27 percent of the top-paying offices in US annual conferences (treasurers, chancellors, and directors of connectional ministry)
- of 20 active bishops who oversee the work of the church in Europe, Africa, and the Philippines, only two are women
Clearly, there is more work to be done in order to reach full gender equality within the United Methodist Church, a goal that originally began with the first ordination of women as UMW pastors 66 years ago.
To do so, however, will require a continued fight by women within the denomination to assert their rights in the midst of the sexism and misogyny that still characterizes many Christian churches — particularly those in the South, whose history provides the basis for discriminating against minorities of every kind.
In a guest post on the blog Via Media Methodists, Rev. Michael Anthony Howard explores the history of sexuality within the UMC’s doctrine and practice:
Before the 1960s, Methodists and mainline Protestants had given little attention to sexual orientation and gender identity.
In many ways, Methodist advocacy for persons who did not fit within the gender binary and heterosexual norms of the wider American society — often termed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons — had an important initial moment at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco in the mid-1960s.
Glide’s minister, Rev. Cecil Williams, with the help of Rev. Ted McIlvenna headed a project to offer compassion and assistance to teenage runaways living on the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood. This quickly brought the ministry into contact with homosexual individuals who had been treated with hostility and ostracized by their parents and peers.
McIlvenna provided a meeting space at Glide for gay organizations, and sought for advocacy and support from the larger Methodist connection. This was the act of hospitality that brought about the movement for compassion and inclusion in the wider Methodist Church.
Howard says that in 1964, a group of clergy and individuals from the LGBT community organized in a meeting at the Glide Urban Center to discuss “the role that religion had played in the persecution of homosexuals” and initiate dialogues on LGBT issues within their denominations. As a result, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was created in December 1964.
In 1972, the final report of the Social Principles Study Commission’s drafting committee was published in the United Methodist’s social concerns magazine, Engage.
While neither condoning nor condemning homosexual practices, the statement concluded: “We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth, and we welcome them into the fellowship of the church. Further, we insist that society ensure their human and civil rights.”
The General Conference Legislative Committee on Christian Social Concerns met in Atlanta that year to review a proposal that included this statement. The committee heard testimony from Gene Leggett, a former UMC pastor who had been defrocked the year before for being openly gay.
In 1965 a member of his congregation, suspecting Gene’s secret life, hired a private detective to follow him. Gene was called into the church office and confronted with the results of the investigation. He was offered a deal — resign from his current position and seek another non-parish position and the matter would be dropped. Believing that this was best for his family and not yet ready to be openly gay, Gene accepted the deal.
— LGBTQ Religious Archives Network
Based on his testimony, the committee “drafted a text that included the affirmation that homosexuals are ‘persons of sacred worth,’ while removing any language that outright stated that homosexuals were welcome.”
Unsurprisingly, even without the more affirming language, the proposal was hugely controversial. Despite the work that the Social Principles Study Commission had done on drafting the proposal and the testimony from members of the LGBT community, the General Conference Committee was given to obvious, outright homophobia.
Their ultimate decision was to add the phrase, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” to the end of the statement, a suggestion from lay attorney Don J. Hand.
The full statement as published in the 1972 Book of Discipline’s Social Principles read:
Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care Of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured, though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.
— p. 86
The 2016 version of the Book of Discipline’s Social Principles reads:
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. 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.
— p. 113
The proposed revision of the Social Principles for 2020, which has not been voted on (and will not be until the General Conference in 2024), removes the word ‘homosexual’ from its discussions on human sexuality entirely. The new iteration of that section as proposed would read:
We affirm human sexuality as a sacred gift and acknowledge that sexual intimacy contributes to fostering the emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being of individuals and to nurturing healthy sexual relationships that are grounded in love, care and respect.
Human sexuality is a healthy and natural part of life that is expressed in wonderfully diverse ways from birth to death. It is shaped by a combination of nature and nurture: heredity and genetic factors on the one hand and childhood development and environment on the other. We further honor the diversity of choices and vocations in relation to sexuality such as celibacy, marriage and singleness.
We support the rights of all people to exercise personal consent in sexual relationships, to make decisions about their own bodies and be supported in those decisions, to receive comprehensive sexual education, to be free from sexual exploitation and violence, and to have access to adequate sexual health care.
This would mark a clear departure from the language around being a “professed homosexual,” “practicing homosexual,” or living a “homosexual lifestyle”, which all presume that being LGBT is a choice and carry with them a sense of accusation and condemnation, toward a more nuanced view that both heredity and genetic factors (nature) as well as development and environment (nurture) play a role in sexuality.
While I will discuss this issue further in the section on my concerns surrounding the newly-formed Global Methodist Church’s doctrine, the views expressed in the proposed 2020 Social Principles acknowledge the advances in scientific knowledge that have been made on LGBT issues in recent years.
For instance, in the case of people who are born intersex — the ‘I’ in LGBTQIA+ — researchers have linked issues in pregnancy and birth to the particular genetic disorders that lead to the variations in chromosomal and physical sex characteristics.
In that context, at least part of the LGBT spectrum has a biological basis — so the notion that those people are somehow consciously engaging in a “lifestyle” choice is completely erroneous on a basic scientific level as well as harmful to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of these individuals.
Irrespective of any ideological and theological concerns, though, it is clear that the United Methodist Church has a lengthy history of dissidence, activism, and contention — both within the church as well as in regards to society at large.
The splits and unions in the denomination’s historical past are both reflective and informative of the present schism that exists between those who are theologically more traditional and conservative versus others who are more progressive and liberal. This push and pull, therefore, has always been an integral part of the process towards progress.
When viewed through the lens of the divisions and subsequent reunions that have been observed throughout history — such as the ones that occurred during and after the Civil War — the current divisions can be contextualized within a larger pattern that exists as a sort of commentary on the larger issues of the times.
As with those past examples, I also have little doubt that in the future, the branch that is currently splintering from the larger denomination will be scrutinized with a critical eye informed by the benefits of hindsight and advancement in knowledge that inevitably develop over time.
As we now recognize the evils of slavery, segregation, and women’s inequality, I believe that future generations will regard the church’s stance on LGBT issues with similar sorrow and abhorrence. The only potential for redemption comes from knowing better and doing better.