December 7, 2004

An Internal Critique of the Beth Stroud Case

You may have seen in the media a recent tumult in the United Methodist Church over the disordination (the New York Times article refers to it as a "defrocking" - is that even a word? Do Methodists really call it that?) of a Lesbian pastor at a church in Germantown, here in Philadelphia. Rumor has it a Daily Pennsylvanian editorial on the subject, authored by an uber-liberal friend of mine, will be published on Wednesday (shh! I didn't tell you). So here I am responding with an internal critique of the matter. Internal, that is, to Christianity. Before I start, allow me to point you to a critique internal to the United Methodist Church over at a site I just found called Wesley Blog.

Ok, so here goes: The United Methodist Church did the right thing ... Sort of.

First, let's recap what actually happened, and dismiss some misinterprettations that are bound to circulate: A jury of 13 eastern Pennsylvania UMC clergy members voted 12 to 1 to convict Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud of "violating church law by living in a lesbian relationship" and voted 7 to 6 to "defrock" (what a bizarre word) her. However, her church, the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, has decided to keep her on staff as a lay minister to continue her youth ministry.

What the church did right: Churches are groups of people who come together because of common beliefs and the common goals and practices associated with those beliefs. One of the beliefs associated with Christianity is the authority of Scripture. Scripture has a lot to say on the subject of ethics, and, while the Bible teaches love and mercy and inclusion, it also teaches that there are absolute standards of right and wrong, and if we are to teach the Bible we must hold at least our leadership to those standards. Some of the Bible's moral standards deal with sexual ethics. Scripture defines marriage as between a man and a woman only, and any sexual activity outside of marriage as sinful. Period. Regardless of what anyone says, Ms. Stroud was NOT condemned for "who she is" or the temptations she experiences, or the way she was born. The church took the steps it did because of her actions. I sincerely hope and truly believe that the church would have acted in exactly the same way if it was a boyfriend, rather than a girlfriend, she was living with. However, I fear that there actually would have been less division in the church were that the case, which is positively ridiculous. In the Biblical view, fornication is fornication, regardless of the genders of the persons involved.

Another thing the church did right is to "welcome practicing gays to the pews but not the pulpit," as the Times puts it. Anyone is welcome (and strongly encouraged) to come to church and hear the message of Christ. That message may (does) include things offensive to some (many) people. This message says that none of us are good enough, that we all screw up, that we all do the wrong things sometimes, and furthermore that it's NOT just ok for us to screw up, but rather that divine justice demands a price beyond what we can possibly pay for our sins, and that in order to save us from our sins an innocent Man was tortured to death. Everyone who hears the message of Christ should be convicted, because everyone is a sinner. We shouldn't shrink back from mentioning specific sins, in order to avoid offending certain groups of people. Conversely, we shouldn't focus on any one sin, harping on it constantly and making people who struggle with it feel like they're worse than the rest of us, as though Christ's sacrifice weren't enough for them too. No one should be told that he can't sit in the pews. Everyone should be accepted and loved. But by the same token, no one should be exempt from being brought by the church to the knowledge that he is a sinner and needs to be saved. In the words of a longstanding Evangelical cliche, "the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints."

What the church did wrong: You left her on as a lay minister to continue her youth ministry? What?! Can you imagine the kinds of mixed messages this sends to parishioners? "She's a bad role model and she engages in a lifestyle the Bible says is wrong, and she claims that what she's doing is morally acceptable, contrary to the Bible, so we're not going to let her serve communion, but she can still BE THE FACE OF CHRISTIANITY to a group of kids and TEACH THEM HOW TO LIVE THEIR LIVES." This is ridiculous. By the way, the above statements about being open to all notwithstanding, there is a Biblical precedent for excommunication. See Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5 for instructions. There are also a couple of examples elsewhere in Paul's epistles, which I don't feel like taking the time to locate right now (but please don't just take my word for it, this is the Word of the Living God we're talking about: Look it up! If you can't find it I'll be glad to help you out). Note that I've never actually witnessed a church perform an excommunication in the proper Biblical fashion. Most who do practice church discipline do it wrong. The biggest mistake is the belief that excommunication is forever. As you can see from the Matthew passage, excommunication is a disciplinary tool used in the hopes of convincing the individual to repent.

Secondly, the Bible isn't actually in support of having female clergy in the first place, but that's another post. Perhaps if these few lines of text actually get read and generate a bit of uproar I'll take the time to write justifying this view. On the whole this second thing is not particularly important, I just had to bring it up because it seems to be somewhat relevant to the situation I'm talking about.

Thirdly, how did it come about that 6 clergy members believe that what she did was wrong, but she should be allowed to continue being a pastor? She has no remorse, she doesn't believe she's doing anything wrong, and she is going to continue to live with this woman and commit homosexual acts. If a pastor is doing anything which his church believes to be immoral and he does not agree that it is wrong and has no interest in repenting or changing his behavior, he should not continue to pastor that church, and there shouldn't be any debate about it. What's the deal?

In conclusion: I applaud the United Methodist Church for standing up and being counter-cultural and not politically correct in our time the way the authors of Scripture were counter-cultural in theirs. However, they don't go far enough. For the record, a pastor friend of mine was nearly disordained by the United Methodist Arch-Diocese of Washington (state) some years ago for siding with the national organization in opposition to homosexuality over and against the diocese. He ultimately switched denominations (his conference in the other denomination recently split over the issue. The Church universal is in a real mess over this issue.). The United Methodists, and most major denominations, could do much better by consulting the Bible FIRST and everything else LATER. And that's all I have to say about that.

Posted by Kenny at December 7, 2004 12:12 AM
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Thanks for referring to my article (and my blog) in your post. I agree with you that Ms. Stroud should not be allowed to do youth ministry, but didn't address that in my article because that wasn't my objective for that particular piece.

In the United Methodist Church, the denomination would have a hard time coming into a local church and telling them what employees they can or can't hire. The bishop only appoints ordained clergy. So any attempts to remove Stroud completely from ministry would have to come from within that congregation.

Nice blog by the way. Thanks again for reading mine.

Posted by: Shane Raynor at December 7, 2004 12:42 AM

I have a web site with many articles explaining how the church can continue to stand by the traditional view of homosexuality while at the same time minister compassionately to people struggling with homosexuality: The Church's veiws will never be taken seriously until we learn to treat all sinful behavior the same and minister to everyone with the healing power of Jesus Christ.

Posted by: Mark Ongley at December 12, 2004 12:55 PM

As said liberal columnist, I offer you my reply (or actually, Kenny replied because I wrote my column before he wrote this)

Merry Christmas Kenny :)

Posted by: Melody J. Kramer at December 14, 2004 10:55 PM

Thanks, Mel. I meant to post that URL when the article came out and never quite got around to it. Merry Christmas.

Posted by: Kenny at December 14, 2004 11:02 PM

Just one quick comment about the 7/6 vote in the penalty phase of the Beth Stroud trial. The jury actually had three options - to take away her credentials, to decide a lesser, "more creative" penalty, or to take away her membership in The United Methodist Church. Everyone is assuming that the 6 members in the minority were in favor of the lesser penalty. I don't know if we have an official way of finding that out, or ever would, but some may have favored the harsher penalty.

I was at the trial, and there is an eyewitness account and commentary on my ministry website.

Thanks for your blog.

Posted by: Karen Booth at February 1, 2005 10:28 AM

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