The Judicial Council rulings this year have had me reflecting. I wonder if we are missing the issue. If you were to read in the papers about the Karen Damman ruling and the rulings this year about Beth Stroud and the pastor who refused membership to a homosexual choir member, you would believe the issue is all about homosexuality. And, of course, it is. But if we begin to reflect seriously about the events, I begin to wonder if the issue is more about our very badly formed understanding of church membership.
What is the Methodist theology of church membership? Do we even have one? Where do we start to discuss it? I of course start with the Bible. I understand the chuch to be the Body of Christ here on earth. This has Biblical backing. I understand each of us to be a part of the body. Some of us are hands, some are feet -- some of us have to be earlobes. Can the earlobe tell the hand that "no, you aren't a member of the body?"
I know this is really more about the Church Universal than it is about the local church body.
The more I think about it -- the more perplexed I become.
I also know the passages about rebuking those that continue in sin. I know that we don't do this as much or often as perhaps we might because membership in a local church body can be a means of grace. So within our midst we find drug dealers, prostitutes, forgerers and worse. (Maybe even the people Jesus would hang out with.) We are letting our feelings/emotions/opinions about homosexuality cloud the issue.
Another issue that I struggle with is the authority of the pastor. There is a part of me that really does not want the authority of the pastor to be diluted. The pastor should have the authority to say to a perspective member "no, as long as you are running that crack-house, I wonder if it is the best thing in the world for you to join this local congregation." Or "no, if you are not willing to pledge your prayers, presence, gifts and service, I don't think it's time for you to join us as a member." Or "no, you are continuing in sin -- you are still doing XXX which would be very destructive to XXX members of this local congregation. When you have stopped doing XXX, let's talk." I know this is not a particularly popular view right now. But if eating meat causes your brothers to lapse into sin ... (that again is a Biblical reference, btw.)
When we deny membership in the local church, we are NOT denying them membership in the Body of Christ universal. I don't think that any of us have the authority to do that.
Therefore, what I feel the United Methodist church needs is not more debates about homosexuality. That is not a clear-cut issue. There are no *clear* passages in the Bible (like "do not allow a homosexual into your midst, for yea verily, they are going to hell.") All the passages that are used are open to different interpretations. (In fact, I have never heard what I think is the strongest argument against homosexuality -- and I've never posted it or even written it up because I get tired of the Bible used as a weapon. And because the exegetical tools to build the arguement are usually considered "liberal" by those who gay-bash.) There are clearer passages about church membership. I think that we need a study done -- much like "By Water and the Spirit" and "This Holy Mystery" to explore what exactly a Methodist means by local church membership.