During a lecture at Emory University, a scholar told a group of young students, "Jesus doesn't say a lot positive about marriage. In fact he seems to suggest we might be better off without it."
Luke Timothy Johnson, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology, was examining the Gospel of Matthew in his lecture on "Jesus and the Law of Marriage and Divorce" last February.
"Jesus said sometimes you have to become a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I think that advocating celibacy was something of a shock to my young listeners," he said. "By trying to be an advocate for Matthew's text, I tried to say that this Christian thing is not just a matter of domestic tranquility or keeping the law. It's pretty risky business. It's pretty demanding. And pretty shocking."
If Jesus didn't have a lot to say on the issue of marriage or sexual orientation, United Methodists have said volumes. Throughout church history, delegates to the denomination's top lawmaking body have always ended their quadrennial assembly leaving intact the statement "marriage is between one man and one woman."
At the 2012 global meeting April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., the question will be asked and decided once again.
What does Scripture say?
There are conflicting opinions over what the Bible teaches about sexual orientation.
Matthew Vines, a 21-year-old gay college student, recently delivered a speech at College Hill United Methodist Church, Wichita, Kan., on his "thousands of hours of research and study" on what the Bible says about homosexuality.
He examines six verses in the Bible: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, Genesis 19:5, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Vines said those verses have proven to be the end of the road for many gays trying to gain acceptance from Christian parents, friends and pastors.
The Rev. Karen Booth, author of "Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism's Compromise with the Sexual Revolution," said people in favor of same-sex marriage refer to those scriptures as "clobber passages."
"I believe that they mostly contain very good news, especially 1 Cor. 6," she said. In her book, Booth writes what constitutes God-honored sex and sexuality is not based on a "handful of negative restrictions.
"Through the stories of the creation of humankind, God's original intention for human sexual relations is revealed: a loving, sacrificial and potentially procreational expression of the 'one flesh' male/female marital bond.
"Sexual acts that occur outside that sacred boundary, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, are immoral-grievous to God and detrimental to human beings."
Vines' research leads him to believe God would not deny him or any other gay person the possibility of a loving relationship and a family. In his remarks to the congregation at College Hill, he examines each scripture in great detail.
"The Bible does not condemn loving gay relationships," he said. "It is not opposed to justice and equality for gay people, and, in fact, it supports their equal right to marry. Scripture can prove to be one of our greatest allies, if only we're reading it correctly."
Booth is an ordained elder in the Peninsula Delaware Annual (regional) Conference and director of Transforming Congregations. In her book, she carefully considers Scripture and chronicles the history of homosexuality in society and in the denomination. She said she was supportive of same-sex marriage for most of her young adulthood. Her heart began to change when a former seminary friend - who had been openly gay - told her how Jesus had transformed him.
That conversation was a turning point, Booth said, and she began her own years of scientific and biblical research and study.
"I think people have little to no choice in their experience of same-sex attractions, though they have a choice regarding how they personally respond to those attractions," she said.
"I believe homosexual behavior - same-sex intimate behavior - is sinful. That (behavior) can be repented of, redeemed and healed, in other words 'overcome.' Often, but not always, the same-sex feelings line up with the behavior change."
Attitudes and laws
Gay marriage has been on the minds of many in the United States and around the world. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the issue of whether gays can be legally married shows no sign of abating.
"A Contentious Debate," says the issue has been decided in various ways in courts and legislatures in recent years.
At this time, six states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage while 39 have laws limiting marriages to a man and a woman, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Sweden and Norway have legalized gay marriage.
Conferences propose change
In The United Methodist Church, more than a dozen U.S. annual (regional) conferences are petitioning the 2012 General Conference on the church's ban on non-celibate, gay clergy and its prohibition against clergy officiating at same-sex unions.
Some propose striking the words "man and woman" from the definition of marriage and adding "two loving adults." Others want to retain the wording already in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book.
In May 2011, the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, upheld the church's prohibition against same-sex marriage and ruled that the New York Annual (regional) Conference's resolution to allow clergy to "marry at their own discretion" was neither "valid nor constitutional."
"The church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority," the decision said. "The church's definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman."
In June 2011, 70 Minnesota United Methodist clergy signed a statement saying they would "offer the grace of the Church's blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage," including same-sex couples.
The Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference was acquitted of being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" but found guilty of celebrating a same-sex union in a public church trial in June 2011.
Foundry United Methodist Church, led by the Rev. Dean J. Snyder, launched a campaign "Opening Doors to Equality in February. The goal is to approve a resolution at General Conference to allow clergy "to perform the pastoral care called for in their ordination vows and ensure that all who enter the doors of a United Methodist Church experience the unconditional love of Jesus."
On March 23, the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference announced 62 clergy and 203 United Methodist church members had signed a statement in support of marriage equality and called for "full equality and inclusion to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church."
Proposals to agree that people of faith disagree also have been rejected by past General Conferences.
At the end of the 2008 General Conference the church agreed that "all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God" and called United Methodists to "seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another as Christ has loved and accepted us."
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]