When Therapy Becomes Theology In The UMC’s Full Inclusion Debate

It happened again.

I heard about a clergy colleague — long considered to be on the conservative end of the theological debates roiling the United Methodist Church — who has reconsidered his support of our denomination’s official stand regarding same-sex intimacy, ordination of non-celibate gays, and same-gender marriage, and now endorses what is called “full inclusion.” 

(Forty years’ history in a paragraph: the UMC officially teaches that homosexual intercourse is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and therefore does not knowingly ordain non-celibate gay pastors and does not allow its clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings.  A vocal and persistent minority advocates to change that official teaching.)

Back to my clergy colleague and his change-of-mind on this fraught-with-emotion issue.  How and why did the change take place?  Answer: when he heard the stories of family members involved in same sex unions and raising children in same-sex families.  The pastor looked them in their eyes, engaged in their narratives, found their love persuasive, and so reached a general conclusion from that particular moment:  I/We have been wrong all along about celibacy in singleness & faithfulness in heterosexual marriage. 

On the one hand, my colleague’s response is perfectly understandable, even predictable.  I say that because of clergy training:  we in the UMC world have been trained through Clinical Pastoral Education and seminary counseling courses to be reflective listeners

We maintain eye contact.  We listen well.  We lean forward. We repeat back what we are hearing.  We say “sounds like” as often as we can.  We listen with empathy and without judgment.  We immerse ourselves in the stories we are hearing and rarely, if ever, offer directed advice.  Any seminary-trained, CPE-drenched pastor knows exactly what I’m talking about and has done this kind of ministry hundreds of times.  And in most cases, particularly as we help people navigate family dysfunction and personal trauma, that posture of reflective listening is perfectly appropriate.

However, when therapy turns into theology, something else entirely happens:  our experience and our empathy determine our doctrine.

I’ve been in those counseling sessions.  Asked to officiate a same-gender wedding.  Invited to bless a same-gender union.  And the pastor in me longs to tell folks what they want to hear, yearns to affirm the narrative I’m privileged to be part of.

And yet over against that personal, pastoral desire, I hear another question:  have we become so good at empathetic listening that we have lost the capacity for critical thinking?

Because it seems to me that the role of the Scripture has been precisely to guard against what so many of us now do in elevating personal experience to the level of revealed truth.

Theologically, then, Scripture protects us from ourselves. Which is why Paul tells Timothy:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

Or why Jeremiah declares:  The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?

Personal experience and individual feelings — even when others share those experiences and feel those feelings — are among the weakest of rationales for shifting theology and changing doctrine.   

The reason the church does theology and arrives at doctrine is to protect us from our natural tendency to turn what we feel into what we believe.

So what does all this mean both for local church ministry at a place like Good Shepherd and for denominational level teaching in the UMC?

Well, I’ll always be a pastor and my instincts will be therapeutic.  People from all kinds of backgrounds and even sexual identities will continue to find a home at Good Shepherd.  The atmosphere the people have created here is why so many same-sex attracted people attend and serve in a congregation which continues to teach “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage.”

We pray the revelation of Scripture helps to keep our ministry balance and our pastoral theology intact, and we find Scripture’s truth to be compelling in spite of its inconvenience and unpopularity.  Or, maybe, because of it.