At its quadrennial General Conference in May, the United Methodist Church decided not to rule on the issue of full inclusion for openly practicing LGBT members. By instead opting to create a committee that would spend the next two years looking into the subject, it achieved the rare goal of uniting most of its membership. Unfortunately, that unity was founded upon mutual disappointment in the lack of a decision rather than any sense of agreement on what that decision should be. In the wake of that indecisiveness, two US jurisdictions nominated three openly practicing LGBT candidates for election as bishops. Rev. Karen Oliveto, one of the three, was selected by the California-Nevada group last Saturday and became the first such bishop in the denomination’s history.
The reaction has been predictably divided. Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the denomination’s self-described “orthodox” and “evangelical” movement, Good News, stated that “If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to push the church to the brink of schism, they could not have found a more certain way of doing so.” On the other end of the ideological spectrum, Matt Berryman, the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, celebrated Oliveto’s election as “an historic moment in the movement of [LGBTQ] persons for spiritual and civil equality, both in the church and the public square.”
For her part, Oliveto, who has been married to partner Robin Ridenour for two years, simply hopes that her selection can help the committee better understand the need to rule on the subject while also opening the door for other LGBT individuals to feel like they have a place in God’s kingdom. As she noted, “I think my election has helped the church realize that no child of God should be left behind.”
That sentiment is both noble and biblical, even if the context in which it was uttered is less so. Scripture is clear that engaging in a homosexual lifestyle is outside of God’s will, even if we might wish that it was otherwise. And while it is not an unpardonable sin by any means—and no worse than those who engage in heterosexual sex outside of marriage— it is a sin nonetheless.
Could God redeem the election of Bishop Oliveto to help bring people to himself? Absolutely, but note that such redemption implies that God is bringing good from a decision or circumstance that was originally outside of his will. If Oliveto’s status as a bishop helps other LGBT people feel more welcome in the church and come to a saving knowledge of Christ, that outcome will not justify or make right a lifestyle that God’s word rejects (Romans 1:26–27, 32).
In such circumstances, it can be tempting to take an “ends justify the means” mentality and overlook Scripture’s prohibitions in light of the good that might come from doing so. However, the wrong thing done for the right reasons is still inherently wrong. Those who either affirm or accept the homosexual lifestyle as permissible do so in opposition to God’s word and, ultimately, to the harm of those they are simply trying to lift up. While it may sound paternalistic to say that we know what’s best for those who struggle with a homosexual orientation—and note that it is not the orientation but the action that Scripture condemns— it is the most loving thing that we could do so long as it is done with God’s grace and the full knowledge that we are just as sinful, even if in a different way.
Oliveto’s election ultimately boils down to an individual who has accepted her sin as permissible and thus lost part of her ability to be used by the Father. There is no doubt that God can still do wonderful things through her ministry, but not to the same degree as if she was committed to following his commands in every part of her life. However, lest we forget that acting on a homosexual orientation is but one of many sins the Bible condemns, all Christians who have given up the fight against their sin are similarly limited in their usefulness to the kingdom. God can still use us to accomplish his will, but that usefulness will always be less than he intends until we remember the standard to which we are called (Matthew 5:48). So how useful can you be to the kingdom today?