The Methodist Billboard War Over Homosexuality

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For decades, Christians have been debating issues of sexual morality inside their churches and within denominational decision-making bodies. Two Ohio churches have decided to take this debate to a much different forum: billboards.

Central United Methodist Church in Toledo bought a billboard proclaiming, "Being Gay Is a Gift from God." The Northwestern Ohio congregation prides itself on welcoming gay, lesbian, and transgender people.

But an area megachurch decided to advertise a different viewpoint.

The Church on Strayer in Maumee bought nine billboards stating, "Being Gay is NOT a gift from God -- Forgiveness, Love, and Eternal Life Are." The church's pastor, the Rev. Tony Scott, says the signs have struck a nerve.

"I'm getting hate mail from lesbian and gay people, but my point is that I love them too much to let someone believe a lie," Scott said, according to the Associated Press. "I love this city too much to let a lie be sown."

Central's pastor, the Rev. Bill Barnard, has emphasized that sexual orientation is "part of the way we're put together. It's not a choice. He told the AP that he was at first impressed by the Church on Strayer's financial commitment but then saddened by their message. "My first thought was, 'Wow, nine billboards!'"

Central United Methodist has now countered with yet another billboard. This one says, "Creating a Space for All God's Children Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity."

The dueling billboards are an unusually dramatic representation of how Christians have handled conflicts between contemporary sexual ethics and Scripture.

Homosexuality has, for better or worse, become ground zero in theological fights over sex and the Bible's authority.

Both congregations are also reflect the larger currents they represent. Central United Methodist Church reportedly has about 40 members, suggestive of the decline of mainline Protestantism. (Though the church's website notes attendance is up from the 1990s.) The Church on Strayer reports 2,500 members on its website, typical of the evangelical megachurches that have started replacing the mainline denominations as the center of American Protestantism.

Yet the Church on Strayer's position is arguably closer to the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline than Central's. United Methodism's rule book makes a distinction between sexual orientation, which it forbids as a basis of discrimination, and sexual behavior. The Book of Discipline states that homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture.

In fact, the United Methodist Church has been roiled by debates on this issue for decades.

The renewal movement, which seeks to push the denomination back to its evangelical roots, has defended the church's traditional teachings. But the reconciling movement, among others, has sought to make the church more gay-friendly.

According to its website, Central United Methodist was one of the first five members of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which fights for gay rights within the denomination. They bill themselves as a "progressive, welcoming, and affirming congregation," while being housed in one of Toledo's oldest churches.

Central has been involved in debating these issues within the United Methodist Church since at least 1988, when members testified before the church's Committee to Study Homosexuality. In 2004, they hosted Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor who was defrocked for solemnizing same-sex unions in violation of the Book of Discipline. Sojourners editor and progressive evangelical Jim Wallis has also been a guest speaker.

Efforts to change the United Methodist Church's positions on human sexuality have been repeatedly defeated in recent meetings of its quadrennial legislative body, the General Conference .Votes from African delegates and American Southerners have bolstered the traditionalists' margin of victory. Yet in many parts of the country, the more liberal Methodist point of view predominates.

It's a dialogue that is likely to continue, in church fellowship halls and bishop meetings. And maybe on another billboard or two.

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