The flow of history

The Christian denomination that is my home, the United Church of Christ, has among its predecessor denominations the Congregational Church. Leaders in the Congregational Church expressed opposition to slavery as early as 1700, with Rev. Samuel Sewell becoming one of the first vocal critics of the practice. At the time there were plenty of Christian leaders in other denominations who were not only in favor of slavery, but engage in the practices of buying, selling and owning slaves. More than a century later, in the 1830’s and 1840’s the abolitionist movement had gained enough steam that the topic of slavery became rose to heated debate in other Christian denominations. The Lutherans adopted an anti-slavery position. The Methodist church split over the issue, with the northern and southern expressions of the church taking different positions. By the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, however, most Christian denominations were officially opposed to slavery.

Slavery isn’t much of a debate in Christian churches these days. Being Christian pretty much means being opposed to slavery. We’ve forgotten what it was like for this to be a controversy in the church. Those who read the history of the church on the issue are quick to point out that the Congregationalists were on the right side of history.

In the 1850’s when many Christian denominations were struggling with the issue of slavery, the Congregationalists discovered a new issue that caused much debate. In 1853, the Congregational Church ordained its first woman minister. Not all of the members of the church were in favor of women ministers. It took a while for the practice of women in pulpits to be accepted in the church, but it became more and more common as the years passed. It took quite a while for other denominations to begin to ordain women. The Methodists granted full ministerial standing to a woman in 1958. The Lutherans began ordaining women in the 1970’s. As you know the issue of women in the role of minister is still not accepted by all Christian denominations. The Roman Catholic Church may be the most visible communion where women are denied leadership positions, but there are plenty of Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations where all ministers are male and where members use biblical quotes to support the patriarchal church. You can find arguments about women in the leadership of the church raging in our town to this day.

Many Christians, however, can see the trend that is taking place and when they take a step back they realize that the flow of history is leading to increased leadership of women in the church. In our denomination the topic has passed as a point of discussion. We have women who serve as Conference Ministers and women serve in all sizes of congregations in all parts of our church. It is beginning to become clear that women in leadership positions in the church is the right side of history. We expect that other denominations will come around and the idea of being a Christian opposed to the ordination of women will become a relic, just like being a Christian who is pro slavery has.

Back in the 1970’s when many Protestant denominations were beginning to argue over the ordination of women, the United Church of Christ ordained its first openly gay minister. A few eyebrows were raised. A few debates were held in General Synod. And, as was the case when our denomination first ordained a woman, the practice was identified by some other denominations as a sign that our church was somehow less Christian than other communions. Subsequent General Synods took up conversations over becoming open and affirming of gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians and the church began to open itself to the participation and leadership of those persons. In 2005, a decade before gay marriage became legal in all 50 states of the United States, the United Church of Christ General Synod endorsed marriage equality.

This time it didn’t take a full century for the debate to start to rage in other denominations. By the time the United Church of Christ celebrated the 40th anniversary of the ordination of its first openly Gay minister, when many could remember first hand the event, the Lutherans were engaged in the debate. In 2010, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began to include openly gay ministers in its official roster. Not all Lutheran congregations embrace the leadership of gay or lesbian pastors, but the practice is growing and spreading.

Given the flow of history and the events surrounding the changes that have taken place in the church over other controversial issues, it shouldn’t surprise us that not all Christian churches have the same position. The decision of the United Methodist Church not to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual pastors this week has resulted in many loyal Methodist members refusing to use the word “united” when referring to their denomination at this time. There may even be a significant split in the church. There are likely going to be arguments and even lawsuits over pensions, health insurance and other benefits for existing ministers who disagree with the church’s decision. It isn’t going to be pretty for a while in the Methodist church.

It may be, however, that we can begin to see the flow of history. Give a controversial issue a century or two and it becomes clear which parts of the church are standing on the right side of history. I am in no position to judge the decisions made by other denominations and I was not a leader in the changes that took place in my own church, but every church that I have served in my career had experienced a woman minister before I arrived at that congregation. Every church I have served has been firmly anti-slavery. I haven’t had to address those topics as controversial. They have been accepted among the people of the churches I belong to as matters of settled faith.

I won’t be around, but it will be interesting to see what happens to the Methodist Church in a century or so. I will make a prediction, however. A century from now not only will the Roman Catholic Church be ordaining women, it will be openly embracing its gay clergy.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!