Archives for April 2014

Unilaterally Redefining Marriage

Is The United Methodist Church having a “World Vision moment?”  Recently, there was a big controversy in the news regarding World Vision’s attempt to change the qualifications of its employees.  World Vision wanted to allow persons who are in a same-sex marriage to be employed at World Vision, which is an evangelical relief organization and one of the largest relief organizations in the world.

Of course, there was a huge backlash from evangelical donors to the organization, who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman only, and that World Vision’s decision to employ persons in same-sex marriages violated an evangelical understanding of marriage.  World Vision reversed its decision after two days of hearing from many donors who said they were discontinuing their support for sponsored children due to the policy shift.  (One can debate whether precipitously suspending support for ministry to children is the best way for a Christian to communicate one’s displeasure with an organization’s policies.  It did make an impact, however.)

Many United Methodists do not realize that our own church policy agency has made a similar decision to expand the definition of marriage, contrary to United Methodist teaching.  Last October, the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) voted to extend benefits to all employees of general church agencies who were in same-sex marriages or registered partnerships.  They did so by expanding the definition of “spouse.”  A spouse is now defined for church agency employees as “Opposite-sex and same-sex spouses, recognized by a state as being legally married to the employee; and Civil partners, either through a civil union or a comprehensive domestic partnership, recognized by a state as being the legal partner of an employee.”

This means that, as far as the church bureaucracy is concerned, marriage includes same-sex spouses, same-sex partners, and opposite-sex partners who are not married.  This expanded definition of marriage contradicts the definition passed by General Conference, which states that “we affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. … We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Discipline, ¶161B).”

The Judicial Council recognized this Discipline definition of marriage as the official teaching of The United Methodist Church, even though it appears in the Social Principles.  They found it to be binding on the church (Judicial Council decision 1185).  However, GCFA has unilaterally contradicted church teaching with its expanded definition of marriage.

It is important to note that, not only does the new policy define same-sex partners as “spouses,” it defines opposite-sex partners who are not married as “spouses.”  In fact, the policy is so vague that, if any state recognizes polygamy or polyandry (having multiple wives or husbands), they would be covered by church benefits, as well.

Apportionment dollars are being used to subsidize the benefits we offer our employees and their family members.  That means that apportionment dollars are being used to subsidize relationships that United Methodist Church teaching does not accept.

There are several things wrong with this policy decision:

  • It adopts a policy that contradicts church teaching on the definition of marriage, not only violating the beliefs and values of church members (not to mention Scripture) but creating confusion by sending a mixed message about what United Methodists believe marriage is.
  • It surrenders to the secular government the right to decide what constitutes marriage.  Christians have always believed and taught that marriage is between one man and one woman, regardless of what the practices of a particular culture embraced.  The wording of this policy is an unashamed capitulation to the changing mores of society, rather than standing firmly on the teachings of Scripture and 2,000 years of church teaching.
  • It was adopted with little or no advance warning or broad consultation with the church leadership and membership.  Essentially, a small group of twenty-one voting members (not all of whom approved the change) decided to change United Methodist policy on marriage.
  • It was implemented immediately, with no opportunity for appeal.  The GCFA has referred the matter to the Judicial Council for a ruling as to whether this new policy violates the Discipline in any way.  However, GCFA chose not to suspend implementation of the policy pending judicial review and implemented it immediately, as of October 31, 2013.  Such a process presents the church with a fait accompli, making it much more difficult to reverse the policy without causing harm to employees who obtained benefits under the new redefinition.  It is much easier to decide not to extend benefits in the first place than it is to take away benefits that have already been offered.

I still hope that the Judicial Council will nullify the new policy at its April 23-25 meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I expect that the benefits will need to continue at least until the end of the year before being discontinued for the 2015 plan year.

However, if this policy change stands, it is a blatant example of our general church agencies being out of touch with the grass roots members of our church.  It will only increase the gulf of mistrust that members and pastors have for general church agencies, and it will decrease the motivation of local churches to pay their world service apportionments, some of which are being used to subsidize relationships that are scripturally unwarranted.

Many United Methodists will find that this new policy violates their conscience and makes them unable to financially support a ministry that contradicts their values.  Please pray this week for the Judicial Council, as they meet to make this decision.

Why Dialogue Isn’t Working

As the talk about separation in The United Methodist Church becomes more prominent, there are increasing calls from moderates and progressives for more dialogue to resolve our differences.  In fact the settlements of the two most recent complaints against pastors who performed same-sex weddings (New York and Pacific Northwest) included a commitment to an annual conference dialogue on the issue.

The reality is that such dialogues may make some people feel better that they are doing something to avoid separation, but they are unlikely to resolve the conflict that exists within the church.  Here’s why.

The attitude that many progressives take toward dialogue and toward homosexuality makes it clear that they are not in favor of true dialogue.  That fact came through loud and clear in the recent controversy over the forced resignation of the new CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, because he does not support same-sex marriage.  One of the Mozilla officers involved in the controversy summed up the “winning” argument this way:  “The equality argument is that this isn’t a matter of speech. That believing that 1/n of us aren’t entitled to the same rights as the rest of us isn’t a ‘belief’. That the right to speech is only truly universal if everyone is equal, first.”

In other words, if you will agree with our point of view, we’ll let you talk.  This is a secular situation, and to their credit, a number of progressives have condemned the decision to force Eich out.  However, the attitude that one is entitled to be fully heard only if they agree with the pro-gay perspective is alive and well in the church.

When I served in ministry in Wisconsin, I was told on several occasions by colleagues that, even though they believed in tolerance and inclusion as first-order values, they couldn’t tolerate or include my voice because I was not for tolerance and inclusion.  The voice defending church teaching was not allowed, at least on the same footing with the pro-gay voice, because exclusion of any kind had to be ruled out of order

This attitude appeared in a recent dust-up at Boston University, where a Korean United Methodist clergyperson gave a sermon in which he shared his struggle over the issue of homosexuality, coming down on the side of the church’s teaching being the faithful way of interpreting the Bible.  The BU student body evidently responded immediately with anger toward the sermon.  The day after the sermon, the Community and Spiritual Life Committee issued an apology for the sermon and set up a series of events to deal with the pain the sermon caused.

In their statement, the committee said this:  “While we recognize that denominations are divided on this issue, we are not. We, as a school are clear that the gifts that the church needs today will come from all of us. And we are convinced that there is no room for messages of exclusion and calls for Christian unity at the expense of our LGBTQIA sisters and brothers.”  In other words, we have made up our minds, and we have no interest in listening to an opposing perspective.  And this in an academic institution that prides itself on academic freedom and is training future pastors for United Methodist ministry.

Another current example of the failure of dialogue is the proposed May 10 “Conversation on Covenant and Human Sexuality” to be held in the New York Annual Conference.  This event is part of the settlement of the Thomas Ogletree complaint.  Of the four panelists, three appear to come from a pro-gay perspective.  One positions himself as a moderate, but has identified Good News and other renewal groups as “enemies” on his Twitter account.  Another panelist is on the board of Reconciling Ministries Network, an outspoken national pro-gay group.  The third panelist is on the board of Methodists in New Directions, a pro-gay advocacy group in the New York Annual Conference.  There is one evangelical on the panel, a professor of Old Testament interpretation from Asbury Theological Seminary.  (As a side note, I don’t understand why the event is limited to only 200 participants, if it is an attempt to help the whole conference have a conversation on this issue.)

This unbalanced approach to “dialogue” on this issue is typical. A number of years ago, the Wisconsin Confessing Movement offered to facilitate a one-on-one dialogue between a spokesperson for the Confessing viewpoint and a spokesperson for the Reconciling viewpoint (chosen by them).  The Reconciling people refused to participate because they didn’t want to expose people to the “hateful” language of the Confessing viewpoint.

As long as people on the progressive side are unwilling to listen to a fair presentation of the evangelical viewpoint, true dialogue cannot occur.  Given the entrenched positions on both sides, it is fair to wonder if even true dialogue could bring resolution to the conflict we are experiencing.  But let’s not keep clamoring for dialogue and then substitute a rigged conversation that biases the outcome.