Archives for May 2014

What Is Meant By ‘Infallible’

One of the critiques of the statement last week from the leading pastors and theologians group calling for conversation around the possibility of amicable separation, involved the claim that orthodox, evangelical, and traditionalist United Methodists believe in the “infallibility” of Scripture.  The statement includes this description of one aspect of our current crisis:

It is a crisis regarding the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures, where some believe that, rightly understood, the Bible is the infallible word of God, and where others believe that significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error.

The criticism has been made that United Methodists have never believed in the infallibility of Scripture, and that the word is too undefined to be helpful in this discussion.  I would like to address this criticism, not on behalf of the group of leading pastors and theologians, but on behalf of the evangelical movement within United Methodism, of which Good News has been a leading participant for many years.

First, it is important to note that John Wesley himself used the word “infallible” to describe the Scriptures.  In his sermon on “The Means of Grace,” Wesley says, “The same truth (namely, that this is the great means God has ordained for conveying his manifold grace to man) is delivered, in the fullest manner that can be conceived, in the words which immediately follow: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;’ consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true; ‘and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness;’ to the end ‘that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)” (emphasis added).  So it is false to say that Methodists have never believed in the infallibility of Scripture.

But what does “infallible” mean when applied to the Bible?  The dictionary definition of “infallible” in a theological sense is:  “incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary).  So the emphasis of the word infallible is that the Bible can be trusted to tell the truth when it comes to the doctrinal or moral teachings of the Christian Church.

Some who believe in the infallibility of the Bible are also inerrantists, believing that the Scripture is without error in all it teaches or affirms.  (This would include the historical information contained in Scripture, as well as other matters not related to doctrine or morals.)  Others who believe in the infallibility of the Bible would restrict their understanding that the Bible is without error to only the doctrinal or moral matters that it addresses, and would thus not be true inerrantists.

What we mean when we say that the Bible is the infallible word of God is no more or less than what our doctrinal standards affirm about Scripture.

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation (Articles of Religion, Article V). 

Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral (Articles of Religion, Article VI).

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.  Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation (Confession of Faith, Article IV).

In other words, the Bible is our supreme authority for faith and practice, doctrine and morals.  We are not entitled as Christians to set aside or ignore the teachings of Scripture.

The group’s statement qualifies the infallibility of the Bible with the phrase “rightly understood.”  So the discussion on the theological and moral teaching of the church turns on the “right” understanding of Scripture.  This is where tradition, reason, and experience step in to help us rightly understand the Bible.  These can help us to correctly interpret the Bible’s teachings.  They are servants of the word, however, not judges of it.  It is not acceptable to override the teaching of Scripture based on human reason or personal experience, for example.

The presenting issue of the current crisis is the church’s teachings about homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.  Many of the approaches to using Scripture to justify same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior arise out of a desire to accommodate people’s personal experience of homosexuality (either their own or that of a loved one).  Although these approaches must be fairly considered, one must guard against the possibility that one’s personal experience is skewing one’s interpretation of Scripture.  (That is why tradition can be such a helpful anchor, since it encompasses the Church’s teachings across the centuries and in many different cultures, guarding against interpretations that are too closely bound to a particular culture or experience.)

Others who support same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior simply believe that the Bible is wrong about this issue, based on recent “findings” of science.  While it is important to take the results of scientific study into account, one must guard against the tendency to reject Scriptural teaching as “pre-scientific” and therefore inferior to modern understandings.  After all, science deals with “what is,” not with “what ought to be.”  It is descriptive, not prescribing what is morally right or wrong.

If the Bible is the infallible word of God, it is God’s self-revelation to us.  As such, it ought to inform our personal experience, not the other way around.  It ought to inform our human reasoning and our scientific understanding, not the other way around.

The Bible is not God, and those who believe in its infallibility do not worship the Bible.  But the Bible is God’s most objective and detailed way of communicating with us, God’s people.  Its infallibility means we can trust the Bible to truly communicate to us what God wants us to believe and how God wants us to live.  To ignore or disobey the teachings of Scripture is to contradict its infallibility, which puts us on a completely different theological path altogether.  What do you think?

Another Step of Fragmentation

Over last weekend, the Detroit Annual Conference passed a resolution that endorses a failure to uphold the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  The resolution encourages all members and structures of the annual conference to do three things:

  1. Support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lay members who marry and refrain from filing complaints against pastors who perform same-sex marriages
  2. Refrain from using church resources to investigate or enforce the same-sex marriage “ban,” or for trials, or for otherwise disciplining clergy who perform same-sex marriages
  3. Refrain from “investigating” the gender or sexual orientation of a minister or candidate for ministry and refrain from enforcing the “ban” on certification or ordination of LGBT persons for ministry.

This action has been challenged by a question of law addressed to Bishop Kiesey and will be reviewed by the Judicial Council at its November meeting.  However, if the conference is willing to pass a resolution that commands the ignoring of the Discipline, how can we expect that the conference will abide by a Judicial Council ruling?  (I have since learned that other annual conferences may be acting on a similar resolution in the coming days and weeks.)

The Detroit Conference’s action indicates an unwillingness of that annual conference (in general) to live by our agreed way of discipleship and order.  As such, it represents a further fragmentation of the church.  It leaves evangelicals and traditionalists in that conference at odds with their church, despite the fact that the General Conference is supposedly the only body that can speak for the denomination.

The resolution’s diagnosis of the problem is right on target.  The church continues to be divided, as it has for over 40 years.  (Some are trotting out supposedly “new” arguments from Scripture purporting to justify the acceptance of homosexual behavior, although these arguments date back to at least the late 1970’s.  These arguments have been effectively refuted by prominent ethicists and biblical scholars.)  But the church remains divided, as in the resolution’s words, “has created a divergence of thoughtful theological and reasoned opinions among United Methodists as to whether ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.’”

Furthermore, the resolution goes on, “this disagreement regarding homosexuality has become one of the defining public images of United Methodism in the US, has hampered reaching new disciples, particularly young people and even created an exodus of members, discouraged talented candidates from following God’s call to ministry, and drained resources away from the traditional Methodist focus on fighting such evils as poverty, malnutrition, and promoting education while spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  I would just point out that many evangelicals and traditionalists have left the church (including young families) because of this conflict, not just those who want the church’s position to change.  The resolution concludes its rationale by saying “it is time for the UMC to move beyond the harm done.

I couldn’t agree more with the diagnosis, but I totally disagree with the proposed solution.  Since there is this deep disagreement, the annual conference proposes, we should just let everyone do what they believe to be right.  This means we would no longer operate as one church, but as two churches living within one body.  Some parts of the church would affirm the practice of homosexuality, perform same-sex weddings, and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy.  Other parts of the church would oppose those affirmations.

If allowed to stand, the Detroit Conference action would legalize disobedience to the order and discipline of the church and promote anarchy.  If it is acceptable to disregard the Discipline on some issues, why not on others?  Why not disregard other requirements for clergy?  Why not ignore the prohibition on rebaptism?  Why not redirect apportionments to causes that a local church agrees with?

I keep coming back to Jesus’ words, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).  If we have two mutually exclusive views in our church concerning sexual morality, and there is no longer an agreement to live by denominational policies and standards, how can we continue to stand together and live together in one body?  Would we not be much better off graciously parting from one another and allowing each body to live out the church’s mission and ministry as they conceive of it?

The intense effort to keep the church together despite our division is partly an attempt to “wait out” evangelicals and traditionalists, who are supposedly a dying breed.  Eventually, the story goes, the younger generation will change the church’s teaching.  However, as people mature, their opinions often change.  According to surveys, even those who once favored same-sex marriage can and do become opposed to it “after further review.”  Evangelicals and traditionalists may have been willing to hold together despite our disagreements, if only those promoting LGBT affirmation would continue to honor and abide by the decisions of General Conference.  Absent that compliance, however, evangelicals and traditionalists will not long support a body that cannot or will not uphold its own policies and procedures.

The Role of the Connectional Table

In light of the recent controversies around the recommendation of the Connectional Table to change the church’s teaching on homosexuality, it might be helpful to see what the purpose of the Connectional Table is in United Methodist structure.

The Connectional Table is a coordinating body.  It is the body “where ministry and money are brought to the same table to coordinate the mission, ministries, and resources of The United Methodist Church” (¶901).  The CT is supposed to work to make the mission and ministries of the UM Church more effective by helping everyone in the church (including all the general boards and agencies) work together.

“The purpose of the Connectional Table (CT) is for the discernment and articulation of the vision of the church and the stewardship of the mission, ministries, and resources of The United Methodist Church as determined by the actions of the General Conference and in consultation with the Council of Bishops” (emphasis added).  The CT is to “establish policies and procedures to carry out the mission of the church” (¶904).

“¶ 905. Objectives—The essential functions of the Connectional Table are:

  1. To provide a forum for the understanding and implementation of the vision, mission, and ministries of the global church as determined in consultation with the Council of Bishops and/or the actions of the General Conference (emphasis added).
  2. To enable the flow of information and communication …
  3. Consistent with actions of the General Conference, to coordinate the program life of the church with the mandates of the gospel, the mission of the church, and the needs of the global community … (emphasis added)
  4. To review and evaluate the missional effectiveness of general program-related agencies and connectional structures …
  5. To recommend to the General Conference such changes and implementing legislation as may be appropriate to ensure the effectiveness of the general agencies (emphasis added).
  6. To provide leadership in planning and research …”

Based on the description of the CT in The Book of Discipline, it seems clear that the CT is a coordinating and implementing body, facilitating the mission and ministry of the church as enacted by the General Conference.  It is not a policy-making body.  As such, it is more like a council on ministries than an administrative board.

General Conference sets the vision, mission, and ministry of the church.  The CT is tasked with carrying that out.  The only provision for CT to make recommendations to the General Conference is “to ensure the effectiveness of the general agencies” (see ¶905.5 above).

Therefore, I would argue that the CT went beyond the parameters of its proper work when it recommended to the General Conference the deletion of all language in The Book of Discipline that prohibits same-sex marriage or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

The CT is amenable to the General Conference (¶903).  It is to base its work on the actions of the General Conference (mentioned three times in the Discipline).  For over 40 years, the General Conference has consistently maintained that all persons are of sacred worth and loved by God, and that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  The CT has no business advocating for a vision for ministry and mission that is inconsistent with the repeated actions of the General Conference.  Advocates have usurped the proper role of the CT in order to promote an ideology that is inconsistent with biblical teaching and with the determinations of the General Conference.

The general church and the General Conference should ignore the CT’s recommendation as being out of bounds.  That recommendation may score ideological points, but it has no real standing in terms of the work of the Connectional Table.

Trust Betrayed — Again

The Rev. Amy Delong expresses her feelings of not being heard or included to Bishop Bruce Ough. A UMNS photo by Kathleen S. Barry.

At the November 2013 meeting of The Connectional Table, the Rev. Amy Delong expresses her feelings of not being heard or included to Bishop Bruce Ough. A UMNS photo by Kathleen S. Barry.

As an observer at the Connectional Table dialogue and meeting in Chicago this week, I was cautiously hopeful that genuine dialogue would take place and that The United Methodist Church’s moral teaching on human sexuality would receive a fair hearing.  Sadly, my hopes were dashed.

As the UM News Service reported, the dialogue involved a panel presentation from three scholars.  Bishop Daniel Arichea was to represent how Scripture impacts our view of homosexuality.  Dr. Mark Teasdale, professor of evangelism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, was to represent how tradition impacts our view of homosexuality.  And Dr. Pamela Lightsey, professor at Boston University School of Theology, was to represent how experience impacts our view of homosexuality.  Each panelist made a brief presentation and then took questions and comments from the Connectional Table members, visitors, and those who watched the presentation online.

At no time during this dialogue did anyone advocate on behalf of the church’s teaching that sexual relationships outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage are contrary to the will of God.  Dr. Teasdale came the closest with his insightful analysis of the conflict between the Wesleyan tradition that emphasizes holiness in submission to the teachings of Scripture and the church, and the American tradition that emphasizes freedom, individual rights, and self-determination.  But even Dr. Teasdale’s presentation did not directly advocate for the adoption of the Wesleyan value system. He simply took the scholarly approach of examining options.

The other two panelists, however, were in full advocacy mode.  They called for the approval of same-sex marriage in the church by UM clergy and the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as UM clergy.

Bishop Arichea talked about his gay son and how that relationship has influenced his understanding of Scripture.  He categorized the two perspectives on Scripture as 1) timeless truths that can influence our devotion to God, and 2) time-bound passages that must be seen in the light of contextual study and the insights of science.  (I don’t have space to elaborate on how blatantly the bishop here misrepresents an evangelical understanding of Scripture.)  He placed scriptural teaching about human sexuality in the second category, time-bound and culture-bound verses that have nothing to say to us today.

Dr. Lightsey testified to her experience as a proudly open lesbian, and an ordained woman of color.  She likened the church’s teaching on homosexuality to the racism and sexism she reports she encountered in her Pentecostal upbringing.  She stated, “Though Scripture is central, experience informs our reading of the Biblical text.  Experience authenticates the truth of Scripture.  Experience is key to understanding of God, Scripture, and human sexuality.”  In other words, personal experience is the lens through which we read Scripture, which means that each person’s reading of Scripture is self-authenticating by virtue of their own unique experience.  (Teasdale’s American value system could not have had a starker example than Lightsey’s comments.)

All of the questions or comments that were then put to the panel were either neutral or slanted toward changing the church’s position.  Even though there were bishops in the room, none of them came to the defense of the church’s long held teachings on the matter. To the contrary, several pushed for scrapping them.

This dialogue was a showcase for what I have said before is wrong with the way dialogues on the issue of homosexuality are often practiced in our church.  Far from being fair, they are one-sided presentations meant to sway people to endorse same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.  To make matters worse, even the little that was said by Dr. Teasdale from a more traditionalist perspective was considered offensive by some.  One of the observers from Love Prevails (a radical, pro-gay activist group) commented, “Violence has been done to GLBT people when saying our understanding of ministry is the result of American tradition.”

If pro-gay advocates find even the mere expression of the church’s traditional teachings as inherently “violent,” then there is no possibility for true dialogue.  Instead, systemic power and threats are used to shut down and shut up those who would speak from a conservative perspective.  Why then should evangelical and orthodox United Methodists trust a system in which they are unfairly treated and not fairly represented?

The coup de grace that killed trust was the action of the Connectional Table after the dialogue. The Connectional Table voted (approximately 28-4) to prepare legislation for General Conference 2016 to remove what it deems is “exclusionary language” in the Book of Discipline, and replace it with language calling for the “full inclusion” of GLBT people. The lopsided vote is absurdly out of sync with the votes following the holy conferencing at all recent General Conferences.

Although two more dialogue sessions are scheduled over the next ten months, the Connectional Table is unfortunately not even willing to give the appearance of fairness in considering this important issue.  They have already committed to their preferred outcome before the dialogue process is even completed.

So why should the remaining two dialogues be held?  One member of the Connectional Table favored continuing the dialogues with this rationale, “We need to try to get everyone with us to have a majority at General Conference.”  In other words, the dialogues are merely a political tool to push the Connectional Table’s pre-ordained outcome: the church’s teaching must be changed!  It is their effort, funded by apportionment dollars, to promote the acceptance of homosexuality among the broader audience in our church that they are reaching through live-streaming the dialogues and the accompanying news stories.

The impact of a small group of pro-gay activists willing to disrupt church meetings should not be underestimated.  A handful of vocal activists from Amy DeLong’s “Love Prevails” group were present and fully participated in the Connectional Table dialogue process.  The fact that the CT had this particular dialogue at all was because these activists disrupted the CT’s November meeting by singing loudly as it attempted to conduct business.  After a three-hour disruption, the Love Prevails activists were invited to join an impromptu discussion of their grievances.

As if that were not enough, the CT committed to form a human sexuality task force to lead the three dialogues that began this week. This is a bizarre way to conduct the church’s business. Spend hours of time, talent and dollars preparing an agenda for a meeting, but then throw it out the window when just a handful of vocal activists bully their way into the meeting.

At this week’s session, Love Prevails activists were standing among the CT members during the dialogue and participated freely in the question and comment time. Arguably, the motion to recommend changing the church’s teaching would not have happened, except that one of the Love Prevails activists goaded the CT with an impassioned speech.

Unfortunately, the Connectional Table catered to this bullying and allowed itself to be manipulated by a tiny but very vocal and committed minority within the church.  This is not how spiritual decisions in the church are supposed to be made.  Again, it is hard for us to trust leaders who are unwilling to stand up to this kind of blatant manipulation and maintain a decision-making process that has spiritual integrity.

In the end, the actions and perspectives of the Connectional Table are irresponsible and unrepresentative of the vast majority of United Methodist members around the globe.  The members of the CT seem to be oblivious to the fact that their approach to spiritual leadership is causing the loss of trust that they themselves acknowledged during the meeting.  Why should the rank and file membership trust a leadership body that does not speak for them?

The momentum toward irreconcilable division grows ever stronger.