Archives for June 2014

Who Wants a ‘Gay-Free’ Methodism?

Bishop Sally Dyck. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Bishop Sally Dyck. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Bishop Sally Dyck (Northern Illinois) was the chair of the unity task force of the Council of Bishops. She always struck me as a person I could dialogue with, even though we disagreed on some key issues. Her latest blog, however, makes me question whether discussion with her is even possible, and points up the deep theological divide that threatens to splinter The United Methodist Church.

In a snarky and sophomoric blog, Bishop Dyck portrayed the division of our church as being between one group that is “gay-friendly” and another group that wants to be “gay-free.” This caricature does not describe any of those I know who are part of the group that has suggested the UM Church may want to consider the possibility of amicable separation. Dyck is stereotyping people who on biblical authority refuse to support same-sex marriage and affirm homosexual behavior as haters and homophobes. She didn’t use those words, but that is the message her blog conveyed.

Evangelical United Methodists strive to be in ministry with all people. Most evangelical churches include gays and lesbians and/or family members of gays and lesbians. We seek to introduce people to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and help people begin and continue a journey of discipleship that transforms every one of us, gay or straight, into the likeness of Christ. We are all lost and sinful apart from the grace of God, and we need the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome temptation and heal sin in our lives. We do not believe it is necessary to condone people’s sins in order to welcome them into the Body of Christ, whether our sins are greed, lust, murder, deceit, adultery, or homosexual behavior. No matter the sin, the medicine is the same: repentance, faith in Christ, and the journey of discipleship. No evangelical I know wants a “gay-free” Methodism.

Evidently, Bishop Dyck wasn’t listening when we shared those perspectives with her at our “deep listening” sessions with the unity task force.

Not only does Dyck caricature and insult evangelicals in her blog, she also threatened our brothers and sisters in the central conferences. In the event of a separation, she presumed “they’ll go gay-free. Are they willing to also go gay-free in terms of money from gay-friendly churches and annual conferences?” In other words, our brothers and sisters should compromise their biblical principles and consciences, so that they can keep the money flowing from Big Brother/Sister in the United States. Are progressives now trying to hold our brothers and sisters hostage with mission money to force their acquiescence to a pro-gay ideology?

Essentially, Dyck does not take seriously the concerns of evangelicals. She distorted our perspective and makes it into a straw man that she can easily demolish through her arguments. There are so many distortions I can’t even begin to reply to all of them. Here are a few of them:

Dyck asked, “If it’s a crisis that some pastors aren’t obeying the Discipline by performing same-gender marriages, especially in states where it’s legal, why are other violations of the Social Principles not chargeable offenses?” The prohibition against same-sex unions is not found in the Social Principles, which are not generally binding but instructive for considering how to apply biblical principles to current cultural situations. No, the prohibition is found in our book of covenant, ¶341.6 and 2702.1. It is a crisis of covenant when some among us decide they are “bigger than The United Methodist Church” (in her words) and override the church’s teaching with their own personal judgment. When persons promise to uphold a covenant and then intentionally disobey it, it creates a crisis of trust and threatens the unity of the church that covenant is designed to protect.

Dyck asked, “If it’s a crisis in covenant that is at stake here, how is it that tearing apart the unity of the church isn’t a serious violation of covenant?” It’s important to ask, who is doing the “tearing apart” here? It is not those who are naming the problem who are the problem. Instead, it is those who are violating the Discipline and failing to enforce the Discipline who are “tearing apart” the church. Often, when a couple gets to divorce court, the divorce recognizes the reality that the marriage has already ended. If United Methodism comes to the point of amicable separation, it will recognize that the unity of the church was already torn apart irrevocably.

Dyck maligned the group of leading pastors and theologians who have asked the questions about separation as “a group of large church pastors who think they’re bigger than The United Methodist Church.” No, the ones who are “bigger than the church” are those who believe they can take the law into their own hands and act with impunity to disregard the results of our holy conferencing at General Conference. The ones who are “bigger than the church” are those who impose their personal agenda on the church by insisting that the church change—and that if it won’t, they will act as if it did anyway. The ones who are “bigger than the church” are those like Love Prevails, who think that they are entitled to disrupt meetings and take over agendas in order to push their own personal ideology. The ones who are “bigger than the church” are bishops who have decided not to enforce the Discipline, who refuse to process complaints against pastors who violate our covenant, who determine that there will be no consequences for disobedience, and who publicly advocate a position contrary to the church’s teaching.

We have watched as the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all experienced a painful separation in their bodies because some in each insisted on promoting the affirmation of homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage. In nearly every situation, there were hurtful actions and millions of dollars spent on legal fees. May we not learn from their experience? If there is to be a separation in Methodism, may we not approach it as Christians, with love and grace toward one another? May we not treat one another with love and respect, even as we may have to acknowledge we cannot walk together on the same path? Apparently for Bishop Dyck, that is no longer the case.

Is the Bible Inspired?

Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection (a United Methodist congregation) in the Kansas City area, recently came out with an introduction to the Bible called Making Sense of the Bible.  Hamilton does a great job of introducing laypersons to the overarching story of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament.  He explains how the Bible came to be, and then examines a series of “challenging passages.”

On the whole, I think Hamilton’s book does a good job of making the Bible more understandable and more accessible.  He leaves room for various options of interpretation in dealing with some of the controversial passages of the Bible.  His love for the Bible and the influential place the Bible has in his own life comes through loud and clear.  His last chapter on “Reading the Bible for All Its Worth” contains a very practical and Wesleyan approach to studying Scripture and incorporating its teachings into our lives.

My main concern with Hamilton’s view of the Bible is his understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture.  He suggests that “the scriptures were written by human beings who were inspired by God yet wrote in the light of their own experiences, the scientific knowledge they had access to, and the historical circumstances in which they lived.”  He goes on to say, “While affirming that the Bible is inspired by God, a key premise of this book is that the Bible’s authors were inspired by the Spirit in the same way and to the same degree as many contemporary preachers and prophets and even ordinary Christians have been inspired by the Spirit in every age. … I believe the inspiration experienced by the biblical authors was not different from our own experience of inspiration (emphasis original)” (p. 294).

So what gives the biblical writers the authority to tell us what to believe and how to live?  Hamilton cites two factors: 1) that the biblical writers were closer to the events that they were recording, and 2) that the early church felt that the biblical writing contained the essentials of the faith and found them helpful.  Thus, there is no qualitative difference between what the Bible says and what an inspired Christian says (think Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, Mother Theresa, etc.).  The church could find these later writers equally helpful (and authoritative?) for the church’s faith today.

I have no problem believing that the biblical writers were informed by their own world view and human experience.  That is part of the context that helps us understand their writings.  However, the biblical writers often claimed to be delivering “the word of the Lord,” not their own understanding.  II Peter 1:20-21 claims that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  In fact, sometimes the writers did not understand what they were saying or what it meant (see Daniel 12:8-9, for example).  Divine inspiration carried them beyond the limits of their human experience.

The early church seemed to regard the writings of the apostles as uniquely authoritative.  It understood Jesus’ promise of John 14:25-26 to apply uniquely to the Twelve (minus Judas), “All this I have spoken while still with you.  But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  One of the tests for including a book in the New Testament was its authorship or approval by one of the original apostles (plus Paul as the apostle who was “abnormally born” (I Corinthians 15:8) plus James and Jude, Jesus’ brothers—in by family privilege!).  And Jesus himself affirmed the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matthew 5:17-20).

The church has historically understood the biblical writers to be uniquely inspired in a way that the rest of us, even great early Christian leaders like Barnabas or Timothy, were not.  That gave the apostles the authority to reinterpret the faith of Israel in a new way as followers of Jesus Christ.  We today do not have that same authority.

So it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Peter and the other apostles could vote to do away with the food laws and clean/unclean requirements of the Old Testament.  But we today do not have the same authority to do away with the moral teachings of the Bible around human sexuality and marriage.  We can be inspired by the Holy Spirit for ministry today, but our inspiration is of a different order, and our authority is less than that of the Bible.

Yes, we need to ask questions and wrestle with the biblical text.  Our task as interpreters, however, is not to judge the text (whether or not it speaks the mind of God), but to understand the text in its context.  That context includes the entire Scriptures, so that later revelations and teachings can refine or even revoke earlier understandings.  We can still learn from those earlier understandings, but we must be careful in applying them to our lives today.

The bottom line is that I am concerned Hamilton’s view of inspiration undercuts the authority of Scripture and allows the church to too easily discount biblical teachings that some Christians disagree with on the basis that they “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will” (p. 274).  I believe we would do well to maintain the view of Scripture expressed in our doctrinal standards:  “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).  Conversely, whatever is revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is designed by God to be “the true rule and guide for faith and practice,” not set aside for human preference.