Archives for August 2014

Fallout from the Sexual Revolution

How is the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage related to other opinions about sexual morality?  That is a question explored by Mark Regnerus (associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas) in a recent study on relationships in America. In a survey of nearly 16,000 Americans in early 2014, Regnerus asked a series of questions about various sexual morality issues.  He zeroed in on the responses of church-going Christians (attend church at least three times a month and identify with some sort of Christian affiliation).

Regnerus found that Christians who support same-sex marriage are much more likely to support other behaviors that have traditionally been considered immoral, compared to Christians who oppose same-sex marriage.  Here is a summary of the results:

  • Christians who support same-sex marriage are seven times more likely to believe that viewing pornography is OK
  • Christians who support same-sex marriage are more than three times more likely to believe that cohabiting before marriage is a good idea
  • Christians who support same-sex marriage are more than six times more likely to believe that it is OK for two people to have sex without expecting anything further
  • Christians who support same-sex marriage are nearly six times more likely to believe that it is sometimes permissible for a married person to have sex with someone other than his/her spouse
  • Christians who support same-sex marriage are nearly 13 times more likely to believe that it is OK for three or more consenting adults to live together in a sexual/romantic relationship
  • Christians who support same-sex marriage are six times more likely to support abortion rights

Regnerus also teased out the beliefs of gay and lesbian Christians, which in every case were even more permissive than Christians who support same-sex marriage and much more permissive than the general population average.

  • More than half (57%) of gay and lesbian Christians believe viewing pornography is OK and support abortion rights
  • Half of gay and lesbian Christians believe that premarital cohabitation is good and that sex without expecting anything further is permissible
  • One-third of gay and lesbian Christians believe that it is OK for three or more adults to live together in a sexual/romantic relationship
  • Gay and lesbian Christians are nearly twice as likely as Christians who support same-sex marriage to approve of occasional marital infidelity (and 11 times more likely than Christians who oppose same-sex marriage)

Regnerus’ study shows that approval of same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior is part of a broader constellation of moral values that is substantially more permissive than traditional sexual morality, as taught in Scripture.  When human sexuality is divorced from heterosexual marriage and from procreation as a part of our sexuality, the underpinnings of Christian sexual moral teaching are greatly weakened.

Our modern culture sees sexuality as an individual fulfillment issue, linked primarily to pleasure.  Whatever brings pleasure and fulfillment to an individual is not only allowed, but applauded, regardless of whether or not God considers it morally right.  With the widespread use of contraception and in-vitro fertilization (both of which I support), we have succeeded in making the primary biological purpose of sexuality totally optional.  And to keep it optional, it is necessary to have free access to abortion (which I oppose) as a backup when contraception fails.

When it comes to sexuality, we have embraced technologies (contraception, IVF, abortion) that have fundamentally changed our human moral understanding.  As Christians, our moral teaching and theology have not been strong enough to counter this technology-driven shift in belief systems.  (Remember that the above statistics reflected the beliefs of Christians, not non-Christians or the general population.)

It is imperative for Christians to understand the big picture purpose of our human sexuality in God’s eyes in order to withstand the pressure from our Western society to compromise our beliefs.  Naturally speaking, God designed sex to help create a permanent bond of love between a man and a woman, fashioning them into a family unit that is equipped to bear and raise children.  Sociological research has proven overwhelmingly that children raised in intact, male-female, biological parent families turn out much healthier than children raised in other family arrangements.

Spiritually speaking, God designed sex and heterosexual marriage to reproduce the image of God in a couple (Genesis 2) and to represent the union between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5).  Embracing other models of sexual fulfillment weakens or even obliterates the meaning that God has given to human sexuality, both contributing to and illustrating the “lostness” of fallen humanity apart from God.

Our problem is not just same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior.  Our problem is that Christians are moving toward adopting a non-Christian worldview of human sexuality.  All of the sexual morality issues fit together into a coherent whole.  Weakening one weakens them all.  It is past time for the church to regain its voice in teaching God’s design for human sexuality.

Transforming the World: Whose Job?

United Methodist Communications does some excellent work with church advertising, training courses for church leaders, and the Imagine No Malaria campaign.  I did a double-take, however, when I saw the cover of the new United Methodist Program Calendar.  It has the slogan: “Transforming the World for Christ.”

Antique_wallpapers_209This slogan is obviously a take-off from our church mission statement, “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.”  But that little preposition “for” on the cover makes me think that our communications are perhaps out of synch with our theology here.

“Making Disciples of Jesus Christ” was the mission statement that the 2000 General Conference adopted, based on Matthew 28:18-20.  This is the heart of the church’s mission, proclaiming the Gospel and inviting hearers to respond to the moving of the Holy Spirit by placing their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and beginning the lifelong walk of discipleship.  The goal is that each person realizes the full potential that God placed within them at their creation by being conformed to the likeness of Jesus (II Corinthians 3:18).  In becoming like Jesus through the transforming power of God, we don’t lose our individuality; rather, we fulfill God’s design for each of us in our uniqueness.

The subsequent addition of “for the Transformation of the World” came in 2008 to indicate that our personal discipleship was intended to have a world-changing impact.  As we, individually and corporately, are progressively transformed into the image of Christ, our communities will change as a result.  My colleague John Southwick has blogged about the impact of Christian revivals on communities in the U.S.  As people’s lives were transformed by coming to Christ, the community crime rate and delinquency rate dropped sharply.  Marriages were healed, and children were given a new healthier environment to grow up in.  People became more dedicated to education and hard work, which often meant that they prospered financially.  The jails emptied and the whole tenor of community life changed.

This individual community transformation is a dramatic illustration of the more gradual transformation that Methodism brought to England in the late 1700’s, as dedication to Christ and sanctification through discipleship transformed British life: declining alcohol abuse, protection from child labor and child abuse, and a rise in income level, to name only a few of the changes.

But some who emphasize social action have begun to equate “transforming the world” with discipleship.  In other words, we grow in discipleship by transforming the world.  Social action (feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, protesting injustice, reforming laws, housing the homeless, etc.) has been substituted for the personal transformation that Jesus Christ works in our lives through the means of grace (Bible study, worship, Holy Communion, prayer, fasting, etc.).  Few would ever say it this way, but it’s almost as if we ought to skip all the religious stuff and get straight to where the action is, out in the community helping people.

Instead of a transformed world being the result of our growth in discipleship to Jesus Christ, the transformation of the world has become the purpose of our discipleship.  We make disciples of Jesus Christ in order to change the world and make it a better place.  There are two problems with this shift from result to purpose, however.

First, seeing world transformation as the purpose of discipleship can lead us to see ourselves as failures in discipleship when the world is not transformed.  Were the Christians in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine failures as disciples of Jesus Christ, now that they have been marginalized, slaughtered, and exiled from those countries by a militant Muslim sector that has resorted to violence to get rid of the “infidels?”  Thriving Christian communities dating back 1,600 to 2,000 years have been decimated by conflicts and forces beyond their control, not because they have been lousy at making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Second, seeing world transformation as the purpose of discipleship can easily lead us to trust in our own human efforts to change the world, rather than allowing God to lead and empower us through his Holy Spirit.  Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ can too easily be measured in some people’s eyes by voting for a certain political party (regardless of which one) or advocating particular political agendas.  However, all political philosophies are imperfect and stand under God’s judgment.  Even when there is agreement in Christian principles, there may be legitimate differences of opinion as to the best means of achieving those principles.

The Program Calendar slogan, “Transforming the Word for Christ” (emphasis added), can be understood to take this danger a step farther.  Now it is we who are to transform the world on behalf of Christ.  It is our human efforts that will bring in the Kingdom/Reign of God.  But this slogan is asking us to do what we cannot do.  We believe that “we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [that is, acting in us first], that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will” (Articles of Religion, Article VIII—Of Free Will).  It is not possible for us to do good in the world (let alone change the world), without the grace and power of God giving us the will and the ability to do it.

Instead, we are called by our faith to pursue a life of faithful discipleship, being increasingly transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions.  We are called to proclaim the good news of God’s love and the offer of redemption through Jesus Christ to all, inviting those who respond to join us in that transformative life of discipleship.  In the process, we are called to partner with God to join him in the work he is doing of love, mercy, and justice in our communities and our world.  Empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can make a difference in our world and in the lives of people whom God touches through us.  But our world can only be transformed one life at a time, and we should never think that a transformed world can come through our human efforts alone.

Do you agree, or am I misrepresenting our Wesleyan doctrine?

Is the UMC Turning Around?

Inquiring minds want to know: Is The United Methodist Church starting to reverse its 45-year record of decline?  A recent report on church vitality in U.S. United Methodist Churches (UMNS story, Vital Congregations Report) found that the number of “highly vital” congregations has doubled from 2010 to 2012.  The report said that nearly 34 percent of all UM churches in the U.S. are “highly vital.”

I applaud the work of the vital congregations task force and the leaders in every annual conference who are working hard to try to help our denomination reverse its long decline.  Church revitalization is a difficult task.  Once a congregation begins to decline, it often takes extraordinary leadership to help it begin growing again.  And the longer the decline, the harder it is to reverse the trend.

I hope that the renewed emphasis on revitalizing churches is beginning to pay off.  Church revitalization measures growth in worship attendance, membership, and professions of faith.  It measures involvement in small groups for discipleship and raising the percentage of our members who attend worship.  It values the engagement of our members in mission and ministry outside the walls of the church building.  And it measures the giving of congregations to apportionments and to missions.  These areas are all important to the life of the church in making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me, however, that there are some reasons for caution in interpreting the report.

  1. The report states that there was an increase in the number of professions of faith, disciples in small groups, disciples engaged in mission, and disciples giving to mission.  It is just as likely that the reason for the increase is that churches are doing a better job of counting, especially in terms of small group and mission trip participation, since that is being emphasized by our denomination’s leadership.  The numbers may not be increasing, as much as we are counting better.
  2. The report points to the increase in mission giving as indicative that the other increases are genuine, as well.  However, the increase in giving is more likely due to the improving financial condition of churches due to the improving economy, rather than as a sign of heightened church vitality.  And mission giving is notoriously fluctuating.  A lot depends upon what world crisis stimulates giving in a certain year.  Years of events like the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina/Rita see massive increases in mission giving due to the events, not due to heightened church vitality.
  3. The measurements are a bit suspect because the percentage of “highly vital” congregations is nearly as high (and in some cases higher) than the percentage of churches showing one-year growth in attendance.

Jurisdiction

% Highly Vital

% One-year Growth

% Five-Year Growth

North Central

33.0%

32.4%

27.3%

Northeastern

34.7%

33.8%

26.8%

South Central

33.7%

36.2%

31.5%

Southeastern

33.0%

33.6%

32.3%

Western

40.1%

36.7%

29.3%

U.S. Total

33.9%

34.0%

29.8%

It seems illogical to have a “highly vital” church that is not growing.  Yet in at least the Northeast and the West, there are more “highly vital” churches than there are growing churches.  The problem becomes even more starkly clear when one looks at the five-year growth percentages.  These are the percentage of churches whose attendance in 2012 was higher than it was five years before in 2007.  In every jurisdiction, there are more “highly vital” churches than there are those whose attendance grew in the last five years—sometimes by quite a large margin.  That tells me our standard for “highly vital” is too low.  I would think that one basic criterion for a “highly vital” church is that it would show attendance growth over the previous five year period.

  1. That brings me to the biggest problem I have with how the vital congregations are classified.  As I have pointed out before, we are grading “on the curve.”  In order to be considered “highly vital,” a congregation must be in the top 25% of all churches in two categories and NOT in the bottom 25% in any category.  The increase in the number of “highly vital” congregations could be due to congregations who improved their performance in their worst areas, so that they were not disqualified by being in the bottom 25%.  This would certainly help the overall church picture, but it is not the same as saying that many more churches are doing great in their best areas.  Another factor in increasing the number of “highly vital” congregations could be that all the other churches are doing worse.  If everyone else is declining rapidly and you are just staying steady, your ranking will get higher.
  2. Increasing vitality is not being borne out by the attendance figures for 2013.  My colleague John Southwick has reported that worship attendance in 2013 is averaging much worse than in previous years.  In the 33 years from 1968 to 2001, worship attendance declined about .25% per year on average.  In the 11 years since 2001, the worship attendance decline has ballooned to 1.6% per year on average.  So far in 2013, the worship attendance decline is running 2.7%.  (Not all annual conferences have yet reported their numbers.)  It seems that if the rise in “highly vital” congregations were real in 2012, one would expect the attendance decline to get better, not worse in 2013.

There is obviously much more work to be done with regard to the vital congregations initiative.  We want to support that work wherever we can.  At the same time, while welcoming good news, it is too early to say that the denomination has turned a corner on church vitality.

What Does ‘Agree to Disagree’ Mean?

6a010536b2a56b970b0153928906b5970b-800wiThere has been a lot of talk lately about finding ways for United Methodists to coexist together in the same denomination despite deep divisions over how the church should minister to and with GLBTQ persons.  At the 2012 General Conference, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter famously put forth an amendment to our Social Principles that would have acknowledged that deep disagreement.

Evangelicals at the time had three main concerns with moving forward on the track set out by Hamilton and Slaughter.  First, the language used to describe the disagreement was heavily weighted in favor of the acceptance or affirmation of same-sex behavior.  A more even-handed resolution might have had a greater chance of passing.

Second, we don’t say that we “agree to disagree” about any other issue in the social principles.  Why would we state it for this issue and not for issues like abortion, immigration, or war?

Third, the step of “agreeing to disagree” was in most cases the first step taken by other mainline denominations on the road toward affirming the ordination of practicing homosexuals and same-sex marriage.  Evangelicals were concerned that taking this first step would ultimately lead the UM Church to change its position on the morality of same-sex behavior.

More recently, Hamilton and Slaughter have come out with a proposal for a “local option” that would allow annual conferences and local churches to vote to disregard denominational standards regarding ordination and marriage.  In their proposal, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church, the stance of the church toward same-sex behavior would remain as it is now, with annual conferences and congregations empowered to vote to disregard that stance.

This May, the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference passed a resolution entitled, “Agree to Disagree on Issues Pertaining to Gender and Sexual Minorities.”  The resolution reflects an evolution in the concept of “agree to disagree” that is important to note.

The resolution defines “agree to disagree” as:

  • “Support[ing] LGBT lay members who marry
  • “Refraining from filing complaints against pastors who perform marriages between gender and sexual minorities”
  • “Refraining from using [the conference’s] resources to investigate or enforce a ban on marriages between gender and sexual minorities, or for church trials, or for otherwise disciplining clergy that perform same-sex marriages
  • “Refraining from using [the conference’s] resources to investigate the gender or sexual orientation of a minister or candidate for ministry
  • “Refraining from using [the conference’s] resources to enforce a ban on the certification of an LGBT candidate for ministry, or the ban on ordination of an LGBT minister
  • “Put forth proposed changes to the Book of Discipline and Social Principles that permit matters concerning LGBT persons to be discerned by individual members, congregations, pastors, bishops, committees and conferences through Biblical obedience with the aid of the Holy Spirit and at the discretion of the individual members, pastors, congregations, bishops, conferences and committees
  • “Put forth proposed changes to the Book of Discipline and Social Principles that permit those that disagree with one another with respect to homosexuality and LGBT persons to remain inside the United Methodist Church connection, which will require, at a minimum, deletion of the excluding language in Social Principle 161F, eliminating the ban on same-sex marriages 341.6 and eliminating the ban on ordination of homosexuals or LGBT persons in ¶304.3 .”

In other words, according to this resolution, “agree to disagree” means to allow every person and entity in The United Methodist Church to make their own decision regarding the acceptability of same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.  It also means refusing to enforce the current standards on this issue in the Book of Discipline.  And it commits to strip out all language containing the traditional understanding of scriptural teaching on same-sex marriage and behavior from the Book of Discipline.

“Agree to disagree” for this annual conference has come to mean “agree with the progressive viewpoint on GLBTQ ministry.”  There is no accommodation or even acknowledgement in the resolution of the traditional understanding of Scripture and 2,000 years of church teaching, nor of the vast majority of Christian teaching around the world.

If this resolution were to become the stance of the church in the Book of Discipline, it would represent a complete 180 degree switch in the church’s teaching.  One can imagine that, in some annual conferences, tolerance for the traditional viewpoint would carry on for a little while.  But eventually, there would be no more “agree to disagree.”  Clergy and congregations alike would be forced to adopt the new viewpoint affirming the moral rightness of same-sex marriage and same-sex behavior.

See how quickly the concept of “agree to disagree” has evolved from

  1. A simple (though biased) statement that we disagree, to
  2. Leaving the church’s position the same, while allowing conferences and congregations to freely opt out of it, to
  3. Completely changing the church’s position

This is why evangelicals do not trust when some say that agreeing to disagree would allow us to maintain our moral standards.  We believe the fourth step on this evolutionary journey is to compel all United Methodist clergy and congregations to affirm the practice of homosexuality.  That’s why we don’t want to start down this road.  In my view, it would be better to agree to take separate roads right now, rather than walk down the “agree to disagree” road and find later on that we really can’t agree to disagree.

What do you think?