Archives for March 2015

A Moment of Community Hysteria

Crowd-Silhouettes“Community hysteria” is a term to describe overblown responses to instances of policies or actions that contradict the communities’ sensibilities.

One example is the World Vision decision to allow future employees to live in a monogamous, same-sex marriage, if allowed by their denomination.  The response was overwhelming and immediate, with over 10,000 donors rescinding their child sponsorships.  The result was that in less than a week, World Vision had cancelled their change in policy.

Another example is the president of Gordon College in Massachusetts signing a private letter to Congressional leaders requesting that religious beliefs around marriage be respected in the event that same-sex marriage becomes legalized.  There was an immediate firestorm on the part of the liberal media, led by the Boston Globe and various commentators calling on Gordon College to abandon its traditional Christian beliefs and affirm the practice of homosexuality.  Nine months later, Gordon is still dealing with this controversy.

Most recently, community hysteria is evident around the law passed in Indiana last week that instituted religious protections for that state’s citizens.  Immediately, businesses began talking of leaving the state and the NCAA threatened to cancel all future events in the state (such as the national men’s college basketball championship that will be played in Indianapolis this weekend).

Community hysteria is characterized by:

  • Failure to ascertain or understand crucial facts about the situation
  • An almost immediate response, with no attempt to dialog with the “offending” party or understand their perspective and motivation
  • A hysterical level of rhetoric that is shrill, shouting (literally or via written language), inflammatory, and threatening
  • Commitment to an ideological agenda that supersedes all other considerations

Friends, this is not how Christians ought to act, whether we are conservative or progressive.  And Christians all across the ideological spectrum are occasionally guilty of this type of hysterical response.  Instead, we are called to treat one another with respect, considering others better than ourselves, giving attention to the needs of others, and treating others as we would like to be treated.

I have learned over the years that, whether we are dealing with a squabble among church members or the latest action of the Connectional Table, it is important to understand the facts of the situation.  The facts will often be not as people portray them.

In Indiana’s case, some are charging that the new law legalizes discrimination and returns to a Jim Crow era of how people treat one another.  It actually does nothing of the kind.  Instead, it sets a high bar for situations under which an individual’s religious freedom can be burdened or abridged by the state.  This protection is available to persons of all religious faiths and is an important brick in the wall defending religious freedom for all of us.  Some 30 states now have this protection in one form or another, in addition to that given by the similar federal law.  (See more detailed analysis HERE and HERE).

It is important to understand the motivation behind such laws.  When people see the courts imposing the community’s beliefs in opposition to an individual’s religious faith, people get worried.  They see government trying to mandate things like private employers paying for abortions or contraception against their religious faith.  A recent Supreme Court case ruled that a Muslim serving time in prison would be allowed to grow a short beard (1/2”) to keep the demands of his religious faith.  (The state had outlawed all beards on prisoners.)  That decision was only possible because of the federal religious freedom law, similar to the one Indiana just passed.

The Indiana law and the response to it lend themselves to the “culture wars” label.  It sometimes seems as if some who oppose religious beliefs or who are promoting the affirmation and acceptance of homosexuality are taking an all or nothing, take no prisoners approach.  Anyone with a different opinion is vilified and run over.  In a pluralistic society, that approach is a recipe for disaster.  It gives license to intimidation tactics and the loss of freedom, as well as giving the government the power to bully people into denying their faith in order to simply get along in the society.  That is not the founding vision of the United States.  (In fact, the first colonists came to America to get away from such government oppression, often due to religious differences.)

As Christians, we ought to try to lead the public discourse by understanding the facts and motivations of the people involved, refraining from personal attacks on others, and accommodating and allowing different opinions and perspectives.  Although we, as Christians, would like to see our society adopt Christian moral answers to the problems that beset our country, we are not a Christian country and cannot expect everyone to agree with Christian principles.  We ought to vigorously but winsomely speak in favor of Christian approaches (as best we can apply them in each situation), but we cannot force others to adopt our perspective.  At the same time, we must stand for the right of Christians to have our faith perspective and freely be able to not only speak it, but live it out.

We must not give ourselves over to hysteria in the public square.  That is the way bad decisions and policies get made.

Traveling through the Wilderness

wildernessAt our board meeting last week, Good News president Rob Renfroe used the metaphor of “wilderness” to describe where we often are, both personally and as a church.  This metaphor struck me as a perfect way to depict our “wandering” denominationally over the past 40+ years.

We are experiencing hardship, longing for “the good old days” (like the Israelites wanting to go back to Egypt), uncertainty about where we are headed (where is the church’s Promised Land, anyway?), and fear about whether we would have enough provisions for the journey (surely God is not able to feed this multitude — are we going to run out of money?).  We’ve had leadership struggles (just as Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses), and we’ve had outright rebellions (like Nadab and Abihu).

What we don’t have is a Moses, who speaks with God face-to-face.  And we don’t have the cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night to lead us on our journey through the wilderness.  There is fundamental disagreement about where we, The United Methodist Church, ought to be heading.  Some see the Promised Land as a land of liberation from what they consider to be sexual discrimination.  Others see the Promised Land as a recovery and strengthening of the foundational doctrines of the church regarding marriage and sexuality.

What helps in the wilderness is to travel together, so that people are safe from the wild animals and are able to find food and water.  But if we disagree about which way to go, we are in trouble.  Every step we take on the journey to one destination is a step away from the opposite destination.  The farther we go, the more heated the disagreement becomes about which is the right direction to travel.  One group is committed to go to Destination A, while another group is committed to Destination B.  And then there are a bunch of people in the middle who don’t know which way would be best, but just want to make sure we travel together so they are safe.

What makes the situation even more difficult is that Group A believes they have heard a word from the Lord about the new truths and interpretations that God is revealing to them.  At the same time, Group B believes the Lord’s word is clear in Scripture and the tradition of the church to guide their journey.  Group A thinks Group B is being stubborn (like the Israelites) in failing to acknowledge that God is doing a new thing.  Group B thinks that Group A is being unfaithful to God’s revelation, even to the point of embracing false teaching (like the Israelites making the golden calf).  And all the while, the grumbling, complaining, and bickering continues to escalate, tearing apart the people of God.

What is a church to do?  There is no referee to settle the dispute.  The bishops, who could provide the clear leadership of a Moses, are themselves divided into Group A and Group B.  The way that our church is set up, determining questions like this through majority vote, has broken down.  Those in the minority are failing to honor the decisions of the majority.  There seems to be no way available to us to determine with any clarity a universal direction for the church.

Haven’t we been in the wilderness long enough?  Even the Israelites only had to endure it for forty years!  In the absence of any agreed-upon method of resolving the conflict, isn’t it time to simply acknowledge that we can no longer travel together?  Both groups are saying they can no longer travel toward the other group’s destination.  Both groups are digging in their heels and saying, “We can go no farther.”  So the church is stuck in place, prevented from moving forward in any direction.

Abraham and Lot experienced this situation in Genesis 13.  It says that “the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together.”  Furthermore, “quarreling arose between” Abraham’s and Lot’s herdsmen.  “So Abraham said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.’”  So they determined to separate from each other, with Lot going one way and Abraham the other.

As brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, is it not time to end our quarreling and disagreements?  Would it not be healthier for all if we separated from one another?  Each group can go its own way, following the mission and vision as they feel led to do, so that no one’s conscience is violated.  There would be no more coercion, but each person and congregation could freely choose the destination they want to travel toward.

Under that scenario, all current United Methodists would not end up at the same destination.  We would no longer be traveling together.  But at least we would have a chance to reach some destination, being freed from our immobilizing “stuckness.”  Both groups would have the opportunity to build ministry based on their beliefs, and they would have a chance to thrive, rather than continuing to engage in our current debilitating conflict.

Traveling through the wilderness doesn’t have to last forever.

Standing with the Persecuted Church

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Photo: Iraqi Christian Relief Council

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a meeting on religious persecution that had some excellent speakers who outlined the current situation in the Middle East.  Most people are aware of the ISIS public execution of Christians, like the beheading of the 21 Egyptian martyrs who were Coptic Christians.  But we are not as aware of the ongoing, everyday persecution of Christians in many parts of the Middle East.

Of course, in countries like Saudi Arabia (one of our supposed allies) it is impossible to carry on any kind of open Christian life or witness.  Bibles are forbidden; sharing the gospel is forbidden; and conversion to Christianity is punishable by death.  The only real Christians who exist somewhat openly in those 100 percent Muslim countries are immigrants from other countries (like Americans working in the oil fields or Filipinos working as laborers).

But in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Palestine (both Israel and the occupied territories), Christians are persecuted daily.  One story came out about a man in Iraq whose wife had breast cancer.  She was receiving treatment at a nearby hospital.  When ISIS invaded and took over the area, they refused his wife any treatments unless they converted to Islam.  They refused to convert, and the wife died of her cancer.

This episode illustrates how one speaker defined persecution.  He said persecution is the “systematic, egregious, and ongoing elimination of a faith.”  ISIS in particular, but also many more moderate Islamic sects are attempting to eliminate Christianity from their region.  Fifteen years ago, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq.  Today there are only 300,000.  There are very few Christian churches in the Arab parts of Palestine.  What a tragedy it would be if there ended up being no active Christian congregations in the land where Christianity was born!

In Arab parts of Israel, Christians are being forced out by not being able to have churches.  The houses are so small that they cannot hold very many people, so some type of building is important to provide a gathering place for Christian worship and education.  One speaker told of being the pastor of one of the few Christian churches in Arab Jerusalem.  When the church rents a building, the community leaders complain to the landlord, and the landlord eventually evicts the church.  This particular congregation had gone through a number of different locations, always being evicted, and had experienced many months without having a building to meet in.  It is very difficult to hold a church together that cannot meet regularly for worship and prayer.  Just recently, however, God worked a miracle in providing a donated building for the church to meet in, so the congregation will be able to stay in that community.  But this is an example of the type of daily harassment that many Arab Christians experience.

Wherever ISIS has taken control, they have given Christians an ultimatum.  Often, they give four options: 1) convert to Islam, 2) pay a special tax, 3) flee the area, or 4) die.  Most Christians opt for the third option, which means that they end up becoming refugees.  One of the speakers told about a village where ISIS came in and forced all the Christians to leave.  They came in the middle of the night and did not allow the Christians even to get dressed, let alone take any belongings with them.  People who were once businesspeople, doctors, or teachers now find themselves with no job, no money, and no belongings.  They were essentially allowed to leave only with the clothes on their backs (in this case, pajamas).  Even their cars were confiscated at the border.

This is the plight of refugees, many of them Christians, in Turkey, Jordan, and inside Iraq.  They are living in tents or empty buildings with no heat, completely dependent upon others for food and clothing.  I cannot imagine what it would be like for my wife and me to be thrown out of our house with nothing in the middle of winter and no place to stay or way to earn a living.  Apart from the physical hardship, the emotional trauma must be devastating.

I got a chance to meet Juliana Taimoorazy, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Iraq.  She is an Assyrian Christian.  (I never knew there was such a people group.)  The Assyrians are descended from the nation that conquered the Middle East in 700 B.C.  They speak Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus spoke.  After Assyria was conquered by Babylon in 600 B.C., the Assyrians shrank to a small people group living in what is now Iraq.  When the apostle Thomas passed through the area on his way to India in the first century, the Assyrians accepted Christ and became Christians.  They have lived as Christians for almost 2,000 years in what is now Iraq.  But they are being systematically forced out and killed by ISIS and by other Muslim extremists in Iraq.

If you would like to help with the needs of Christian refugees in Iraq, you can check out the website of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.  Please pray for our brothers and sisters who are in such dire straits.  We can also advocate on their behalf with our members of Congress and Senators, along with the President.  Unfortunately, many Christian refugees who try to come to the U.S. are denied entry, and U.S. foreign aid is not reaching the people in most need.  It is important for us to be aware and stand with our fellow Christians who are in no position to speak for themselves.

Conversation or Propaganda?

Stack of Stones 590x332Since spring of 2011, The United Methodist Church has witnessed a concerted campaign by activists supported by much of the leadership of our denomination to change the church’s position on marriage and sexuality.  Looking back, one can see the progression and discern the behind-the-scenes collusion that must have fostered this campaign.

Openly homosexual clergy have discovered that, if they refuse to identify themselves verbally as “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” they cannot be removed from ministry, even though they are “married” or are living in a partnered relationship with a person of the same gender.  The Discipline has essentially become unenforceable in prohibiting the ordination or appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy.

In at least 16 annual conferences, bishops have found that they can “resolve” complaints against clergy who officiate at same-sex marriages simply by agreeing to a structured “conversation” in the annual conference about the issue of homosexuality.  The offending clergy are not required to acknowledge violating the Discipline, repent of that violation, or commit not to repeat that violation.  They suffer no consequences for breaking the Discipline.  In these annual conferences, the Discipline has essentially become unenforceable in prohibiting clergy from presiding at same-sex unions or weddings.

Bishops are now sending out letters to their clergy instructing them as to what actions they can do to support the same-sex marriages of their parishioners without running afoul of the Discipline.  These permissible actions include participating in the service itself, as long as they do not administer the vows or sign the marriage license.  These bishops are essentially undercutting the teaching of the church regarding same-sex marriage by finding ways to communicate the church’s support for a relationship that the church at the same time prohibits and finds contrary to Christian teaching.  Even bishops in the “Bible belt” are beginning to call on their clergy to change the position of the church.

The Connectional Table, United Methodism’s missional coordinating agency, allowed its agenda to be hijacked by activists who disrupted their meeting.  Besides granting extensive time for dialogue in that meeting with activists (without any representation of those upholding the church’s position), the CT committed to hosting three forums on the issue.  These forums have taken place, and there was almost no representation from those who advocate for the church’s position.  The only outspoken advocate for the church’s current position was an African, making it seem like only Africans support the church’s position.  The forums that were supposed to be an opportunity for fair “conversation” instead were grossly unbalanced in favor of only one point of view.

After only one of the three forums, the Connectional Table already decided that it wants to submit legislation to General Conference removing all prohibitions against homosexual behavior from the Discipline.  At its February meeting in Mozambique, the CT refined their strategy to a so-called “third way” approach that legalizes same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the church for those who want such, while acknowledging that the church’s current biblical position is “historical” (meaning no longer relevant for today).  This group does not fairly represent the global nature of United Methodism.

Since the “Denver 15” in 1996, groups of progressive bishops have spoken publicly to advocate overturning the church’s position on homosexuality.  They continued to do so as recently as 2012.  Yet no group of conservative bishops has ever spoken out in defense of the church’s biblical position.  At its November 2014 meeting, the Council of Bishops declined to even publicly acknowledge that they had received a call from over 8,500 United Methodists representing prominent large churches and respected theologians to defend the church’s position.  The Council of Bishops does not fairly represent or lead the global United Methodist Church on this divisive issue.  Instead, it has been diverted to champion a progressive agenda.

The latest example of this concerted push by our denominational leaders to affirm the practice of homosexuality comes in the form of the spring edition of the Circuit Rider magazine.  The issue is entitled “Sacred Trust and the Divide over Same-Gender Marriage.”  Unfortunately, of the nine articles that address this issue, none defends the church’s position.  More than half the articles are written by advocates for same-gender marriage, while the rest portray a “neutral” position that advocates for unity and the ability of everyone to live by their conscience (a position adopted in Adam Hamilton’s “Way Forward” and embraced by the Connectional Table in their latest legislative proposal).  Again, there is a one-sided message being communicated.

Interestingly, in his Circuit Rider article the late Bishop Reuben Job advocates that we “immediately stop the propaganda.”  Propaganda is defined as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.”  It is natural that advocates on both sides of the homosexuality debate will speak to further their cause.  What I find disheartening is that our general church leaders have seemingly come to the point where they are also unashamed advocates for affirming same-sex behavior.  And this advocacy directly contradicts the consistent teaching of the church as adopted by ten General Conferences over forty years.  The body that sets official policy for The United Methodist Church has become powerless to expect its leaders to advocate for and enforce that policy.

What makes this particularly galling is that, in midst of propagandizing for the acceptance of same-sex behavior, our leaders are simultaneously calling for “more conversation.”  But conversation is not what they are facilitating.  They want to set up “conversations” so that they can give us their propaganda and convince us that we are wrong.  There is no sense that they want to listen and learn from us or are open to changing their mind about homosexuality.  Conversation has become a strategy to push forward their agenda.

Evangelicals have always been willing to engage in conversation.  What we will not support is the open propaganda by leaders of our church that is contrary to our church’s teaching.

If our leaders believe they must advocate for the progressive “side” in this debate, and if they are unwilling to provide an equal playing field for those who represent 2,000 years of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality to voice our views, then we call upon them to provide a way for conservatives and evangelicals to live by our consciences.  Whether this way involves the creation of a jurisdictional separation or the ability of congregations to leave the denomination with their property, some such way must be found.  I am afraid, however, that many will consider evangelical consciences much less worthy of protection than progressive ones.