Archives for September 2015

Highlights from the New Room Conference

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

man with light bulb

I had the privilege to attend the second New Room Conference last week in Nashville. What a joy it was to be among 700 clergy and other leaders committed to the renewal of Methodism and Wesleyanism, both in The United Methodist Church and in some of our sister denominations. The fact that this year’s conference doubled the attendance at last year’s initial conference revealed the deep hunger of many leaders to be encouraged and equipped with a vital Wesleyan Christianity. J. D. Walt and the Seedbed team did an excellent job satisfying that hunger.

Here are a few things that I learned or that were reinforced for me.

Delivery or Development: Worship Vs. Discipleship

Mike Breen is an Anglican pastor and leader of 3D Movements, an “organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church” helping established churches and church planters move into a discipling and missional way of being church. He reminded that church is not just the delivery of an excellent worship experience, but also the development of disciples of Jesus Christ. The Acts 2 model of meeting in the Temple and in the home needs to be replicated in today’s church for it to regain its power. Breen maintained that the church of the past several decades had neglected the “home” dimension, with the result that many of our church members are disciples in name only.

Breen quoted research by sociologist Rodney Stark, who maintained that the strength of the early church was the “family” dimension of the faith, since the public spaces for large gatherings of Christians were often unsafe or closed to them. Early Christians engaged the discipleship process as extended families, including multiple generations, extended relatives, friends, and even house servants in a common body. Breen believes that young people today are re-creating these extended families by continuing to live in their parents’ homes into young adulthood. Christians ought to take advantage of the extended family to help people grow in discipleship as the family of God, creating family-like groups to fill the void.

When we try to disciple people in the public space (Sunday morning worship) it doesn’t make a lasting change in their lives. The formation of small groups and family-like groupings are designed to be a place of healing and transformation in discipleship. In a hostile culture, these small groupings will be the glue that holds the church together.

Breen was not disparaging excellent worship in the public space, only stating that it is not enough. Both worship and discipleship are necessary for a vital Christian faith.

Methodist/Wesleyan Identity

Andrew Thompson, formerly a professor at Memphis Theological Seminary and now pastor at a large church in Arkansas, focused on who we are, referring to John Wesley’s pamphlet, The Character of a Methodist. Thompson boldly stated that “there is no Methodist identity today. There is no positive characteristic that distinguishes Methodists.” He then expanded the question to: What is the character of a Wesleyan, in order to separate the question from denominational identities.

Thompson claimed that Wesleyans are evangelical in the classical sense, focused on four characteristics identified by historian David Bebbington:

  • Conversionism – the need for a transformed life
  • Activism – the need for effort in pursuing Christian discipleship (it doesn’t just drop on us out of the sky)
  • Biblicism – the need for submission to Scriptural authority in all that we do
  • Crucicentrism – a  focus on Christ’s death on the cross as an atonement for sins

But Thompson maintained that these aspects of doctrine are not enough to distinguish Wesleyans. He believes that Wesley’s full order of salvation by grace through faith needs to be included. Particularly, he focused on these points:

  • The universal need of every human for salvation from sin and death
  • The universal offer of prevenient grace to every human being, the free gift of God offered to all (as opposed to just the elect few)
  • The need for ongoing sanctification, both as a process and marked by occasional deep spiritual experiences, leading us to become more and more like Jesus in our everyday lives
  • The possibility and calling to become complete in Christ in this life – the goal of “going on to perfection”

It is these characteristics that distinguish us Wesleyans from other evangelicals and from persons with other theological perspectives (such as Calvinists and Universalists). The power of the Gospel is found in all of these characteristics, and the fact that many United Methodists have abandoned them explains the meager results and ongoing decline of our ministry. We therefore need to recapture and reconstitute our Wesleyan identity, which will not only empower our ministry, but unite our conflicted body.

Needing the Holy Spirit

Jo Ann Lyon, general superintendent (presiding bishop) of The Wesleyan Church, shared devotionally about the need for us to rely on the Holy Spirit. She reminded us that developing Christ-likeness requires the infusion of the Holy Spirit into our lives. God’s infused love expels sin and transforms both individuals and society. We cannot manufacture transformation through programs or rules. Instead, we are to seek and welcome the presence and power of the Holy Spirit into our daily lives and experience his transformation in us.

Back to Egypt?

Lisa Yebuah, a United Methodist planting a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, spoke powerfully from Exodus 16 about resisting the temptation to go back to the familiarity of “Egypt” when change becomes too difficult. In the hunger and uncertainty of transition to the new thing God is calling us to do in ministry, we forget about the problems of the past and romanticize our “Egypt.” Instead of going back, Yebuah called us to turn toward the wilderness journey God has for us, for there we will see the glory of the Lord. It is in the wilderness, Yebuah reminded us, where God provides holy food in difficult places (the manna and the quail). Our problem is that often fail to see God’s provision for what it is and instead long for the food of captivity to our past.

This great conference was encouraging and uplifting for the many attendees. Four United Methodist bishops were there attending—the first time I have seen bishops up close in this kind of learning role! Many young clergy were present and many pastors went home encouraged and inspired to carry on in Christ’s ministry with renewed vigor. The next New Room Conference will take place September 21-23, 2016, in Franklin, Tennessee. I would highly recommend it for clergy and lay leaders alike.

A Saga in Legalism

Discipline passageBy Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

United Methodism was launched into a tizzy by the dustup that erupted last weekend over the supposed “excommunication” of Ginny Mikita. Mikita was a lay member of a congregation in Michigan who was a candidate for ordained ministry in the West Michigan Annual Conference. In July,  Mikita obtained an online ordination from the Universal Life Church in order to help perform the wedding of the Rev. Benjamin Hutchison to another man. Hutchison had been serving as pastor of a United Methodist congregation, but was forced to resign when a complaint was filed against him for being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” since serving in this capacity is prohibited by denominational policy.

The case took a surprising twist over the weekend, when it became public that three ordained elders had written to the West Michigan committee on ordained ministry to request that Mikita be discontinued from the process toward ordination. Possibly as a result of that letter, Mikita was discontinued and also removed from membership in her local church. Why? Because by receiving ordination from the Universal Life Church, Mikita had joined that denomination, thereby forfeiting her membership as a United Methodist. (The United Methodist Church does not allow dual membership.)

The Reconciling Ministries Network issued a statement deploring Mikita’s removal. Blogger Eric Folkerth weighed in with arguments that Mikita’s removal was illegitimate and uncalled for. I would like to respond to several points raised by opponents of Mikita’s removal.

1. Mikita was “excommunicated.”

“Excommunicated” means “depriving a person of the rights of church membership,” most notably the right to receive Holy Communion. Since The United Methodist Church has open communion, as far as I know, Mikita has not been denied the right to receive communion. Furthermore, Mikita’s membership in the UM Church was not removed by others; she herself removed her membership by transferring into the Universal Life Church.

Ironically, Mikita issued a statement that “membership, as we stress in The UMC, is not simply about signing up and calling one’s self a member. It has meaning. My membership in The UMC represented my sacred and holy commitment, made by public profession of faith during worship.” Yet Mikita evidently thought so little of church membership that she could fill out an online form with no commitment to the Universal Life Church in order to be not just a member, but an ordained clergyperson in that denomination. To her, that ordination was evidently just a matter of some paperwork, filling out forms. It would not jeopardize her “real” membership in the UM Church. One cannot have it both ways. Membership cannot have real meaning and commitment in one context, yet so little meaning and commitment in another.

2. Mikita’s pastor should have kept her on as a member, since the “local church pastor has sole discretion as to whether or [not] someone may join the church.”

Joining the church and leaving the church are two different things. Under the Judicial Council ruling, the pastor has discretion to “make the determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership” (Decision 1032). Presumably, the pastor could receive Mikita again as a member of the local church, should she renounce her membership in the Universal Life Church. But the pastor does not have the power to keep her on as a member of the local UM congregation while she is a member of another denomination.

Our Book of Discipline states, “if a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter ‘Withdrawn’ after the person’s name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference” (BOD, ¶ 241). The pastor had no choice, when confronted with the public information in the newspapers that Mikita had been ordained elsewhere, but to record her as withdrawn from membership.

In terms of Mikita’s candidacy for ordained ministry, the Book of Discipline states, “Certified candidates may be discontinued on their own request, upon severing their relationship with The United Methodist Church, or upon action to discontinue by the district committee on ordained ministry” (BOD, ¶ 314.1). Clearly, Mikita had severed her relationship with the UM Church by being ordained in the ULC. In order to be a candidate for ordained ministry, one of the qualifications is that they be a professing member in good standing for a minimum of one year (BOD, ¶ 310.1a). Again, Mikita was no longer in good standing as a professing member. She could be readmitted into candidacy, but she would have to start over, which would mean rejoining her local church and waiting for one year.

3. Mikita took this action to become ordained and perform the wedding of her friend, Benjamin Hutchison, “in order to ‘protect’ United Methodist clergy friends, from the allegation that they performed a same sex wedding.”

In one sense, one can respect Mikita’s desire to take the fall for breaking church law in order to prevent her clergy friends from experiencing consequences for doing so. However, there was certainly no shortage of UM clergy willing and eager to do the service. Over 30 UM clergy attended the service, and nine UM clergy shared in officiating the service, with two signing the license (the maximum number allowed on the form). Mikita intentionally jeopardized her possibility of being ordained, but did not end up protecting anyone, since others have now received complaints filed against them.

According to the Reconciling Ministries statement, Mikita felt compelled to participate “as an expression of her commitment to Rev. Hutchison, her longtime friend.” A UM News Service article reports that Mikita “knew that by officiating at a same-sex wedding, she was putting her clergy candidacy at risk but she said her love for her friend, the Rev. Hutchison, made it worth the risk.” In other words, she entered into this situation knowingly and willing to risk her standing in the church. She could have supported her friend merely by attending the wedding without jeopardizing her status. Only one signature was required on the marriage license, yet she chose to add hers. This was not simply an act of compassionate friendship, but a deliberate act of advocacy contrary to United Methodist doctrine and discipline.

4. Observing the letter of the law legalistically in this case was unfair to Mikita and did her an injustice.

I have some sympathy for the fact that Mikita was probably unaware of the potential consequences of her getting ordained online in order to preside at a same-sex wedding. However, ignorance of the law is no defense. This issue came up in 1993 when an ordained elder in North Texas became a lay member of the Roman Catholic Church. The Judicial Council ruled in Decision 696 that when the elder joined the Catholic Church, his membership (and clergy credentials) in The United Methodist Church were automatically terminated. The question of online ordinations was addressed as recently as 2013 by a blog post by Bishop Peggy A. Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania as “not in any way condoned by the United Methodist Church.”

The deeper issue here is the reason Mikita obtained online ordination, which was to violate the provisions of the Book of Discipline prohibiting same-sex unions or weddings. It does not seem just to allow a member of The United Methodist Church—a member seeking to become an ordained clergy—to resort to cheap legal tricks to circumvent the policies of the church. The church has no obligation to facilitate its members violating their covenant of membership.

Blogger Eric Folkerth states, “The final observation is that we are in a time of excessive legalism and law-following. Ginny felt forced into an online ordination, in an attempt to follow the UM rules regarding same sex marriage.” That is patently not true. Mikita obtained online ordination not in an attempt to follow UM rules, but to circumvent them.

Folkerth continues, “Our current polity is forcing people on all sides into gymnastic contortions. Not because they don’t respect our polity, but precisely because they do.” Again, that is not true. Progressives are looking for every possible legal loophole in order to disobey the stated position of The United Methodist Church that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” If everyone in the church were willing to abide by this position (until and unless it is changed by General Conference), there would be no need for legalism or “gymnastic contortions.”

It is time to name the intentional and public disregard for United Methodist policies for what it is: an attempt by the force of rebellion to pressure the General Conference into changing our moral teaching on sexuality and marriage. Those who cannot abide by United Methodist doctrine and discipline (as they promised) should have the integrity to withdraw from the church. Those who carry out such intentional disobedience have already caused schism in the church.

Church Politics: An Oxymoron?

No Politics

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

What does it mean to be a church? I have often heard that Methodism (dating back to Wesley’s time) has an underdeveloped or confused ecclesiology (a fancy word for a theology of church). We don’t know whether we are a church or a movement. We are uncomfortable with church discipline and canon law, which go along with what it means to be a church. At the same time, we are more than a movement, since we offer the full range of experiences that a church would offer, including the sacraments.

One of the places where this confusion costs us is in understanding how we are to function as a church in deciding controversial questions. Since our church is structured like a democratic political entity—complete with legislative, executive, and judicial branches—we tend to make decisions and handle controversies like a political entity. This is true across the theological spectrum—left, right, and center.

Some point to Acts 15 as a model based on how the early church handled a controversial issue. There was theological reasoning, the testimony of leaders, and biblical study. The leaders reached an agreement that honored the tradition of the church (the teachings of Moses in every city), while making room for the new revelation of God (that Gentiles need not be circumcised or keep the whole law of Moses).

The bottom line for the church in Acts 15 was to understand what God’s will was and live in obedience to it. It is striking that their letter to the church states, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …”

Some progressives see the Acts 15 approach as a model for how the church today can change its position on same-sex marriage and homosexuality. But it is important to note not only the similarities, but the differences in the two situations.

1.  We are not the apostles, nor do we have apostolic authority. The New Testament is full of new revelations from God: the nature of Jesus as God’s Son and fully human, Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation, the suspension of the kosher food laws, and many more. These new revelations were accepted by the early church based on the authority of Jesus and the first apostles. It is worth noting that one of the qualifications for a book to be received as part of the New Testament was that it evidenced the authority, if not the authorship, of one of the apostles.

We do not have this same authority today. The closing of the canon (“measuring stick”) of Scripture means that we cannot receive a new revelation today that contradicts or changes the teachings found in Scripture. (We state this in our doctrinal standards: Articles of Religion, Art. V and VI; Confession of Faith, Art. IV.) When some say that we can have a “new understanding” or a “new revelation” of moral standards related to sexuality and marriage that contradict the teaching of Scripture, that new teaching is not to be accepted. We are not the apostles.

2.  There was one Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, not ten. When the leaders had considered the question of the place of Gentiles in the church, they made a decision that everyone then accepted. “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with … the following letter” (Acts 15:22-23). The whole church embraced the decision and lived by it. True, there remained dissenters, probably for another forty years, but this controversy was never again considered by the leaders of the church in council.

By contrast, those who disagreed with The United Methodist Church’s decision in 1972 to reiterate the biblical principle that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” have never stopped trying to change that decision. Every four years—for ten General Conferences—that question has vexed the body. And every four years, the General Conference has reiterated its original finding that the biblical principle still stands. By refusing to accept the church’s decision and continually agitating for change, proponents of same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior are treating the church like a political entity that is strictly subject to majority rule, rather than a spiritual entity through which the will of God is discerned.

3.  Finally, we treat the church as a political entity when we believe we ought to change the church’s teaching through demonstrations and pressure tactics. Particularly illuminating was a keynote speech at the recent “Gathering at the River Conference,” sponsored in San Antonio by the Reconciling Ministries Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action. As reported by Katy Kiser, the Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, a prominent lesbian activist who nevertheless continues to serve as a United Methodist pastor, stated, “The Civil Rights movement taught us to put pressure on the institution until it had no choice but to change.” She went on to threaten, “We are coming for the Institution, and like a mighty river, we will sweep it away with the might of our love.”

This resort to pressure tactics went over the top with a recent call for more “martyrs” to push for approval of same-sex marriage. The Rev. Michael Tupper believes that if ten pastors were willing to perform same-sex marriages, go through a trial, and lose their credentials, the church would be forced to change.

When the Jerusalem Council met, they trusted the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles and elders to the right decision. They would not be able to fathom a situation like ours today, where church teaching is determined by who can apply the most political pressure to the body. There are those who would rather see the church torn apart than allow it to continue in what they consider to be “error” or false teaching on sexuality.

Our confused understanding of what it means to be a church is allowing us to destroy our church today. By treating it like a political entity, we succumb to the temptations of secular politics and engage each other with tactics borrowed from our polarized culture.

Instead, we are called to implement the words of Paul, or we will suffer the consequences he warned about. “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:13-15).

How can we practically change our approach to this controversial question?

First, submit to the will of the body. Yes, we should be free to continue making our case on either side of the question. But in the meantime, we are called to abide by the decision of General Conference on this matter. The refusal to submit to the will of the body puts the unity of the body in grave jeopardy. Acting intentionally contrary to the will of the body is to introduce schism into the church. Those who cannot in good conscience submit to the will of the body ought to be graciously released with our blessing.

Second, renounce coercion. It is ironic that many who take a more pacifist approach to questions of war and conflict at the same time favor the use of non-violent coercion. Force is force, whether at the point of a gun or at the mercy of mob disruption. The church leaders should not be making decisions based on pressure or coercion on the part of a subgroup of the church. That is the antithesis of “holy conferencing” and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Our denomination is nearing the point of self-destruction. Because we increasingly engage the controversy via secular political tactics, we wander farther and farther from the pathway of spiritual unity. It’s time to reclaim what it means to be a church. And the only way to do that might be to start over.