Archives for May 2017

This Conflict Is About the Bible

By Thomas Lambrecht

For 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been in conflict over how the church should be in ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons. From the very beginning of this conflict, evangelicals have maintained that the conflict represented deeper issues where the church is divided. One of those deeper issues is our view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

This deeper division is brought to the fore in a resolution that will be considered at the upcoming annual conference session in Upper New York. The resolution (see page 94), submitted by Kevin M. Nelson on behalf of Schenectady First UM Church, is entitled “Rebuke and Repudiation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.” Although in this brief blog I cannot address all the nuances of the theological issues raised by the resolution, I would like to take a look at how the resolution outlines the theological differences over Scripture in our denomination.

The resolution characterizes “one group in this crisis, evangelicals/orthodox/far right” as using “a faith paradigm that emphasizes Biblical literalism, seeing Jesus through a doctrinal lens and upholding a set of core beliefs.”

  • Tagging evangelicals and orthodox United Methodists as “far right” squashes legitimate discussion and dialogue. That kind of toxic labelling is especially unhelpful within our global denomination, since orthodox UMs uphold the beliefs enshrined in our denomination’s doctrinal standards. Identifying worldwide United Methodism as “far right” is irresponsible and incorrect. Instead, traditionalists hold to what Bishop Scott Jones calls the “radical center” of Christian faith.
  • The resolution says we “see Jesus through a doctrinal lens.” In actuality, both liberals and conservatives see Jesus through a “doctrinal lens.” We all do. Evangelicals would clarify that we see Jesus through the lens of Scripture, since the Bible is the most true and comprehensive revelation of who Jesus is and what he said and did.
  • Unapologetically, we do “uphold a set of core beliefs.” That is the purpose of the Nicene Creed and our own United Methodist doctrinal standards (the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Sermons, and his Notes on the New Testament). These are the things that Methodists believe. Contrary to the protests of some within the UM Church, it is not wrong to defend them. In fact, ordained clergy promise to “preach and maintain” the doctrines of The United Methodist Church (Discipline, ¶ 336.10). Ordained elders vow to accept the church’s “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” (Book of Worship, p. 676).
  • Phrases like “Biblical literalism” are not very helpful without specific verses in mind. A Scriptural-minded disciple reads the Bible searching for its intended meaning in its historical context and seeking to then apply that meaning in our lives today. As John Wesley said, we look for the “plain meaning” of Scripture. In other words, it is possible to look for the literal meaning of Scripture without being literalistic. If it is poetry, it should be understood as poetry. If it is metaphor or parable, it should be understood in those ways. But we cannot stretch the Bible to mean something it does not say, nor may we disregard the plain and consistent teaching of Scripture.
  • Evangelicals believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who worked through the human authors to create a unique and authoritative revelation of God. We believe the Bible is to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit, as well, using our reason and the guidance of Church tradition, with the embodiment of scriptural teaching in our human experience.

By contrast, the resolution characterizes “another group, progressives/liberals/reconciling United Methodists” as using “a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.”

  • If one is going to stick with using unhelpful characterizations, this perspective would logically be known as “far left.”
  • We are told that this second group views the Bible “as human products that are the result of historical processes.” Absent is any mention here of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or the uniquely authoritative place of Scripture. If the Bible is merely a human book, it can be read and analyzed like any other human book, accepting whatever parts of it one agrees with while rejecting the rest. This view in fact contradicts the Bible’s own view of itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed [or inspired by God] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17, NIV).
  • The “historical-critical analysis” that many progressives use to understand Scripture flows from their understanding of the Bible as a human book, put together by human authors and compilers over centuries of time. They attempt to dissect the scriptures and analyze them as to their sources and forms, even to the point of deciding what in the Bible is true or authentic and what is not. While evangelicals believe in using scholarly tools to aid our understanding of Scripture, we believe it is more important to look at the Bible as it is, as we have received it, and in the form in which the Church recognized it as inspired and authoritative.
  • According to the resolution, the progressive approach “views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning.” In fact, the metaphorical meaning can sometimes trump the literal meaning for those who take this approach. There are metaphors in Scripture, but it would be a mistake to take “much of the Bible” as metaphor. Such a view can often become a way to simply disregard the plain teaching of Scripture.
  • The resolution claims progressives “look to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.” That is all well and good, but it is not enough. The Bible points us to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world and the Author and Perfecter of our faith. We are called not simply to emulate the character of God, but to surrender ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live as his disciples, seeking to obey all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). The emulation of godly character comes about not through our efforts alone, but by the power of the Holy Spirit transforming us from the inside out.

Admittedly, the Upper New York resolution does not claim to be a detailed or comprehensive exposition of the two different perspectives on Scripture it addresses. But just from the brief statements that are outlined in the resolution, one can see that we hold very different views about the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The orthodox view is that we are under the Scripture’s authority, while many progressives view themselves as authorities over Scripture, qualified to determine which parts of Scripture are the inspired Word of God and which are not, free to discard biblical teachings that no longer seem relevant or in step with a modern world.

Of course, those who read Scripture from an evangelical/orthodox perspective do not believe that every verse of Scripture is to be applied to our lives today as a literal commandment. (Common examples include observing the food laws of the Old Testament or wearing clothes with mixed fibers.) Our “doctrinal lens” and “core beliefs” give us guidance here. Our Articles of Religion state, “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” (Article VI). There are objective principles of interpretation that guide us in how to apply the teachings of Scripture. And importantly, we do not have the same authority that Jesus and the apostles had to reinterpret Scripture or introduce new revelations from God, particularly if those revelations contradict the clear teaching of Scripture.

Can two such divergent theological approaches live together in one church? I would argue they cannot. There is no common ground to build on between them. One group appeals to Scripture, while the other group appeals to human reason and experience over Scripture. The two groups end up talking past each other. They sometimes use the same words, but usually with totally different meanings.

It is these two divergent theological approaches that have led to the two divergent understandings of human sexuality and marriage. One cannot divorce the one issue from the other. As we seek a way forward for our church, it is important to take into account the underlying theological approaches that drive us apart.

Responding to Misconceptions about the Bishops’ Commission

Members of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward at their March meeting in Atlanta, COWF

By Thomas Lambrecht

The Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church is now in its fifth month of work. We have had three face-to-face meetings and are preparing for a fourth in July.

Over these months, I have continued to hear criticisms of the Commission that stem from misunderstandings or myths about what the Commission was charged to do and/or what will finally result from the process. As a member of the Commission, I would like to speak to these misconceptions.

1.      The Commission is just another way to “kick the can down the road.” After 45 years of debate and dialogue, United Methodism continues to discern a consistent biblical teaching regarding marriage and sexuality. I share evangelical frustration that this seems to be a never-ending controversy. I also know progressives who are extremely frustrated the church has not moved toward officially allowing same-sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and in fact has moved toward tighter limits on these questions. And centrists often wonder aloud, “Can’t we just all get along?”

With some justification, people say: No matter what proposals have been presented at General Conference — from left, right, or center — the issue never gets resolved. Bishops have often failed to enforce the requirements of the Discipline and are perceived as trying to delay any resolution to the conflict. Church-wide studies and committees have failed to end the debate (e.g., 1988 and 1992). The 2012 and 2016 General Conferences were unable to even vote on legislation pertaining to this conflict. The promised called General Conference, originally set for 2018, was pushed back to 2019. So what confidence do we have that the Commission will actually bring a plan to resolve the impasse? Our track record suggests the Commission’s formation was just another way to “kick the can down the road.”

The Commission is indeed moving toward a solution. Its rough outlines are being worked on right now, as well as plans for how the proposal will be presented and interpreted to the church. This is not a quick process, since the proposal will need to gain the assent of a diverse church. (If there were a simple and easy solution, it would have been passed and implemented long ago!) Therefore, the task of creating such a proposal needed to be given to a small, representative group from across the connection so it could devise a broadly acceptable solution.

The Commission has built relationships of trust, defined the parameters of the challenge as well as the focus of a solution, consulted with experts, examined lessons of church history, learned from other mainline denominations that have experienced this conflict, heard about the unique contexts of ministry in the various central conferences outside the U.S., and surveyed at least nine different proposals various groups have made for resolving the impasse. All of this needed to happen before we could, in good faith, begin crafting a proposal for a way forward.

I remain confident the Commission will coalesce around a proposal that is broadly acceptable to the church. The Council of Bishops will act upon that proposal before submitting it to the 2019 General Conference. That conference has been called and preparations are being made for it. “Kicking the can” stops in St. Louis in February, 2019!

2.      The Commission is just a disguised way to bring back the “local option” or “third way” proposal. The idea that the church could “agree to disagree” on issues of ordination and marriage for LGBTQ+ persons and provide some sort of “local option,” where each local church or annual conference could decide for themselves, has been defeated at every General Conference since 2008. Significant segments of the church, both progressive and conservative, are adamantly opposed to a “local option.” Some outside the Commission have been promoting this option, and a few on the Commission may favor it, but they are in the minority. It is not a viable way forward.

The challenge we face is not geographical, but theological. Leaders and congregations in nearly every part of the global church (even in Africa) have varying opinions about whether marriage or ordination of LGBTQ+ persons is appropriate for the Christian church. A “local option” would still find disagreement within annual conferences that do or do not ordain LGBTQ+ persons that would offend the dissenters’ consciences. A congregational or clergy option regarding same-sex marriages would potentially pit congregations against pastors when they disagreed on its appropriateness, and it would certainly lead the church in a much more congregational direction when it comes to our polity.

In a recent blog, Dr. David Watson summarizes a trenchant critique of the “local option” when he calls it “incoherent” theologically. “If we are going to move to a ‘local option’ on homosexuality, we are saying that the General Conference cannot actually make reliable ethical decisions,” writes Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary. “If this is the case, we should move to a local option on all major ethical issues … At the end of the day, we as United Methodists are either a church or we are not. And if we are a church, then we are also a moral community. If we are not a church, but a loose association of churches, that is another matter altogether.”

A guiding principle of the Commission is to find a way forward that does not offend the consciences of anyone, whether progressive or traditionalist. No one will be forced to live within a body with which they cannot conscientiously agree. Therefore, the Commission is unlikely to endorse a “local option” plan.

3.      The Commission is a power play by the bishops and other church leaders to maintain the institutional status quo of the church. I have been encouraged to hear the discussions in the Commission revolve not just around the question of how the church ministers with LGBTQ+ persons, but about how the church can once again become effective in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I believe the Commission will present a way forward that sets the church free to reimagine how it can be effectively structured for the 21st century. The focus is not on institutional preservation, but missional effectiveness. We have brought back some of the learnings from the Call to Action report of 2008 to help inform our work. Our proposal will not simply be a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, but a search for a new way to do mission and ministry effectively.

4.      The Commission’s proposal will end up forcing people to compromise their principles for the sake of securing the financial future of the church. We are cognizant of, and continue to learn about, the financial realities facing the church. These include financially supporting the work of the church in Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe, providing for unfunded liability for clergy pensions, and the future of various boards and agencies. I feel confident in saying that, where possible, the Commission will opt for continuity and consistency, ensuring needed financial support for vital programs and ministries. At the same time, there is a sense in which providing for the financial needs of the present and future are just details. Major companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars work through these issues in mergers, spin-offs, and restructures all the time. These challenges can be solved. Far more important is finding a workable model of connection that allows principled and enthusiastic mission to go forward. We are confident we can do that in a way that will meet the financial needs our church faces.

5.      The Commission is structured in such a way as to create winners and losers. The Commission is stacked with persons who favor a more progressive or revisionist stance regarding ministry with LGBTQ+ persons. The Commission was structured to bring together people who are broadly representative of The United Methodist Church at large. It is not proportionally representative. (If it were, 40 percent of the membership of the Commission would be from Africa instead of the current 23 percent.) As long as there is representation from the major segments of the church (and there is), the Commission is well positioned to do its work.

Any proposal coming from the Commission has to have the support of all the major segments of the church in order to be adopted, since I presume it will require a change in the constitution. It needs to be supported by bishops, clergy, and laity. It needs to be supported by progressives, centrists, and traditionalists. And it needs to be supported by the U.S. church and the central conferences. It has to be a (relatively) consensus proposal, or it will not obtain the 2/3 majority vote needed at the 2019 General Conference and the subsequent 2/3 ratification by the members of annual conferences. 

The Commission members do not think in terms of “winners” and “losers.” The Commission is looking at how the church might be structured in the future to put an end to our infighting. In the past the debate has been which view – traditional or revisionist – was correct and should prevail. Fortunately, we’re not headed down that dead end road once again. We are looking toward a solution that puts an end to the fighting and creates a better future. We are working hard to craft a proposal that will enable all United Methodists to identify with a group in which they can feel at home, pursuing the mission of the church in a way consistent with their consciences and theological framework. Most of the other mainline denominations have degenerated into unholy fights over power and property, as they broke into pieces. Our goal is to find a different way, a Christ-honoring way, to respectfully and generously resolve the intractable divisions that beset our church. Thank you for your prayers as we seek to be faithful to this vision.

Bright Spots in a Confusing Decision

By Thomas Lambrecht

Last week’s decision by the Judicial Council regarding the election and consecration of an openly lesbian bishop in a same-sex marriage was very complicated and not entirely consistent. The Council strove to tailor its decision as narrowly as possible and delved into many legal technicalities. In the midst of all the complexity, it would be easy to lose sight of several positive aspects of the ruling.

1. The Judicial Council clearly and forcefully upheld the principle that a jurisdiction’s bishops, acting on behalf of the whole United Methodist Church, cannot legally consecrate as bishop a person who does not meet the qualifications for office. The Western Jurisdiction had maintained that it could elect and consecrate whoever it thought would be an appropriate bishop in light of their particular context, and that the rest of the church could say nothing about their choice. The ruling recognized that bishops are bishops of the whole church and that jurisdictional bishops are acting on behalf of the whole church when they consecrate a bishop. No jurisdiction or annual conference is completely autonomous. We are part of a connection that is responsible and accountable to each other.

2. The Judicial Council clarified that “a same-sex marriage license issued by competent civil authorities together with the clergy person’s status in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” This important ruling will put an end to games that some openly homosexual clergy have been playing by living in a same-sex marriage, yet declining to acknowledge that they are practicing homosexuals. Rather than requiring church authorities to ask intrusive questions about the personal lives and practices of clergy, all that is now necessary for a person to be brought up on a complaint is the public record of being in a same-sex marriage. The Judicial Council recognized that being in a marriage assumes a sexual relationship, and that it would then be up to the clergyperson under complaint to give “rebuttal evidence” during a complaint process to refute that assumption in an individual case. This should make it much easier and more straightforward to hold accountable some clergypersons who are living contrary to the moral teachings of the church.

3. This decision also puts the spotlight on the Western Jurisdiction to make a decision about the future of The United Methodist Church and its participation in that future. The jurisdiction will have to decide between equally unsatisfactory alternatives. Either it will have to remove from office (and from clergy status) a person that it unanimously supported as bishop, or it will have to openly acknowledge that it can no longer be part of The United Methodist Church as it is currently configured.

Judicial Council, UMNS

“This ruling really does nothing to resolve the tension and impatience and anxiety in our system. It’s not clear-cut enough,” Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, told the New York Times. “One of the tensions that will play out now within our denomination in the next few months is people will be watching carefully whether the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops will in fact follow through and do the due process, and do it well.”

The leadership of the jurisdiction may seek to draw out the process as long as they can, putting off that decision by as many as six months to a year. Delay tactics in themselves will send the message that the Western Jurisdiction wants to play by its own rules, unconnected from the rest of the church. But the time clock on the complaint process will run out long before the special General Conference in February 2019.

The jurisdictional leaders may seek some kind of “just resolution” that leaves Bishop Karen Oliveto in office. But unlike the cases of clergy performing same-sex marriages, there is no middle ground here to find compromise for a resolution. Either Oliveto meets the qualifications for continuing in her clergy status or she does not. And if she does not, the only option is to remove her as bishop and revoke her credentials. No 24-hour suspension consequence is available as a “just resolution.” The Western Jurisdiction’s decisions over the coming months will speak volumes about the ability of progressives and traditionalists to live together in the same church body.

As expected, the Judicial Council decision did not resolve the impasse in our denomination over the role of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. The only bodies with the authority to resolve the impasse are the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops, and the special General Conference. As I understand it, the Commission’s final plan needs to go to the Council of Bishops for approval in May 2018. The Council of Bishops then needs to submit it in legislative form by July 2018 in order to meet the deadlines for the February 2019 General Conference. So we will know a year from now the final proposal that will be put before the called General Conference. Until then, we encourage United Methodists to remain steadfast in prayer and continue as members of their local churches, so that the evangelical voice is undiminished in helping to form whatever comes next.