Archives for August 2018

Is the One Church Plan Unconstitutional?

The process of formulating and releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward has been a long and winding road with unpredictable turns and unexpected surprises. Now that the report has been released in four translations, one foreseeable wild card in the process remains. This October, the Judicial Council has been asked to determine the constitutionality and legality of the three plans submitted by the Commission.

The Constitution is the document that sets forth the governing principles of our church. No legislation may be passed or implemented that goes contrary to our Constitution. Proposals (like the Connectional Conference Plan) that want to enact structures or processes that go against the Constitution must pass amendments to the Constitution in order to be legal. That is why the Connectional Conference Plan has nine constitutional amendments. That is the only way that plan could be enacted, since it makes some rather dramatic changes to the church’s structure and governing processes.

Both the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan claim to not need any constitutional amendments in order to pass. In other words, both claim to be congruent with the requirements of our Constitution. That is a selling point because, rather than needing a two-thirds vote to pass, these plans would only need a simple majority. And neither would need to be ratified by the annual conferences in order to be implemented.

Over the past two weeks, as many as twenty different people – plus two larger groups – have weighed in with legal arguments over the constitutionality and legality of the three plans. As the designated defender of the Traditional Plan before the Judicial Council at its upcoming meeting in October, I submitted a regular brief and a reply brief to the Council.

There were a number of persons who argued that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional, despite the claims of the plan’s authors that no constitutional amendments would be required. What are the important issues they have raised?

  1. The One Church Plan unlawfully delegates authority to set standards for ministry to the annual conferences.The authority to set standards for ordained ministry is reserved by the Constitution to the General Conference. But the One Church Plan removes the restriction that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not qualified to serve as ordained clergy. At the same time, it allows any annual conference (including those outside the United States) to continue disqualifying self-avowed practicing homosexuals from serving as ordained clergy.

The One Church Plan therefore sets up the probability of conflicting standards for ministry in different annual conferences. Some will ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, while others will not. This would be unlawfully allowing annual conferences to set standards for ministry, something that the Judicial Council has previously ruled is “distinctively connectional” and not something that can be delegated to the annual conferences.

In the words of the Judicial Council, “It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject” (JC Decision 7). “The requirements for admission into the ministry are distinctively connectional because, as observed in Decision 544, ‘[o]rdination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide'” (Brief by Keith Boyette).

When full clergy rights were extended to women in the (former) Methodist Church, the question was asked whether central conferences outside the United States could decline to ordain women. The Judicial Council ruled that this was a “distinctively connectional” matter that governed all annual conferences equally, so central conferences had to also ordain women. In the same way, the General Conference needs to set one standard regarding the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and cannot allow different annual conferences to set conflicting standards.

If the One Church Plan simply declared that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are eligible for ordination in all annual conferences, the plan would be constitutional. (This is what the so-called Simple Plan does.) But by allowing annual conferences to set conflicting standards, the plan unconstitutionally delegates legislative authority to annual conferences on an area that is distinctively connectional and reserved to the General Conference.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s changing of the definition of marriage to “two adults” clearly contradicts United Methodist doctrinal standards.There is no question that every reference to the practice of homosexuality in Scripture is negative and that Jesus and Paul both define marriage as between one man and one woman. Article IV of our Confession of Faithstates, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Since the One Church Plan changes the definition of marriage contrary to Scripture, it violates our doctrinal standards.

In addition, John Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament is another one of our doctrinal standards. It helps us interpret Scripture. Wesley’s Notes are uniformly negative toward the practice of homosexuality and affirm the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. So the One Church Plan’s changing the definition of marriage also violates Wesley’s Notes as a contradiction of our doctrinal standards.

Any change in our doctrinal standards (such as to accommodate a new definition of marriage) would require a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths vote of all the annual conference members around the world. Such a change would be nearly impossible.

In addition, the One Church Plan, while defining marriage as between “two adults” at the theological level, allows for different definitions of marriage across the church, depending upon where churches are located. In countries that do not permit same-sex marriage, the church would have to abide by the traditional definition of one man – one woman marriage.

Yet this geographic variety has been ruled out by Judicial Council Decision 1185, which says, “The Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.” The church needs a clear and consistent definition of something so foundational to human existence as marriage. For the One Church Plan to offer a smorgasbord approach to defining marriage (depending upon one’s geographic location) is to unconstitutionally contradict our foundational principle of connectionalism.

  1. The One Church Plan allows clergy to perform same-sex weddings, but has not provided an endorsed rite or ritual for such a service.According to the Constitution, the General Conference has authority “to provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship . . . .” Right now, the approved services of Christian marriage are specifically written for the marriage of one man to one woman. There is no authorization in the service of marriage for a same-sex couple to be married. The church has no authorized ritual for such a marriage. It would be unconstitutional for the General Conference to allow a type of marriage for which there is no approved ritual.

Furthermore, our doctrinal standards require that rites or orders of worship must be “consistent with the Holy Scriptures to the edification of all” (Confession of Faith, XIII), “so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (Articles of Religion, XXII). Since same-sex marriage is plainly not consistent with Scripture, such a worship rite would be contrary to our doctrinal standards and therefore unconstitutional. (The same holds true of ordination rituals.)

  1. The One Church Plan is unconstitutional when it says, “clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shallbe reassigned” (Petition 8, emphasis added).The Constitution gives sole right to set the appointment of clergy to the bishop. So the General Conference cannot mandate that the bishop change a clergy person’s appointment.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s provision that same-sex weddings cannot be performed in a local church unless such is approved by a vote of the local church conference conflicts with another provision in the Disciplinethat says, “the board of trustees shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services or other proper meetings” (¶ 2533.1).

 

  1. One of the provisions of the One Church Plan says that the General Council on Finance and Administration will develop an apportionment formula that ensures that each episcopal area pays for its own bishop.However, there is no legislation to that effect, and it is questionable whether GCFA can enact such a policy without General Conference direction. Additionally, the Judicial Council has already ruled in Decision 1208 that jurisdictions may not be required to fully fund their own bishops. They ruled that such a plan “creates a funding mechanism that is dependent upon raising funds from jurisdictions and that invades and undermines the ‘unified’ nature of the episcopacy.” So if this provision were to be followed by GCFA, it runs the risk of being found doubly illegal. (This means that delegates should not count on this provision going into effect when they consider voting for the One Church Plan.)

The Judicial Council has yet to rule whether any of the above arguments are valid. I believe they are strong arguments. Some of the above issues can be fixed by amending the legislation. However, it appears that items #1 and #2 are so essential to the One Church Plan that to rule them out would pretty much rule out the whole plan. Such a ruling by the Judicial Council would substantially change the options that the General Conference will consider in February.

Of course, the Traditional Plan must also survive an analysis by the Judicial Council that may find aspects of that plan unconstitutional. We will keep you informed about what the Judicial Council decides in October.

 

Marriage and the One Church Plan

What is the definition of marriage? One of the salient issues the upcoming special General Conference in 2019 needs to decide is precisely this. How does The United Methodist Church define marriage?

Up until now, the church has defined marriage as a “covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 161.C). The One Church Plan (OCP) wants to change this description of marriage to a “monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” In another paragraph in the Discipline, the OCP goes even farther, stating “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults” (proposed ¶ 161.G). This changed definition of course opens the door to same-gender “marriage.”

What does the Bible say about the definition of marriage?

In Matthew 19 (parallel to Mark 10), Jesus is asked about what constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked whether it was lawful to divorce “for any and every reason.” Jesus did not answer them directly, but turned instead to the foundational understanding of the Bible regarding the nature of marriage, quoting from Genesis 1 and 2.

“Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5). As other commentators have pointed out, Jesus here joins together the two creation accounts (1:27 and 2:24) to emphasize that marriage is part of the created order, (applying to all humanity, not just Jews or Christians) and that marriage was created for one man and one woman. Jesus later explains that divorce arises from hardness of heart and limits the acceptable reasons for divorce only to adultery or marital unfaithfulness.

When the early church was establishing the qualifications for Gentiles to enter into the Church, one of the four things from which believers were commanded to abstain was “sexual immorality” (same Greek word as Matthew 19, “marital unfaithfulness”). When Paul outlined the qualifications for church leaders, one of those qualifications was “the husband of but one wife” (literally, a one-woman man) (Titus 1:6, I Timothy 3:2).

Yes, there are many instances of polygamy in the Bible. Most instances where we have details about the relationship, a polygamous marriage was not a harmonious one (think Sarah and Hagar with Abraham in Genesis 16-21, Rachel and Leah with Jacob in Genesis 29-31, Hannah and Peninnah with Elkanah, parents of Samuel in I Samuel 1). Having many wives, particularly those who worshipped foreign gods, caused the apostasy and downfall of Solomon. The evidence in Scripture at least discourages the practice of polygamy.

But Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 and the leadership requirements of Paul are decisive in understanding that polygamy is not in line with God’s original intention for marriage. Part of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ is the restoration of God’s original intention for many areas in life (see Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). So the New Testament teaching on marriage and its definition is a recovery of the original definition from Genesis 1 and 2.

The interesting point is that there is no evidence in Scripture that would indicate support for expanding the definition of marriage to persons of the same gender. There is far more biblical justification for polygamy than for same-gender marriage. And if polygamy is off-limits for Christians, how much more so should same-gender marriage be off-limits.

To the clear biblical teaching on marriage’s definition can be added the theological significance of marriage in picturing the relationship between God and God’s people. In numerous places in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is pictured as a relationship between husband and wife (for example, Hosea 2). In the New Testament, marriage becomes a picture of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32, Revelation 21).

The theological picture of marriage demonstrates why marriage is between one man and one woman. Jesus Christ does not have many “wives,” only one Church as his bride. And the inherent difference between God/Christ and humanity mimics the gender difference between male and female in marriage.

The proponents of the One Church Plan should be more forthright that they are fundamentally changing the definition of marriage in a way that is not found in Scripture. This new definition goes against all the evidence in the Bible, both the clear definition of marriage and the theological implications of marriage.

The new definition is a human innovation that is inconsistent with what we call “the rule of faith” — the accumulated wisdom of biblical and theological understanding from our forefathers and foremothers of the faith down through the centuries. (John Wesley limited his understanding of the “rule of faith” to what he called “the primitive church,” or the church of the first three centuries prior to the Emperor Constantine.)

In Wesley’s understanding, we are to interpret Scripture in line with how the early generations of the church interpreted it. To introduce a new interpretation, there would have to be quite a strong case from Scripture that the earlier interpretations were wrong or incomplete. Such a strong case for same-gender marriage from the Bible does not exist. At most, apologists for same-gender marriage reinterpret Scripture in ways that make it silent or not applicable to same-gender marriage. That kind of textual manipulation is not enough to overthrow a 2,000-year-old understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage.

One could argue that this new definition of marriage is a violation of our United Methodist doctrinal standards. Article IV of the Confession of Faith states, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Nowhere does Scripture reveal or establish that marriage in God’s eyes includes persons of the same gender. Therefore, this new definition of marriage cannot be made an article of faith (something that United Methodists believe and teach officially).

The final point to note is that the new (proposed) definition of marriage is found in the section of the Book of Discipline that applies to the whole global church. Much is made in the One Church Plan about the ability of central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions prohibiting same-gender marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. But the definition of marriage is found in the Social Principles and in the theology section of the Discipline, a part that is not subject to the adaptation by central conferences. It is very hard to imagine that the United Methodists in the central conferences, particularly in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, would be willing to approve a change in the definition of marriage that would apply in their countries, as well. For some of them, to do so would mean the suicide of their churches, either through mass desertion by members or governmental action against them.

Despite all the rhetoric of the One Church Plan affirming those with a traditional view of marriage, one must not underestimate the sweeping change that the plan proposes simply by changing the church’s official definition of marriage. Such a change would negatively impact the church for generations.

Episcopalians and the One Church Plan

The Episcopal Church, one of the seven mainline denominations in the United States, has gone down the road toward the full affirmation of LGBTQ persons and practices. The conflict has cost the church hundreds of thousands of members and tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits over property. Their experience can help us see what the likely effects of a similar decision would be on The United Methodist Church in 2019.

Here is the trajectory The Episcopal Church followed:

  • 2003 – The first openly gay bishop was consecrated
  • 2009 – The church’s standards were changed to allow openly gay or lesbian persons to be ordained, subject to the approval of their bishop (some dioceses did not grant such permission)
  • 2012 – Ordination of transgender persons was allowed, subject to the bishop’s approval; a provisional ritual for same-sex union/marriage was adopted
  • 2015 – Same-sex marriage performed by priests was allowed in the church, subject to the approval of the bishop (8 dioceses out of 101 declined to grant approval)
  • 2018 – Same-sex marriage was required in every diocese, whether the bishop approved or not, but clergy were not required to perform same-sex weddings and the provisional ritual was not adopted into the official church worship book

(Sources: Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: The Episcopal Church; Episcopal convention approves a ‘pastoral solution’ on same-sex marriage; and LGBTQ in the Church)

The Episcopal Church took a “local option” approach to resolving its conflict over same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Since The Episcopal Church gives more authority to bishops in setting policy, that “local option” revolved around the decision of the bishop, rather than the diocese (equivalent to our annual conference). This is the same approach that the One Church Plan takes, allowing annual conferences to decide about ordination and local churches and pastors to decide about performing same-sex weddings.

One thing to notice is that taking such a “local option” approach, even when spread out over a period of 15 years, did not stave off massive membership losses. Several whole traditional/evangelical dioceses left The Episcopal Church over the last ten years. Attendance dropped from 857,000 in 2000 to less than 580,000 in 2015-a 32 percent decline. Membership dropped from 2,329,000 in 2000 to 1,745,000 in 2016-a 25 percent decline. The national church spent over $45 million on lawsuits to retain church buildings when congregations left. In the same way, adopting the One Church Plan will cause hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of United Methodists to depart from The United Methodist Church and could well cost millions in lawsuits over property.

Another thing to notice is that each step along the way was only a step in the process of becoming more affirming of LGBT practices. Even the most recent Episcopalian action in 2018 is not the end of the story for their denomination. It is anticipated that the formal approval and adoption of a same-sex wedding ritual will take place in 2021 (their next general convention). And provisions mandating equal access to bathrooms and shower facilities regardless of gender identity that were turned down in 2018 may pass the next time around. The process (and conflict) leading toward full affirmation will not stop until same-sex weddings and ordination for LGBT persons are required for all.

The recent gathering of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition reportedly discussed that very prospect. Although many were loath to accept a solution (the One Church Plan) that allows for what they consider discrimination against LGBT persons in some parts of the country, others saw adoption of the plan as a good first step that allows the church to move farther in the direction of affirmation in future years. Dorothy Benz, a New York delegate and leader in Methodists in New Directions (MIND), called the One Church Plan “the necessary first steps for justice,” implying that other steps will need to be taken.

There are no guarantees in the One Church Plan that protections for traditional pastors, churches, and annual conferences will remain in place. In The Episcopal Church, what was once allowed is now becoming required. The “local option” is continually becoming more restricted in favor of required affirmation. By a simple majority vote, the General Conference in 2020 or 2024 could turn around and remove the protections for traditionalists and institute greater requirements for inclusion and affirmation of what the Bible restricts.

Evangelicals will not remain part of a church that forfeits its moral authority based on Scripture in order to go along with the tide of American public opinion. While the One Church Plan seems to offer a “live and let live” way forward, the experience of the Episcopal Church shows that it is only a slippery slope on the way to abandoning the clear teachings of Scripture.