Archives for September 2018

Responding to Talking Points

An organization formed to promote the One Church Plan (OCP) at the special called 2019 General Conference has recently issued a dozen talking points in support of the OCP. Some of those talking points are true and worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, other talking points are either misleading or do not tell the full story. Here are responses to the talking points, quoted from Mainstream UMC.

  • The OCP is faithful to Scripture and the example of the Apostles in Acts 15 of allowing different practices in different mission fields.

The OCP changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” and affirms same-gender relationships. That can hardly be called “faithful to Scripture” (see Genesis 1:26-28; 2:23-25; Matthew 19:1-12; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Romans 1:21-27). The more applicable example from Acts 15 is the decision by Paul and Barnabas to honor each other as brothers in Christ, but separate to do ministry in different ways (vs. 36-41).

  • The OCP has been vetted by one of the most rigorous processes in our denomination’s history, a faithful, two-year study by the Commission on the Way Forward.

While the Commission did work on the One Church Plan, along with other plans, it never took a vote to endorse any of the plans. A lot of thinking and learning went into drawing up the details of all three plans, and they all benefited from that process. The Commission, however, did not endorse the OCP (nor either of the other plans).

  • The OCP has been recommended by nearly two-thirds of all active UM Bishops.

The bishops who endorsed the OCP were primarily from the U.S. According to the information we received, bishops from the central conferences outside the U.S. generally voted against the OCP. This appears simply to be a North American “solution” recommended to a global church.

  • The OCP allows different regions in the U.S. to adapt to their mission field.

One of the major shortcomings of the OCP is that it treats the disagreement over marriage and sexuality as a geographical problem, when it is really a theological problem. There are churches that would favor same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in every annual conference. And there are churches in every annual conference that would find such an accommodation unacceptable. The OCP treats the minority position in any annual conference unfairly.

  • The OCP has no impact on the Central Conferences outside of the U.S.

The OCP changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” or qualified as “traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” According to the Judicial Council ( decision 1185), these definitions bind the church in its universal understanding of marriage and are not adaptable by central conferences outside the U.S. Our brothers and sisters outside the U.S. would be forced to live by and defend marriage as a union of two undefined adults. It is also unclear whether it is constitutional to allow different annual conferences to have different standards for ordained ministry – so can the central conferences really adapt the requirements of the Discipline to their own context?

  • The OCP retains the global structure of the church and shared critical ministries.

Both the OCP and the Traditional Plan maintain the church’s current global structure and ministries (different from the Connectional Conference Plan). Both plans, however, would need to recognize that significant structural changes would undoubtedly follow upon the loss of members, no matter which plan is passed. The Traditional Plan explicitly maintains a way for those departing the denomination to continue participating in the UM pension and benefit plans, as well as mission partnerships, support, and cooperation. The OCP contains no such provisions for any departing churches.

  • The OCP removes most of the controversial and hurtful language about LGBTQ persons.

While the language is controversial and perceived as hurtful by some LGBTQ persons, the church has been forced by progressive advocacy to clarify its understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. It is unfortunate that much of the prohibitive language in the Discipline was needed because of the refusal of some annual conferences, clergy, and bishops to abide by the teachings and requirements of the church. What is often interpreted as hurtful is not the language itself (which can be tweaked), but the basic position of the church that same-sex relationships are not congruent with God’s will for human flourishing. This is not a matter of removing language but of changing the church’s understanding of same-sex relationships.

  • The OCP protects the conscience of individual bishops, conferences, pastors, and churches.

These protections, however, are found in the regular part of the Book of Discipline that can be revoked by any future General Conference. In other denominations, when the affirmation of same-sex relationships has become the majority position, such conscience protections have been revoked. Some of those promoting same-sex marriage and ordination in our church have said they will not rest until such is affirmed by all parts of the church (including the central conferences outside the U.S.).

  • The OCP requires no votes by conferences or churches.

While not requiring votes, the OCP sets up a situation where inevitably many annual conferences and local churches would have to vote. Every time an openly gay or lesbian candidate for ministry comes up in an annual conference, the clergy session (or in some cases the whole annual conference) would have to take a vote on whether or not to ordain a practicing homosexual. Every time a gay or lesbian member or relative of a member wants to get married in a local church (using the church’s sanctuary), that local church would have to vote whether or not to allow the use of the church’s property in a same-sex wedding. Any annual conference that does not initially ordain practicing homosexuals will be targeted by progressive advocates to change their position, with resulting controversies and votes year after year until the position in that conference is changed.

  • The OCP is financially faithful to pension commitments for active and retired pastors.

The Traditional Plan is also financially faithful to pension commitments. Changes in the pension plan will be needed regardless of which plan passes General Conference. While the OCP envisions some local churches leaving the denomination, it provides no mechanism for churches to do so while keeping their property. This creates the conditions for unfair treatment of local churches by different annual conferences and the potential for widespread expensive litigation over property and trust clause issues.

  • The OCP puts an end to church trials.

 

  • The OCP holds the denomination together to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.

The idea that the OCP will prevent a separation in the denomination is a fond wish, but not grounded in reality. In fact, the North Georgia Annual Conference, which is generally more conservative in its rural areas and more progressive in its urban areas, took a survey this year as to how people might respond to the passing of either plan. It found that 5 percent of its conference members would seek to leave the denomination if the Traditional Plan passed, while 26 percent would seek to leave if the One Church Plan passed.

It would be wise of the General Conference delegates to acknowledge that no matter which plan passes, a significant portion of our denomination’s membership is likely to depart. The delegates essentially face two decisions at the upcoming General Conference:

1)     Does The United Methodist Church want to take a traditional or progressive approach to the issues of marriage and sexuality in the years ahead (which will determine the identity of the denomination)?

2)     Will The United Methodist Church provide a gracious way for churches to depart with their property, while maintaining the financial integrity of the pension program?

Given that some amount of separation is likely to occur, will that separation be amicable or adversarial? Will local churches be treated fairly across all annual conferences, or depend upon the whim of their annual conference leaders and the individual circumstances of the church, creating the potential for widespread expensive litigation over property and trust clause issues?

Resurrection: “Metaphorical” or “Literal”

In the midst of our denomination’s controversy over marriage and sexuality, it is easy to forget there are issues of even greater weight that divide The United Methodist Church. One of those is our understanding of the resurrection – both the resurrection of Jesus and our own.

Last spring, a United Methodist elder in Colorado, the Rev. Roger Wolsey, wrote a blog post denying many of the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity. Among his statements were these: “Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. … Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ).”

In a recent Twitter exchange, the Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, the new executive director of Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan), was asked, “Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?” His response was, “Yes. Metaphorically. 1 Cor. 15:44 ‘…it is raised a spiritual body.'” He went on to say, “The truth of the Gospel does not hinge on whether you and I read this literally or spiritually. Let’s just live into the mystery.”

Let me hasten to say I am not trying to cast aspersions on these two individuals, nor am I trying to malign the centrist movement of our church. Personally, I know a number of clergy who identify with Mainstream UMC who do believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in what I would call a literal way. I acknowledge that Twitter is not a good place to engage in theological discussion, and I concede the shortcomings of words like “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “physical.”

The fact remains, however, our competing visions of divine resurrection – often found in differences between those in the pews and those in the pulpits – are among the most cataclysmic fissures within our denomination. “It’s Friday,” the great African American preacher S.M. Lockridge (1913-2000) used to say, “but Sunday’s coming.” That is the crux of our faith – our blessed hope. It cuts right to the core issues of the faith.

Is Jesus Christ God? Is there such a thing as the Trinity? Did Jesus’ death bring about salvation for all who believe? It might shock grassroots church members to find out that there are many United Methodist clergy who would not give an orthodox response to the above questions and others.

Did Jesus rise from the grave on Easter Sunday with a body that was just as real and physical as the body that was laid in that grave on Good Friday (albeit transformed into what the biblical writers would call a “resurrection body”)? The resurrection is the lynchpin on which the whole Gospel depends.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (vs. 14-15, 17). Peter made the resurrection the heart of his Pentecost Day sermon. “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:24, 32).

The resurrection is God’s assurance that Christ’s death really did atone for the sins of the world. Without the resurrection, we have no way of knowing whether God’s plan really worked! And the resurrection was the fulfillment of the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4) – a matter of “first importance.” To take away the physical resurrection is to gut the Gospel of its power. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand…” (Ephesians 1:18-9). If there was no power in Christ’s resurrection, there is no power available to us today as believers in Christ. And Christ’s resurrection served as the “firstfruits” guaranteeing our future resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20-23). If he did not physically rise, neither will we.

Was Jesus’ resurrection “metaphorical” or “literal?” Was his resurrection body “spiritual” or “physical?”

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (and in other appearances to Paul), Jesus probably did not have a physical body, since that body had already ascended into heaven. But Paul makes the claim that Jesus appeared to 500 of the disciples, including the Twelve, Peter, and James, before his ascension (I Corinthians 15:5-7). And Luke portrays Jesus’ resurrection body as a physical one. Jesus invited his disciples to “touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” In addition, “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence” (Luke 24:39, 42-43).

Our doctrinal standards guide us in how we are to understand these scriptures. “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day” (Articles of Religion, Article III). There is no question that the teaching of the church is that Jesus “literally” or “physically” rose from the dead with a real body that had flesh and bones. Yes, that body could appear and disappear at the drop of a hat and enter through locked doors, but it was a real body, just the same.

Friends, as we consider the future of our denomination, we must acknowledge that there are issues of even greater significance than marriage and sexuality that divide us. While not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally, surely Christ’s resurrection (and ours) is one of those that is. I am concerned about our church ratifying a theological framework that justifies turning physical reality into metaphor. We must not gut United Methodism’s historical understanding of the gospel of its power to transform our lives and our world.

 

Allocation of Bishops Unfair to Africa

Times are changing quickly and global United Methodism needs to start reflecting those changes. Over the last twenty years, the number one shift within our denomination has been the steady decline of membership in the United States and the ever-increasing growth of membership on the continent of Africa. United Methodism is found in at least 16 African nations.

Consider the fact that more United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo (3 million) than in the combined North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions in the United States (2.3 million).

The leadership of our denomination should reflect our current reality. That is why we need to reconfigure our outdated representation model to a more just and equitable configuration. And it needs to start at the Council of Bishops.

Currently, while the U.S. has 56 percent of the total number of church members, the U.S. has 70 percent of the number of bishops. This gives the U.S. bishops a dominant role on the Council of Bishops. The African central conferences have 43 percent of the church members, but only 20 percent of the bishops. This yields a dramatic underrepresentation of African perspectives on the Council of Bishops.

When the Council acts, as it did recently in endorsing the One Church Plan, we need to see that action as primarily an American decision not reflective of the true makeup of our denomination’s membership.

How we got where we are

In the U.S., the number of bishops allocated to each jurisdiction is based on a formula. The first 300,000 members yields five bishops for a jurisdiction. In fact, no matter how few members a jurisdiction has, anything less than 300,000 members still entitles a jurisdiction to five bishops. This part of the formula favors smaller jurisdictions, such as the Western Jurisdiction. For every 300,000 members over the original 300,000, an additional bishop is allocated. (This part of the formula is rounded up, so that 1.6 additional bishops equal 2.)

The result of this formula is that the larger the jurisdiction, the relatively fewer bishops it has. For example, the (smallest) Western Jurisdiction has roughly 61,000 members per bishop. By contrast, the (largest) Southeastern Jurisdiction has roughly 210,000 members per bishop. Part of the justification for this is the need to cover large geographic areas, particularly in the West. But it results in a fundamental unfairness.

In the central conferences outside the U.S., the number of bishops is determined by a number of factors: missional potential, number of local churches and clergy, geographic size of episcopal areas, number of annual conferences, and number of church members. There is no set formula.

This approach for the central conferences worked well when these areas were small mission areas still heavily dependent upon the mother church. As the mission field has matured and the churches outside the U.S. have become more self-governing, and particularly as the church in Africa has grown in numbers, the allocation of bishops has not kept up with the need.

The number of members per bishop vividly illustrates the discrepancy. In the U.S., the average number of members per bishop is 151,000. In Africa, the average number of members per bishop is 407,000. The most egregious underrepresentation is in the Congo, which has only four bishops for 3 million members. The number of members per bishop in the Congo is 750,000, five times the U.S. average! There is no way that a bishop can effectively supervise that many members.

Another way of viewing the unjust disparity in representation is to know that the Congo covers an area as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. In the U.S., there are 29 bishops covering that amount of territory. In the Congo, there are four bishops covering the same amount of territory. And the last statistic I saw was that there are only 500 miles of paved roads in the Congo. (I believe this means intercity roads, excluding streets in a city.) So the ability to get around and travel to the churches is much more difficult in the Congo compared with the U.S.

Where we can go from here

One step forward would be to apply the same formula for allocating bishops in the central conferences as we use in the U.S. That would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. It would not reduce the number of bishops in the U.S. beyond what the formula already calls for. But it would increase the number of bishops where they are desperately needed.

Applying the formula to the central conferences would add one bishop for the southern and eastern Africa area, which already has five bishops (Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, and South Africa). It would add six bishops to the West Africa Central Conference (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire), bringing their total to ten. And it would add ten bishops for the Congo, bringing their total to 14.

This approach would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. The U.S. would have 54 percent of the bishops and 56 percent of the members. Africa would have 38 percent of the bishops and 43 percent of the members. Europe and the Philippines are overrepresented in the Council of Bishops (5 percent and 4 percent respectively) due to language, cultural, and geographic needs of the different areas. Their allocation of bishops would not change under the formula.

The 2016 General Conference voted to add five bishops for Africa in 2020. Where they will be assigned is still being determined by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. This is a start, but it does not come close to adding the seventeen bishops that are needed to bring equity. Perhaps we could add five more in 2024 and five more in 2028.

Generally speaking, the cost of a bishop in the central conferences (particularly Africa and the Philippines) is about half the cost of a U.S. bishop. Both the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions stand to lose a bishop in 2020 under the formula. That would pay for four African bishops right there. And the South Central Jurisdiction also stands to lose a bishop, if not in 2020, then in 2024. That would pay for two more in Africa.

Of course, all of this will need to be reconsidered in light of the actions of the 2019 General Conference, which may result in a loss of members (and maybe even annual conferences) in the U.S. Under any of the three plans, there will need to be a reconfiguration of annual conference boundaries and perhaps jurisdictional boundaries, as well.

In the meantime, it would be well to consider that the actions of the Council of Bishops are primarily a reflection of the U.S. bishops, not a globally representative body. And as we configure the United Methodist Church of the future, we should give attention to treating the central conferences more fairly as equal partners in a global church, rather than as “junior” partners or mission stepchildren.

 

What is a “Good” Witness

As we approach the 2019 specially-called General Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of the arguments being made for the One Church Plan is that staying structurally united as one church will be a good witness to the world, and that any sort of structural separation would be a bad one. The argument is made from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus’ desire is unquestionably that we be “brought to complete unity” by being “in us” (in the Father and in Christ). This unity that is brought about by our being united with God would indeed be a witness to the world that God loves the world and has sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.

This unity, however, cannot be manufactured by us. Rather, it comes from our being perfectly united with Jesus Christ. As it was once explained to me, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to each other.

What if we don’t have that unity? What if, due to the fact that we imperfectly perceive the things of God in our human condition, our disagreement is of a level that we are not at the same place in our understanding of discipleship and therefore not able to be in unity with one another? The apostles dealt with differences in doctrine and teaching. In some cases, they counseled separation (for example, 2 John 9-10, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).

We have in the church two groups that believe the other group is bringing erroneous or false teaching into the church. Traditionalists believe that to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman would be to violate the clear teaching of Scripture, including the specific teachings of Jesus on marriage. Such teaching would be false and not true to the Gospel and therefore unacceptable in the church.

Progressives believe that the Bible does not speak about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and that the Holy Spirit is showing the church a new way that affirms such relationships as equivalent to marriage in every way. They believe that to discriminate (as they see it) against same-sex attracted persons is a violation of Jesus’ commandment to love one another and is therefore a false teaching that must be changed and repudiated by the church.

We should all be able to admit that these two views are mutually exclusive and cannot survive long-term in the same church. When two groups hold each other as purveyors of false teaching, even in biblical terms, separation is justified.

A Better Way

So what is a “good witness” in a situation like this?

Earlier in the same “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

If we cannot be united in structure, we can at least witness to the world by treating one another with love and respect. This would be a dramatic departure from the way the world is doing things right now, particularly in the civil and political realm. Love doesn’t mean approval or agreement with another, but reflects the way that we treat one another in our disagreement.

So far, the tone is not encouraging. One United Methodist blogger levelled the cheap slur of “Metho-fascists” against those who believe differently than he does. The slur is not defined or explained, and no examples are given. Reconciling Ministries Network has featured an article by a progressive African pastor serving in ministry in the U.S. charging Good News with taking a “colonial” attitude toward partnership with African leaders and delegates. The article contains factual errors and spends most of its space recounting grievous instances of “cultural imperialism” committed by others decades ago, smearing Good News with guilt by association.

It is a clever and slick political ploy to attempt to drive a wedge between traditionalists in America and traditionalists in Africa. It will not work because we share the same view of the Lordship of Christ, high regard for the authority of Scripture, and a biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. One can ask the three African bishops who attended the meeting being criticized whether they felt dominated or demeaned by any American participation.

Moving Forward

For a number of years, Good News has advocated that progressives and evangelicals come together to agree on a way forward for the church that would allow each group to go its separate way, each doing ministry as it believes God is calling, with the respect and blessing of the church. Could we not be like Paul and Barnabas, who, despite a “sharp disagreement,” parted company in a way that allowed for future reconciliation (Acts 15:36-41)? Could we not adopt the attitude of Abraham in his conflict with his nephew Lot? “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Genesis 13:8-9).

There were glimmers of that possibility in private discussions at the 2016 General Conference. However, hopes of working toward an amicable separation were dashed in the Commission on a Way Forward process.

We are left now with adversarial choices that will bring about “winners and losers,” with the resultant pain and turmoil in the church. (Of course, no matter what decision the General Conference makes, there will be pain and turmoil in the church.)

The Traditional Plan, while firm in its accountability process, aims to be gracious toward those who cannot live with the decision of the General Conference regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Maintaining structural unity is not the only way the church can give a good witness to the world. After all, how loving is it to force people to go against their consciences and violate their deeply held beliefs, as the One Church Plan envisions?

If we must take the road of adversarial choices, can we not do it with love and grace toward one another, giving the world a witness of how we believe Christ followers should treat one another? Can we not find a way to allow those with deeply held beliefs that differ from the church’s teaching to depart with our blessing? And cannot those who deeply disagree with the church’s teaching find a more fruitful approach to ministry than to continue badgering the church to force it to change its teaching against its will? That would be a witness to celebrate.