Archives for May 2019

Rejoinder to Rebekah Miles

The Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles recently invited her readers to join her going down the “rabbit hole” into the “Alice in Wonderland” that is currently The United Methodist Church. The point of her post is to critique elements of the Traditional Plan and encourage her readers to worry about what it might mean if the rest of the Traditional Plan is enacted at General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis.

Although I would not use her over-the-top rhetoric, I do see truth in her short-term prognosis for United Methodism. “Conservative groups will keep pushing for legislative accountability, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. Progressives will keep pushing the limits of that accountability through increasing ecclesial disobedience, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. And many moderates, horrified by the draconian extremes of the So-Called-Traditional Plan, are finally ready to join them. Nobody will back down. And as far as I can tell, all of us believe we are acting according to conscience and in loyalty to the people with whom we are in ministry.”

In Miles’ mind, the solution is “to find a way either to amicable separation or a profoundly new form of unity.” She refers interested readers to her chapter in a recently published anthology. “I make a more sustained case for separation or significant restructure in my article, ‘When Brothers and Sisters Fight to the Death: Ecclesiology, Mission, and the United Methodist Church,’ in Where do We Go From Here? Honest Responses from 24 United Methodist Leaders, Kevin Slimp, ed. (Market Square Publishing, 2019)”

Although we come at this solution from opposite ends of the theological spectrum, Miles and I ultimately arrive at the same place. The only healthy way forward for The United Methodist Church is some form of separation. (So far, proposals to resurrect the Connectional Conference Plan or some other “significant restructure” into a “new form of unity” have failed to attract concrete ideas or substantial support.) I think we would both agree that finding our way to that reality in an amicable way that is generous of spirit would be a significant witness to our faith in Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So far, so good. Where I part ways with Miles is over her caustic characterization of the Traditional Plan as containing “draconian extremes” that “horrify” many moderates.

The way Miles describes the Traditional Plan, it sounds like the provisions of the Traditional Plan were dreamed up by some mad church scientist having a nightmare. Unfortunately, such a description ignores the context and history of our church and how we got to this point. As a colleague portrayed it to me, this would be similar to being late to attend a play. Walking in during intermission and starting the story with the second act of the play, one would have missed the first act. The reason why the characters are acting the way they are would make no sense because the foundations for their actions in the first act were missed.

Act One of the United Methodist drama is a 30-year-long story of increasing disregard for the teachings and standards of the church and for the ability of General Conference to make decisions on behalf of the whole church. This act included a number of high points such as incidents involving the “Sacramento 68,” Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Karen Dammen, Beth Stroud, and resolutions passed by up to a dozen annual conferences repudiating the teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality, including innovative legislative strategies aimed at circumventing church requirements. The list could go on.

The climax of Act One, however, was the series of events beginning in 2011, when hundreds of UM clergy signed statements indicating their willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Bishop Melvin Talbert twice invaded another bishop’s territory for the purpose of performing high-profile same-sex weddings, while calling for increased disobedience. Some bishops began settling complaints against clergy performing such weddings by first a 24-hour suspension, then no consequences at all, and finally even giving these clergy a platform to promote disobedience in their annual conferences. About a dozen annual conferences officially declared they would not comply with the Book of Discipline and boards of ordained ministry openly recommended self-avowed practicing homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.

This growing bishop and clergy rebellion in some parts of the U.S. led to the realization at the 2016 General Conference that the situation in our church was untenable. A group of respected leaders asked the bishops to create a commission to develop a plan for amicable separation of the denomination. Instead the Council of Bishops recommended a Commission on a Way Forward to try to keep the denomination together.

Act Two began with the work of the Commission, which resulted in three alternative “ways forward” that would preserve some amount of unity in the church. The Connectional Conference Plan was a “significant restructuring” of the church, for which Miles recognized the need. However, neither end of the theological spectrum (nor the moderate institutionalists) embraced the restructure option. This left two “winner-take-all” options.

The One Church Plan would dramatically change the church’s teachings and allow same-sex weddings and ordination, at which change conservatives indicated they would have to withdraw from the denomination. (Tellingly, many moderate institutionalists were dead-set against allowing anyone to leave and refused to consider any kind of exit path. They wanted to force unity, even at the cost of people’s consciences and the prospect of a multitude of lawsuits.)

The Traditional Plan was an attempt to restore accountability and compliance with the Book of Discipline and the decisions of the General Conference, while providing a gracious exit for those who could not live with the current standards of the church. Here again, it is important to note that many moderate institutionalists refused to allow for a gracious exit, even for themselves. Instead, they did all they could to obstruct the Traditional Plan and attempt to prevent the General Conference from making any decision at all.

The key to this narrative is that the Traditional Plan would not have been necessary at all, except that the instruments of unity – primarily some bishops and annual conferences – failed to maintain the unity of the church by enforcing the Discipline’s requirements. Over the past 30 years, it has been the escalating disobedience that has forced the General Conference to take repeated actions to close loopholes and adopt punitive measures to ensure compliance. Without such compliance, the church would experience chaos and a constitutional crisis. Ironically, that is where we are now, at the end of Act Two, in chaos and constitutional crisis.

For Dr. Miles to write as if the Traditional Plan were developed in a vacuum is unhelpful as various factions discuss the future in good faith before we arrive in Minneapolis. Her comments in this instance can be seen as both disingenuous and misleading. Nitpicking individual provisions of the Traditional Plan with scaremongering rhetoric misses the bigger picture described above.

Moderates such as Miles had a chance to help the church move into a healthier place in 2016 by either ending the disobedience or helping the church to consider a plan of separation. They did neither. Instead, they attempted to force an artificial unity on the church that is belied by the differing foundational theological commitments held by progressives and conservatives. Failing in that attempt, they are now engaging in the very same divisive and schismatic actions they have accused conservatives of contemplating over the years, but magnified ten-fold. When the shoe is on the other foot, the standards for behavior and expectations change radically.

What will Act Three hold? Will the confrontation simply escalate until the church explodes? (Think of the movie, War of the Roses.) Or will there be partners across the theological spectrum willing to work together to formulate a fair and reasonable plan of separation that allows the groups with contradictory theological commitments to walk apart, while retaining the possibility of cooperation in areas of agreement? One hopes that the public relations battle being waged by some on the left to demonize and misrepresent the Traditional Plan and its supporters does not make such cooperation impossible.

 

 

 

What Do United Methodists Believe (Part II)

A recent survey by United Methodist Communications indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

In a previous blog, I examined the implications of this finding. Last week I delved more deeply into specific beliefs United Methodists hold about Jesus Christ, who is the center of our faith. Today, I want to look at some other Christian doctrines and what United Methodists believe about them.

The Bible

What do United Methodists believe about the Bible? The survey posed a number of statements about the Bible, from which respondents had to choose one. Three of the statements emphasized the divine origin of Scripture, with different levels of trust in the specifics:

  • “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with no errors, some verses symbolic.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with some factual or historic errors.”

Traditionalists were nearly equally divided between these three statements (30, 28, and 30 percent). Moderates decisively preferred the third statement (47 percent), while 15 percent approved the first statement and 26 percent the second. Liberals also preferred the third statement (37 percent), while distancing themselves from the first statement (4 percent) and moderately supporting the second (22 percent).

Strikingly, 88 percent of both traditionalists and moderates affirmed the inspiration of Scripture (approving one of the above three statements), while only 63 percent of liberals did.

One-third (34 percent) of progressives supported the human origins of the Bible by affirming one of these two statements:

  • “The Bible is not inspired. It tells how writers understood the ways and principles of God.”
  • “The Bible is just another book of teachings written by men.”

Less than ten percent of moderates and conservatives agreed with either of these statements.

The significant minority of progressives holding a low view of Scripture’s inspiration fits with the finding that only six percent of progressives chose Scripture as their most authoritative source in personal theology.

Encouragingly, only one percent across the board of all United Methodists thought that “the Bible is an ancient book with little value today.”

What is salvation?

As expected, 89 percent of traditionalists believe that “salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God,” while 80 percent of moderates and only 69 percent of liberals agreed. Fully 31 percent of liberals (and 20 percent of moderates) believe that “all people will die saved.” This strain of universalism is not consistent with our Wesleyan theology and acts as another brake on evangelism. (If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency to proclaim the Gospel.)

Disturbingly, only 33 percent of conservatives and 15 percent of liberals believe that “salvation is through faith alone,” while 67 percent of conservatives and 85 percent of liberals believe “salvation is a combination of faith and what we do in this world.” Salvation by faith alone is a cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, of which we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary. As Protestants, we believe that good works follow from faith, but they do not contribute to our salvation. That depends upon faith in Jesus Christ alone, through his death and resurrection.

The influence of American evangelicalism on United Methodism is seen in the fact that 41 percent of conservatives believe that “once you are saved, you are always saved.” One-third of liberals and 37 percent of moderates agreed with this statement. One of the primary distinctives of Wesleyan theology (in contrast to today’s more common Calvinist theology) is that “a person can fall away and lose their salvation.” “Backsliders” (as they were once called) can return to faith through repentance and once again be in right standing with God. But it seems on this question many of our members are more Calvinist than Wesleyan.

Another cardinal Wesleyan doctrine is that “God’s grace is available to every person.” Our people have gotten that message, as it is affirmed by over 95 percent across the board. Mystifyingly, while 97 to 99 percent of moderates and conservatives believe in God as “creator of heaven and earth,” only 87 percent of progressives affirmed that statement.

Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of conservatives believe in a literal heaven, in contrast to 73 percent of progressives and 80 percent of moderates. At the same time, 82 percent of conservatives believe in a literal hell, in contrast to only 50 percent of progressives and 67 percent of moderates.

These beliefs about salvation do influence how effectively local churches proclaim and live out the Gospel. If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency or even any point in trying to get non-believers to believe in Jesus. The belief by supermajorities that “what we do in this world” impacts our salvation plays into the American emphasis on doing, rather than being, and upon the idea that we in some sense earn our own salvation. The prevalence of “once saved, always saved” thinking minimizes the need to authentically live out our faith and continue growing in our faith. Yet, even these three beliefs are contradictory, meaning that we have not helped our members think through a coherent and consistent theology of salvation.

Conclusion

The survey questions were not worded as carefully as I would have liked. Multiple interpretations of some of the questions could easily have somewhat distorted the results. However, taken together, I think the survey results show a clear theological difference between conservatives and liberals in general. Sometimes, moderates fall in the middle, but on many questions, moderates are closer to traditionalists in their views. It is this underlying theological difference that accounts for the depth of disagreement in our denomination. One might almost say that different groups in our church are operating according to different theological worldviews or different doctrinal systems. There are very few of the questions on which there is theological agreement.

Where there is much agreement and a small number of areas of disagreement, it is easier to preserve an overall unity and “agree to disagree” on those few issues of disagreement. However, where the disagreement seems clear and widespread over many issues, it is much more difficult to preserve unity. That is the situation that faces our church today.

The survey also makes it clear that systematic, clear teaching of United Methodist doctrine and theology is sorely needed in our churches. Perhaps we tend to focus so much on preaching and teaching that hits the “felt needs” of our people that we forget about the importance of laying the theological foundation on which the more practical teachings of the faith are based. And we have forgotten how practically relevant those foundational teachings really are. Our church’s ministry needs more theological depth.

 

 

 

What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part I)

A previous “Perspective” blog called attention to a survey conducted by United Methodist Communications that indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

This finding runs counter to the narrative that the “vast majority” of American United Methodists are moving in a more progressive direction, particularly on issues like marriage and sexual ethics. While the survey did not include questions specifically related to the denomination’s current controversy, the results pointed to a substantially conservative theological foundation for United Methodism in the U.S. Even when there is a clear difference between conservatives and liberals, a majority of liberals often affirm a traditional theological perspective. (Of course, one wonders if people might be using the same words, yet defining them differently based on different doctrinal perspectives.)

The online survey was aimed at laity who were members or regular attendees of United Methodist churches in the United States, but who do not serve as local church leaders. As such, the survey attempted to reach the ultimate “grass roots” of the church in order to gauge their beliefs on a number of theological points. Previous surveys have found that the farther up the “ladder” from the grass roots membership into the leadership of the church one ascends, the more theologically liberal are the beliefs people hold.

Who Is Jesus?

The most important aspect of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christian doctrine answers the questions Who is Jesus and What did Jesus do? Over 92 percent of United Methodists of all theological stripes believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.”

When asked if Jesus was “the son of God?” 98 percent of conservatives believed so, compared to 82 percent of liberals (moderates were at 92 percent). At the same time, nine percent of both conservatives and moderates said “Jesus was only human and not the son of God.” (The numbers do not add up properly here, so the results may not have been accurately reported. Alternatively, some may have answered both “yes” and “no” to the son of God question.) Notably, 16 percent of progressives asserted that Jesus was only human. This is a small percentage and reflects a relatively high view of Jesus Christ even among United Methodist progressives.

More than 35 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was only a religious or spiritual leader.” While 21 percent of conservatives and 23 percent of moderates agreed, 25 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was a great man and teacher but not divine,” compared with 20 percent of moderates and 15 percent of traditionalists. These answers do not fit well with the answers to the previous question “Was Jesus the son of God.” One can only assume that many members have only a fuzzy idea of what it means to call Jesus “the son of God.”

Strikingly, 48 percent of progressives thought “Jesus committed sins like other people.” One-third of conservatives and 38 percent of moderates agreed.

Fully 82 percent of conservatives believe “Jesus will return to earth someday.” Only 66 percent of liberals agreed, as well as 76 percent of moderates.

Finally, 94 percent of conservatives believe Jesus was conceived by a virgin. Only 68 percent of liberals agree, along with 82 percent of moderates.

The inconsistent answers to these questions about Jesus indicate we may not have done a very good job as a church of teaching our doctrines. Our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith teach that Jesus was indeed the son of God, that he is divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and that he will return again to earth. And the Bible clearly states that Jesus did not sin (II Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, I Peter 2:22).

What did Jesus do?

Nearly all (98 percent) conservatives believe that “Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God,” while 96 percent of moderates agreed. By contrast, 84 percent of progressives affirmed that statement. The overwhelming majority of conservatives (95 percent) affirmed that “Jesus died so we could have eternal life” – 90 percent of moderates agreed, while 82 percent of liberals agreed. Disappointingly, 18 percent of liberals affirmed, “Jesus’ death has no impact on my eternal life.”

Not surprisingly, 86 percent of traditionalists believe “the only way to salvation is through a relationship with Jesus.” Only 64 percent of moderates and 54 percent of liberals agreed. More than 35 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals believe “there are ways to salvation that do not involve Jesus.”

In accordance with an orthodox perspective, 98 percent of conservatives “believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Meanwhile, 90 percent of moderates and 81 percent of progressives believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Here again, the official teachings of our church affirm that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God, so that we could have eternal life. Our teachings hold that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. The divergence indicated by the survey answers pinpoints a need for clearer teaching of the main essentials of our faith.

The fact that so many moderates and progressives believe in multiple ways of salvation is a key factor in the decline of evangelism in the church. Why focus so much on Jesus if he is not essential to our salvation?

Conclusion

There is nothing more at the heart of our Christian faith than our understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. It is encouraging that super-majorities of United Methodists hold to orthodox, traditional theological understandings.

Still, significant minorities of our members believe that Jesus is not God, calling into question the Trinitarian heart of our faith. This includes a significant number of progressives denying the virgin birth of Christ (one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed). Large numbers think that Jesus committed sins, just like the rest of humanity. And significant percentages do not believe Jesus will return to earth someday (another article of the Apostles’ Creed).

Next week, we will look at other beliefs of grass-roots United Methodists.