Archives for July 2019

Exclusionary Politics, Money, and Statistics

It’s all about the money. That could have been the title of the latest opinion piece from Mainstream UMC. And of course, beneath the issue of dollars is the issue of power and control. The central question is whether, in the name of including LGBTQ persons in marriage and ordained ministry, the church is willing to exclude millions of United Methodists outside the U.S.

Underlying a bewildering onslaught of statistics in the Mainstream piece is this message: We moderates and progressives contribute the money that funds this denomination, so we should control the church. The subtext is that traditionalists (what the piece calls “WCA conferences” in an attempt to target the Wesleyan Covenant Association) are disloyal to The United Methodist Church because they allegedly contributed a lower percentage of apportionments and a lower total of dollars than moderate and progressive annual conferences. The implication is that these disloyal traditionalists should just leave the UM Church, since they do not want to support it financially anyway, and stop trying to force their outmoded theology on the rest of us.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Holland uses this latest blog and fundraising letter on behalf of Mainstream UMC to cast this spin on the reports of election of delegates to General Conference compared with the amount and percentage of apportionments paid by each annual conference.

Of course, the reality is more complicated and nuanced. Any serious analyst of annual conference apportionment giving would agree. There are solidly traditionalist annual conferences that pay full apportionments, including one annual conference that pays 113 percent – the highest rate of any annual conference. And there are progressive annual conferences that pay lower percentages than most. The reasons for conferences not to pay full apportionments range from not receiving those moneys from local churches to the decision not to cannibalize annual conference resources to support the general church to ideological concerns on both the progressive and traditionalist ends of the spectrum.

Contrary to Holland’s rhetorical sleights-of-hand, there is no such thing as a “WCA conference” or a “WCA bishop.” The WCA does not control annual conference finances, nor has it called for the withholding of apportionments (contrary to some progressive leaders who have called for such withholding). Giving decisions are being made by hundreds of thousands of individual United Methodists and thousands of congregations. There is no organized movement on the traditionalist side to withhold or redirect apportionments. Again, this is contrary to recent moves after St. Louis by some progressives, including at least one annual conference that makes official provision for withholding general church apportionments.

The reality of our current situation makes Holland’s flashy color-coded maps of the United States seem overblown.

Regardless of the numbers, fair-minded people should thoroughly examine the underlying presuppositions of Holland’s argument.

One presupposition is that those who give the money ought to call the shots. Money represents power. What makes many U.S. progressives and moderates nervous is that in the next eight to twelve years, the membership growth in Africa will be at a tipping point when it overshadows the decline in North America. At that point, the Africans may control budgetary decisions in how the church’s money is spent. This fear of losing control of the money is prompting many centrists and progressives to reconsider the value of belonging to a global church.

(In my experience, African church leaders are very grateful for the financial support for mission and ministry that U.S. churches provide. Primarily concerned with clergy training, orphanages, hospitals, and schools, they have no desire to take advantage of that support and our goodwill by demanding what we cannot provide. Their desire is to work in equal collaboration, not as junior partners in our relationship.)

Make no mistake about it, money, justice, and control should be openly discussed. These are biblical and ethical issues addressed throughout the Scriptures. However, it is ironic to hear concern about finances and power articulated at the annual conference and global levels, yet denied at the local level. For years, traditionalist church members have been repeatedly told to give their money to the church and trust the church to know how best to spend that money. Any attempt by local members to channel their giving in ways that church leaders deem “unacceptable” is frowned upon and often actively resisted. Local church members are not able to control how their money is spent. They have only one choice: give or not give (and of course the amount).

After many years of seeing their money fund causes and political stances by the church that they do not agree with, many traditionalists have chosen to redirect or to reduce their giving. Now in response to the St. Louis General Conference, many progressives are exercising the same choice to protest a stance by the global church that they disagree with.

How this plays out in the current conflict in our church is that some progressives and moderates apparently believe it is poor stewardship to give money to support parts of the church they believe are doing harm to LGBTQ people and their allies. They are exercising a choice that many traditionalists have made for years, being unwilling to support parts of the church that violate their consciences.

Holland states, “There seem to be a lot of local churches in these [more traditionalist] conferences that are simply not invested in our global mission. Leaving is just the next step.” Does that mean that progressive annual conferences and local churches currently withholding the general church apportionments are not invested in the church’s global mission? Is the Rev. Adam Hamilton not invested in the church’s global mission because his church is reportedly withholding half its multi-million-dollar apportionments until the end of the year? Are the half-dozen annual conferences that formed task forces to explore the possibility of leaving The United Methodist Church not invested in the church’s global mission?

Holland’s characterizations ring hollow when the tables are turned in his rhetorical exercise.

Good News supports the proposition that United Methodists should not be compelled to financially support ministry that violates their consciences. But Holland should not pretend that traditionalists are the only ones who do so, nor that exercising conscientious stewardship is disloyalty to the denomination that means we should forfeit our voice.

It is not disloyalty to the church that is causing people to withhold or redirect their giving. It is mistrust in the leadership of the church and the decisions made about how to spend money. UMCOR universally receives overwhelming support because it spends its money to help those in need – a cause nearly everyone agrees on. Givers want to be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them, and are increasingly unwilling to write “blank checks” to the church.

That leads to the second controversial presupposition in Holland’s piece: the speculative claim that progressive/moderate annual conferences fund 78 percent of the global church’s budget and his belief that progressives and moderates should therefore determine the beliefs and direction of the church.

To put it simply, that is not how The United Methodist Church works. Responsible centrist and progressive leaders know this is true. Dollars are not votes. The rich do not get to dictate to the poor. The wealthy West does not get to overrule the voices of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Holland has already made his feelings clear when he wrote about “Five Reasons to Consider a U.S. Church” that would break apart the global UM Church along national lines. His latest piece continues the same line of reasoning, using the resources of the U.S. church to discount United Methodists in other nations. In many circles, that perspective comes across as boilerplate colonialism. It is one thing for those who have resources to set a boundary on what they are able and willing to afford spending. It is another thing to use those resources to dictate how the church should operate. We rightly decry this abuse of power in local churches. Why not in our global church?

Finally, it defies logic to blame the WCA for a shortfall in current apportionments and then criticize the WCA for raising funds to help make up the shortfall. Here, Holland is confusing apples and oranges. The shortfall in general church apportionments is not a new phenomenon. Reasonable centrist and progressive leaders know that to be true. It is caused by local churches and annual conferences across the theological spectrum for a variety of reasons, and it affects the total ministry of the church.

What is new is progressive and moderate individuals and annual conferences who had previously committed to fund specific mission work in Africa and Russia suddenly pulling the funding after the 2019 General Conference explicitly in response to the church’s decision to maintain the traditional biblical stance on marriage and sexuality. It is this shortfall that the WCA Central Conference Ministry Fund is designed to help remedy. The WCA did not cause the shortfall but is doing the responsible thing by attempting to supply assistance to central conference mission work that is jeopardized by progressives and moderates exercising their conscience-driven decision.

The big picture takeaway from all of this is that we have a demonstration of the impossibility of various parts of the church living together and sharing a common mission. Many U.S. Methodists have come to the point where they can no longer financially support those parts of the church they believe cause harm to LGBTQ people and allies. At the same time, many other U.S. Methodists can no longer financially support a church structure that not only fails to defend a traditional biblical sexual ethic, but also actively supports disobedience and defiance of the church’s requirements, decided globally by the only body with the authority to speak for the whole church.

Some moderates and progressives can discount our non-U.S. members as less than equal or not worthy of full participation in the processes of the church. However, our brothers and sisters outside the U.S. bring a needed corrective to the cultural myopia that afflicts our theology and practice of ministry. And we can do the same for them. As such, central conference leaders and members are valued and equal partners in the global ministry of The United Methodist Church, regardless of how much money each of us brings to the table.




The Distortion Continues

Every person is to be highly valued. That value makes it important to listen to every voice, whether critical or supportive, to discern which elements in what they say would be helpful in understanding their perspective and/or refining our own.

That is why it is important to listen and respond appropriately to a recent internet open letter from 70 alumni of Asbury Theological Seminary critical of their seminary for supporting the Traditional Plan. That plan, which was enacted by the 2019 General Conference and is now part of our Book of Discipline, maintains the biblical teaching that the definition of marriage is between one man and one woman and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for heterosexual marriage. It also attempts to increase clergy accountability.

Of course, it is not surprising that some alumni of a large and historic seminary like Asbury actually disagreed with some of the things they were taught. Although I did not study at Asbury, my experience has proven that its graduates are thoughtful and independent thinkers. They do not march in rigid lockstep. The intellectual commitments of the school encourage such independent and critical thinking.

The dissent letter has caused a recent dustup on United Methodist social media. Ironically, 70 signatures represent less than one-fourth of one year’s graduating class of United Methodist students at Asbury. Some on the list graduated as long as 50 years ago. Considering that Asbury has literally tens of thousands of United Methodist graduates over the decades, the small number makes the story search for newsworthiness.

More importantly, does the critique merit our attention?

The dissent letter states: “The [Traditional] plan also enforces harsh penalties through mandatory minimum sentences against LGBTQ+ leaders and LGBTQ+ allies. These are the same kind of sentences used in the United States criminal justice system that created mass incarceration, particularly among people of color in the United States. Stunningly, though the United Methodist Church opposes mandatory minimum sentences in the U.S. criminal justice system, the church will be utilizing these kinds of sentences to purge LGBTQ+ leaders out of its fellowship. The Traditional Plan is unbiblical in its construct and in its implementation.”

The authors of the letter fail to recognize that mandatory minimum sentences are a last resort action to regain accountability to the church’s requirements. Over the last several years, numerous instances of clergy openly and sometimes defiantly performing same-sex weddings resulted in no meaningful consequences for such actions. If the accountability system in place for the past 40 years had worked, there would have been no need for mandatory minimum sentences. If those who swore to uphold and be obedient to the Discipline had kept their oaths, there would have been no need for mandatory minimum sentences. It seems unfair to blame the church for trying to enforce its rules when those doing the blaming are the ones breaking the rules.

The dissent letter compares the church’s mandatory minimum sentences to those imposed by U.S. federal and state governments resulting in “mass incarceration.” This kind of overheated and nonsensical rhetoric is unhelpful and distorts our current reality. There is no United Methodist “mass incarceration.” There have been less than a handful of instances over the last 30 years when a clergy person received a meaningful consequence for performing a same-sex wedding or union. The “mass incarceration” rhetoric is clever, but deceptive.

The letter’s clumsy attempt to connect the church’s teaching about marriage and human sexuality to secular justice practices that could unfairly affect “people of color” is a ridiculous attempt to paint biblical teaching as akin to racism. Racism is reprehensible and must be continually combatted by all people of good will, including United Methodists of all theological stripes. But to implicitly compare the church’s biblical teachings, affirming over 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian doctrine, to racism is to stoop to character assassination.

In the most recent issue of Good News Magazine, Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, makes this important point: “[I]t is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages, belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and including even more diverse peoples and ethnicities today than at any time in the history of the world.”

Additionally, the ecumenical consensus of Christianity around the globe strongly supports the traditional and historic teachings on marriage and sexuality.

The dissent letter claims, “the church will be utilizing these kinds of sentences to purge LGBTQ+ leaders out of its fellowship.” On the contrary, The United Methodist Church welcomes all people, including LGBTQ+ persons, into its fellowship, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s redeeming grace. The “purge” rhetoric is one more misdirection.

The letter continues, “As we learned at our time at Asbury, to persecute people for who they are — for who God has created them to be — is a denial of the Imago Dei within each person. To stand in judgment over others and to attempt a systematic purge [misdirection again] of LGBTQ+ people through a series of complaints and trials is sin.”

Here we reach the nub of the disagreement. Genesis reminds us that God created us male and female for each other (the opening words of the Service of Christian Marriage). That original creative intent has been spoiled by the sin and brokenness that affect all humanity and all of creation (Romans 8:18-25).

The answer to sin is not to accept the behavior and redefine it as acceptable to God (Isaiah 5:20). Rather, the answer to sin is repentance, redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ, and transformation of heart and life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is this deep theological disagreement over whether God created people to be LGBTQ+ and whether such sexual behavior is sin, that causes the divide among us. The two views are incompatible with each other.

The dissent concludes, “It is indeed far past time for members of the Body of Christ to rid ourselves of theologies and missional practices that deny the Missio Dei and which cause harm to others.” It takes quite a lot of nerve to call all the church fathers and mothers, teachers and theologians for the past 3,000 years sinful and causing harm because they adhered to the scriptural teaching that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to God’s will. On what basis would the authors have us adopt their understanding of the Missio Dei (mission of God in the world), as opposed to the one put forward by countless generations of Christian teachers and leaders?

Let’s be clear, no seminary is above critique. The traditional understanding of Scripture is not above critique. The Traditional Plan itself was imperfect, and critique leading to its improvement is welcome. However, the dissent letter offers no constructive critique — only name-calling. There is no engagement of the issues. It offers no theological undergirding for its criticism.

The letter offers yet another example that parts of the church are operating under completely different theological worldviews, unable to communicate effectively with each other. It is this disconnect that is causing untold harm to the church and to God’s mission through the church. It demonstrates why the most effective and healthiest way forward is not to paper over this disconnect, but to acknowledge it as insurmountable. We need to find a gracious and loving way to walk separately according to our divergent worldviews. That would be far preferable than continuing to battle for control, engage in political gamesmanship, or call each other names. These behaviors (engaged in by all “sides”) are not worthy of the Body of Christ.

Traditionalists are working with persons of differing theological perspectives toward an agreed-upon proposal that would end the fighting in the church and set all “sides” free to pursue authentic and life-giving ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, according to each particular understanding of the Gospel. Pray for this endeavor, as the 2020 General Conference seems to be our last best hope for an amicable solution to turn from conflict to focused disciple-making, world-transforming ministry.

British Methodists Take Steps Toward Progressive Sexual Ethic

Methodist Central Hall in London

In an action taken July 3, the British Methodist Conference voted 247-48 to approve a report titled God in Love Unites Us. The report marks a “watershed moment in the life of the Methodist Church in Britain,” according to Methodist Evangelicals Together, the British Methodist renewal group.

The report includes these proposals:

  • Allow same-sex couples to marry in British Methodist churches, changing the definition of marriage to “two people” from “one man and one woman”
  • Celebrate civil partnerships of the same sex or opposite sex with church liturgies and prayers
  • Profess understanding for couples who cohabit without marriage, providing prayers for blessing their relationships, thereby abandoning Christian teaching that the sexual relationship is to be reserved only for marriage

Regional district conferences will now discuss these proposals and the full report before final approval would be enacted at the 2020 British Methodist conference. Anticipating that final approval, a task group is already at work developing the requisite prayers and liturgies.

The conference’s action is not a surprise, given that the report notes, “the Conference has already decided that there is no reason why any member, ordained or lay, may not enter into a (same-sex) civil partnership or same-sex marriage.” So married or partnered lesbians or gays can already serve as clergy in British Methodism.

How this action creates a “watershed” is in its change of the definition of marriage and its change in the formal understanding of human sexuality no longer being reserved for marriage. These changes have caused the Anglican Church of Britain to slow down plans for mutual recognition of ministry and eventual reunion between the Anglicans and Methodists in Britain.

The British Methodist proposal also envisions the possibility of “hold[ing] together in practice as a Christ-centred community of equal persons who hold differing convictions about relationships and marriage.” This idea is very similar to the One Church Plan approach rejected by the 2019 United Methodist General Conference.

The evangelical critique of the British Methodist proposal calls the report “unbalanced” and faults it for:

  • Failing to fully account for Scriptural teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to recognize two millennia of consistent Church teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to attend to the voices of Methodists and other Christians around the world today, placing the British proposal outside the mainstream of global Christian teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who choose a life of celibacy in obedience to the church’s teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who “have entered into traditional marriages and found God’s call to them there”
  • Ignoring the experience of Jesus, a single, celibate Jewish rabbi, and of the apostle Paul, who also lived a single, celibate life

The evangelical critique responds, “The notion that sexual ethics can be an area of legitimate disagreement within the Church is one that needs to be challenged. For Paul, as for all the early Christians, the call to holiness involves the call to sexual purity. Indeed, ‘sexual immorality’ – sex outside the bond of marriage – is consistently included within the lists of sins from which Christians need to flee.”

The critique echoes the same objections that Good News leveled against the One Church Plan. “Even if they would not be required to marry same-sex couples, Methodist ministers will be asked to commit to a new teaching on marriage that contradicts their convictions. Many will find it impossible to do so. Methodist local preachers and other lay people will also find it difficult to teach the biblical view of marriage, and their desire to appoint ministers who continue to hold the traditional view could be dismissed as homophobic. The Church would adopt a teaching on marriage that many would deem is unfaithful.”

The critique continues, “If the Methodist Church adopts a centrally authorised liturgy that offers marriage to same-sex couples or affirms God’s blessing on cohabiting partners, then it is difficult to deny that this is what the Church believes and affirms. Even if individual members dissent from using this liturgy, they will be part of a church that has significantly changed its teaching on sexuality and relationships, and ultimately on holiness. A ‘mixed economy’ model will not work. The Church is not called to accommodate two different approaches to holiness in its midst, but must rather remain faithful to the biblical teaching on marriage.”

“Far from offering a way forward for the Church, God In Love Unites Us threatens to separate Methodism from its biblical foundations. The report fails to help Methodists live more faithfully before God, and hinders the calling of the Church to ‘spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.'”

The critique concludes, “Any move away from the [current church teaching] will deliberately fracture the unity of the Church and place a number of those who have entered, in good faith, into a covenant relationship with the Church in an untenable position. It is inevitable that changes within society will pose new questions which the Church must seek to answer. However, rather than changing its teaching to fit those developments, the task of the Church is to interpret the developments in the light of its historic, biblical teaching, and thus preserve its unity.”

Our British Methodist cousins are engaged in the same struggle in which we United Methodists are currently involved. The changes proposed by their conference are even more far-reaching than those proposed in our church. We continue to pray for our British cousins as they work through the next year of discernment. We encourage them to know they are not alone in wrestling with these difficult issues. It remains to be seen how the Brits will move forward, but they may find themselves with the same fracturing we are currently experiencing.

Our trust is in God, and our hope and prayer is that out of the fracturing will come more robust and effective expressions of global Methodism.




The Consent of the Governed

It is a concept entrenched in modern Western culture that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence, United States). To be governed without our consent is the definition of what the Declaration calls tyranny, or in modern terms we would call dictatorship (by either an individual or a powerful group).

While the church is a completely unique entity compared to a national government, this understanding applies to our denomination, as well. Clergy voluntarily assent to submit to the government of the church by taking vows of ordination. Laity voluntarily submit to the government of the church by affirming the vows of baptism and church membership.

It has become strikingly evident over the past several months that a significant part of The United Methodist Church no longer gives its consent to be governed by the church, despite those vows. German and Scandinavian church leaders have declared they will investigate becoming autonomous churches rather than submit to the decisions of the St. Louis General Conference. Several bishops in the U.S. have announced that they will ignore what the General Conference enacted and operate their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed. Up to a half-dozen practicing homosexuals have been ordained or commissioned in U.S. annual conferences in defiance of the longstanding prohibition in our Book of Discipline. Over a dozen U.S. annual conferences have passed resolutions rejecting the decisions made by the St. Louis General Conference.

Influential mega-church pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, has stated, “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” How exactly does that play out when thousands of local United Methodist congregations say the exact same thing, withholding apportionments and resisting pastoral appointments?

How can The United Methodist Church continue without the consent of its bishops, annual conferences, clergy, and members?

In the colonial era, the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that, when a form of government no longer has the consent of the governed or becomes destructive to the purposes for which that government was established, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That was the justification for the American Revolution.

This spring, in response to the General Conference decisions, the moderate and progressive wings of the church in the U.S. and parts of Europe have decided to revolt against the government of the church and to establish a different foundation on principles amenable to the majority of church members in those parts of the church. We see this in the examples of disobedience cited above and calls to “resist.” In addition, those favoring same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons are determined to reverse the outcome of St. Louis through the perfectly acceptable means of electing more progressive General Conference delegates in some annual conferences.

Yet were the progressive/moderate coalition able to undo what General Conference decided, either explicitly or implicitly allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination, the traditional wing of the church in the U.S., Africa, the Philippines, and parts of Europe would no longer be able to grant the church their consent to be governed by a policy that they see as a direct contradiction of Scripture. The current situation would simply be reversed, with a different group withholding consent.

Even if the 2020 General Conference continues to affirm the traditional definition of marriage and sexual ethics, progressives have stated they will refuse to abide by the church’s policies. Based on apparent success in electing progressive and moderate delegates to the Jurisdictional Conferences, they believe they will have the votes to elect at least a dozen bishops who will refuse to enforce the church’s standards and will carry on the revolution.

Our church is now unquestionably in a constitutional crisis, where our ecclesiastical framework appears to be unable to resolve the conflict. We have two irreconcilable positions, and one faction is willfully choosing to violate the constitutionally established processes of the church. “Resist” is the mantra of the moment, but this will lead to long-term ecclesiastical paralysis, loss of legitimacy, and eventual collapse.

We have one part of the church government (some bishops and annual conferences) choosing to willfully violate church law established by another part of the church government (General Conference) operating under its constitutional authority. This after the law was affirmed by a third part of church government (Judicial Council). So we have different parts of church government operating against each other. What makes this a crisis is that there appears to be no mechanism for resolving the dispute, since some no longer accept the authority of General Conference and see it as “illegitimate.”

There is a safety valve for the church to deal with irreconcilable conflict, in that the church is a voluntary association of like-minded people. When people are no longer of like mind, they can choose not to associate (or can disassociate). Many tens of thousands of United Methodist lay members have chosen over the past 25 years to disassociate from a church they no longer agree with. Many have left because the church has become too progressive, while others have left because the church has remained committed to a traditional reading of Scripture.

Since the current church government has lost the consent of a large group in the church, it cannot continue the way it is. One group will not consent to a church government that does not allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Another group will not consent to a church government that does allow those things. So that means at least two new church governments will need to be established – one for progressives and one for conservatives. Whether either group will need to split into more factions is yet to be determined.

It is difficult for many to accept that we have reached this point. However, by their actions and statements, many progressives and moderates have established that they can no longer bear with the traditional position that has been consistently affirmed by our General Conference for 47 years. They are unwilling to allow the church to insist that its bishops and clergy function according to the General Conference’s reading of Scripture and under the General Conference’s authority.

There is no way to force people to accept a church government that they cannot in good conscience support. Nor would it be at all desirable to do so. Therefore, we must accept the fact that a separation must occur in our church. That separation can be done amicably or it can be done contentiously. One way or another, however, it must happen. We can no longer think that unity under a single church government is possible.