Responding to Misconceptions about the Bishops’ Commission

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

By Thomas Lambrecht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright Spots in a Confusing Decision

By Thomas Lambrecht

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

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

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

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

Judicial Council, UMNS

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

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

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

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

The Commission, Round 2

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

The Commission on a Way Forward for the Church was established in order to examine the current United Methodist position on marriage and sexuality and explore all options that would promote unity while respecting the theological integrity of our denomination and its members. To that end, the two meetings we have experienced have been positive and productive. Commission members are appreciative of the well-organized and responsive leadership from our three moderators, Bishops Sandra Steiner-Ball, Ken Carter, and David Yemba.

As a commission, we have covenanted to certain boundaries around our behavior toward one another and what we can share publicly. While it is understandable that the proceedings of the commission not be public, this covenant has helped us built trust and relationship.

At our recent meeting, Bishop Woodie White shared about his experience with the Central Jurisdiction, which was a segregated (all-Black) jurisdiction that was dismantled in the 1968 merger. While not equating homosexuality with racism, White hoped that we could learn from the commitment to unity that overcame differences at the 1968 General Conference.

We also heard from church historian Russell Richey, who described for us the history of separation and disunity in the Methodist Church from its founding. According to Richey, in every decade from 1780 to 1890 the church experienced a structural separation or division of some kind. Each one led to increased growth and vitality in the separate bodies (for the most part), rather than leading to decline. From 1890 on, however, the emphasis shifted to church unity, with two major mergers. Division within the church did not end during those years, but was expressed through the formation of caucuses and other interest groups advocating for a point of view within the church, rather than some form of structural separation. The inward focus of mergers and in-fighting, however, has led to continual decline since the 1960s.

From my perspective, it seems as though sometimes we are better off separating, so that the separate groups can pursue ministry free of the baggage of conflict, and that historically separation has led to growth, rather than decline.

The Commission has been divided into work teams. For example, my team delved into the way other mainline denominations handled the conflict over the role of LGBTQ persons in the church. Most of them handled the conflict badly, resulting in ugly court battles and hostile separation that left both the denominations and the separating entities weakened. Our prayer is that United Methodism’s destiny be different from that of our sister denominations. We can learn from their mistakes and handle the conflict in a more Christ-honoring and constructive way. I believe that is the shared goal of the entire Commission.

It has been important and informative for the Commission to learn of the different contexts of culture and ministry in the various central conferences—Europe, The Philippines, and Africa. Each of these is not monolithic, but we have gained insight from our central conference members regarding their experience and their culture’s viewpoint on human sexuality and homosexuality. Any proposal from our Commission will need to factor in the viewpoints of the central conferences and how the proposal might affect their ability to do ministry.

Although we come from drastically differing perspectives, we have been able to be open and honest with each other. Evangelicals and progressives on the Commission have been able to express what we can live with and what we cannot live with in terms of a resolution to this crisis in our church.

In addition to issues related to LGBTQ persons, commissioners have also noted the even greater demographic crisis that is leading to a more precipitous decline in the U.S. church than projected by the General Council on Finance and Administration. The energy and resources absorbed by the conflict are energy and resources that are not channeled into revitalizing our church.

We seek the renewal of the church and God’s mission, not simply the lesser goal of solving the present impasse. Our focus is on the fruitfulness, vitality, and mission of the church. The Commission desires that a solution that resolves the impasse over homosexuality should also set the framework for a way to revitalize the church and lead us back to growth once again. This will take much prayer and a divine move from God.

The work of the Commission is embedded in prayer, worship, and Bible study. We were blessed to participate in Ash Wednesday services during our recent meeting. Commission members are leading us in Bible study around the book of Galatians. We acknowledge and are very grateful for the prayer and support that we are receiving from the church. Each week, different annual conferences are lifting up the work and members of the Commission in concentrated prayer. I have repeatedly heard from friends and colleagues that they are praying for us and for our meeting.

In order to go forward, we need to depend upon the grace of God through the Holy Spirit to lead us. The Lord will need to work not only in the hearts and minds of Commissioners, but across the church, as we choose a new way forward in the months ahead. Thank you for your input and prayer support!

Reflections on the First Commission Meeting

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

I approached my first meeting as a member of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church with trepidation, if not fear and trembling. The commission has an enormous and consequential task ahead of it — find a way forward to resolving the impasse between progressives and traditionalists over the church’s stance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It was somewhat gratifying that nearly every other commissioner at the meeting shared the same sense of the overwhelming challenge we face, yet remained open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to find that elusive path between the proverbial rock and hard place.

That sober yet hopeful attitude characterized our first meeting last month in Atlanta, Georgia.

The commission is capably by the commission’s moderators: Bishops Ken Carter, Sandra Steiner-Ball, and David Yemba, along with their staff resource person Gil Rendle. They crafted a productive agenda that did not waste time. While the schedule allowed for some “get-acquainted” activities by commissioners, it quickly moved into work mode, as we discussed the outcomes we want to see from our work and began to sketch out what we will need to learn in order to achieve those outcomes. Small-group processes enabled us to both hear everyone’s voice and get to know each other more deeply a few at a time. The moderators adjusted the agenda and topics to address the needs and desires of the commission. Their goal really is to serve the commission and help our work to be effective.

With members from four continents, several ethnic groups, and a wide range of ages, theological perspectives, and multiple sexual orientations, the commission is indeed the most diverse body assembled in the church, other than General Conference itself. That is an appropriate reality, considering that our denomination experiences diverse realities, such as precipitous decline in parts of the United States and rapid growth in parts of The Philippines and Africa.

It will be a challenge for such a diverse group to come to agreement on a resolution of our crisis that allows us to move forward as a church. Strongly held, diametrically opposite views on essential matters will make consensus difficult. So far, the group is approaching the disagreements with goodwill and a desire to understand. As personal emotional investment comes to the surface, that goodwill will be tested, and the commission will continue to need the church’s prayers for a constructive relationship in the group that can lead to resolution. At the same time, from the beginning the commissioners have acknowledged our need to settle on an approach that can pass General Conference. Members’ idealism will need to be tempered by pragmatism.

One commissioner recently wrote, “The Commission is not exploring ‘whether’ LGBTQ persons will be fully-included in the life of The UMC, but ‘how’” we include them. Yet allowing same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in some parts of The United Methodist Church would violate the consciences of many traditionalists and be unacceptable. A variety of different approaches will be on the table. These are the kind of pragmatic realities that the commission will be wrestling with.

The commission is just beginning its work and has a lot of ground to cover, as we examine such things as the theological foundations of our unity and identity as global United Methodists and discover how other denominations have navigated the same challenge we face. While these issues take the forefront of our attention, we are also mindful of the worsening decline of membership and worship attendance in United Methodism in the U.S. and our need to provide a way for the revitalization of our church in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We face a tall challenge, and only the grace of God and the prayers of our church will enable us to work our way to a successful outcome.

Living Out of Defiance

revolution-fists

Revolution by Alex Halsey – Flickr.com http://bit.ly/2hl6GWE

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

About a month ago, the New York Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) posted an open letter  reiterating its intention to maintain a policy of accepting self-avowed practicing homosexuals as candidates for ministry. The letter was responding to the October Judicial Council decision to require Bishop Jane Middleton to rule on whether the BOOM had correctly followed the requirements of the Book of Discipline when it recommended candidates for ordained ministry who were self-avowed practicing homosexuals. The bishop still has to rule and the Judicial Council will review that ruling at its April 2017 meeting.

The BOOM letter is instructive because it appears to do two things:

  1. It appears to pledge that the New York Annual Conference will continue to act in defiance of the Discipline when it comes to ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
  2. It demonstrates that there are two different understandings of the teachings of the church and of the way our church is organized and governed.

In its response to the Judicial Council decision, the BOOM declared that “the Board of Ordained Ministry of the [New York Annual Conference] will continue to discern and celebrate the Spirit-given gifts and graces for ministry in all candidates who come before us, giving equal consideration and protection to our LGBTQI brothers and sisters.  We celebrate with joy the value, dignity, and sacred worth of all LGBTQI people, affirm the God-given gifts that they bring to the church and support their call from God to use their gifts and graces to serve Christ, and all people’s [sic] especially those at the margins of our society.” These are essentially the same words that announced the original policy of the BOOM that has been challenged before the Judicial Council. In other words, the BOOM is reiterating its intention to operate under the challenged policy, regardless of the bishop’s upcoming ruling and the Judicial Council’s subsequent review.

An earlier public draft of the letter affirmed “BOOM will continue to push the boundaries of any limitations and restrictions put upon us.” That is precisely the problem that The United Methodist Church faces today: the determination of progressive ideologues to continue “pushing boundaries” and living in defiance of church law until they get their way. These actions are causing the schism within United Methodism and threatening our church with separation. It is progressives who are trying to nullify biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality, yet conservatives continually get unfairly blamed as those causing schism simply because we will not let progressives have their way.

What surfaces in the open letter at a deeper level is the awareness that we have two completely different understandings of what it means to be the church and to be in ministry. The BOOM believes it is the role of the church to “affirm and celebrate the full inclusion” of various groups of people (in this case, LGBTQI persons). With all due respect, this is to apply identity politics to the Church of Jesus Christ. We have become so focused on inclusion, that we have forgotten the main mission of the church, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Christ’s invitation is to all persons (in the old language, “whosoever will”). But not all persons are “affirmed” or “included”—only those who respond in faith. God’s love extends to all persons, but not everyone will respond positively to God’s love (read the book of Revelation). As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to love everyone, but we cannot “affirm” or “include” all behaviors, attractions, desires, and lifestyles.

The church’s role is to call all people to respond to God’s loving grace through Jesus Christ to die to self and live for Christ, to become a new person, to grow more and more like Jesus, reflecting the kind of life that Jesus lived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus called all persons to repentance and faith, and he welcomed all sinners (all of us), yet without endorsing their (our) sinful desires or behaviors.

The BOOM appears to endorse the idea that if a person has a strong desire or attraction, it must be good and godly. That is theologically backward, since we know that our desires and attractions have been corrupted by sin and cannot be trusted. In the words of our creed, “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (Articles of Religion, Article VII). To delineate same-sex behavior as contrary to Christian teaching no more diminishes the value or humanity of LGBTQI people than delineating lying, theft, or greed as contrary to Christian teaching diminishes the value or humanity of people who engage in those behaviors. We are all supremely valuable—valuable enough for God to send his only Son to live and die and rise again for us! Every person, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is a valuable human being whose humanity has been broken by sin and is in need of the forgiveness and healing work of God. The BOOM letter distorts the theological teachings of the church about our human condition and the role of the church.

Not only does the BOOM letter betray a completely different theological understanding of the role and mission of the church, it also betrays a completely different understanding of our church’s polity and governance. The letter states, “This decision reveals a misguided understanding of the role of the Board of Ordained Ministry as an agency of the Annual Conference in The United Methodist Church. Though bound by specific responsibilities and guidelines, BOOM does not operate in a vacuum. We are amenable and accountable to the Clergy Session and to the Annual Conference.”

By referring to the Discipline’s requirements as “guidelines,” the BOOM declares its willingness to “push the boundaries” or go outside the “guidelines” as it deems advisable. Essentially, the BOOM has already, in its policy, enacted the “local option.” The Clergy Session and the Annual Conference can determine what qualifications are used to discern who should be ordained into the United Methodist ministry and which ones can safely be ignored. But that is not the way our church is set up.

The General Conference speaks for the whole church and is the only body authorized to do so. It has established requirements that must be met by anyone entering ordained ministry, whether in New York or Berlin or Manila or Lubumbashi. Every ordained United Methodist clergy person has met those qualifications. Except now the New York Annual Conference has decided that it wants to establish its own set of qualifications and standards.

Progressives have tried for many years to convince the General Conference to delete the requirement that all ordained clergy should exhibit “fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness,” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Since they have been unsuccessful in convincing the General Conference to delete these requirements, many progressives have decided to ignore them. That is what this ruling of law is about—the question of whether an annual conference BOOM can legally ignore requirements it disagrees with. The answer is and will be “no.”

Those who are unwilling to live within the boundaries established by our church are not forced to remain United Methodist. They are free to advocate for changing those boundaries, but they are not free to ignore or circumvent them. They promised their willingness to live by our polity and doctrine when they were ordained, but now they willingly break those vows. In doing so, they compromise not only their own integrity, but the integrity of the whole denomination. Apparently, our denominational “rules” are now subject to each person’s whim as to whether or not they will be followed (see Book of Discipline, ¶ 330.5d and ¶ 336).

I am confident that the Judicial Council will rule that boards of ordained ministry must ensure that all the candidates they recommend for ordination do meet the qualifications set forth in the Discipline. Given this recent letter from the New York BOOM, I am not at all confident that United Methodist leaders in various annual conferences will abide by that ruling or agree to live within our United Methodist covenant. If that is the case, the actions of those leaders will have worsened the schism in United Methodism.

Study Demonstrates Connection between Theology and Church Growth

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

macleans

Via Maclean’s

In an article in the Review of Religious Research for December 2016, three researchers identified that Mainline Protestant congregations that are growing exhibited much more conservative theology than those that were declining. In the first empirical study of its kind, the five-year project found that “conservative theological positioning of clergy and attendees is a significant predictor of church growth.

Some previous studies had suggested that theology was not a factor in predicting church growth. However, those studies tended to rely upon asking only one or two questions of a single informant (usually the pastor). This new study surveyed entire congregations and asked many specific questions about religious beliefs and practices.

According to the press statement accompanying the study: “Over 2,200 regular Mainline Protestant church-goers from a mix of Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches in the province of Ontario were surveyed for the research with about half from declining congregations and half from growing. All clergy from the participating churches were also surveyed and interviewed. Via email and phone, a sample of over 125 congregants from the larger pool were interviewed as was a separate subsample of 70 new attendees of the growing churches.”

Written by researchers Dr. David Millard Haskell (Wilfrid Laurier University), Dr. Kevin Flatt (Redeemer University College), and Dr. Stephanie Burgoyne (Wilfrid Laurier University), the article is titled: “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.”

“One of the greatest obstacles to this study was finding Mainline Protestant churches that were growing,” observes Dr. Haskell. “However, once we did, we were able to compare the religious beliefs and practices of the growing church attendees and clergy to those of the declining. For all measures, those from the growing Mainline churches held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.”

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Dr. David Millard Haskell

According to the research summary document:

  • “In terms of adherence to conservative theological beliefs (that is, beliefs reflecting a more literal interpretation of scripture and openness to the idea that God intervenes in the world), the pastors of the growing Mainline churches were the most conservative theologically, followed by the growing church attendees, followed by the declining church attendees, and finally the declining church pastors. For example, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb” 93% of growing church pastors agreed, 83% of growing church attendees agreed, 67% of declining church attendees agreed, and just 56% of declining church pastors agreed. When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer” 100% of the growing church pastors agreed, 90% of the growing church attendees agreed, 80% of the declining church attendees agreed, and just 44% of the declining church pastors agreed.

  • “Attendees of the growing Mainline churches engage more regularly in personal religious practices. For example, 46% of the growing church attendees read their Bibles once a week or more versus 26% of the declining church congregants.
  • “Clergy of the growing Mainline churches engage more regularly in personal religious practices. For example, 71% of the growing church pastors read their Bibles daily versus 19% of the declining church pastors.
  • “Growing church clergy and congregants are more focused on bringing new members into the Christian faith (that is, more focused on evangelism) than declining. For example, 100% of the growing church pastors agreed “It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians” and 78% of the growing church attendees agreed, while just 56% of the declining church congregants agreed and only 50% of the declining church pastors. Furthermore, when asked to describe the purpose or mission of their church, growing church attendees most often spoke of evangelism, while it was most common for declining church attendees to name various and separate social justice activities as the purpose but without reference to religious motivation or outcomes.”

“Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” observed Haskell. “But if we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

The study additionally found that “growing Mainline churches featured contemporary worship with drums and guitar in at least one of their Sunday services, while the declining most often used a traditional worship style featuring organ and choir. In the regression analysis the use of contemporary worship was shown to have a significant positive effect on growth. The growing Mainline churches also placed more emphasis on programs for youth than the declining. In the regression analysis, emphasis on youth programming was shown to have a significant positive effect on growth.”

Furthermore, the research showed that “while contemporary worship and emphasis on youth programming both had a significant positive effect on church growth independent of theological conservatism, the authors of the study theorize that the doctrinal conservatism of the growing church clergy and congregants fuels such innovative strategies as contemporary worship and youth programming.”

According to Haskell: “When one’s doctrine reinforces a literal interpretation of such Biblical edicts as ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’ one is more inclined or motivated to use any number of innovative strategies to make the faith accessible to a wider community.”

Good News, The Confessing Movement, and other renewal groups within United Methodism have been saying for years that, in the words of the article’s title, “Theology Matters.” We have noted that areas where conservative theology predominates have been growing or holding steady, while areas where progressive theology predominates have experienced precipitous declines in church membership and attendance. This study demonstrates that our intuition is borne out by empirical evidence.

The researchers who authored the study suggest several possible reasons why conservative theology would have an advantage over liberal theology in promoting church growth. As reported in the research summary:

  • “Religious groups that actively recruit others or ‘evangelize’ will grow; conservative Protestant theology motivates evangelization. ‘Here’s how conservative Protestant theology appears to motivate evangelization,’ explained Haskell. ‘Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are “sure” that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life. They are equally “sure” that their faith has made their own temporal life the best it can be, and that, given the chance, it would do the same for others. Because they are profoundly convinced of these benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church. This desire to reach others also makes conservative Protestants willing to implement innovative measures including changes to the style and content of their worship service.’

  • “People are more likely to be drawn to, and join, groups that radiate friendliness and personal closeness. ‘Several prominent studies in the US have determined that congregations embracing conservative Protestant doctrine, more so than other secular or religious groups, foster acts of altruism and promote social cohesion and feelings of positive relational intimacy,’ explained Flatt.
  • “Conservative Protestant doctrine is strongly linked to personal happiness. ‘Conservative Protestant doctrine, more than liberal Protestantism and certainly more than ‘no religion,’ insists that God is active, loving and close,’ Haskell explained. ‘By extension, feeling that one has a close relationship with a loving God has been shown to be one of the single greatest factors in the promotion of personal happiness. For example, in their “Faith and Happiness” study of people around the world, sociologists Rodney Stark and Jared Maier found people who feel extremely close to God are nearly twice as likely to be happy as those who do not feel near to God. Other peer-reviewed studies in the US have shown that, among the various religious groups in that country, those holding conservative Protestant orientations are the happiest. To connect all the dots… a church with a doctrine that enhances happiness keeps its members and draws others.’
  • “Just as a clear map helps us get where we’re going faster, groups with a clear, unified mission or purpose tend to outcompete groups with ‘foggy’ or wide ranging mission and purpose. Those adhering to conservative Protestant doctrine find unity of purpose through reliance on a common external source: the Bible. They take the claims and ideas of Scripture as authoritative for what should be believed and how life should be lived. Conversely, those of a liberal theological bent reject the idea that there is ‘one right answer’ based on a single, ‘proper,’ scriptural interpretation; for them there are many right answers.”

“In any contest between products or ideas, those that claim to be the ‘best’ or the ‘right one’ or the ‘truth’ have an advantage over others that present themselves as ‘similar to’ or ‘one option among many’,” said Haskell. “Theologically conservative believers feel they have the ‘Truth’ and, while there will never be complete agreement, they are more unified in terms of priorities and purpose. That unity also makes them more confident in their beliefs and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own. Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring, or basically positive is an attractive combination.”

Of course, these sociological explanations leave out the possibility that God is keeping his promise to his people through Isaiah: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). There is power through the proclamation of God’s word, the good news of the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). That power comes from the Holy Spirit, who works through our words and actions to impact people’s lives through our witness (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:18-20).

Evangelicals within The United Methodist Church have consistently advocated for an understanding of the faith rooted in Scripture, 2000 years of Christian tradition, and outlined in our United Methodist doctrinal standards. We have done so because we believe these things to be true. “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16).

But we also believe that the best chance for the Church of Jesus Christ to be fruitful and flourish is through faithfulness to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). This study bears out our contention that a return to a more evangelical understanding of the faith will help our church arrest its decline and begin to grow, once again. “[God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). The Lord wants everyone to hear and to come to life-transforming faith in Jesus Christ. When we offer that consistent witness, people will respond!

Links to articles related to the study:

The Guardian

Maclean’s

Religion News Service

OneNews Now

Faithwire

 

 

 

Is the Tupper Just Resolution Overreach?

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By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

My colleague Walter Fenton recently reported on the “just resolution” that was reached in September over a complaint filed against the Rev. Michael Tupper of the West Michigan Annual Conference. Tupper had performed a second same-sex marriage after having agreed to a just resolution for performing a prior same-sex marriage. (In other words, this was his second offense.) A just resolution is an agreement on how a complaint over a violation of the Discipline is to be resolved, which then means that no church trial is necessary. It is essentially a plea bargain that is accepted by both sides.

A quote in Walter’s article caught my attention. “This just resolution is a rejection of the authority of General Conference,” said the Rev. John Grenfell, Jr., a former Detroit Annual Conference district superintendent and a long time advocate for clergy and laity in church disputes. “It grants permission to two elders to redefine the life and mission of the church, when only General Conference can do that.”

Does this just resolution overstep the bounds of what an annual conference can do? Does it usurp the role of General Conference, and if so, what might this portend for the future of Methodism?

First, it is important to be aware that this “just resolution” is another in a long line of unsatisfactory responses to violations of our covenant life together. There are no meaningful consequences for violating the Discipline. Instead, the violator is put in charge of a process of “educating” clergy and laity about how to live together in a new way. This approach was first used in the Amy DeLong case in Wisconsin, where a trial court (jury) sentenced the Rev. DeLong to write a paper on how to preserve the unity of the church and set up a process that allowed DeLong to guide the annual conference into a new way of doing ministry with LGBTQ people. Since then, this approach has been implemented in “just resolutions” from New York to Oregon and places in between. It is an abuse of the just resolution process that essentially uses a violation of the Discipline as a means of trying to change the church’s teaching and practice. It turns the idea of covenant accountability on its head.

Often, these “just resolutions” are entered into by representatives of the church who themselves do not support the teachings of the church. That was true in the Tupper case as well, as the Counsel for the Church (who agreed to the resolution) and new Michigan Bishop David Bard both favor changing the church’s stance on same-sex marriage.

But the recent Tupper case in Michigan goes far beyond the approach of earlier “just resolutions.” It seeks to “initiate a plan for the Michigan Area to become a model for our denomination of what the ‘Big Tent’ option would be like if it was [sic] implemented by the General Conference.” In other words, the Michigan area is going to implement a solution to the impasse over marriage and sexuality that only the General Conference has the power to implement.

Lest there be any confusion about what a “Big Tent model” might mean, the “just resolution” states “the ‘Big Tent’ option includes proposals for revisions to The Book of Discipline … that would allow local churches the freedom to discern whether to receive an openly gay clergyperson and allow pastors the freedom to discern whether to officiate at same sex weddings.” The “Big Tent model” would ignore or nullify the standards for ordained ministry (¶ 304.3), stating that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained or appointed as clergy. It would ignore or nullify the prohibition of performing same-sex marriages by United Methodist clergy or in United Methodist churches (¶ 341.6). And it would ignore or nullify the fact that all of these actions are listed as chargeable offenses in ¶ 2702.1b.

The “just resolution” goes on to set up “Training Sessions for all Michigan SPRC chairpersons … in helping them to set up a process of discernment in every local church … regarding their readiness to accept the appointment of a gay clergyperson.” In addition, it sets up a “Training Session for all Michigan clergy … to offer pastoral care for LGBTQI individuals who are considering marriage or ordained ministry.”

In other words, these are not just proposals for changing the Discipline at the next General Conference. These are plans to live as if the Discipline has already been changed. It usurps the power of General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for the church and the only body that can change the Discipline. This “just resolution” is patently illegal under church law and should be challenged before the Judicial Council.

But what does this “resolution” portend for the future of Methodism?

The Michigan plan is just another step down the road of annual conferences acting autonomously and independently of each other and of the General Conference. It is a sign that the church is already in schism.

More and more, the church is becoming a federation of annual conferences, each with different standards for ministry, different understandings of the church’s mission, and different applications (or ignoring) of church law. The United Methodist Church is no longer one body with unified beliefs and practices. If the Discipline becomes a set of optional guidelines instead of a unifying covenant, I can imagine annual conferences changing the standards for approving persons for ordination. Some conferences may accept candidates for ministry who earned their education at seminaries not on the approved seminary list. Safeguards in the appointment process for clergy to churches could be ignored. This is where the “Big Tent” or “local option” approaches will take us.

The problem with this setup is that our annual conferences are geographical, while our differences are theological and not easily demarcated along geographical lines. There are strong evangelical congregations and clergy in predominantly liberal annual conferences, and there are strong progressive congregations and clergy in predominantly conservative annual conferences. These theologically minority congregations have fundamental disagreements with the direction of their respective annual conferences. Those disagreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for the minority congregations to carry out ministry with integrity within a setting with which they profoundly disagree. And being in such a setting severely hampers those congregations’ ability to thrive and grow.

A second problem with this setup is that a “Big Tent” or “local option” approach is only a way station on the way toward the mandatory acceptance of same-sex marriage and ordained practicing gay clergy. Pro-LGBT activists will not rest until every church is required to perform same-sex marriages and accept practicing gay clergy as their pastors. The societal momentum within the U.S. supports this kind of shift. And the “local option” allows annual conferences in Africa and elsewhere in the world to maintain their current practices, while enabling the U.S. to shift over completely to a gay-affirming posture.

From my conversations with African leaders, I do not believe African delegates to General Conference will accept the “local option.” Even if they were allowed to maintain their faithfulness to Scripture on these issues, they would not be willing to allow the rest of the church to turn away from the church’s traditional teachings. Without African and U.S. evangelical support, the “local option” or “Big Tent” would probably be defeated at General Conference, as it was in Portland this year.

But because our system of church government relies upon voluntary compliance, annual conferences that refuse to comply with the Discipline will be able to continue to do so. At least ten of the 55 U.S. annual conferences have gone on record as saying they will ignore the Discipline on the issues that divide us. It would require draconian accountability measures to bring those annual conferences back into conformity with the Discipline. Such measures would probably precipitate separation on the part of progressive annual conferences.

As long as church leaders and annual conferences are willing to ignore or disobey the Discipline, the unity of The United Methodist Church will be threatened. It is such a willingness to act independently of, and contrary to, the will of the body that is tearing the body apart. That is the situation facing the Bishops’ Commission on the Way Forward, as it begins its meetings in the coming months.

Unpacking “Incompatibilists”

 

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Diagram courtesy of Rev. Tom Berlin

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

 

The Rev. Tom Berlin is the pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, and the head of the General Conference delegation from the Virginia Annual Conference, the second largest conference in the U.S. I was privileged to participate with Tom in a series of conversations held at General Conference convened by Bishop Warner Brown to consider how we can move forward as a denomination in the midst of deep division and conflict. As was acknowledged by all of the participants in that confidential dialogue, no one can conceive of a way to bridge the church’s legitimate divides in a manner that would avoid some form of separation or restructure.

I am grateful to Tom for his cogent and compassionate analysis of the current dispute in our church over marriage and human sexuality. He shared this analysis with the Virginia Annual Conference on June 19 and then put it in written form (link found below). He draws upon a framework of analysis that I shared in the conversations—a framework that I learned from Bishop Judith Craig and the dialog group that met to discuss the church’s stance on homosexuality way back in the 1990’s. Tom’s point was to describe the members of our church based on their position regarding same-sex attracted persons (progressive vs. traditionalist) and their willingness to live together (compatibilists vs. incompatibilists), as I outline below. The views of each of four perspectives have significant implications for whether and how we might be able to resolve the divide that exists in our church today.

While I am in general agreement with Tom on his definitions of the four groups, I want to sharpen and deepen the understanding of where each group is coming from. It is often thought that our church faces a two-way divide between progressives and traditionalists. But in reality, our church faces multiple divides between progressives and traditionalists and between compatibilists and incompatibilists. Ignoring the nuances of those divides leads to inaccurate conclusions and ineffective remedies for the divides.

Traditionalist Incompatibilists believe that the Bible is correct when it teaches that marriage is a God-created relationship between one man and one woman, ideally for life, and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for that marriage relationship. They believe that to affirm or even allow same-sex marriage or other non-marital sexual relationships would put the church in the position of contradicting the clear teaching of Scripture and abandoning biblical authority “as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). To do so would be to violate our Doctrinal Standards (see Articles of Religion, Articles V and VI; Confession of Faith, Article IV). For these people, the church’s stance is an essential issue of faith because it directly relates to biblical authority, as well as the doctrines of creation, justification, and sanctification. That is why traditionalist incompatibilists would be unable to continue in a church that allows same-sex marriage or the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Traditionalist compatibilists share the belief that the Bible is correct when it teaches that marriage is a God-created relationship between one man and one woman, and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for marriage. However, some would allow that other interpretations of Scripture might be correct. In any case, they do not see the church’s stance on this issue as an essential matter of faith, and/or they believe that the good things that the church can do together outweigh the different practices regarding homosexuality. As long as they themselves are not forced to violate their consciences by performing same-sex marriages or receiving a practicing homosexual as pastor, they are willing to allow others in the church to do so.

Progressive incompatibilists believe that the traditional interpretation of Scripture is incorrect, that God creates people with same-sex desires, and that God wants same-sex attracted people to experience marriage in the same way that heterosexual people may. They believe that the church has incorrectly and unfairly excluded persons in same-sex relationships from full participation in the church, including ordination as clergy. For them, such “full inclusion” is the civil rights crusade of our time. The only faithful course for Christians is to abandon the traditional view and work for fair and equal treatment of all persons, gay or straight. Most would hold that homosexual relationships ought to be held to the same standards as heterosexual relationships in terms of fidelity and chastity, while some believe those standards are overly restrictive and need to be changed or abandoned. For progressive incompatibilists, “full inclusion” is so essential a matter of Christian faith and witness that they are unable to continue long-term in a church that denies same-sex marriage and ordination to anyone. They will not rest until every part of the church adopts their view and is affirmatively inclusive of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.

Progressive compatibilists share the belief that same-sex relationships are good in God’s eyes, and that people ought to be able to experience same-sex marriage on the same basis as heterosexual marriage, and that practicing homosexuals ought to be able to be ordained on the same basis as heterosexual people. However, they acknowledge that not everyone in the church agrees with them, and they are willing to allow room for differing consciences on this issue. As long as same-sex marriage is permitted (but not necessarily mandated) in all parts of the church and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is permitted in at least some parts of the church, they are willing to live and work together with those who disagree with them. Most progressive compatibilists believe that it is only a matter of time until nearly everyone in the church adopts their view, and the conflict will eventually go away.

It is important to note here, in contrast to Tom Berlin’s perspective, what is at stake is not the ability or inability to live with disagreement over marriage and human sexuality. Traditionalists of all stripes have been able to live with this disagreement for over 40 years. What is at stake is the inability to live with practices that run contrary to Scripture. For traditionalists, it is the inability to live with church-condoned same-sex marriage and ordination. For progressives, it is the inability to live with the church’s denial of same-sex marriage and ordination. What has precipitated the crisis point for our denomination is the move toward wholesale performing of same-sex marriages and the increasing ordination and appointment of practicing homosexuals as clergy.

One can see how progressive compatibilists and traditionalist compatibilists can live and work together in the same church, at least for a time. If the traditionalist view does not fade over time, the progressives might become impatient and try to push things along by instituting stricter requirements for “inclusion.” Progressive compatibilist impatience could create a new round of tensions and conflict with traditionalist compatibilists who are unwilling to adopt the progressive view, perhaps leading to an increasing number of incompatibilists on both sides.

One can see how progressive incompatibilists would not be able to live and work together in the same church with traditionalist incompatibilists, since their theological commitments are diametrically opposed. For each group, to accept the other group’s perspective would be to violate their own consciences.

However, there is a difference in the way that progressive incompatibilists approach the larger church. Far from wanting to leave the church and start their own denomination, progressive incompatibilists want to stay in the church as long as possible in order to change the church to adopt their view. They are on a civil rights crusade on behalf of all LGBTQ persons, and they will not easily give up until the whole church offers “full inclusion” to all LGBTQ persons, by force if necessary. That is the ideology behind recent resolutions passed by the New England, Desert Southwest, and California-Pacific Annual Conferences declaring they would no longer abide by the provisions of the Book of Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, (both incompatibilists and compatibilists) for the most part want to be left alone to engage in disciple-making ministry. Most are reluctant warriors in the issues that divide our church. Their main reason for being involved in the struggle is to resist what they believe to be the erosion, if not the violation, of biblical authority, as well as to offer what they consider biblically-based ministries of transformation and redemption for those affected by sexual brokenness. They are not on a crusade to change the church, but are committed to upholding the church’s teachings and values. If the church’s teachings and values were to change, many traditionalists would not feel bound to stay in the denomination and fight to change it back. It would be much easier for them to leave than for progressive incompatibilists.

There are differences of opinion among traditionalist incompatibilists on whether and when to disengage from a church that they believe would be unfaithful. Nearly all would say that a formal change in the Discipline to allow same-sex marriage and/or the ordination of practicing homosexuals would necessitate their withdrawal from The United Methodist Church. Some would say that the increasingly widespread performing of same-sex marriages without consequence and the newly public policies of some annual conferences to approve practicing homosexuals for ordination has created a situation in which the church has de facto approved of same-sex marriage and ordination, even though the policies on paper remain unchanged. This de facto situation has caused some congregations to leave already, and others are contemplating that move.

This analysis raises some important questions that the bishops’ commission will have to consider:

  • Is it possible or realistic to attempt to regain compliance by progressive clergy and annual conferences with the current requirements in the Discipline on same-sex marriage and ordination?
  • If so, can a way be found to allow those who cannot live in a church that denies same-sex marriage and ordination to leave The United Methodist Church with property and pension in a fair and respectful manner?
  • If not, can a way be found to allow those who cannot live in a church that allows same-sex marriage and ordination to leave The United Methodist Church with property and pension in a fair and respectful manner?
  • If changes are to be made to the Discipline allowing same-sex marriage and ordination, what provision can be made for those who disagree with those policies but who desire to remain within The United Methodist Church? Would progressive incompatibilists accept those accommodations, or would they feel obligated to continue fighting for mandatory equality? Or would progressive incompatibilists believe they must also exit from a United Methodist Church that is willing to tolerate some who will not perform same-sex marriages or receive a practicing homosexual pastor?
  • If a restructuring of the church is proposed that allows for the formation of three new entities (traditionalist, centrist/compatibilist, and progressive), would the progressive incompatibilists be willing to form the progressive alternative, or would they seek to remain with the compatibilists in hopes of continuing the struggle and eventually achieving mandatory approval for same-sex marriage and ordination?
  • If the church changes its policies on same-sex marriage and ordination, either through a change in the Discipline or a restructuring of the church, how will the central conference members in Africa, Asia, and Europe relate to the church in a new way? In some ways, whatever path we take, we will be imposing a U.S. solution for a U.S. problem on a global church.

What seems clear is that The United Methodist Church cannot continue the way it is. The demands of the progressive incompatibilists and the responses of the traditionalist incompatibilists can no longer be ignored. If the bishops’ commission does not give us an orderly way to resolve our differences once and for all, the church is likely to begin disintegrating in a chaotic fashion. However bad amicable separation might be for the cause of Christ, adversarial disintegration would be even worse.

 

To read Rev. Tom Berlin’s analysis, click HERE

 

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part III

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous posts are HERE and HERE. It is important for us to critique one another’s approaches to Scripture, in that it is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. In this concluding post, I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Comparing one set of biblical interpretations to other sets, without recognizing their differences.

Haynes employs the tired comparison of the Bible’s teachings on same-sex behavior with the supposed justification of slavery and the subordination of women in Scripture. He argues that, since the church has changed its mind on slavery and the role of women, it can change its mind on homosexuality. It is important when interpreting Scripture to look at the whole, as well as individual teachings. Regarding both slavery and the role of women, the Bible shows a trajectory leading toward the understanding we have today.

While the Bible recognizes slavery as existing in the society of the time, it never commands people to be enslaved, and in fact it regulates slavery among the Israelites in such a way as to make it less onerous. I Timothy 1:10 condemns slave traders as ungodly and sinful. In Philemon, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to condemn slavery.

The Bible consistently raises the level of women’s value and treatment above the heavily patriarchal society in which most of the Bible was written. Jesus spoke to women as equals and welcomed them as disciples. There were female leaders in the New Testament church. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is no male or female was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to elevate the place of women and recognize women as equally capable of leadership and ministry.

In the case of both slavery and the treatment of women, the position we have evolved to today is based on the clear teaching and trajectory of the Bible. Regarding homosexuality, however, there is no such trajectory. All references in Scripture to same-sex practices are negative, both in the Old and New Testaments. We embrace the truth that all persons are created by God and bear his image, and are therefore to be treated with love, dignity, and respect. But there is no warrant in any scriptural teaching for evolving into the approval or affirmation of same-sex behavior.

  1. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Haynes says, “Adultery is condemned fifty-two times in the Bible, self-righteousness seventy-nine times, covetousness forty times, and idolatry 169 times! Are we seeking to bar all these behavioral sinners from marriage, ordination, and membership?” Haynes seems to be saying that, since we don’t enforce behavioral standards with regard to other sins, we should not do so with regard to same-sex behavior.

First, the church’s laxity on issues like divorce, greed, and pride is lamentable. Preaching and teaching against these sins and others, as well as a ministry of redemption and restoration, is much needed. (I would note that the Bible does permit some instances of divorce, so that is not a black-and-white situation. UM News Service recently reported that the Liberia Annual Conference has a standing rule against divorced clergy being nominated to serve as bishop.) However, laxity in working against some sins does not excuse laxity in working against other sins.

Second, there is no lobby or organization working to change the church’s teaching that adultery and idolatry are sinful. Most everyone acknowledges that the things Haynes lists are indeed sinful and ought to be avoided. We may be imperfect in our ability to avoid those sins, but we strive to avoid them. On the other hand, Haynes has joined others represented by Reconciling Ministries Network, Affirmation, Love Prevails, and the Love Your Neighbor Coalition who are organized specifically to say that same-sex conduct is not a sin. That is a far different matter than acknowledging our imperfection at living up to biblical standards—it is changing, or rather overturning, those standards altogether.

As Haynes is quite aware, no one is saying that persons living a sinful lifestyle ought to be barred from attending church or even getting married, whether that lifestyle is unmarried heterosexuality, greed, pride, or any other sin. But to allow for same-sex marriage is to completely change the definition of marriage and explicitly place the church’s blessing on same-sex relationships, which would be contrary to Scripture. Further, we expect ordained clergy to live to a higher behavioral standard, not just in terms of our sex lives, but in terms of our personal habits and interpersonal relationships (see Book of Discipline, ¶ 304.2-3). In fact, some clergy persons have tragically lost their credentials and been fired because of heterosexual sin or infidelity.

  1. Choose one truth of Scripture and read everything else in the Bible in light of that one truth.

Martin Luther is famous for this error, when he disparaged the book of James because it did not sufficiently reinforce Luther’s pet doctrine of salvation by grace and faith alone. (James talks about the need for works, as well, as an outgrowth or demonstration of our faith.)

Haynes resorts to the tried and true commandment to “love your neighbor.” Anything that does not exhibit love for neighbor (in Haynes’ view) is not to be accepted as biblical teaching.

Taking this approach, however, closes out the possibility that each book of the Bible—indeed, even each passage—has its own voice and its own point to make. Much of biblical interpretation consists in balancing truths that are held in tension. God is three, and yet one. Jesus is God, and yet fully human. God is love, and yet holy. Doctrinal error creeps in when we lose our balance—when we emphasize one side or the other of the equation too much. Too much “three-ness” in God yields three gods. Too much oneness in God omits Jesus and the Holy Spirit from divinity. We need to give each biblical author his/her own voice and let that author teach us, before we then integrate and balance that teaching with the rest of Scripture.

If one is to pick a particular scriptural truth to emphasize, “love your neighbor” would be a good candidate. Haynes’ problem is that he defines loving our gay and lesbian friends and relatives as affirming and approving of their relationships and behavior. But that is a faulty definition of love. Jesus loves each one of us infinitely, so much that he willingly came to earth as a human being and gave his life for us. Yet, Jesus does not approve of all of our behavior. When we sin, he confronts us lovingly (and sometimes sternly) through the Holy Spirit. We don’t perceive that discipline as a lack of love (see Hebrews 12:4-11). There is no contradiction between loving our homosexual neighbor and maintaining the church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is wrong in God’s eyes. Just as there is no contradiction between loving our neighbor and believing that their pride, greed, or idolatry is wrong.

Dr. Haynes concludes his article with a quote from John the Elder:

“Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The same John the Elder also says:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:5-7)

As we address difficult and emotional subjects in the church, may we seek to balance God’s love and God’s light, aspiring as did Timothy to be one “who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). To have the Bible as our authority means to hold it “as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. 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” (The Confession of Faith, Article IV).

I hope this series of posts will help us gain clarity on how we approach Scripture to understand and apply its message to our lives today. May we learn from each other, “as iron sharpens iron,” and come to a unified understanding in the church that will form the basis for moving forward together in unity.

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part II

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous post is HERE. This discussion on the proper understanding and application of scriptural teaching to the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons is the most important discussion we can have, in that Scripture is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. Here I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Using the results of scientific inquiry to overturn the teachings of Scripture.

Haynes says, “While the Bible makes seven references to homosexual conduct, it never mentions homosexuality as a genetic sexual orientation.” But there is no such thing as “genetic sexual orientation.” Scientists have identified no “gay gene.” The American Psychological Association states: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation … no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” So Haynes’ appeal to science is undercut from the beginning by that very science.

Haynes goes on, “What if a genetically homosexual person cannot wish or pray or choose one’s way out of their same sex attraction? Would it not be cruel of God to bring someone into the human family only for the purpose of condemning them?” Here, I believe Haynes is engaging in theological exaggeration to support his point. He characterizes the argument in a way that no orthodox Wesleyan would agree with.

First, we must be clear that God does not condemn anyone for their attractions or desires. Otherwise, all of us would be condemned! It is only when those attractions or desires lead to behavior that is contrary to God’s will that it becomes a sin (James 1:13-15). Alternatively, if we entertain and nurture desires or attractions that lead to sin, we may be guilty of sin (Matthew 5:22, 28). But even when we sin, we have the possibility of forgiveness and restoration through the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s goal is to reshape both our actions and our desires in the image of Jesus.

Second, Haynes overlooks the fact that we all have a “sin orientation” – that each of us has an inborn tendency to have desires and attractions toward sin. The attraction could be toward anger, greed, revenge, lying, or promiscuity. These attractions toward sin are not the result of how God made us, but of humanity’s fall into sin and rebellion (Genesis 3). We all battle sinful desires and seek God’s grace to withstand and overcome them. Just as we will not be free of all sinful desires until we get to heaven, we should not expect that persons with same-sex attraction will be free of all instances of that attraction until they get to heaven.

But while we cannot “wish or pray or choose” our way out of attractions toward sin, we can indeed pray and choose not to succumb to those attractions and engage in the sin itself. Haynes is not asking us to have grace toward persons who have fallen into same-sex sin, so that they may receive forgiveness and restoration. He is asking us to redefine a sin as not-sin. He is asking the church to teach that homosexual conduct is not sinful, but to be affirmed in the same ways as heterosexual conduct. That is quite a different matter.

While we welcome the insights of science (which are often tentative and incomplete), we ground our understanding about morality, right and wrong, in the timeless truths of Scripture. Otherwise, we have given up the authority of Scripture as our primary guide to faith and life.

  1. Arguing from silence.

Haynes says, “Holy Scripture never refers to homosexuality in the context of a loving relationship between two consenting adults whose sexual orientation might be naturally homosexual, and who have a committed, monogamous relationship or marriage.” Leaving aside the point that science does not support that persons “might be naturally homosexual,” what does Haynes’ statement mean?

It could mean that the biblical authors were unaware of the possibility of a loving, committed same-sex relationship. However, historical research has demonstrated that such relationships did exist in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (see Plato’s Symposium and Philo of Alexandria’s Contemplative Life, cited in Gagnon, page 137, note 33-34). Certainly, Paul would have been aware of such relationships in the context of the much more libertine sexual climate of the Mediterranean world of his time. And if we believe that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, he is certainly not unaware of the possible lifestyles that could exist.

It could mean that the biblical authors meant to condemn only abusive or idolatrous same-sex relationships, while allowing loving, committed ones. Given that every reference in Scripture to homosexual behavior is negative, one would think that the authors would mention the exception that merited acceptance, in order to clarify what the Bible really teaches.

It could mean that the biblical authors did not mention loving, committed same-sex relationships because they believed that the existing references adequately covered the issue. If the prohibition in Leviticus is taken to be of all same-sex behavior, then there would be no point in the authors reinforcing that this also applied to loving, committed relationships. The bottom line is that there is no approving reference to same-sex relationships, even though the Bible spans over 2,000 years of human history and encompasses a wide variety of cultures, including Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.

Arguments from silence are always fraught with uncertainty and not something one can build one’s theology on.

  1. Ignoring Scriptures that don’t support your viewpoint.

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complimentary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

Haynes also glosses over the list of ten different behavioral sins in I Corinthians 6:9 that are condemned by Paul, with the note that some of the Corinthians were each of these things, but had been redeemed by Jesus Christ. NLT translates one of those words as “those practicing homosexuality”. The important point here is that the Greek word Paul uses, arsenokoitai, is a direct transcription of the two words used in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22. It constitutes a direct allusion and restatement of the Levitical prohibition by Paul as binding on Christians (indeed, all people). To ignore this connection is to miss a significant verification that this Old Testament law holds true for New Testament Christians.

I hope these blog posts are helpful in thinking through how we as the church interpret the Bible on this sensitive issue. My next post will look at ways we improperly compare one biblical teaching with another and how we can distort the teaching of Scripture by focusing too much on one biblical truth.