UMW Decline Continues

The latest statistics on United Methodist Women’s membership for 2016 reveal a steady slide in local UMW participation. These numbers are reported by the General Council on Finance and Administration and are based on the yearly information that all local churches are required to submit.

Over the last nine years, The United Methodist Church has lost an average of 249 congregations per year. (Interestingly, the peak loss years occur in the year after General Conference.) At the same time, UMW has lost an average of 543 congregations per year that no longer have an active UMW unit – twice as fast a decline. Currently, less than half of the nearly 32,000 United Methodist congregations actually have an active UMW unit. This is despite the requirement in the Book of Discipline that every local church shall have a unit of UMW.

This is a flashing neon sign that something is terribly wrong.

UMW membership is declining at the rate of 4.6 percent per year. That means there are more than 25,000 fewer UMW members each year. In many cases, this is due to the death of members and their not being replaced by new, younger members. In some cases, the loss of members (and the failure to attract new ones) is due to disenchantment with the liberal social policy agenda and progressive theology that the national UMW tends to promote.

UMW is losing members at five times the rate that the general church is losing female members. At the end of 2016, it had lost more than 200,000 members — nearly one-third of its membership — since 2008. At the current rate, UMW would disappear by the year 2034.

 These startling statistics are of vital importance because they represent actual women in the pews who are having their spiritual needs unmet – or are finding vibrant ministry elsewhere.

The most important issue is to foster women’s ministries that enable women to come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and to grow in their faith. For example, the Renew Network is Good News’ program for encouraging and equipping United Methodists to revitalize women’s ministries in their local churches. You can find devotional, teaching, and Bible study resources on the Renew website.

As for the UMW, the decline in membership has not affected its financial security. This is so because only about 55 percent of UMW income comes from direct member giving. The rest comes from income off of investments, publications, and facility rental income. In addition, UMW has benefited from the sale of sizable properties, gaining over $14 million in 2015 and $34 million in 2016. This contributes to a sizable reserve of over $90 million, which enables UMW to spend more than it takes in each year. Each year in recent history, UMW has run a deficit. In 2015 it spent $9 million more than it took in. In 2016, the deficit was $7.4 million.

It almost appears that the finances of the Women’s Division will outlast its membership if the stock market remains robust.

Although the UMW program lacks appeal to younger women and the future looks to be in jeopardy, the financial surplus cushions UMW from having to take a hard look at its approach, meaning that the organization is not yet ready to make the drastic changes needed to recover its vitality.

I once served as pastor of a small church with a healthy endowment. That endowment enabled the church members to disregard the decline in their church until membership reached about 25 people. At that point, the endowment was not enough to sustain the church’s operation, and the church eventually closed. Tragically, that church waited too long to deal with their membership decline. By the time they were ready, it was too late, and the decline could not be reversed. One hopes that UMW leaders are not lulled into a false sense of confidence, and that they will soon be ready to reevaluate and change the programs and practices that have led to this decline — before it is too late.

A Christian Response to Sexual Harassment

It has been alarming to read and hear the steady drumbeat of new allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by leaders and other powerful men in our country. A small ripple has become a tidal wave of reports, swamping even the most powerful who have withstood a winked-at reputation for decades.

What is new at this time is the spotlight being put on women’s stories of abusive behavior. It is one thing to read the statistic that more than 40 percent of American women report having experienced sexual harassment. It is another thing to hear the stories of some of the behavior that women have had to endure.

As a married father of three daughters, these stories are beyond disgusting. As a Christian, they are morally reprehensible. I find it difficult to conceive how some men could act this way, although I know in my head that such behavior has existed since the dawn of time.

We can and should make sure that laws and policies protect women and men from abusive behavior. We can and should provide clear avenues for victims to find redress for the abuses committed against them. But laws alone cannot solve a problem of the human heart. Only Christ can.

God is in the transformation business. He wants to transform our lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And he wants to transform our culture through the leavening power of the Holy Spirit expressed in the lives of believers who permeate society like yeast in dough. That transformation is an inner change wrought by the Holy Spirit, as we cooperate and live into the change he is working in us.

There are several images in Scripture that can help us welcome God’s transformation into this area of our lives.

One image has to do with treating women with respect. The Apostle Peter says some pretty revolutionary things in I Peter 3:7, when he commands husbands to “be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect.” Although specifically addressed to husbands and wives, the points apply to all male-female relationships. Peter wants us to act with consideration and respect. None of the stories of sexual harassment that I have read betray any sense of the perpetrator acting with consideration or respect.

Women are given a status equal to men by the use of the terms “partner” and “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” In God’s eyes, women and men are of equal value and worth. We can demonstrate that with numerous examples from the way that Jesus treated women. As such, women are entitled to consideration and respect. Women are not things to be used to satisfy men’s desires, but equally powerful human beings with equal stature and equal moral agency.

In the above cited passage, Peter uses the term “weaker partner” to describe wives. Of course, this is not the kind of phrase one uses in modern day public discourse, but it was a common understanding during biblical days. Throughout history, all kinds of wrong-headed applications have been made from this passage. In fact, scientists have extended great efforts to prove that women are stronger than men in many ways (albeit perhaps not in terms of brute strength). But I think that misses the point. 

In Peter’s time, women were in need of protection. Culturally and economically, women were for the most part unable to function as independent people. It was the man’s role to care for and protect women. This role fell naturally to the father and then to the husband, but it was also assumed by the church in the case of widows. I have become much more aware how dangerous it might be to be a woman in our society, based on how pervasive and widespread are the instances of sexual harassment and even rape.

Women today still need our protection. They do not need the stifling kind of controlling “protection” by a male authority figure. They need all of us to watch out for each other, offering strength and encouragement and help in time of need. In short, they need consideration and respect. And in the words of that new ubiquitous saying, “If you see something, say something.” We need to speak up for each other and call out behavior that is inappropriate.

These concepts of equal status and worth and the need for consideration and respect for women in particular were revolutionary in Bible times. Women were not generally regarded in this way. Over time, the Christian gospel changed society, but the transformation has not been complete. There is still work to do.

Another image from Scripture is found in the Golden Rule, to treat others in the way that we would like to be treated. We have to take the time and effort to imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of the other person and treat them in a way that we would want to be treated. I cannot believe that any of the perpetrators would want to be treated in the way they are treating their victims.

I realize that the predominant motif of sexual harassment or abuse is an issue of power, with a more powerful person (in the world’s eyes) taking advantage of a less powerful one. But I cannot help but wonder if some of the seeming epidemic of sexual abuse is the result of our society having lost a healthy understanding of the purpose of sex. Through the widespread use of birth control, we have fairly effectively separated sex from procreation (which can be a very good thing, but it can also have negative consequences). And in more recent years, changing mores have separated sex from marriage. It is no longer discouraged to live together without being married, and in many instances it is assumed that people should do that. In the attitudes of many, sex has become a recreational activity between consenting adults on par with going to see a great movie or going for a bike ride.

This trivialization of sex has deprived it of the sacred mystery that God intended it to have, serving as part of the glue to hold a lifetime relationship together and symbolizing the uniting of two persons into one intimate relationship. It is no coincidence that the Old Testament euphemism for sexual relations was “to know” a person. Sex is meant to point to the most intimate and knowing of human relationships, and to point toward the ultimate knowing relationship between a person and God. Paul looks forward to a time when “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12). Yet today it is considered normal to hop into bed with a person after the first or second date, when you hardly know the other person’s name!

Part of the antidote to sexual harassment and abuse is to recover God’s purpose and understanding behind sex. When we come to terms with the deep and sacred meaning God intended for a sexual relationship, we will treat sexuality with the seriousness and deference that it deserves.

The bottom line is that this whole area of sexual harassment and abuse is an area where Christians should be leading in a counter-cultural direction, yes in our teaching, but supremely by the way we live and treat others. Where we have failed to live up to God’s ideal, it is disappointing, and we must resolve to live in ongoing repentance and transformation. The good news is that forgiveness and transformation is available to even the most sin-hardened among us. All we need to do is turn and ask. 

Although painful in the process, God’s healing is available to victims of sexual harassment and abuse, as well. The Church is positioned to offer the affirmation of women’s worth and equality, as well as the ministry of the Holy Spirit in bringing restoration and healing to those who have suffered. Part of our responsibility is to make it safe to talk about experiences of abuse in a church context in order to open the door to that healing and affirmation. In the Church, we tend to be afraid to talk about sex and power. By the grace of God, we need to overcome that fear.

Two Roads Diverged

With apologies to Robert Frost, one of my favorite poets, he describes the current situation in The United Methodist Church in his poem, The Road Not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Two roads are diverging within United Methodism today, and we can see the impact of that divergence in the “sketches” offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops (COB) as described in a recent UM News Service article.

Sketch #1 is described by the COB as it “affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.” This approach is the most popular among evangelical and traditionalist United Methodists. It would require major efforts at accountability, including church trials and the “voting out” of bishops and annual conferences from United Methodism in order to be effective.

Sketch #2 is described by the COB as it “removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This model is the most popular among so-called “centrist” or moderate United Methodists. It would neither affirm nor prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. The decision would be left up to individual pastors and annual conferences. This plan has been floated before and did not find success at General Conference.

Sketch #3 is described by the COB as “grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” This model would dispense with the current five geographical jurisdictions and replace them with three branches, each with a defining theology and moral stance. This option is the most complex and the most difficult to adopt, since it would require constitutional amendments.

It should be noted that the COB descriptions do not indicate how the central conferences outside the United States are accounted for in each of the models. It will be important that whatever proposal adopted by the General Conference considers fully and fairly its impact on the central conferences, so as not to harm them.

Divergent Theological Roads

These proposals suggest that there are two theological roads that are diverging in The United Methodist Church. One road believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and that God is not glorified by this practice. Out of that theology flows the prohibition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. At a deeper level, this theology is based on an understanding of Scripture that gives the Bible primacy in determining what we believe and how we are to live. It values continuity with the historic Christian understanding of Scripture. Holders of this viewpoint are often called evangelicals, traditionalists, or orthodox.

A second road believes that God creates persons with a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, and that God is glorified by persons who understand and live out of their authentic orientation and identity. Out of that theology flows the affirmation of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. At a deeper level, this theology is based on an understanding of God’s revelation as continuing over time, based on but sometimes superseding the witness of Scripture. It values the incorporation of new insights and new understandings from science and philosophy that can reinterpret or even render obsolete the teachings of Scripture. Holders of this viewpoint are often called progressives.

These theological roads lead in different directions. They truly diverge. The models make room for that divergence with the “gracious exit” path that is provided with all three. Under Sketch #1, followers of the second theological road will need to depart from the UM Church, either willingly or unwillingly. Under Sketch #2, many followers of the first theological road will need to depart by reason of conscience. And the exit path is available to both groups under Sketch #3, if they find they cannot live with that model.

Strategic Roads

These proposals also suggest that there are two strategic roads that can be taken. A choice will need to be made between separation from and separation within. Both Sketches #1 and #2 envision the creation of a fairly univocal and united Methodism, from which those who cannot live with it will need to depart. In the case of Sketch #1, it is clear that progressives will need to depart and form their own separate church. Many progressives have said that they will not willingly depart. Their goal is not to form a separate denomination, but to change The United Methodist Church to an affirming view of LGBTQ practices. Progressives would need to be forced out, which would require years of accountability actions, trials, and discipline. It would have to overcome the reluctance of our current bishops to enforce the Discipline. This model would not end the fighting within our denomination and therefore would face a very difficult challenge in succeeding, even if adopted.

Sketch #2 is a bit more subtle. On the surface, it purports to create a space where each person can act according to his/her own conscience and beliefs. However, this model is inherently unstable. It is impossible for a church to hold two contradictory theological positions at the same time for long. Many evangelicals will choose to depart from the denomination because they cannot in good conscience be part of a church that permits practices that they believe go against Scripture. Many progressives will not rest until LGBTQ persons are fully affirmed everywhere in the denomination. They cannot long tolerate a situation where parts of the church are allowed to discriminate (in their view) against LGBTQ persons. So the pressure to affirm LGBTQ practices will continue, which pressure will in turn drive more evangelicals to depart from the denomination. The whole “centrist” approach appears to be a strategy to hold as much of the church together as possible while people either die or change their minds to embrace a progressive understanding.

Sketch #3 takes a different route. Rather than the separation from that will result from following models #1 or #2, Model #3 provides for separation within the denomination. A space would be created for each theological perspective–one that affirms LGBTQ practices and one that does not. A third space would allow such practices, but not require them. The individual spaces or branches would be the primary place where theology and ministry would be worked out and applied. Accountability would be maintained in each branch according to that branch’s understanding. Each branch would have to have the ability to determine its level of participation in any shared general agencies of the church. Each branch would have to have the ability to set its own standards and qualifications for clergy. Each branch would have to be able to elect its own bishops. And each branch would have to be financially self-supporting, such that funding is not going to support a branch that is in disagreement with the branch providing the funding. (Some have called this provision a “financial firewall.”)

For those thinking outside the box, this third model may hold the greatest potential for keeping the most people and congregations in The United Methodist Church. However, it is also the most difficult to adopt and implement. It would require numerous constitutional amendments, which takes a 2/3 vote at General Conference and a 2/3 vote of all annual conference members. There would need to be a several-year transition period of implementation, as annual conferences and congregations, as well as bishops and individual clergy, make their choices about which branch to affiliate with. If quick and easy are the requirements for a solution, then Sketch #2 is probably the best option. If one is looking at a way to keep the most people united, then Sketch #3 could fill the bill.

So there are forks in the road ahead: We will need to decide which theological road to follow. Will we affirm LGBTQ practices or not? And we will need to decide which strategic road to follow. Will we go for separation from or separation within? As in Frost’s poem, the road we choose, both individually and collectively, will make all the difference.

For further analysis of the three models in sketch form, I recommend blogs by David Watson and Joel Watts. Obviously, we need to have a lot more details about each of the options in order to fully understand and respond to them. Much more will need to be said about them, examining both the positives and the negatives of each. But we now have enough of an idea that we can begin to think about the possibilities inherent in each approach.

Judicial Council Maintains Status Quo on Church Law

The Judicial Council. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

The latest rulings by the Judicial Council illustrate that the impasse in our denomination over theological disagreements and the question of LGBTQ inclusion cannot be resolved by the church legal process.

Church’s Teaching Still Constitutional

In the most blatant challenge to The United Methodist Church’s teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” the Judicial Council declined to rule. That leaves the church’s teaching intact.

Both the Denmark and California-Pacific Annual Conferences had requested declaratory decisions on whether the church’s teaching violates the First Restrictive Rule in our church constitution. That rule states that “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline ¶ 17). The conferences argued that the church’s teaching on the incompatibility of homosexual practice is a new doctrinal standard, and that it needed a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths majority vote of all the members of the annual conferences in order to adopt such a new standard.

Good News argued in a brief submitted to the Judicial Council that the church’s teaching was not a doctrinal standard on par with the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith, but simply a moral teaching of the church. Further, we argued that, even if it were a new doctrinal standard, it was not “contrary to our present and existing standards of doctrine” and therefore permissible. 

The Judicial Council, however, did not even rule on the issue. It decided that there was no direct connection between the question of the constitutionality of the church’s teaching and the work of the annual conferences. According to ¶ 2610.2j, a request for a declaratory decision coming from an annual conference “must relate to annual conferences or the work therein.” “Our longstanding jurisprudence has interpreted ¶ 2610 to mean that a request for a declaratory decision that comes from an annual conference must be germane to the regular business, consideration, or discussion of the annual conference and must have a direct and tangible effect on the work of the annual conference session.” There was also confusion in the California-Pacific Annual Conference minutes that did not show the motion for declaratory decision received a majority vote.

The bottom line is that the church’s teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is still valid under our church constitution. Using the legal process to challenge its constitutionality will not work. The issue can only be settled by action of General Conference.

Complaint Against Lesbian Pastor Cannot Be Reactivated

Book of Discipline

The Book of Discipline. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

In June 2016, the Rev. Anna Blaedel announced during a plenary session of the Iowa Annual Conference that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Such a statement brought her standing into question, since a self-avowed practicing homosexual may not be ordained or appointed as clergy (Discipline ¶ 304.3). A complaint was filed against Blaedel and there was no just resolution of that complaint, but Bishop Julius Trimble (who was the bishop of Iowa at the time) dismissed the complaint without putting Blaedel on trial. 

At the 2017 session of the Iowa Annual Conference, a question of law was asked as to whether the dismissal of the complaint by Bishop Trimble was proper under the Discipline and whether the complaint could be reopened in order to start a trial process.

The Judicial Council ruled that, once a complaint has been resolved, whether by a trial, a just resolution, or by being dismissed, it cannot be reopened. A new complaint would have to be filed if the violation were repeated. In this case, the Judicial Council said, there would have to be evidence that Blaedel once again publicly claimed to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual after the dismissal of the previous complaint on September 1, 2016.

In a little-noted passage in the decision, the Judicial Council said, “Clearly if the record in this case alleged a self-avowing statement since that date, the current bishop would have a duty to initiate proceedings under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341.” In an article posted by Reconciling Ministries Network in response to the decision last week, “Rev. Anna Blaedel reflected on the ruling by saying, ‘I am relieved to have this dehumanizing, disempowering process resolved, for now. However, I proudly remain a ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual.’ I delight in my queerness, and my relationship with my beloved. I lament the use of loopholes to hide any aspect of queer life and love.'”

Thus, Blaedel is renewing her self-avowal, making her once again subject to a complaint. According to the Judicial Council decision, new Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller “would have a duty to initiate proceedings.” At the very least, someone could file a new complaint against Blaedel for her ongoing violation of the standards for ordained ministry.

Lesbian Candidate for Ministry May Not Be Approved

The Judicial Council ruled that an annual conference board of ordained ministry was not obligated to recommend for commissioning as a provisional member a person that they believed did not meet the qualifications for ordained ministry. The case involved Tara Morrow, who had been turned down for commissioning in 2016 in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference due to the fact that she disclosed to the board that she is a lesbian married to another woman.

When the board declined to recommend her for commissioning in 2017, even though she initially received the required three-fourths vote of approval by the board, their failure to do so was challenged by a question of law. Heightening the controversy, the Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman surrendered his clergy credentials in protest on the eve of celebrating 60 years of ordained ministry service.

The Judicial Council asserted that the board was within its rights to rescind its recommendation of Morrow in light of Judicial Council decisions issued in May. “Decisions 1341, 1343 and 1344 prevent a Board of Ordained Ministry from ignoring statements of self-disclosure about any action that violates any portion of church law as is the case of the candidate who acknowledged that she is a lesbian and married to another woman. In JCD 1344 the Judicial Council stated that it is the duty of the Board to conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope to ensure that disciplinary standards are met.”

Again, the attempted exploitation of presumed legal loopholes cannot overturn the settled will of the General Conference in establishing qualifications for ministry. 

How to Deal with Parliamentary Rulings

Two other decisions related to resolutions that were declared “out of order” by a bishop. In Western Pennsylvania, a resolution requiring the annual conference to conform to the Book of Discipline on matters of ordination and same-sex marriage was declared out of order by Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and thus not able to be voted on. In South Carolina, a petition to form a task force to study the possibility of the annual conference disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church was also declared out of order by Bishop L. Jonathan Holston.

The Judicial Council ruled correctly in both cases that it has no jurisdiction to rule on parliamentary questions. A decision by a bishop to declare a particular proposal out of order is a parliamentary decision, and therefore not subject to Judicial Council review. 

It is important that annual conference members understand how to handle a parliamentary ruling with which they disagree. The proper response is to appeal the ruling of “out of order” to the “house.” That means that the whole annual conference gets to vote on whether they agree with the bishop’s decision to call something out of order. The annual conference can vote to overrule the bishop, which enables the conference to consider the matter that was ruled out of order. Or the annual conference can vote to sustain the bishop’s ruling that the item is out of order, which ends consideration of that item. Either way, the bishop’s rationale for ruling it out of order would be placed on the record.

If the annual conference votes to sustain the bishop’s ruling of “out of order,” the matter could then be the subject of a question of law that would eventually go to the Judicial Council. Because the annual conference took an action (to sustain the bishop’s ruling), the question of law is no longer about a parliamentary decision, but about the action of the annual conference. A question of law must be about an action taken or proposed to be taken by the annual conference. Thus, this is the way to get that issue before the Judicial Council.

The Way Forward

All of the above cases illustrate that the legal processes of The United Methodist Church cannot resolve the impasse in our church over theology and the moral teachings of the church regarding the extent of LGBTQ inclusion. We are currently in a state of schism, where some parts of the church are following the Book of Discipline and other parts are not conforming. The General Conference is the only body that can resolve the dispute. Our prayer is that the proposals of the Commission on a Way Forward, as submitted by the Council of Bishops, will enable the special session of the General Conference in 2019 to take definitive action to resolve this crisis. The future of our church depends upon it.

The Place of Conscience

That old saying from our parents, “let conscience be your guide,” is foremost in the debate over ministry with LGBTQ persons. Some cannot in good conscience go against what they believe Scripture teaches about the sinfulness of same-sex practices. Others cannot in good conscience go against what they believe Scripture teaches about loving and accepting all people. Others cannot in good conscience go against the requirements of the Book of Discipline, formed as they are out of prayerful discernment by the General Conference (the only group able to speak for global United Methodism), despite the fact that those persons disagree with some of its requirements.

This conflict of consciences has led some to disobey the Book of Discipline. It has led others (laity, clergy, and even congregations) to leave The United Methodist Church. It has led to the filing of complaints, church trials, and the irregular setting aside of church law by church authorities.

What do we do when there is an apparently unresolvable conflict between the consciences of different individuals or groups? How do we resolve the resulting impasse?

One important principle is that people should not be forced to violate their consciences. John Wesley made this point in his sermon, Catholic Spirit. “No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and godly sincerity. He must be fully persuaded in his own mind and then act according to the best light he has. Nor has any creature power to constrain another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren; but every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God.”

This principle of not violating conscience guides the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. It is seeking to develop proposals that give freedom to all to engage in ministry according to their conscience.

(It is important to note that, while we ought not to constrain another person’s conscience, that does not mean that we can allow any sincere or conscientious ministry to take place under the umbrella of United Methodism. We cannot allow a United Methodist pastor who conscientiously refuses to baptize infants, for example. It simply means that, if a person conscientiously opposes United Methodist teaching or practice, they should be allowed to find an alternative venue for ministry with dignity and grace. But while they are functioning within United Methodism, Wesley says, they ought not to “mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake” (Historical Question 19b).)

A second important principle is that conscience is not the supreme moral authority. We cannot always trust our conscience because it has been corrupted by human sinfulness. Our conscience is sometimes confused or overpowered by our feelings and desires, by our faulty reasoning, or by an unwillingness to do what we know to be right. Paul speaks about persons “whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:1-2). Persistent disregard of what we know to be right and instead doing wrong can have the effect of searing the conscience and making it ineffective.

Key to understanding the role of conscience is to realize that it is a secondary authority, and it must always be accountable ultimately to God and God’s Word. It is God through his Word who over time can form our conscience and enable us to discern and resist the ungodly influences that hurt our ability to follow a right conscience. It is God through his Word who can correct our consciences when our judgment is faulty.

Wesley acknowledged this principle in the quote above when he says, “every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God.” Our consciences, too, are accountable to God. Our consciences are correct and to be followed only in so far as they coincide with the will of God.

At this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg cathedral door, we can learn from his understanding of the role of conscience. When he appeared in an ecclesiastical trial before the Diet of Worms, he based his position not solely on conscience, but on conscience as subject to God’s Word. Here is his famous statement:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise; here I stand. May God help me.

As the Rev. Dr. John L. Thompson points out in an article published in Theology Matters, “Luther’s declaration wasnot intended … as a defense of his conscience per se, much less a bold claim on behalf of worldly freedom or individualism. On the contrary, Luther was defending the utter priority of the Word of God not only as a guide for what Luther taught and wrote, but also–first and foremost–as the only possible way to know that he, Luther, still confessedly a sinner, was loved and saved by God.” (Thompson’s article on page 9 is an excellent brief overview of a theology of conscience.)

Our current culture exalts the autonomous individual as the sole and final judge of truth and reality. In contrast, Christianity recognizes the fallibility of our consciences and insists that the final moral authority is God alone, as revealed through God’s Word. With the writer to the Hebrews, we must grow in maturity as those “who by constant use [of the teachings of God’s Word] have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

Blatantly Disregarding Truth

For United Methodists concerned about the future of our denomination, the current crisis revolves around a critical lack of accountability. For 45 years we have been part of a church where people have a variety of thoughts and opinions about theology and ethics, including whether same-sex marriage or the ordination of LGBT persons is contrary to God’s will. We are willing (even if not always eager) to continue having discussions with people whose viewpoint is different from ours.

But what really spurs distrust and disillusionment with our denomination’s leadership is when those charged with teaching and upholding the beliefs of The United Methodist Church simply ignore that responsibility and do what is “right in their own eyes.” We believe that our doctrines and ethics are arrived at and sustained by a process of holy conferencing, culminating in the decisions of the General Conference, which meets every four years as the only body able to speak for the entire United Methodist Church. To intentionally, knowingly, and publicly disobey or disregard the teachings and requirements thus arrived at, is an affront to who we are as United Methodists.

Such disregard has just happened in the West Ohio Annual Conference, once a bastion of evangelical thought and vital ministry. A committee on investigation has just nullified the most serious charges filed against one of the conference’s clergy, the Rev. David Meredith.

Background 

Meredith was under charges because of his being married to another man, a headline-gathering wedding that took place in his former parish in Cincinnati just three days prior to the 2016 General Conference. He has made no secret of his marriage, in fact publicizing it in hopes of influencing the actions of General Conference. He further used the platform of being a candidate for bishop in 2016 to publicize his disagreement with church teachings.

Accordingly, Meredith was brought up on complaints by a number of clergy in West Ohio. The “just resolution” process was unable to bring a resolution to the complaints. So the evidence was turned over to a counsel for the church, who acts as the church’s prosecuting attorney to bring the complaints to a legal charge that can then form the basis for a trial.

The first step in the trial process is for the counsel for the church to bring the complaints before a committee on investigation, which acts like a grand jury to determine if there is enough evidence to charge the accused person. It is that committee on investigation that has just issued its findings by stripping away most of the charges against Meredith.

Charges 

Under church law, Meredith was charged with three offenses:

  1. “Immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage”
  2. “Practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual”
  3.  “Disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church”

Meredith never contested the fact that he is in a same-sex marriage. The marriage license is a public record, and Meredith has promoted the fact of his marriage on Facebook and through other avenues. Being in a same-sex marriage is neither being celibate in singleness nor being faithful in a heterosexual marriage, and is thus by definition immorality according to our church law.

Judicial Council decision 1341, which found that Bishop Karen Oliveto had been potentially illegally consecrated as a bishop, found that being in a same-sex marriage constitutes self-avowal of being a practicing homosexual. The decision states, “Being legally married and living in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration containing both personal and objective elements and, therefore, constitutes self-avowal under ¶ 304.3.” Meredith could deny being a self-avowed practicing homosexual by stating such, or by testifying that his marriage does not involve sexual contact. As far as I know, he has done neither.

Yet, the West Ohio Committee on Investigation has thrown out charges one and two. The committee has effectively ignored the Discipline and decided to impose its own standard of morality, essentially declaring that there is nothing wrong with a clergyperson being in a same-sex marriage or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

By doing so, the committee has also weakening the third charge. If the church cannot argue that Meredith is guilty of immorality or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual, on what basis can he be accused of disobedience to the order and discipline of the church? It will make for a very weak case.

Implications

Perhaps in the interest of “unity” or to further its own agenda, the committee on investigation has gutted the accountability process in this case. The only way the church has of holding its clergy accountable to the standards they promise to live up to when they are ordained is the complaint process. Complaints can hopefully be resolved in a way that brings about reformation of behavior and the redress of harm done, while protecting the innocent. This committee decision does none of these, in fact encouraging further disobedience by other clergy in West Ohio and across the church.

And when complaints cannot be resolved, the only recourse is a fair and open trial process that allows the evidence to be openly considered and a transparent judgment made, with provision for appropriate consequences. The committee’s decision short-circuits this accountability process by summarily throwing out the very basis for the complaint against Meredith, not due to a lack of evidence, but because the committee evidently disagrees with the church’s standards.

This egregious violation of the church’s law and accountability process can be appealed. Good News hopes that such an appeal would lead to a restored process that demonstrates that the church is able to hold its clergy accountable.

If an appeal fails, this committee’s decision will demonstrate that our church is no longer governable. We will no longer be governed by laws, but by people who reserve the right to undermine or ignore requirements that they disagree with. Such an outcome would demonstrate our ever-deepening schism and could only reinforce the movement toward anarchy and the reliance on raw power in our church-values that hardly comport with being disciples of Jesus Christ, let alone leading to the (positive) transformation of the world.

How “Centrist” Is Uniting Methodists?

The new group Uniting Methodists is in the process of forming to (in their words) give voice to the “broad center” of The United Methodist Church. A recent information session about the group was held at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, led by the Revs. Adam Hamilton, Tom Berlin, and Olu Brown. More information about the group may be found on their website.

According to an article posted by the Great Plains Annual Conference, Hamilton said, “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. Who’s going to speak up for that broad, middle in the center?”

For the last 40 years, the “broad, middle” of global United Methodism was, of course, expressed by the General Conference. For the purposes of the information session, however, the “middle” refers to the two positions in conflict within The United Methodist Church over the question of how the church is to be in ministry with LGBTQ persons. The progressive part of the church seeks to offer same-sex weddings and ordination to LGBTQ persons, while the conservative part of the church seeks to maintain the current stance in our Book of Discipline that “all persons are of sacred worth” and are loved by God, and that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The Uniting Methodists position is that there is a middle ground that would allow same-sex marriage and ordination in the church, but not require it. This would effectively allow individual pastors to make their own decision about doing weddings and individual annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals. Their hope is to keep much of the church united around this “Third Way” or “local option” approach.

But is Uniting Methodists really a “centrist” organization?

The three leaders who gave presentations at the information session are all in favor of allowing same-sex marriage and ordination. I do not know all of the group’s leaders identified on the Uniting Methodists website, but all those I do know favor allowing same-sex marriage and ordination. Some of those leaders are outspoken advocates for LGBTQ marriage and ordination, including being part of Reconciling Ministries Network (the primary advocacy group for changing the church’s position). I am not aware of any identified evangelical leader on the Uniting Methodists team who favors keeping the church’s current position around LGBTQ ministry.

Further light is shed on the composition of Uniting Methodists by the survey taken at the informational meeting, as reported in the article. Two-thirds of the clergy and lay participants who took the survey identified themselves as progressives — those who would favor same — sex marriage and ordination. Of course, attending the informational meeting and taking the survey does not mean that one is a supporter of Uniting Methodists. Given the group’s agenda, however, one would expect more progressives than conservatives to be supporters. So if anything, the two-thirds number is low.

One must ask, then, whether Uniting Methodists is in reality a predominantly progressive group that seeks a slower transition toward a fully progressive position in The United Methodist Church, rather than an authentically centrist group that seeks to welcome both positions. The Rev. Hamilton has made no secret of the fact that he believes the church in the United States is changing on this issue, and that in 10-20 years, the church will fully accept same-sex marriage and ordination for practicing homosexuals. He illustrated that point at the informational meeting by saying that his congregation at the Church of the Resurrection – United Methodism’s largest membership – used to be about 70 percent conservative on this issue, but is now about 70 percent progressive.

Some within Uniting Methodists leadership who emphasize concerns about justice even imply an equivalence between the “exclusion” of LGBTQ persons from marriage and ordination in the church with the racism signified by the all-African-American Central Jurisdiction formed in 1939 and rightfully abolished in 1968. One hopes that the group will come to realize that it is a hurtful mistake to even imply that supporting the historic teaching of the Church about marriage and sexuality is somewhat akin to racism.

Uniting Methodists believes that the “center” of the church is a broad and numerous group that makes up 80 to 90 percent of United Methodism. Survey participants at the informational meeting believed that about 80 percent of their congregations are predominantly “compatibilists” — willing to live in a church that permits same-sex marriage and ordination, while not requiring it.

Those estimates might be correct. Nevertheless, the numbers from the survey of the audience at the informational meeting must be viewed with special attention – especially considering it was an overwhelming progressive and compatibilist audience. It goes without saying that the survey results are far from a realistic reflection of United Methodism in the U.S.

Furthermore, the participants did not represent the 45 percent of United Methodists who live outside the U.S. Those members are by and large conservative, and many would not be able to live in a denomination that allows same-sex marriage and ordination, but their viewpoint is not reflected in the Uniting Methodists survey. When people say they want to construct a solution for the 80 percent of United Methodists in the middle, they are ignoring the voices of nearly half of the church.

More interesting among the survey results is that while 65 percent of clergy present identified as progressive, they believe that only 34 percent of their congregations are predominantly progressive. (The lay estimate was 44 percent progressive.) That means that half of the progressive clergy present are currently serving congregations that are predominantly conservative. Why is there such a mismatch between pastors and congregations when it comes to theology? If there is such a mismatch in the current system, how can the church be restructured to ensure greater compatibility between clergy and congregation? If in the future there is some sort of grouping of congregations within the UM Church according to theological perspective, will progressive pastors allow their congregations to decide to belong to a different grouping than the pastor would identify with?

Uniting Methodists portrays itself as a “centrist” group that welcomes people of both progressive and conservative theological perspectives and would allow the practices of both perspectives to coincide without hindrance. There is a group within The UM Church that would respond to such a voice. Given the heavily progressive leanings of the group’s leaders and interested persons, however, that may not be an accurate portrayal. The attempt to hold together mutually contradictory theologies may only result in an uneasy truce that invites a return to conflict in the not-too-distant future.

In the final analysis, the church will need to decide: do we perform same-sex weddings or not? Do we ordain practicing homosexuals or not? Will we welcome gay bishops or not? There is not a lot of middle ground in those decisions.

What Is Unity?

 

 

 

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

In the wake of the September meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward in Berlin, I would like to reflect on the balancing act that the Commission is engaged in as it formulates its proposal for the Council of Bishops and the called 2019 General Conference. Any views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the thinking of the Commission as a whole.

The key to understanding the Commission’s work is the Vision statement that describes what the Commission is trying to accomplish. “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.” Please observe that the phrase “as possible” is repeated three times.

A Missional Purpose

The first thing to note is that the Commission seeks to “maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” Our work has a missional imperative. We acknowledge that different groups can best reach different types of people. Those who respond positively to a progressive expression of United Methodism would probably not respond well to a more traditional expression, and vice versa. Right now, the conflict in our denomination is hindering both progressives and traditionalists from fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Whatever proposal the Commission recommends ought to be aimed at freeing us for Christ-based mission and enhancing the missional potential for all parts of the denomination.

Balancing Differentiation with Unity

The crux of the Commission’s work, however, is found in the word “balance.” We are trying to balance the need for “as much contextual differentiation as possible” related to the “different theological understandings of human sexuality” with “a desire for as much unity as possible.” Contextualization requires space and a loosening of the connection. Unity requires a tightening of the connection. As Bishop Ken Carter put it in a September 21 press release, “We know that members of our denomination want space from each other—because of theological differences from each other and the harm we have done to each other—and at the same time connection—because this is in our DNA.” Where is the balance point between as much space as is needed to accommodate the different theological understandings and as much unity/connection as possible? That is what the Commission needs to discern.

It is important to understand that no proposal from the Commission is going to be the magic wand or ideal solution. We deal with a political reality in terms of coming to an agreement that will satisfy many diverse groups of people, both in the U.S. and in the 60 nations around the world where Methodism is present. It has been said that politics is the art of the possible, not a search for the ideal. Sometimes, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Holding out for the ideal solution (from our perspective) may mean that nothing gets accomplished, and the impasse remains. So the Commission is seeking to balance competing interests to come to a workable solution.

It is a given that our current denominational structure does not achieve this balance. For progressives who want to perform same-sex weddings, there is too much connection that is inhibiting their ability to do ministry as they believe they are called to do it, in that their ministry is prohibited by the general church. At the same time, there is not enough connection in that the rest of the church has not agreed to endorse the progressive vision for ministry with LGBTQ persons.

For conservatives, there is not enough connection in that there is little accountability or adherence to the actions of General Conference defining our parameters of ministry with LGBTQ persons. At the same time, there is too much connection in that the actions of progressives to perform same-sex weddings and ordain practicing homosexuals cause the community to think all United Methodist churches do so and alienates traditional United Methodists from the denomination.

Redefining Unity

Since the current structure is untenable, what might we move toward? The Commission’s Scope declares, “We should be open to new ways of embodying unity.” It adds, “We will fulfill our directive by considering ‘new forms and structures’ of relationship.” Further, “We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness.”

All of this means that we will need to redefine what “unity” means for United Methodists. We can no longer have unity with one another on the same basis as in the past. To move forward, we will have to reach a new understanding of unity.

First, we must acknowledge that the unity of the church is not at stake here. In the press release, Bishop Ken Carter said, “We are the one Body of Christ with many members, and God uses this diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” With all due respect, United Methodism is not “the one Body of Christ.” That distinction belongs to the whole worldwide Christian Church. United Methodism is only a part of “the one Body of Christ”—a vital and personal part for those of us who call ourselves Wesleyans. In reality, however, that global body has been institutionally divided since the Great Schism of 1054 between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It has been further divided by the thousands of Protestant denominations that have arisen over the past 500 years.

The unity that “the one Body of Christ” is able to have is not institutional, but spiritual. We can acknowledge each other as believers in Jesus Christ and work together in ways that stem from common agreement. By that mutual acknowledgement and respect, along with common efforts in ministry, the worldwide Christian Church can indeed express “diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” Whether The United Methodist Church stays together in one denomination will have minimal impact on the unity of the worldwide Christian Church. That unity can best be preserved in our part of the Body by our treating each other with mutual acknowledgement and respect, while working together in aspects of ministry that stem from common agreement. Perhaps that is a new definition of unity.

Second, we must acknowledge that the unity of The United Methodist Church is broken beyond repair. This is difficult and painful for us to admit. However, we must face the fact that many progressives who want to be able to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals cannot live much longer in a church that prohibits them from doing so. And we must face the fact that many conservatives who believe that same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is contrary to God’s will could not live for long in a church that allowed and even advocated for such. As the prophet Amos put it, “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3).

A New Unity

We could reestablish unity in The United Methodist Church on the basis of agreement only by seeing either progressives or evangelicals leave the church in large numbers. The recently formed Uniting Methodists group cherishes the hope that many United Methodists could remain united in a body that gave a “local option.” Under this previously rejected plan, pastors could individually decide whether or not to perform same-sex weddings, but would not be forced to do so. And annual conferences could individually decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals, but would not be forced to do so. Such a scenario would only be acceptable to progressives as a way station en route to eventual full endorsement of homosexuality. And many evangelicals would feel a need to depart once their annual conference or local church moved toward LGBTQ affirmation.

Alternatively, we could reestablish unity by restructuring The United Methodist Church into something looser, where progressives and traditionalists would not have a say over each other’s ministries, and where financial ties would be limited to those common areas of ministry that all agreed upon. This would be the type of redefining “unity” and considering “new forms and structures of relationship” that the Commission’s Scope envisions.

The question comes down to how much space is necessary between progressives and traditionalists. Can they share bishops? Can they be bound by a common set of membership qualifications? Can they support the same list of seminaries? Can they both continue to support all the same general boards and agencies we now have? How do congregations and clergy determine which part of The United Methodist Church they identify with? How do local churches obtain a pastor who is theologically compatible with the congregation’s views on LGBTQ ministry? How do congregations identify or “market” themselves as distinctively progressive or traditionalist or something else? Are we all still part of the same denomination or are we different denominations? How do the central conferences outside the U.S. continue to receive support from The United Methodist Church? With what part of the UM Church (if any) do central conferences identify? And the list of questions goes on.

The balancing act comes in because there is a desire for as much unity and connection as possible among many United Methodists. But the level of connection desired varies from person to person. What is too much connection for one person is not enough connection for another. And the more connection we maintain between progressives and traditionalists, the more traditionalists may decide to withdraw from United Methodism altogether, thus defeating the goal of preserving unity with those congregations and clergy.

These questions and issues will test the Commission, and ultimately the whole United Methodist Church, as we seek to balance differentiation and unity. There will not be a proposal that pleases everyone. Some will want more unity, while others will want more differentiation. All we can hope for is to strike a balance that will satisfy the greatest number of people, while providing a way for those who cannot live with that proposal to exit from the denomination with pension, property, and assets. This approach is the only way to end the conflict that is tearing our church apart and distracting us from our main mission of disciple-making.

Please continue praying for the Commission as we seek out the optimum balancing point.

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part II)

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?

I have already surveyed some of the reasoning behind the essential nature of the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. Here are more thoughts on the matter.

Third, the affirmation of same-sex relations would undermine the theological importance of heterosexual marriage in the Bible. Theologically, marriage is used to represent the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Old Testament) and between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32, Revelation). God and God’s people are different from one another, not the same. It is that difference that is symbolized in the difference between male and female in marriage. Our understanding of the nature of God and how God relates with his covenant people is at stake—another essential matter.

Fourth, the New Testament emphasizes the importance of avoiding sexual immorality. As Paul puts it, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body … You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Corinthians 6:18-20). The term “sexual immorality” (Greek: porneia) describes all forms of sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage, including homosexuality. Its meaning in the New Testament world is informed by the list of sexual sins itemized in Leviticus 18.

As mentioned earlier, one of the few stipulations placed by the early church on Gentile believers was to avoid sexual immorality (Acts 15). Commands to avoid sexual immorality appear in at least ten New Testament letters out of 21. Such explicit commands also appear in Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Sexual immorality is mentioned at least as often as idolatry in the New Testament. As such, it seems to be a pretty essential concern for Christians, especially in a hedonistic, sex-saturated culture like ours that is so similar in that regard to biblical times.

Fifth, it makes no theological sense to say that behaviors that the Bible forbids can be legitimate Christian behaviors. Can you imagine saying that adultery is an acceptable practice for Christians? Or theft? Or slander? Or murder? Of course, Christians are guilty of all of these from time to time. We are all broken people and occasionally fall into sin. But we acknowledge it is sin. We don’t try to justify it by saying that God would approve of this behavior. There are times when the Church gets into trouble by trying to justify sinful behavior, like greed or many types of divorce or racism. But this is the Church being inconsistent with its own teachings and needing to be reformed and corrected. We have allowed the Church to be co-opted by the value system of the world frequently during our 2,000-year history. We should not allow it to happen again with regard to our sexual ethics.

Finally, the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is an essential issue because to do otherwise creates a damaging confusion in the minds of our people and those we want to reach with the Gospel. One United Methodist congregation will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of God’s good creation and ought to be embraced and affirmed by faithful Christian disciples. Another United Methodist congregation down the road will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of the brokenness of our sinful world and ought to be resisted by faithful Christian disciples. One congregation will perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor, while the congregation down the road believes that to perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor is contrary to God’s will. The message is contradictory and confusing to the community, as well as to the congregational members—what does your denomination really believe about this? This confusion will be a stumbling block to effective evangelism and discipleship.

What’s more, those who affirm same-sex relationships are hurt when fellow United Methodists say that such relationships are sinful, while those who believe same-sex relationships are inappropriate for Christians are hurt when fellow United Methodists insist that such relationships are blessed by God and consistent with Scripture. If we have opposite understandings of what a disciple of Jesus Christ acts like, how can we both be making disciples of Jesus Christ? We are working at cross purposes with each other and causing harm to each other.

It sounds hopeful to say that the church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics are not essential matters. We can agree to disagree and still function together in one church body. But for many reasons, such a compatibilist position is not theologically or practically realistic.

  1. To affirm same-sex relationships is to undermine the reliability and authority of Scripture, as well as to contravene our United Methodist doctrinal standards.
  2. To affirm same-sex relationships opens the door to further possible revisions to the Christian understanding of marriage, leading to further potential disregard for the teachings of Scripture and the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Christian Church.
  3. To affirm same-sex relationships undermines the theological significance of heterosexual, monogamous marriage in Scripture as a picture of God’s relationships with his people.
  4. To affirm same-sex relationships goes counter to the heavy emphasis in the New Testament on avoiding all types of sexual immorality, belying the importance that biblical writers gave to this question.
  5. To affirm same-sex relationships puts the church’s stamp of approval on a behavior that Scripture defines as inappropriate for Christians, injecting into church teaching a destructive accommodation to worldly values.
  6. To affirm same-sex relationships as a non-essential matter creates a Christian Church that is communicating mixed messages about marriage and sexuality, working at cross-purposes with itself, and causing confusion and harm to Christians and non-Christians alike.

I would like to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But that would open the door to further confusion, weaken biblical authority, deepen theological imprecision and uncertainty, and continue causing harm to one another within the church. That is not a recipe for enhancing the mission and vitality of The United Methodist Church. We would be better served by acknowledging reality and creating structural separation that would allow people to engage in ministry unhindered by continued conflict over an issue that many deem essential to the Christian faith.

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part I)

The Rev. Frank Schaefer (third from right) stands with family and supporters during a prayer service for unity at Court Square Park in Memphis, Tennessee, prior to the Oct. 22 oral hearing on his case by the United Methodist Judicial Council. Mike Dubose, UMNS.

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?

Some argue that it is a non-essential issue, that Christians can disagree about the definition of marriage, can function differently with regard to what marriage ceremonies clergy should perform, and still live together in the same denomination. This group is often called “compatibilists” because they can live compatibly together with Christians who believe and practice differently than they do. Compatibilists often cannot fathom why we can’t all just get along. They often blame “incompatibilists” on both ends of the spectrum for dividing the church (in their view, illegitimately).

I would like to make the case that the church’s teaching on marriage and same-sex relationships is an essential issue, one over which churches may legitimately experience division. I approach it from the standpoint of one who affirms the current position of the church that all LGBTQ persons are loved by God and of sacred worth. That affirmation stands on its own.

Simultaneously, I affirm United Methodism’s teaching that same-sex relations are contrary to God’s will as expressed in Scripture and the teachings of the Church down through the centuries. I could just as easily make the case that this is an essential issue from the standpoint of those who affirm same-sex relationships and would perform same-sex marriages. The ongoing and escalating disobedience we see in The United Methodist Church is a sign that many progressives, too, believe this is essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us establish from the start that the actions of believers and the teachings of the church are closely related. Our beliefs matter because they affect the way we live. Because we believe that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” we renounce racism and all forms of ethnic and gender prejudice (Galatians 3:28). We oppose certain behaviors as unchristian because they contradict essential doctrines that Christians believe.

We often think that Christian orthodoxy is defined only by assent to certain essential doctrines alone. But James reminds us that “even the demons believe” there is one God (James 2:19), but it does not make them Christians without the deeds that spring from faith.

It is instructive to notice that the requirements the early church placed on Gentile believers were not doctrinal, but ethical. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29). John Wesley prioritized right actions over right beliefs. “Right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, (which properly and directly consists in right tempers, words, and actions,) and frequently it is no part of religion” (Letter to the Bishop of Gloucestershire).

This does not mean that doctrine is unimportant. But right doctrine or orthodox beliefs must result in right actions in order to be spiritually effective. So orthopraxis is just as important as orthodoxy.

So why is the church’s teaching on the nature of marriage and the acceptability of same-sex relationships an essential matter—part of an orthopraxis that defines who we are as United Methodist Christians?

First, the affirmation of same-sex relations would call into question the reliability and authority of Scripture. As noted New Testament scholar Dr. Richard Hayes summarizes, “The few biblical texts that do address the topic of homosexual behavior, however, are unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.” And “we must affirm that the New Testament tells us the truth about ourselves as sinners and as God’s sexual creatures: marriage between man and woman is the normative form for human sexual fulfillment, and homosexuality is one among many tragic signs that we are a broken people, alienated from God’s loving purpose” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 381, 399-400, emphasis original).

Several interpretive schemes have been proposed to reinterpret the biblical evidence in such a way as to allow same-sex relationships to be affirmed. However, they have all been refuted by biblical scholars far more knowledgeable than I (and beyond the scope of this article to address). The fact is that the Bible is unequivocally clear about this question. To say that the Bible is wrong on this matter is to undermine its reliability as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Article IV of our Confession of Faith goes on to state, “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.” For the church to affirm same-sex relationships would be to make something an article of faith that is not revealed in or established by Scripture. As a contravention of our doctrinal standards, that is an essential matter.

Second, to redefine marriage in a way that is different from the biblical definition opens the door to further revisions. Once we have discounted the Bible’s teachings that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman, what is to prevent us from discounting teachings about the need for exclusivity within marriage or the number of people who can participate in a marriage? Once the line is crossed, there is no other line that cannot also in theory be crossed. At that point, the Bible ceases to be our supreme authority, and we have allowed other considerations to outweigh the teachings of Scripture. Again, this is an essential issue as a repudiation of our doctrinal position that Scripture is our primary authority for faith and life.

It is not unreasonable for people to believe that the church’s teaching is an essential matter about which there must be agreement in order to have denominational coherence. I will explore this matter further in Part II of this blog.