Resurrection: “Metaphorical” or “Literal”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Allocation of Bishops Unfair to Africa

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

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

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

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

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

How we got where we are

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where we can go from here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What is a “Good” Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Better Way

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

Is the One Church Plan Unconstitutional?

The process of formulating and releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward has been a long and winding road with unpredictable turns and unexpected surprises. Now that the report has been released in four translations, one foreseeable wild card in the process remains. This October, the Judicial Council has been asked to determine the constitutionality and legality of the three plans submitted by the Commission.

The Constitution is the document that sets forth the governing principles of our church. No legislation may be passed or implemented that goes contrary to our Constitution. Proposals (like the Connectional Conference Plan) that want to enact structures or processes that go against the Constitution must pass amendments to the Constitution in order to be legal. That is why the Connectional Conference Plan has nine constitutional amendments. That is the only way that plan could be enacted, since it makes some rather dramatic changes to the church’s structure and governing processes.

Both the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan claim to not need any constitutional amendments in order to pass. In other words, both claim to be congruent with the requirements of our Constitution. That is a selling point because, rather than needing a two-thirds vote to pass, these plans would only need a simple majority. And neither would need to be ratified by the annual conferences in order to be implemented.

Over the past two weeks, as many as twenty different people – plus two larger groups – have weighed in with legal arguments over the constitutionality and legality of the three plans. As the designated defender of the Traditional Plan before the Judicial Council at its upcoming meeting in October, I submitted a regular brief and a reply brief to the Council.

There were a number of persons who argued that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional, despite the claims of the plan’s authors that no constitutional amendments would be required. What are the important issues they have raised?

  1. The One Church Plan unlawfully delegates authority to set standards for ministry to the annual conferences.The authority to set standards for ordained ministry is reserved by the Constitution to the General Conference. But the One Church Plan removes the restriction that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not qualified to serve as ordained clergy. At the same time, it allows any annual conference (including those outside the United States) to continue disqualifying self-avowed practicing homosexuals from serving as ordained clergy.

The One Church Plan therefore sets up the probability of conflicting standards for ministry in different annual conferences. Some will ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, while others will not. This would be unlawfully allowing annual conferences to set standards for ministry, something that the Judicial Council has previously ruled is “distinctively connectional” and not something that can be delegated to the annual conferences.

In the words of the Judicial Council, “It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject” (JC Decision 7). “The requirements for admission into the ministry are distinctively connectional because, as observed in Decision 544, ‘[o]rdination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide'” (Brief by Keith Boyette).

When full clergy rights were extended to women in the (former) Methodist Church, the question was asked whether central conferences outside the United States could decline to ordain women. The Judicial Council ruled that this was a “distinctively connectional” matter that governed all annual conferences equally, so central conferences had to also ordain women. In the same way, the General Conference needs to set one standard regarding the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and cannot allow different annual conferences to set conflicting standards.

If the One Church Plan simply declared that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are eligible for ordination in all annual conferences, the plan would be constitutional. (This is what the so-called Simple Plan does.) But by allowing annual conferences to set conflicting standards, the plan unconstitutionally delegates legislative authority to annual conferences on an area that is distinctively connectional and reserved to the General Conference.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s changing of the definition of marriage to “two adults” clearly contradicts United Methodist doctrinal standards.There is no question that every reference to the practice of homosexuality in Scripture is negative and that Jesus and Paul both define marriage as between one man and one woman. Article IV of our Confession of Faithstates, “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.” Since the One Church Plan changes the definition of marriage contrary to Scripture, it violates our doctrinal standards.

In addition, John Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament is another one of our doctrinal standards. It helps us interpret Scripture. Wesley’s Notes are uniformly negative toward the practice of homosexuality and affirm the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. So the One Church Plan’s changing the definition of marriage also violates Wesley’s Notes as a contradiction of our doctrinal standards.

Any change in our doctrinal standards (such as to accommodate a new definition of marriage) would require a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths vote of all the annual conference members around the world. Such a change would be nearly impossible.

In addition, the One Church Plan, while defining marriage as between “two adults” at the theological level, allows for different definitions of marriage across the church, depending upon where churches are located. In countries that do not permit same-sex marriage, the church would have to abide by the traditional definition of one man – one woman marriage.

Yet this geographic variety has been ruled out by Judicial Council Decision 1185, which says, “The Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.” The church needs a clear and consistent definition of something so foundational to human existence as marriage. For the One Church Plan to offer a smorgasbord approach to defining marriage (depending upon one’s geographic location) is to unconstitutionally contradict our foundational principle of connectionalism.

  1. The One Church Plan allows clergy to perform same-sex weddings, but has not provided an endorsed rite or ritual for such a service.According to the Constitution, the General Conference has authority “to provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship . . . .” Right now, the approved services of Christian marriage are specifically written for the marriage of one man to one woman. There is no authorization in the service of marriage for a same-sex couple to be married. The church has no authorized ritual for such a marriage. It would be unconstitutional for the General Conference to allow a type of marriage for which there is no approved ritual.

Furthermore, our doctrinal standards require that rites or orders of worship must be “consistent with the Holy Scriptures to the edification of all” (Confession of Faith, XIII), “so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (Articles of Religion, XXII). Since same-sex marriage is plainly not consistent with Scripture, such a worship rite would be contrary to our doctrinal standards and therefore unconstitutional. (The same holds true of ordination rituals.)

  1. The One Church Plan is unconstitutional when it says, “clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shallbe reassigned” (Petition 8, emphasis added).The Constitution gives sole right to set the appointment of clergy to the bishop. So the General Conference cannot mandate that the bishop change a clergy person’s appointment.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s provision that same-sex weddings cannot be performed in a local church unless such is approved by a vote of the local church conference conflicts with another provision in the Disciplinethat says, “the board of trustees shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services or other proper meetings” (¶ 2533.1).

 

  1. One of the provisions of the One Church Plan says that the General Council on Finance and Administration will develop an apportionment formula that ensures that each episcopal area pays for its own bishop.However, there is no legislation to that effect, and it is questionable whether GCFA can enact such a policy without General Conference direction. Additionally, the Judicial Council has already ruled in Decision 1208 that jurisdictions may not be required to fully fund their own bishops. They ruled that such a plan “creates a funding mechanism that is dependent upon raising funds from jurisdictions and that invades and undermines the ‘unified’ nature of the episcopacy.” So if this provision were to be followed by GCFA, it runs the risk of being found doubly illegal. (This means that delegates should not count on this provision going into effect when they consider voting for the One Church Plan.)

The Judicial Council has yet to rule whether any of the above arguments are valid. I believe they are strong arguments. Some of the above issues can be fixed by amending the legislation. However, it appears that items #1 and #2 are so essential to the One Church Plan that to rule them out would pretty much rule out the whole plan. Such a ruling by the Judicial Council would substantially change the options that the General Conference will consider in February.

Of course, the Traditional Plan must also survive an analysis by the Judicial Council that may find aspects of that plan unconstitutional. We will keep you informed about what the Judicial Council decides in October.

 

Marriage and the One Church Plan

What is the definition of marriage? One of the salient issues the upcoming special General Conference in 2019 needs to decide is precisely this. How does The United Methodist Church define marriage?

Up until now, the church has defined marriage as a “covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 161.C). The One Church Plan (OCP) wants to change this description of marriage to a “monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” In another paragraph in the Discipline, the OCP goes even farther, stating “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults” (proposed ¶ 161.G). This changed definition of course opens the door to same-gender “marriage.”

What does the Bible say about the definition of marriage?

In Matthew 19 (parallel to Mark 10), Jesus is asked about what constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked whether it was lawful to divorce “for any and every reason.” Jesus did not answer them directly, but turned instead to the foundational understanding of the Bible regarding the nature of marriage, quoting from Genesis 1 and 2.

“Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5). As other commentators have pointed out, Jesus here joins together the two creation accounts (1:27 and 2:24) to emphasize that marriage is part of the created order, (applying to all humanity, not just Jews or Christians) and that marriage was created for one man and one woman. Jesus later explains that divorce arises from hardness of heart and limits the acceptable reasons for divorce only to adultery or marital unfaithfulness.

When the early church was establishing the qualifications for Gentiles to enter into the Church, one of the four things from which believers were commanded to abstain was “sexual immorality” (same Greek word as Matthew 19, “marital unfaithfulness”). When Paul outlined the qualifications for church leaders, one of those qualifications was “the husband of but one wife” (literally, a one-woman man) (Titus 1:6, I Timothy 3:2).

Yes, there are many instances of polygamy in the Bible. Most instances where we have details about the relationship, a polygamous marriage was not a harmonious one (think Sarah and Hagar with Abraham in Genesis 16-21, Rachel and Leah with Jacob in Genesis 29-31, Hannah and Peninnah with Elkanah, parents of Samuel in I Samuel 1). Having many wives, particularly those who worshipped foreign gods, caused the apostasy and downfall of Solomon. The evidence in Scripture at least discourages the practice of polygamy.

But Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 and the leadership requirements of Paul are decisive in understanding that polygamy is not in line with God’s original intention for marriage. Part of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ is the restoration of God’s original intention for many areas in life (see Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). So the New Testament teaching on marriage and its definition is a recovery of the original definition from Genesis 1 and 2.

The interesting point is that there is no evidence in Scripture that would indicate support for expanding the definition of marriage to persons of the same gender. There is far more biblical justification for polygamy than for same-gender marriage. And if polygamy is off-limits for Christians, how much more so should same-gender marriage be off-limits.

To the clear biblical teaching on marriage’s definition can be added the theological significance of marriage in picturing the relationship between God and God’s people. In numerous places in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is pictured as a relationship between husband and wife (for example, Hosea 2). In the New Testament, marriage becomes a picture of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32, Revelation 21).

The theological picture of marriage demonstrates why marriage is between one man and one woman. Jesus Christ does not have many “wives,” only one Church as his bride. And the inherent difference between God/Christ and humanity mimics the gender difference between male and female in marriage.

The proponents of the One Church Plan should be more forthright that they are fundamentally changing the definition of marriage in a way that is not found in Scripture. This new definition goes against all the evidence in the Bible, both the clear definition of marriage and the theological implications of marriage.

The new definition is a human innovation that is inconsistent with what we call “the rule of faith” — the accumulated wisdom of biblical and theological understanding from our forefathers and foremothers of the faith down through the centuries. (John Wesley limited his understanding of the “rule of faith” to what he called “the primitive church,” or the church of the first three centuries prior to the Emperor Constantine.)

In Wesley’s understanding, we are to interpret Scripture in line with how the early generations of the church interpreted it. To introduce a new interpretation, there would have to be quite a strong case from Scripture that the earlier interpretations were wrong or incomplete. Such a strong case for same-gender marriage from the Bible does not exist. At most, apologists for same-gender marriage reinterpret Scripture in ways that make it silent or not applicable to same-gender marriage. That kind of textual manipulation is not enough to overthrow a 2,000-year-old understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage.

One could argue that this new definition of marriage is a violation of our United Methodist doctrinal standards. Article IV of the Confession of Faith states, “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.” Nowhere does Scripture reveal or establish that marriage in God’s eyes includes persons of the same gender. Therefore, this new definition of marriage cannot be made an article of faith (something that United Methodists believe and teach officially).

The final point to note is that the new (proposed) definition of marriage is found in the section of the Book of Discipline that applies to the whole global church. Much is made in the One Church Plan about the ability of central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions prohibiting same-gender marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. But the definition of marriage is found in the Social Principles and in the theology section of the Discipline, a part that is not subject to the adaptation by central conferences. It is very hard to imagine that the United Methodists in the central conferences, particularly in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, would be willing to approve a change in the definition of marriage that would apply in their countries, as well. For some of them, to do so would mean the suicide of their churches, either through mass desertion by members or governmental action against them.

Despite all the rhetoric of the One Church Plan affirming those with a traditional view of marriage, one must not underestimate the sweeping change that the plan proposes simply by changing the church’s official definition of marriage. Such a change would negatively impact the church for generations.

Episcopalians and the One Church Plan

The Episcopal Church, one of the seven mainline denominations in the United States, has gone down the road toward the full affirmation of LGBTQ persons and practices. The conflict has cost the church hundreds of thousands of members and tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits over property. Their experience can help us see what the likely effects of a similar decision would be on The United Methodist Church in 2019.

Here is the trajectory The Episcopal Church followed:

  • 2003 – The first openly gay bishop was consecrated
  • 2009 – The church’s standards were changed to allow openly gay or lesbian persons to be ordained, subject to the approval of their bishop (some dioceses did not grant such permission)
  • 2012 – Ordination of transgender persons was allowed, subject to the bishop’s approval; a provisional ritual for same-sex union/marriage was adopted
  • 2015 – Same-sex marriage performed by priests was allowed in the church, subject to the approval of the bishop (8 dioceses out of 101 declined to grant approval)
  • 2018 – Same-sex marriage was required in every diocese, whether the bishop approved or not, but clergy were not required to perform same-sex weddings and the provisional ritual was not adopted into the official church worship book

(Sources: Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: The Episcopal Church; Episcopal convention approves a ‘pastoral solution’ on same-sex marriage; and LGBTQ in the Church)

The Episcopal Church took a “local option” approach to resolving its conflict over same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Since The Episcopal Church gives more authority to bishops in setting policy, that “local option” revolved around the decision of the bishop, rather than the diocese (equivalent to our annual conference). This is the same approach that the One Church Plan takes, allowing annual conferences to decide about ordination and local churches and pastors to decide about performing same-sex weddings.

One thing to notice is that taking such a “local option” approach, even when spread out over a period of 15 years, did not stave off massive membership losses. Several whole traditional/evangelical dioceses left The Episcopal Church over the last ten years. Attendance dropped from 857,000 in 2000 to less than 580,000 in 2015-a 32 percent decline. Membership dropped from 2,329,000 in 2000 to 1,745,000 in 2016-a 25 percent decline. The national church spent over $45 million on lawsuits to retain church buildings when congregations left. In the same way, adopting the One Church Plan will cause hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of United Methodists to depart from The United Methodist Church and could well cost millions in lawsuits over property.

Another thing to notice is that each step along the way was only a step in the process of becoming more affirming of LGBT practices. Even the most recent Episcopalian action in 2018 is not the end of the story for their denomination. It is anticipated that the formal approval and adoption of a same-sex wedding ritual will take place in 2021 (their next general convention). And provisions mandating equal access to bathrooms and shower facilities regardless of gender identity that were turned down in 2018 may pass the next time around. The process (and conflict) leading toward full affirmation will not stop until same-sex weddings and ordination for LGBT persons are required for all.

The recent gathering of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition reportedly discussed that very prospect. Although many were loath to accept a solution (the One Church Plan) that allows for what they consider discrimination against LGBT persons in some parts of the country, others saw adoption of the plan as a good first step that allows the church to move farther in the direction of affirmation in future years. Dorothy Benz, a New York delegate and leader in Methodists in New Directions (MIND), called the One Church Plan “the necessary first steps for justice,” implying that other steps will need to be taken.

There are no guarantees in the One Church Plan that protections for traditional pastors, churches, and annual conferences will remain in place. In The Episcopal Church, what was once allowed is now becoming required. The “local option” is continually becoming more restricted in favor of required affirmation. By a simple majority vote, the General Conference in 2020 or 2024 could turn around and remove the protections for traditionalists and institute greater requirements for inclusion and affirmation of what the Bible restricts.

Evangelicals will not remain part of a church that forfeits its moral authority based on Scripture in order to go along with the tide of American public opinion. While the One Church Plan seems to offer a “live and let live” way forward, the experience of the Episcopal Church shows that it is only a slippery slope on the way to abandoning the clear teachings of Scripture.

What’s in the Connectional Conference Plan?

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the legislative proposals for the three plans they developed are now posted publicly on the Judicial Council website. In the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I have now shared the elements involved in each plan. You can read about the One Church Plan here and the Traditional Plan here.

Although this article is shorter than the 232-page full report and petitions, in the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.

Features of the Plan

The Connectional Conference Plan is the most complicated of the three proposals coming before the General Conference. It attempts to treat all perspectives on the church’s stance regarding LGBT persons fairly and equally. Due to the great complexity, I will not be able to cover all the details involved in the plan, but I will describe the broad approaches that the plan takes.

The essence of the Connectional Conference Plan is to create three new theological jurisdictions (called “connectional conferences”) in place of the current five geographical jurisdictions. Each connectional conference would cover the entire United States. There would be a Traditional Conference that would maintain the current Discipline’s prohibition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. There would be a Unity Conference that would neither forbid nor require same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals (this branch would be similar to what the One Church Plan envisions, but only for this branch). And there would be a Progressive Conference that would require and expect all pastors to perform same-sex weddings and all its annual conferences to ordain and appoint practicing homosexual clergy.

There would be a sorting process designed to limit the number of votes that would be needed. Current jurisdictions would vote first on which of the connectional conferences they want to affiliate with. (All jurisdictional property would then go with that connectional conference.) Any annual conference that disagreed with the decision of its jurisdiction could vote to join a different connectional conference. (All annual conference property, assets, and liabilities would go with the annual conference wherever it decided to affiliate.) Any local church that disagreed with the decision of its jurisdiction or annual conference could vote to join a different connectional conference. (All local church property, assets, and liabilities would go with the local church.) No local church would need to vote unless it disagreed with the decision of higher-up entities. Any vote by any church body to realign with a different connectional conference (once the plan is implemented) could happen no more frequently than in four years from a previous vote, in order to minimize continuing conflict and membership “churn.”

Bishops and clergy would similarly choose which connectional conference they wanted to join, with a possibility of transitional appointments until a suitable appointment is found for them in their preferred connectional conference. Clergy could serve in a different connectional conference, with the approval of that conference, as long as they adhered to the requirements of that conference.

There is some question whether all three connectional conferences would be populated, with the possibility that many progressives might stick with a Unity Conference instead of forming their own conference. But that decision would be up to each jurisdiction, annual conference, local church, and clergy person, rather than being dictated by the plan itself. There is no doubt that many annual conference boundaries would need to be redrawn and new annual conferences formed. There would be two or three annual conferences covering each geographical location in the United States. Each new connectional conference could determine whether or not it wanted to have jurisdictions as part of its new structure (hopefully with another name).

Under the Connectional Conference Plan, the primary identity would be the connectional conference. Some of the powers of the General Conference would be shifted to the connectional conference, including:

  • Determining the number of bishops needed, electing the bishops, and funding the bishops (no funding for a bishop in the U.S. would come from a different connectional conference).
  • Determining the qualifications, powers, and duties of clergy, including accountability through the complaint process.
  • Determining the qualifications, powers, and duties of bishops, including accountability through the connectional conference college of bishops.
  • Adapting most of the Book of Discipline according to its theological perspective.
  • Holding its bishops accountable to the connectional conference rules and requirements.
  • Creating whatever boards and agencies the connectional conference believes it needs to enhance effectiveness in ministry.

All three connectional conferences would still be part of The United Methodist Church, but each would have much more autonomy to operate in the way it believes would be most helpful and consistent with its theological perspective. The general church would consist of:

  • A General Book of Discipline including the doctrinal standards and theological task, ministry of all Christians, new global social principles, and provisions governing all shared agencies.
  • A shortened General Conference, mostly for celebration, sharing of best practices, and governing those parts of the church shared by all the connectional conferences.
  • A redefined Council of Bishops, caring for ecumenical relationships, fostering cross-connection ministries and partnerships, and serving as a learning and support community for bishops (This redefined COB would not have supervisory authority over the bishops or over the connectional conferences, as that function would pass to each connectional college of bishops.).
  • General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (Wespath).
  • The Publishing House.
  • General Council on Finance and Administration.
  • United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
  • Parts of the General Board of Global Ministries as agreed upon by all the connectional conferences.

All the rest of the general boards and agencies would be subject to whether or not any connectional conferences want to continue to participate in them. Continuing agencies could serve one, two, or all three connectional conferences, and funding would be apportioned from only those conferences participating. Connectional conferences could also contract with specific agencies for fee-based services as desired.

The current central conferences outside the United States would be renamed as connectional conferences and be given equal power and authority with the US connectional conferences. Each non-U.S. connectional conference could remain separate as it is, join with other connectional conferences in its area, or join one of the three U.S. connectional conferences. If annual conferences in a given area realigned, non-U.S. connectional conference boundaries might need to be redrawn. Funding for bishops and ministries outside the U.S. would be shared by all three U.S. connectional conferences, as it currently is.

Enactment of this plan would require nine constitutional amendments that would hopefully be approved and ratified as a package. Implementation of the plan would take until 2023, and the 2024 General Conference would be shifted to 2025, moving the four-year cycle of General Conference so that it does not coincide with United States presidential election years.

Summary

The Connectional Conference Plan creates three new theological conferences (Traditional, Unity, and Progressive) in place of the current five geographical jurisdictions. It creates a process of sorting that seeks to minimize the number of entities that will need to vote on an affiliation. It continues a United Methodist Church umbrella of shared services and shared doctrinal standards, but devolves much of the authority and accountability functions to the connectional conferences. Cross-connection ministries and partnerships could continue, but work within each connectional conference would be funded and governed by that conference’s theology and requirements. Bishops and clergy would only serve within their connectional conference.

Implications

  • This is a radical restructuring of the church that seeks to treat each perspective fairly and equally.
  • Not only would this restructure hopefully resolve the impasse over marriage and human sexuality, it is designed to create the opportunity to redesign the general agency structure into something that better serves the needs and theological emphases of various parts of the church. It would allow experimentation with ministry and structure within each connectional conference that could cross-pollinate the other conferences.
  • This plan requires a two-thirds majority at General Conference and ratification by two-thirds of the members of all the annual conferences. It can only be adopted if there is broad support across the church for such an approach. At this time, it appears to lack that broad support across the theological spectrum. In the event that other plans fail to pass General Conference, it is possible this plan might serve as a compromise for a way forward.
  • Even though one’s primary identity would be in the connectional conference, rather than in the general church, some evangelicals and traditionalists would still object to being part of the same general church where another part of the church can support and engage in practices that the Bible calls sin. These persons would feel the need to withdraw from the denomination, but there is no provision in the plan for them to do so.
  • The connectional conferences would face a branding challenge in distinguishing their churches from those of a different connectional conference, sometimes in the same community.
  • The four-year implementation period needed is too long for some who are impatient to resolve our impasse immediately. This contrasts with a 22-month implementation for the Traditional Plan and an 18-month implementation for the One Church Plan.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Unique among the three plans, the Connectional Conference Plan seeks to provide a place for each theological perspective and to treat everyone equally. No one would be forced to leave the church, and hopefully fewer would desire to do so under this plan. I believe it could serve as a good “Plan B” in case the Traditional Plan fails to pass. It is certainly preferable to the One Church Plan and to the option of doing nothing.

 

 

What’s in the Traditional Plan?

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the legislative proposals for the three plans they developed are now posted publicly on the Judicial Council website. In the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I will be sharing the elements involved in each plan. You can read about the One Church Plan here.

Although this article is shorter than the 232-page full report and petitions, in the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.

The Traditional Plan is founded on retaining what evangelicals and traditionalists believe is the Scriptural teaching that sexual relationships are to be reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Based on the votes of previous General Conferences, a Traditional Plan appears to have the best chance of the three main proposals of being adopted. It is the approach favored by most evangelicals and traditionalists, including the Renewal and Reform Coalition (Good News, The Confessing Movement, UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association). 

The Traditional Plan retains the current stance in the Book of Discipline that values all persons as equally “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and believes that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. Because of widespread disobedience to the church’s prohibition of same-sex weddings and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards.

 

Key features of the Traditional Plan include:

  • The requirement that every annual conference vote on whether or not it is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Those annual conferences unwilling or unable to enforce the Discipline are encouraged to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form a self-governing Methodist church that would allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination.
  • Annual conferences that did not agree to enforce the Discipline or who failed to do so would, as of January 1, 2021, no longer be able to use the United Methodist name or logo, and would be unable to give or receive funds through the general church.
  • Any annual conference could, by a simple majority, vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and keep its assets and liabilities. The annual conference would still be responsible for its pension liabilities and could continue to sponsor a pension program through Wespath.
  • Any local church in a departing annual conference could vote by a simple majority to remain in The United Methodist Church and abide by the current provisions of the Discipline.
  • Every bishop would be required to submit a statement as to whether or not he or she is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and to hold those under their supervision accountable to those standards. Any bishop unwilling or unable to do so would be subject to a disciplinary process administered by the Council of Bishops.
  • The Council of Bishops would establish a committee to respond to bishops who are unwilling to enforce the Discipline or who are charged with the offenses of immorality or practices incompatible with Christian teaching. Upon the committee’s recommendation, the Council of Bishops could vote to place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.
  • Any group of 50 or more local congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to form a self-governing Methodist church, upon payment of each local church’s share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liability.
  • Any local church that wants to allow same-sex marriage, but is in an annual conference that will continue to prohibit such under the current Discipline, could vote by a 55 percent majority to withdraw from The United Methodist Church to join a self-governing Methodist church that allows same-sex marriage. The local church would have to pay its share of their annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities.
  • Bishops and clergy who are unable to live within the boundaries of conduct established by the Discipline would be encouraged to transfer to a self-governing Methodist church that affirms their beliefs.
  • Annual conferences and congregations that depart from The United Methodist Church could continue to participate in Wespath and could negotiate fee-based services from other general boards and agencies of the UM Church. They could also continue to participate in joint mission through the General Board of Global Ministries, as well as partnerships for mission and other joint projects, with the agreement of the UM entity involved. Changes would be made to the pension program to ensure that pension liabilities are fairly cared for.
  • Institutions related to The United Methodist Church would remain affiliated with the annual conference it is affiliated with, whether that annual conference withdraws or remains in the church. But such institutions could form cooperative relationships with other bodies and could, under the provisions of their own bylaws, change their relationship from one body to another.
  • Any self-governing Methodist church would create its own Book of Discipline and be self-supporting financially, including funding its own bishops.
  • The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” would be expanded to include persons living in a same-sex partnership, union, or marriage, in keeping with Judicial Council decision 1341.
  • Bishops are required to nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons who are committed to upholding and enforcing the provisions of the Discipline related to the candidacy and ordination of LGBT persons. Bishops are also prohibited from ordaining a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a clergy person. In addition, bishops are prohibited from consecrating as bishop anyone who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
  • Clergy found guilty by a trial court of performing a same-sex wedding would have a mandatory minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay for a first offense, and removal of clergy credentials for a second offense.
  • Bishops would not be allowed to dismiss a complaint unless it has “no basis in law or fact.”
  • “Just resolution” process and agreements would be reformed to ensure that complainants are included in the process and, where possible, agree to the “just resolution” before it is finalized.
  • The counsel for the church in a church trial process would be given the same right of appeal for egregious errors of church law that the defendant now enjoys.

Summary

The Traditional Plan would retain the current stance of the Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It would enhance accountability by:

  • Encouraging annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations unwilling to live within the requirements of the Discipline to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and form their own self-governing Methodist church.
  • Providing that annual conferences not enforcing the Discipline could no longer use the United Methodist name or logo and could not give or receive funds through the general church.
  • Providing a new accountability process for bishops, whereby the Council of Bishops could place a bishop on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.
  • Expanding the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex marriage, union, or partnership.
  • Requiring that bishops nominate as members of the conference board of ordained ministry only persons willing to uphold and enforce the Discipline.
  • Providing a mandatory minimum penalty for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex wedding.
  • Prohibiting bishops from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in law or fact.
  • Reforming the “just resolution” process to include the required participation of the complainant.
  • Allowing the church to appeal any egregious errors of church law from a trial process.

At the same time, the Traditional Plan acknowledges the reality that there are segments of the church that cannot live with the current prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The Plan provides a gracious way for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations to leave The United Methodist Church by a simple majority (or in some cases a 55 percent majority) vote and keep all their property, buildings, assets, and liabilities, in exchange only for covering unfunded pension liabilities.

Implications

  • The Traditional Plan maintains the majority position of the church, reaffirmed by every General Conference since 1972. It maintains the unity of the church with its members outside the United States, who overwhelmingly hold the traditional view. It follows the premise that those who want to change the church should be the ones to leave, not those who are in continuity with the church’s historic teachings.
  • It recognizes that there are parts of the church that can no longer live with the current strictures of the Book of Discipline and provides them with an easy and gracious way to leave the denomination and form a church that agrees with their theological understanding. Those who simply disagree with the church’s position are welcome to stay in the church, as long as they are willing to conform their behavior to the church’s requirements.
  • The Traditional Plan seeks to enhance accountability for bishops, clergy, and annual conferences, to ensure that those remaining in The United Methodist Church do indeed live by its standards.
  • Some progressive leaders have said they are not willing to leave the church under any circumstances. This may require that disciplinary measures are taken in order to align with the Discipline. There is some risk that such disciplinary measures may not work or may not be taken, which could lessen the effectiveness of the plan.
  • The Traditional Plan offers a hopeful way to end the conflict in our church by allowing those disagreeing with the church’s teaching to go their separate way with a blessing. Church property and the trust clause ought not be used to coerce people to remain in a covenant against their conscience. The Traditional Plan is the only one of the three that includes a gracious exit provision for those unable to live with the church’s teachings and requirements.
  • The Traditional Plan offers those who disagree with the effectiveness of this approach to also seek an exit from the denomination under the same terms.
  • As annual conferences and congregations depart from the denomination, it will be necessary to redraw jurisdictional and annual conference lines.
  • The Traditional Plan seeks a gracious end to the conflict of our church, so that valuable resources, time, and energy can be directed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Of the three plans, however, the Traditional Plan seems the most faithful to Scripture and the most gracious in acknowledging that all members of the church may not be able to live with that solution. It provides a way for those who cannot live together to go their separate ways with blessing, allowing both to pursue ministry in faithfulness to their consciences without coercion.

What’s In the One Church Plan?

(l-r) Outgoing COB President Bishop Bruce Ough, incoming COB President Bishop Ken Carter and COB President-designate Bishop Cynthia Harvey address a press conference at the end of the Council of Bishops meeting on May 4,2018. Photo by Mike DuBose.

In light of the delay in releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward, and in the interest of helping facilitate discussion and consideration of the three main proposals that will be voted upon at the special General Conference next February, I will be sharing the elements involved in each plan over the next three weeks that can be made public. I will not be sharing the actual legislation or the details of the report, in deference to the desire for that information to come at the same time to everyone in their primary language.

In the interest of thoroughness, many details will be included. For those looking for a shorter report, you can skip to the summary at the bottom of this article.

The One Church Plan is the proposal with the most amount of information that has been publicly released. It is based on the idea that the church’s teaching regarding the practice of homosexuality and gender identity is a non-essential issue. Proponents of the One Church Plan believe that Christians can disagree about these issues and even have different practices and still work together within one church.

Key elements of the One Church Plan:

  • The plan states that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality and affirms “those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality,” as well as “those who believe the witness of Scripture calls us to reconsider the teaching of the church with respect to monogamous homosexual relationships.”
  • The definition of marriage is changed from “one man and one woman” to “two adults.”
  • The plan deletes the language, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • NOTE: the above three changes apply to the whole church and are not adaptable by the central conferences outside the United States.
  • The plan deletes the requirement that ordained clergy not be self-avowed practicing homosexuals, allowing each annual conference board of ordained ministry and clergy session to determine how standards relating to human sexuality would apply to candidates for ordination. Those who are ordained clergy must be appointed by the bishop to serve.
  • The plan states that ordained deacons and elders, as well as licensed local pastors, are not required or compelled to perform any marriage, union, or blessing of same-sex couples, nor are they prohibited from doing so. The decision about whether to participate in performing a same-sex wedding or blessing would strictly be up to the individual clergyperson.
  • The plan provides that clergy who cannot continue to serve in their annual conference due to disagreement with the conference’s standards for ordination around human sexuality may transfer to a different annual conference. It also provides that clergy who cannot continue to serve a given local church due to disagreements over same-sex marriage should be reassigned to a different church.
  • The plan forbids clergy from performing a same-sex wedding on church property unless the church has approved the use of church property for that purpose by a majority vote of the church conference.
  • The plan allows that no bishop is required to license, commission, or ordain any person who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, but that another bishop should be brought in to provide these services. The bishop is, however, required to appoint any person who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual and is ordained.
  • The plan forbids bishops and district superintendents from either requiring or prohibiting pastors from performing same-sex weddings or unions. It also forbids them from either requiring or prohibiting local churches from holding same-sex weddings on church property. It forbids superintendents (but not bishops) from coercing, threatening, or retaliating against any pastor for either performing or refusing to perform a same-sex wedding.
  • The plan allows an annual conference clergy session to adopt a policy regarding what standards to apply to candidates for ministry regarding human sexuality.
  • The plan deletes from the chargeable offenses against clergy being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or performing a same-sex wedding.
  • The plan gives central conferences outside the United States 18 months to decide whether or not to accept the above proposals or continue with the current Book of Discipline.
  • The plan requires any local church leaving the denomination to pay its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities, but it does not include any additional provisions for local churches to leave the denomination and keep their property. Whether or not the local church can keep its property is still left up to each bishop and each annual conference.
  • The plan provides that any clergy who leave the denomination would have their pension benefits converted from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. This means that the amount of future benefits is not guaranteed, but that the amount of benefits would depend upon how much money is in the person’s pension account at the time of retirement.

Summary

What does this plan actually do?

  • It changes the church’s official teaching on marriage and sexuality to affirm monogamous same-sex relationships. This is a change that affects all United Methodists everywhere, even if we disagree.
  • It delegates to each annual conference the decision about what standards to impose on clergy regarding same-sex practices. Importantly, laity will have no voice in this decision; it will be strictly a decision of the annual conference clergy.
  • It allows pastors to perform same-sex weddings if they want to without any repercussions.
  • It delegates to each local church the decision of whether or not to allow same-sex weddings to be performed on church property.
  • It includes protections of conscience and forbids bishops and district superintendents from coercing or punishing clergy who disagree with them about same-sex weddings.
  • It protects bishops from having to license, commission, or ordain someone whom they believe does not meet the qualifications for ministry, but it gets around that by bringing in another bishop who is willing to do so. And it does not protect bishops from having to appoint someone as clergy whom they believe does not meet the qualifications for ministry.
  • It allows central conferences outside the United States to continue operating under the current provisions of the Discipline, but the whole church would affirm monogamous same-sex marriage.
  • It changes the church’s pension plan to accommodate clergy and congregations that might leave the denomination, but it provides no mechanism for congregations to leave with their property. 

Implications

There are many issues that this plan raises for evangelicals and traditionalists. A few of them are:

  • It changes the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality to endorse conduct that Scripture prohibits. Such a change not only violates our consciences, it very well could remove the religious liberty legal protection that pastors and congregations have relied upon in not performing same sex weddings. While United Methodist clergy currently may point to the church’s official teaching as a basis for not marrying same-sex couples or hiring practicing homosexuals in our churches, that would no longer be the case under the One Church Plan.
  • It officially allows practices in parts of the church that the Bible calls sin.
  • It takes the conflict over the practice of homosexuality from the general church level down to every annual conference and every local church, as each makes its own decision about whether to allow same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality. This will multiply the level of conflict in our denomination, rather than resolve it.
  • It sets up a situation where one annual conference will have different teachings and practices than another, and where two local United Methodist churches in the same community could have diametrically opposite teachings and practices on marriage and sexuality. This will cause confusion and lead to the further weakening of the United Methodist “brand.” What it means to be “United Methodist” will depend upon what local church one attends. There will be a much weaker connectional identity for the denomination.
  • Many evangelicals will seek to leave the denomination if the One Church Plan passes because for most of us, adhering to Scriptural teaching on sexuality is an essential issue, but there is no orderly mechanism for congregations to do so and keep their property. This is a recipe for widespread lawsuits over property that consume the church’s resources meant to be spent on mission.
  • Many progressives will not be satisfied with this compromise and will continue to push for the full affirmation of same-sex relationships to be required in every annual conference and local church. The conflict will continue.

There is no easy or painless way out of the impasse that besets our church, and there is no perfect solution. Of the three plans, however, the One Church Plan seems to be the least faithful to Scripture and the least able to practically resolve the impasse. It will not accomplish what the General Conference intended in providing a way forward that resolves the conflict in our church.

 

Complaints Filed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Many United Methodists were surprised to learn that it is possible to file complaints against a lay member of the church for disobedience to the Discipline, a course of action that could lead to a church trial for a lay member.

On June 18, more than 600 United Methodist clergy and laity filed a complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, over the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The uniqueness of church charges filed against a United Methodist politician stem from the deeply controversial policy – later rescinded by President Trump – to separate children from parents at the border. Even religious supporters of the Trump Administration such as the Rev. Franklin Graham called it “disgraceful” and “terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.”

Sessions is a lay member of Ashland Place UM Church in Mobile, Alabama, and attends Clarendon UM Church in Arlington, Virginia. Also signing the complaint were the two bishops who preside over those churches, David Graves (Alabama-West Florida) and Sharma Lewis (Virginia). In addition, the two district superintendents who supervise those churches also signed the complaint, the Rev. Debora Bishop (Mobile District, Alabama-West Florida Conference) and the Rev. Catherine Abbot (Arlington District, Virginia Conference). The fact that these four signed the complaint is significant because they would all potentially have a role in the process of resolving the complaint through a “just resolution” negotiated with the parties or in pursuing some form of trial.

Filing formal complaints against a lay member of the church is an extremely rare occurrence. I was involved in one situation where a complaint was filed, but the member left the church before it could be forwarded on to a trial process. That is what normally happens when there is a member who is alleged to have done something serious enough to warrant a complaint.

Also extremely unusual in this case is that the complaint is filed not over what Sessions is alleged to have done personally, but over the policies that he is alleged to have promulgated and enforced as Attorney General. The specific alleged violations are:

  • Child abuse – including separating “young children from their parents” and “holding children in mass incarceration facilities with little or no structured educational or socio-emotional support”
  • Immorality – including “the use of violence against children to deter immigration,” “refusal of refugee/asylee status to those fleeing gang or sexual violence,” and “oppression of those seeking asylum”
  • Racial discrimination – including “stopping investigations of police departments charged with racial discrimination” and “targeting incarceration for those engaged in undocumented border crossings … with a particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX”
  • Dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church – including “the misuse of Romans 13 to indicate the necessity of obedience to secular law”

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, pastor at Clarendon United Methodist Church where Sessions and his wife, Mary, attend in Virginia, addressed the issue on Sunday. She reportedly told her congregation “that she does not agree with the ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policies that led to family separations, but urged the United Methodist church in northern Virginia not to be torn apart by political differences.”

According to CNN, “Wines told CNN she had a ‘long and excellent’ private conversation with Sessions earlier this week. The attorney general is technically a member of a United Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama, but has attended services at the church in Clarendon since his days as a senator. Wines called him a ‘very regular guest.’” Any further processing of the complaint will be up to Sessions’ pastor in Mobile.

It is hard to conceive of a more emotionally volatile hot-button issue than the zero tolerance border policy – even for those who press the case that children are often used by human traffickers in order to enter the country illegally.

In a church trial, however, it could be challenging to prove that Sessions is guilty of child abuse or immorality, depending upon the facts that could be established. What signifies “oppression” to one person might be interpreted by another as merely the strict enforcement of the law. Doubly difficult could be making the case of racial discrimination, based on policies established by the Justice Department. For example, the “particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX” could be due to the demographic makeup of those attempting to illegally cross the border.

While it garnered a good deal of analysis or protest from Christian commentators – both on the right and the left, the most difficult charge to prove is that Sessions’ use of Romans 13 constitutes “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine” of our church. Our doctrinal standards include the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament.

The 1939 General Conference enacted legislation interpreting Article XXIII of the Articles of Religion, stating “It is the duty of all Christians, and especially of all Christian ministers, to observe and obey the laws and commands of the governing or supreme authority of the country of which they are citizens … and to use all laudable means to encourage and enjoin obedience to the powers that be” (2016 Book of Discipline, p. 72). Sessions’ supporters would contend that is exactly what the Attorney General was attempting to do, and it can be argued that he was fulfilling the doctrinal standards rather than contradicting them.

Is it incumbent upon Christians to obey unjust civil laws? Ethicists differ on that issue, but I would say there is a strong biblical case to be made for not obeying civil laws that contradict or restrict our ability to live out the Gospel. In Acts 4:19-20 Peter places obedience to God above obedience to human authority. At the same time, I Peter 2:13-14 commands that we “submit [our]selves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.” As with many Christian ethical dilemmas, there is a balance required here, one that involves each person’s (and the church’s) prudential judgment, and upon which heartfelt and sincere Christians can disagree.

Are the immigration policies of our country appropriate and morally sound? There is again a balance between helping the “widow and orphan,” the refugee and the poor, while at the same time fulfilling the responsibility to preserve and protect the United States. While Christians can (and do) disagree about where that balance lies, it is most certainly appropriate for the church to lift up principles about how we are to treat others with love and respect, showing love to neighbor, against which specific policies can be measured. And we ought to learn all we can about the challenges of legal and illegal immigration, so as to inform our judgment about what the right course is to take.

United Methodism attracts Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, those on the left, right, and middle. The church ought not to be identified exclusively with one political perspective, whether liberal or conservative. Nor should the church be used as a pawn in a political disagreement. In the end, these questions seem best left to the political process to sort through. We can express our opinions through advocacy and through the ballot box. In the meantime, we can accept that Christians will have different opinions and judgments on these political matters.