The Distortion Continues

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

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

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

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

More importantly, does the critique merit our attention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Methodists Take Steps Toward Progressive Sexual Ethic

Methodist Central Hall in London

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

The report includes these proposals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

What Loving LGBTQ Ministry Could Look Like

At the St. Louis General Conference and since, conservatives have often been accused of being hateful, bigoted, and punitive toward LGBTQ persons. We frequently hear quoted “Do no harm!” and “Love your neighbor!” These statements are aimed at the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman and that the practice of homosexuality (as well as any other sexual relationship outside marriage) is contrary to God’s will.

The statements imply that the traditional view is unloving, but that is because we have different understandings of what love looks like. Perhaps it would be helpful to flesh out how traditionalists might engage in loving ministry with LGBTQ persons. (Obviously, in a blog post I will only be able to hit the high spots, rather than delving into the details of each person’s situation.)

From a traditional perspective, love seeks the best for the other person. The problem becomes discerning what the “best” is. We know that we have trouble understanding what is best for ourselves. In the same way, it is also risky to accept another person’s discernment about what is best for them as always being right. The way out of this dilemma is to trust that God knows and has revealed what is best for us. The Bible teaches us the way of righteousness and holiness, leading to living at our best. As Psalm 19 explains, the precepts of the Lord are “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey.” “By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is much reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Loving God and seeking God’s ways (not our own) is the first and greatest commandment for a reason. We too often impose our human judgment in replacement of what God has revealed to us.

To love lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer persons as our neighbor means to treat each one with love, respect, and kindness as a fellow human being created in the image of God. Therefore, there is no room for insults, put-downs, joking comments at their expense, foul language directed at them, or violence of any kind. On a human level, LGBTQ persons should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). There are no exceptions to the Golden Rule.

As Christians and out of love for others, we are compelled to share the love of Christ with our friends and neighbors so that they may come to know him as Savior and Lord of their lives. That includes our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. We will never help move a person closer to Jesus by harshly condemning them, insulting them, or mistreating them in any way. Rather, in a winsome and invitational way, we seek to introduce people to Jesus because we know and love him ourselves. We know that apart from him — gay, straight, or questioning — we are all lost and separated from God, so we seek to bring others closer to God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20).

In our conversations, we should not insist that gay people become straight before they can come to God, just as we do not insist that others of us have our lives all together in order to come to God. Rather, we come as we are, with only “the desire to flee the wrath to come,” as John Wesley put it. As we respond to God’s grace expressed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to change from the inside out. We journey with Christ toward becoming the person he created us to be.

To love LGBTQ persons is to fully embrace and support them in their journey of discipleship. None of us is meant to walk that journey alone. We are assigned the task of “watching over one another in love,” as Wesley put it. We stand not in judgment over one another, but as fellow pilgrims traveling toward the common destination of becoming perfect in God’s love. For many lesbians and gays, it will mean a life of celibacy, meaning that we the church will need to help form that supportive community and provide a family relationship as the embodiment of God’s love.

To love LGBTQ persons is to teach clearly, lovingly, and sensitively what God requires of us — gay, straight, or questioning — in all aspects of life. In this era of “designer religion” where we are each tempted to create our own belief system, it is imperative that we begin to learn and understand the truth from God’s perspective. We do so in humility, knowing that none of us can perfectly understand that truth, nor do we always live up to what we know. Instead, we seek together to grow in our understanding of the truth, faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God’s intent for the exercise of his good gift of human sexuality has become clear in Scripture, as interpreted and understood by over 1,200 years of Jewish history and the additional 2,000 years of the Christian church. Some who propose to change the definition of marriage to include persons of the same gender may not fully appreciate what it means to say that every single biblical scholar of the church, bishop, and defender of the faith for 2,000 years has been wrong in their understanding of God’s word. The heavy weight of that much accumulated wisdom and piety is not to be lightly cast aside by a majority vote of a General Conference.

It is not my task here to argue the biblical case for one man-one woman marriage. I would refer the reader to Richard Hays’ masterful chapter in his volume, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (chapter 16). Ambitious scholars desiring a more thorough examination of the biblical and cultural evidence may turn to The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon.

To love LGBTQ persons is to not set ourselves above them, as if we were somehow superior. Rather, it is to acknowledge that we, too, stand in need of God’s grace, forgiveness, and transformation. No one’s sin is worse than another’s. Heterosexuals, no less than LGBTQ persons, need to learn God’s ways and discipline ourselves to keep them by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

We may never lose the attraction toward sin, whether it is greed, same-sex desires, the desire for that next drink, or whatever it might be. The gay person may never completely lose same-sex attractions. The alcoholic may never be able to safely take a drink. The greedy person may always want more than they have. But by the grace of God, the desire can weaken and lessen, until it has no more control over us. We can have the ability to say “no” to sin, despite whatever temptations we face.

On the other hand, some do experience deliverance from sin and a restoration to wholeness that allows them to no longer be tempted by sin. Some lesbians and gays have been healed and delivered to the point where they can enter into healthy opposite-sex marriages. We must not foreclose on God’s ability to supernaturally work in our lives.

We may never become “perfect in love” or without sin until we get to heaven. But we keep “attending upon all the ordinances of God” – those means of grace that strengthen our faith. We keep “consider[ing] how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, … but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The ministry of love for all people, including LGBTQ persons, is the ministry of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit through a supportive Christian community. All of us are in equal need of that transformation, gay or straight. God will do what he promises, no matter what challenges we face in life, as we respond to the leading of his Holy Spirit. “And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).

 

 

 

An Open Letter Response to James Howell

Dear Dr. Howell,

A friend called my attention to the video you posted on YouTube for your congregation. I believe you to be an informed and thoughtful person, which makes your gross misrepresentation of the Traditional Plan and those who support it appear to be not just a mistake but a purposeful mischaracterization of the motives and character of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

We may well see the issues of marriage and sexuality in different ways, but there is no reason to call into question the character and motives of those we disagree with.

At one point in the video, you describe Traditional Plan supporters as “not your kind of conservative” to the conservative members of your congregation. Frankly, the persons described in your video are not my kind of conservative either. In fact, I have never met anyone in The United Methodist Church who conforms to the ugly caricature you have labored so hard to create.

As one of the primary authors and the submitter of the Traditional Plan, allow me to address a few of the misstatements you make in your video, with the hope of correcting the record and enabling your listeners to get a more accurate picture of the Traditional Plan.

You say, “The goal of the Traditional Plan is to stamp out homosexuality from the church and to stamp out even those who are sympathetic.” There is no truth in that statement. The Traditional Plan affirms the long-standing position of The United Methodist Church that all persons are created in God’s image, of sacred worth, in need of God’s grace, and in need of the ministry of the church. At the same time, the church affirms that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for human flourishing.

As the Wesleyan Covenant Association recently stated, all persons, gay or straight, celibate or sexually active, are welcome in our churches and ministries. We are all broken and fall short of God’s glorious standard. We can, and do, welcome people into the church and into our lives whether or not we can condone all of their behaviors. Our hope is that all persons will have a personal, life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, own him as their Savior and Lord, and experience the transformation of life we all seek by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You say that Traditional Plan supporters “wish to be rid of centrists, moderates, progressives, and even thoughtful conservatives.” Once again, there is no basis in the language of the Traditional Plan for this claim. The Traditional Plan sought to regain conformity across the church with what the church has decided in conference, the actions of the General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for United Methodism as a whole.

What organization establishes rules and standards and then allows its leaders to routinely violate those standards with impunity? The Traditional Plan allows those who cannot abide by the policies of the church to withdraw under gracious terms, keeping local church property. It expels no one. The Plan’s concern is not over people who disagree with the church’s policies, but with those who willfully break them. Would you not do something similar with clergy who were unwilling to provide infant baptism or ordain women to ministry in our church?

You say, “Severe penalties are imposed on anybody who thinks at all sympathetically and doesn’t act at all severely toward the LGBTQ community.” Once again, this is false. The Traditional Plan says nothing about what anyone thinks about gay persons or hopes for the church. It establishes penalties for clergy who perform same-sex weddings. It also requires annual conferences to abide by the church’s policy restricting self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being candidates, commissioned, or ordained into ministry in our church.

The Plan requires no one to “act severely” toward the LGBTQ community. The Plan merely continues the long-standing policy of not allowing same-sex weddings to be performed by our pastors or on church property and of not allowing self-avowed practicing homosexuals to serve as clergy.

You claim, “None of our pastors who serve our [local] church could be ordained under this plan.” This could be very confusing for the members of your local congregation. The only persons who could not be ordained under the Traditional Plan are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who are merely supportive of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ ordination are not addressed in the Traditional Plan and certainly are not penalized. I would encourage your listeners to read the Traditional Plan for themselves to determine what it says.

You go on to say, “If you answer yes to the question ‘will you accept gays in your church’ you cannot be ordained.” Again, this is false. All the Traditional Plan supporters would, to use your phrase, “accept gays in our church.” Accepting LGBTQ persons in the church does not prevent a person from being ordained under the Traditional Plan, only an unwillingness to abide by the policies set by the church, which every candidate for commissioning and ordination promises to uphold.

You cite the first rule of John Wesley’s Methodism is to do no harm, and you state that the 2019 General Conference “did a lot of harm.” I agree. When Traditional Plan supporters are called hateful and bigoted, when they are accused of bringing a “virus” into the church, when every parliamentary trick in the book is used to thwart the will of the majority and to mock our longstanding practice of holy conferencing, a lot of harm is done. When Traditional Plan supporters’ motives are falsely represented, when provisions of the Traditional Plan are distorted and misrepresented, when deception becomes an acceptable advocacy practice, a lot of harm is done. Even in deep disagreement, we can and should treat one another with Christ-like love and respect. Can we not treat one another the way we would want to be treated?

It is possible you are saying that the church’s position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching is inherently harmful. If so, that indicates to me that some form of separation is most likely the only way to resolve our differences, as you yourself have acknowledged.

Neither of us wants to be part of a church that does harm. For you, calling same-sex relationships sinful does harm. For me, affirming same-sex relationships does harm by contradicting the Scriptures and by foreclosing the opportunity for repentance, personal transformation, and holiness. When the church calls out sin — whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, or non-sexual — it might be “harmful” in the sense that it hurts the feelings of those caught in that sin, but the ultimate goal is our healing, forgiveness, and redemption. Just as many medical treatments cause short-term pain in the interest of healing, God’s call to holiness may cause pain but lead us to reconsider our life choices and pursue God’s will for our flourishing. That is the goal of the Traditional Plan.

Finally, you say that you “stand with people whom other people may not want to be around.” That kind of derogatory innuendo is a tremendous disservice to your congregation when you attempt to portray in this way your fellow United Methodists who supported the Traditional Plan in St. Louis. It is reckless for you to presume to say we do not want to be around LGBTQ persons. Many of us have gay persons in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our local churches. We want to be around them — and we are — simply because we love them.

Furthermore, we want to be a living example of Jesus’ love in drawing them to himself. How can people be drawn to Christ (our primary goal as Christians) if we are unwilling to “be around” them? That is a self-defeating proposition and one that would not characterize most evangelical United Methodists.

Dr. Howell, I am disappointed that you would so cavalierly dismiss Traditional Plan supporters with your false portrayal of the Plan and our thoughts and motivations. Such an approach might influence your congregants, but it does a disservice to the church, and it will not help us to resolve our church’s crisis in a God-honoring way. It would go a long way in advancing the dialogue in our church upon a higher plane if you retracted or corrected your video.

Thank you for your consideration.

In Christ’s service,

Tom Lambrecht

 

 

 

Laity and the One Church Plan

One of the less noticed aspects of the One Church Plan (OCP) is how it minimizes the voices of laity in the various decisions around marriage and sexuality.

The OCP allows any pastor to perform a same-sex wedding, whether the local church approves or not. Laity would have a voice in whether same-sex weddings could take place on local church property, but such a decision would require a congregational vote in a church conference.

The OCP would delegate to every annual conference the decision about whether or not to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. In the first instance, this decision would be made by the annual conference board of ordained ministry, which does include some laypersons making up 20 to 33 percent of the board’s membership. Ultimately, however, the clergy session of the annual conference would vote whether or not to approve individual candidates who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. This group consists of all the annual conference’s ordained clergy, plus the lay members of the board of ordained ministry. The lay voice would be overwhelmed in this setting.

It is ironic that two of the three provisions of the OCP declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council would have broadened the voice of laity.

One provision provided that the bishop could “seek the non-binding advice of an annual conference session on standards relating to human sexuality for ordination to inform the Board of Ordained Ministry in its work.” This provision was ruled unconstitutional because the bishop cannot advise the Board of Ordained Ministry about anything. (The provision could be made constitutional by rewording it to eliminate any reference to the bishop.)

The other provision said, “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, shall be reassigned.” This provision provided a voice to a congregation’s laity in requesting a new pastor via the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. It was ruled unconstitutional, however, because the General Conference cannot infringe upon the bishop’s right to decide appointments. So the congregation can request a new pastor because of “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage,” but there is no guarantee that the bishop will appoint a new pastor. (A change of wording cannot salvage this provision.)

As of this writing, there has been no public indication that I am aware of that the authors of the One Church Plan intend to rectify the areas found unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

In an October 22 article by UM News Service, the Rev. Stan Copeland (a presenter at a Uniting Methodists event last summer favoring the OCP) reflected the attitude of some toward lay participation. According to the article, “one part of the plan doesn’t thrill Copeland: A congregation must have a majority vote in favor of hosting same-sex weddings before holding one on church property. Copeland would rather the pastor and other local church leaders make that call. ‘Any time we have a (congregational) vote it’s potentially divisive,’ said Copeland, longtime pastor of Dallas’ Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.”

The OCP comes across as somewhat paternalistic toward laity. Many advocates of the plan seem to imply that they alone know the best course for the church’s future, and that laity in general do not need to be involved in making those decisions.

This is a mistake. If laity do not feel empowered to be part of the decision-making process regarding their church’s beliefs and practices, they will have less ownership of the outcome. Less ownership means reduced loyalty and a diminished inclination to stay in the church.

Closely aligned with that concern is the question whether the final decision of General Conference represents the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of grass-roots laity. While no surveys have been done of United Methodist members, there is reason to believe a large proportion (if not the majority) of laity in the U.S. hold to a traditional definition of marriage and hope the church continues to uphold what they believe is the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter. Not all would leave the church if it changes its definition of marriage, but many would.

Of course, the views of laity in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe (over 40 percent of the global church’s membership) are strongly traditional. Will the outcome of General Conference adequately reflect their views?

By contrast, both the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) and the Traditional Plan (TP) involve laity in the crucial decisions regarding the church’s future. Under the CCP, jurisdictional and annual conferences, consisting of one-half lay delegates representing their local churches, would vote on which of the three theological branches to affiliate with. Local churches that disagree with the decision of their annual conference could vote in a congregational meeting to affiliate with a different branch.

The TP would require every annual conference (again, one-half laity representing their local churches) to vote whether or not that annual conference would “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the Discipline. If not, laity would have the same large say in whether that annual conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church to form or join a new self-governing Methodist church. Local churches that disagreed with the decision of their annual conference could vote by a congregational meeting to take a different decision, including the possibility of withdrawing from the UM Church to join a new self-governing Methodist church.

 

Laity’s voice is an integral part of the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, whereas the One Church Plan tends to minimize the voices of lay members. That is a factor that General Conference delegates should consider when they evaluate the various options before them in St. Louis.

 

 

Leadership or Manipulation?

Bishop Bruce R. Ough (left) speaks during a May 22, 2018, oral hearing before the United Methodist Judicial Council, meeting in Evanston, Ill. At right is Bishop Scott Jones. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

The bishops have been asked to lead. Apparently, to some bishops that means strong-arming a progressive agenda that has already been rejected by a previous General Conference.

In its recent gathering, the Council of Bishops – behind closed doors – affirmed by a clear majority that it will recommend the One Church Plan to the 2019 General Conference. This plan changes the definition of marriage to “two adults” and removes all prohibitions against same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” It also contains allowances and conscience protections for those who want to continue to live by the current biblical standards of the Book of Discipline.

We are grateful that there is a contingent of bishops who do respect the traditional view of marriage and sexuality and who recognize the truly global nature of the United Methodist Church. We regret that they – even including those bishops from outside the United States – are in the minority.

The North American contingent of the Council of Bishops has put forward a proposal that is riddled with problems, and we will be examining it in more detail in the months to come. But I want to point out the direction that many bishops have taken to promote the One Church Plan as the only viable option for the church.

First, the majority of North American bishops have approved a plan that they knew evangelicals and traditionalists could not support. Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association have all made public statements that any type of “local option” plan is unacceptable to us. Over 1,800 attendees at the Chicago inaugural event of the WCA affirmed that “A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the ‘local option’ around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.”

Yet the majority of these bishops adopted the plan anyway.

Second, from the beginning of its work, the Commission on a Way Forward stated that a “gracious exit” for churches with their property would be part of any plan they put forward. The Commission recognized that the denomination is so polarized that no proposal is likely to be acceptable to all. Rather than spend millions of church offering dollars fighting over the buildings and property (like other mainline churches have done), the Commission believed that it should provide churches and clergy that could not continue in The United Methodist Church after the decision of the 2019 General Conference with a gracious way to exit with their property and pension.

Yet the majority of the Council of Bishops has inexcusably removed the gracious exit from its One Church Plan. Apparently, some progressive bishops believe that they can coerce United Methodist members to stay in the church by holding their church buildings hostage to the denomination. Some annual conferences are starting to use hardball tactics to punish congregations that want to leave. (More about that in a future blog.)

Third, the majority of the Council of Bishops is attempting to prevent other proposals from being submitted in advance to the 2019 General Conference. The Council president, Bishop Bruce Ough, argued this week before the Judicial Council that it should rule out the possibility of any other petitions being submitted to General Conference besides the bishops’ proposal. In his oral argument, Ough maintained that the only piece of legislation that the General Conference could act on is the One Church Plan. He admitted that the General Conference could amend or substitute for that plan, but he believes that none of those amendments or substitutes can be submitted in advance for the General Conference delegates to prayerfully consider. A press release purportedly on behalf of the whole Council of Bishops reflects this position.

Bishop Scott Jones, who submitted his own opposing brief and also participated in oral arguments before the Judicial Council, charged that Bishop Ough was misrepresenting himself. “The Council of Bishops has at no time discussed a recommended answer to the question posed to the Judicial Council nor taken a position authorizing any one or all of its officers to represent it in any particular way,” Jones wrote in his reply brief. “He is misrepresenting the Council which has never taken that position and never discussed how the question should be answered.”

Yet the powers that be on the Council of Bishops felt free to try to restrict the access of grassroots United Methodists in the pews to be able to contribute to a solution to the way forward for our church. I am hopeful that the Judicial Council will rule that other petitions are allowed as part of the official process.

It is the role of leaders to identify a vision or direction and advocate for it. But closing off other options and restricting the choices that followers can make is not leadership, but dictatorship. When bishops advocate for the One Church Plan as the only possible solution to our church’s conflict (despite the fact that a significant number of bishops opposes that plan) they are going beyond what healthy leadership involves. Controlling and manipulating the outcome is not healthy leadership.

Those bishops taking this approach are exhibiting contempt for their evangelical members and clergy – as well as disrespecting their non-North American colleagues who do not share their progressive vision. They are promoting a plan that we have said we cannot accept. They are advocating for the exclusion of other options or choices for the 2019 General Conference. And they are attempting to coerce churches to stay in the denomination in violation of our consciences (should the One Church Plan pass) or else be prepared to lose our property.

The Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops are advocating that we adopt a “heart of peace” in working together to resolve the impasse that divides and stifles the vitality of our church. But the bishops must lead with a heart of peace in their actions, not just in their words. Disrespect and contempt are attitudes that destroy relationship and increase mistrust. The recent string of decisions by a majority of the Council of Bishops betrays not a respectful attempt to work together to resolve our differences, but an attempt to dictate a solution and force everyone to accept it. Such an approach is more likely to provoke a “heart of war” and set up the 2019 General Conference as a contentious conflict zone. So far, the “heart of peace” seem to be just empty words.

Unity or Truth?

Many see the conflict currently raging in The United Methodist Church as a contest between unity and truth. Is it more important to follow what we believe to be the truth or to stay united as a denomination?

There are both progressives and conservatives fighting on the basis of allegiance to the truth. Many conservatives believe that the Bible clearly teaches an understanding of human sexuality that reserves sexual expression for the context of marriage between one man and one woman. That is the truth, as we see it — God’s unchanging will for human flourishing. And we believe in standing firm for that truth. We believe the church should teach that truth and advocate for it in the culture. We believe the denomination should clearly state that truth and not waffle or waver. And if worst came to worst and the denomination refused to maintain the truth, we would find ourselves compelled to depart for another church whose beliefs lined up with what we believe the Bible teaches.

Many progressives believe that the Bible teaches a different truth — or at least that the Bible doesn’t prohibit a different truth. They believe that sexual expression can be found to be equally holy and fulfilling between persons of the same gender as of those of an opposite gender. They believe that denying the possibility of sexual relationships to same-sex couples is a violation of how God created them. As such, the church must be encouraged or forced to change its teaching to allow for maximum self-realization for persons with same-sex attractions, as well as those with opposite-sex attractions. Progressives believe in standing firm for this truth. They advocate for it strenuously. They stage demonstrations and other forms of protest. And in the final analysis, if the church’s rules contradict the truth as they see it, they are willing to violate the church’s rules, sacrificing unity in order to abide by the truth as they see it.

Both groups value truth above unity. Where living in unity as a church would compromise their understanding of the truth, both groups say No Compromise.

There are others who value unity of the church above a commitment to a certain understanding of the truth — at least with regard to the church’s teaching about sexuality. Some believe that the only way to resolve the difference of opinion over sexuality is for the church to continue arguing and discussing the merits of the various understandings of truth. Eventually, they believe, the real truth will become evident. Until that time comes, they believe the church must stay together in order to have the greatest impact on the world in which we live.

Some in the unity group believe that homosexual relationships are permitted by Scripture, but they are willing to wait until the majority of the church becomes convinced of that fact. They are willing to put up with contradictory opinions existing in the same church with the hope that conservatives will eventually see the light and come over to their perspective. They remember how conservatives used to be against divorced clergy, but now seem willing to permit it. In the same way, they hope conservative opinion will “evolve” to supporting same-sex relationships.

Persons in the unity group maintain that the biggest impact our church can have on our society is to show that it is possible to live together and work together, even with drastically different understandings of the truth. I would maintain that our impact would be dramatically weakened by the fact that we cannot agree on what we are promoting. As Paul said, “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:7-8).

It seems like the “local option” proposal would be perfectly positioned for the unity group. Allow everyone to act in keeping with his or her conscience, and we can all live together in one church. What could be more reasonable than that?

This approach, however, fails to reckon with those who place truth above unity. While unity may be an important value for these groups, truth is an even higher value. Conservatives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to support what we believe is contrary to God’s will as taught in Scripture. And progressives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to engage in what they believe is sinful discrimination against persons. (You can read a well-written explanation of this progressive point of view on this blog by Rev. Charlie Parker here.)

If the local option were to be enacted, there would be an exodus of conservatives from the church, and the progressives would redouble their advocacy efforts to convince everyone to buy into their understanding. That ongoing advocacy pressure would continue to drive out conservatives, until the church would have only progressives left in it. At that point, it would be easy for the church to mandate that everyone must support and affirm same-sex relationships.

In its quest for unity through the local option, the church would in fact ensure the division of the church through the departure of conservatives. That would indeed bring about unity through the “purification” of the church in eliminating the conservative viewpoint. This has already happened in some annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction, where conservatives have been marginalized to the point that their voices are inconsequential.

One way or another, any resolution to the conflict in the church will entail some form of separation. The only questions to be resolved are: 1) How will that separation take place? and 2) Will there be any remaining relationship or connection between those who have separated?

Under the first two sketches that have been offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, the separation would take place by those who could no longer live with the policies and practices of the church deciding to leave in a piecemeal, disorganized fashion. Neither sketch envisions a continuing relationship between those who leave and the church they have left behind.

The third sketch, a multi-branch proposal, envisions an orderly choice by annual conferences, local congregations, and bishops/clergy as to what part of the church they want to belong to. On matters of sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons, there would be separation between the branches. But this sketch envisions an ongoing relationship and shared participation between the branches to enable ministries that all agree on to continue.

The Christian Church has adapted and survived and thrived despite innumerable splits, divisions, and schisms over the last 2,000 years. God’s Church is not dependent upon us necessarily getting it right. There will always be believers who will unite together to worship the one, true God and to live out the ministry of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we work toward a way forward, my hope is that we can find a way that does the least damage to the church and its ministry, and to the people who make up the church. In the end, our understanding of the truth will become the most important determining factor about where we individually end up.

Please lift up the Commission on a Way Forward in your prayers this week, as they meet today through Saturday.

Mennonites Divide Over Sexuality

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference, largest of the Mennonite Church’s 25 conferences, has ended its 46-year affiliation with America’s top Anabaptist denomination. According to stories in Christianity Today and Mennonite World Review, this decision was more than two years in the making.

In 2015 the Lancaster Conference’s churches were encouraged to enter into a time of discernment about whether or not to remain with the Mennonite Church. About ten percent of the conference’s 179 churches engaged in an extended discernment process, with eight of the 17 churches deciding to remain within the Mennonite Church. Those congregations joined the nearby Atlantic Coast Conference.

At the same time, about 29 congregations from outside the Lancaster Conference joined the conference, from as far away as Oregon and Hawaii. The congregations leaving the Mennonite Church represent about one-sixth of the denomination’s membership.

The split was sparked by the licensing for ministry of Theda Good, a lesbian pastor in a committed relationship, by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference in 2014. That licensing was not recognized by the national Mennonite Church, but neither was the Mountain States Conference disciplined by the national church. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says that marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

In response, conservative Mennonites set up a new network called Evana to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal. At the time, they hoped 100 churches would join the movement. Two years later, nearly 180 congregations have decided to withdraw.

Mennonite church polity is different from United Methodist polity, in that it is congregational in government and there is no denominational trust clause holding the property with the denomination. So it was relatively easy for churches to withdraw, once they had made that decision.

Some have pointed to the Mennonite Church as a denomination that was not consumed with battles over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. But just like the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, the Mennonites have experienced division, as well.

It is interesting to note the parallels with United Methodism. For over 25 years, there have been isolated examples of UM annual conferences that ordained openly homosexual persons to ministry. Sometimes, those ordinations were overturned by the church’s judicial process. More times than not, there was no discipline for the wayward annual conference, and the ordination was allowed to stand. Since 2012 the emphasis has been on clergy performing same-sex marriages or unions. A few resulted in the clergy being disciplined (none severely), but in most cases the offense was either ignored or celebrated by the annual conferences involved. The disobedience of our church order reached a culmination in 2016 with the election of a married lesbian clergy, Karen Oliveto, as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.

In addition to the long-standing renewal groups (Good News, Confessing Movement, UMAction), evangelical United Methodists in 2016 formed a new network (the Wesleyan Covenant Association) designed to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal.

The Mennonite experience also shows what might happen as a result of the proposals coming from the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. Some of those proposals involve expanded jurisdictions or branches with more fluid geographical boundaries, which would allow evangelical congregations from across the country to band together in a common framework of ministry. Other proposals envision parts of The United Methodist Church departing from the denomination and forming new independent bodies to promote ministry from a particular perspective. We know these approaches are indeed possible because they have been done by other denominations, most recently now by the Mennonites.

The Mennonite experience illustrates once again that organizational church unity is threatened by the widely divergent perspectives on homosexuality. There are many United Methodists who value organizational unity more than theological agreement. But there is a significant number of United Methodists for whom a certain level of theological agreement is a necessary precondition for organizational unity. For those United Methodists, the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as well as the denomination’s inability to enforce its standards, have made organizational unity nearly impossible to sustain.

 

Unpacking “Incompatibilists”

 

Berlin Pic

Diagram courtesy of Rev. Tom Berlin

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Fighting Teen Suicide

girl in forestBy Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

A recent story by United Methodist News Service reports that United Methodist Discipleship Ministries is proposing to lift restrictions on how church funds can be used related to homosexuality. The restrictions have been in place since 1976 and have barred the use of church funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” A later addition also barred the use of church funds to “violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.’”

According to the story, “the proposal’s [to end the restrictions] main rationale is to enable Discipleship Ministries, without fear, to provide resources aimed at preventing teen suicide, particularly among youth who feel marginalized by their sexual identity.” As the article states, “Regardless of their theological perspective, United Methodists overwhelmingly want to prevent teen harassment and suicide.”

Good News certainly shares that passionate desire. That is why we celebrate organizations such as To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) that have done such good work with younger generations to combat addiction, depression, self-injury, and suicide.

“If your heart is broken, it’s okay to say your heart is broken. If you feel stuck, it’s okay to say you feel stuck,” writes Jaime Tworkowski, founder of TWOLHA. “You are not alone in these places. Other people feel how you feel. You are more than just your pain. You are more than wounds, more than drugs, more than death and silence. There is still some time to ask for help. There is still some time to start again. There is still some time for love to find you. It’s not too late.”

This is the kind of message that needs to be relayed to those with suicidal thoughts.

If Discipleship Ministries only wanted to address LGBTQ teen suicide, it could have proposed an exception to be made in this specific case. Instead, Discipleship Ministries’ proposal to eliminate the restrictions entirely seemingly advocates changing our church’s position regarding same-sex behavior.

It appears that Discipleship Ministries wants to be able to say that God created teens with same-sex attractions or gender confusion, and that these conditions are good and “normal.” One assumes that in sending that message, Discipleship Ministries would hope to remove any stigma attached to having LGBTQ desires or attractions.

Such an approach to fighting suicide among LGBTQ youth is misguided.

Studies by social scientists have shown that many youth experience same-sex attractions as teenagers, but then do not remain same-sex attracted. See, for example, “Same-sex attraction in a birth cohort” by N. Dickson, et al. Encouraging youth to “identify” as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender could prematurely lock them into an understanding of their personhood that they would otherwise leave behind.

More deeply, the message that God makes people lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a denial of the scriptural teaching about our humanity, maleness, and femaleness. It also fails to reckon with the pervasive effects of sin and the Fall. “Original sin … is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (Articles of Religion, Article VII). Human sexuality has been warped and perverted in all of us by the effects of original sin, leading to brokenness and futility in this area of life, as in all others.

So what ought we to say to young people who are experiencing same-sex desires or gender confusion that leads them to contemplate suicide? The most important thing we can say is that God loves them (and all of us) despite and in the midst of our brokenness, whatever it might be. God loves us desperately and unconditionally.

Because God created us and loves us infinitely, we are infinitely valuable to him. We are precious to him, “bought at a price” of the life of his only Son. Therefore, we are to “honor God with [our] body,” no matter what our desires and temptations might be. We find fulfillment and flourishing by giving ourselves to God, accepted, forgiven, cleansed, healed, and redirected by him. Setting ourselves in proper relationship to God begins the process of undoing the brokenness in our lives and restoring us to God’s full intention for us as we are being “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” That restoration is often not completed in this life, and we undergo hardship as we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for … the redemption of our bodies.” It is a hardship that we all share, even as it is unique to each one of us and the distinctive challenges we each face. And we can give our young people the assurance that we will walk with them through the hardships and pray with them as they seek God’s best for their lives.

At the same time, we must stand with and advocate for all our young people who are being bullied and intimidated by their peers for any reason. I weep at the hurt that is being inflicted on youth today by peers who hold them up to ridicule. It doesn’t matter whether they are being ridiculed for being perceived as gay or lesbian, smart or “dumb,” good looking or ugly, or for whatever manufactured reason—such treatment is wrong and immoral. The tendency of teenagers to ridicule others out of their own insecurity is only amplified by social media and the warped self-image based on the number of “likes” a person has.

The church’s role is to combat a culture of valuing persons based on superficial qualities or appearance and to help young people learn their innate value as human beings, created and loved by God. The church ought to be a safe place for all youth, where they experience the love of God through adults and other youth, and where they can begin to appropriate their standing as a child of God, beginning to work out their salvation through the grace of God. The church can empower parents to be a positive force in their children’s lives, equipped to counteract and protect them from the harmful effects of an ungodly culture.

This approach is consistent with biblical teaching, and it can be effective in overcoming the trend toward suicide. And it doesn’t require the lifting of any funding restrictions enacted by the church.