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.