As the discussion over Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church’s decision to delay paying apportionments for 2015 continues to roil, I want to offer a few observations about another of the arguments I have heard against the idea of withholding apportionments. I am not advocating the withholding of apportionments, and I have always encouraged the churches I served in pastoral ministry to fully pay apportionments, as they were able. Nevertheless, I find some of the arguments against withholding worth comment. My first post in this series dealt with the response that “this is not how United Methodist polity works.” Let me address another popular response.
“It’s not loving.” Withholding apportionments — and in fact any opposition to the affirmation of same-sex intimacy — is not a loving and inclusive way to be. Since the church is called by God to love, we must change our stance and certainly not engage in withholding.
First, this is a faulty definition of love. Love does not mean unconditional approval or the acceptance of all behavior. Jesus drew clear boundaries of what types of behavior and attitudes are acceptable in his disciples and in the Kingdom of God (e.g., Matthew 5:20, 29-30, 7:13-14, 19-23). Jesus even threw the money-changers and merchants out of the Temple! Exercising disciplinary action toward someone or holding someone accountable is not a lack of love.
If same-sex intimacy is sin (as the Bible repeatedly claims and Christian tradition maintains), even to the seriousness of placing one’s eternal future in jeopardy (I Corinthians 6:9-11), then how is it an act of love to endorse that sin as acceptable behavior for Christians? Are we not bound by our love for our neighbor to warn against behavior that alienates us from God, just as we warn against greed or lying or adultery or any other sin? Such warnings and accountability were the very ethos of John Wesley’s classes and bands, which were not bashful about rebuking those ensnared in sinful behavior, encouraging repentance and amendment of their ways. John Wesley was notorious for evicting people from Methodist Societies because of unrepented sin. He conceived of clear boundaries as an act of love (a stance that is affirmed by modern psychology, as well).
Second, this sentiment (“it’s not loving to withhold apportionments”) masks the inherently coercive nature of the way apportionments are currently viewed. “Payment in full of these apportionments by local churches and annual conferences is the first benevolent responsibility of the Church” (Discipline, ¶ 812, cf. ¶ 247.14). Apportionments are set according to the budget passed by General Conference, with the only input from local churches coming through elected delegates twice removed. (A local church elects a representative to the annual conference, and then the annual conference elects a representative to the General Conference.) This is a less representative form of government than even our U.S. Congress.
Local churches and laity often feel that they have no say in setting apportionments or determining where their money will go. This feeling of powerlessness is only exacerbated by the current atmosphere of a lack of trust for denominational leaders by church members (see the Apex Call to Action Report from 2010.) Apportionments have come to be regarded almost as a “tax” or “franchise fee” — albeit a tax that does a lot of good, along with the harm that some of it does.
It is not surprising that local church members would express their frustration in the only way they feel is open to them — namely, by withholding financial support from an institution that they distrust and that they feel powerless to change. Prior to 1968, local congregations had the option of accepting, increasing, or decreasing the amount of the apportionment they would pay each year. This gave local church members some sense that they had a say in where their money was going. (At one time, apportionments were called “askings.”) The way apportionments are given to local churches in some annual conferences today, they are all lumped together into broad categories, and a church could not designate amounts for certain funds and not for others.
For instance, in some annual conferences, a local church could not withhold the apportionments that pay for bishops’ salaries, while still paying other conference expenses. In such a circumstance, the only choice churches feel they have is to pay all or nothing, since even if they pay a portion of the broad category, part of what they pay will go toward a fund they do not support.
So is it “loving” to coerce people into paying for ministries and policies that violate their consciences and their deeply held biblically-based beliefs? Evangelicals have in the past introduced legislation at General Conference that would restore a measure of power to local churches by allowing them to increase or decrease the amount of apportionments that they accept. I believe that good causes and the mission of the church would receive more support if it was voluntary, rather than coerced.
Finally, there is the element of hypocrisy involved. Some who criticize the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality as “unloving” do not hesitate to attempt to impose their will on others via demonstrations, disrupting meetings, circumventing democratic processes, and one-sided “conversations.” Are these actions characterized by love?
In the blogosphere, evangelicals are held to a different standard from progressives. Whereas progressives are given a pass on their “unloving” behavior because the ultimate goal is “inclusive love,” evangelicals are castigated as unloving, simply for attempting to maintain with integrity the teachings of Scripture and The United Methodist Church.
Which scenario is more “unloving?”
1. Evangelicals and traditionalists say that the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is consistent with 2,000 years of Christian teaching, agrees with the clear teaching of Scripture, and moreover leads to the greatest fulfillment for people created in the image of God, both in this life and in eternity. If one does not agree with this teaching, then one is free to join a denomination that propounds a different understanding. When the church proves incapable of upholding its own policies and teachings, some evangelicals and traditionalists determine they cannot in good conscience financially support that denomination.
Or 2. Progressives come into The United Methodist Church as members and are ordained as clergy saying that they agree with the doctrines and teachings of the church and promising to support and promote those teachings. However, on the issue of marriage and sexuality, they come to find they disagree. Rather than finding a different church with which they can agree, they instead exert every effort to change the longstanding position of the church, despite the church repeatedly declining to change. More than that, they engage in protest tactics and civil disobedience when they do not get their way. Their aim is to force every United Methodist to change his/her mind to agree with them or to leave the UM Church.
There seems to be a fundamental disconnect here in terms of what kinds of behavior are “loving.”
My next post will address more arguments that I have heard against withholding apportionments.