Judicial Council Maintains Status Quo on Church Law

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

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

Church’s Teaching Still Constitutional

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

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

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

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

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

Complaint Against Lesbian Pastor Cannot Be Reactivated

Book of Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesbian Candidate for Ministry May Not Be Approved

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

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

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

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

How to Deal with Parliamentary Rulings

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

The Place of Conscience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blatantly Disregarding Truth

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

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

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

Background 

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

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

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

Charges 

Under church law, Meredith was charged with three offenses:

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

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

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

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

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

How “Centrist” Is Uniting Methodists?

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

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

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

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

But is Uniting Methodists really a “centrist” organization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Unity?

 

 

 

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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

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

A Missional Purpose

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

Balancing Differentiation with Unity

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

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

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

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

Redefining Unity

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

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

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

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

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

A New Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part II)

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part I)

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

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several interpretive schemes have been proposed to reinterpret the biblical evidence in such a way as to allow same-sex relationships to be affirmed. However, they have all been refuted by biblical scholars far more knowledgeable than I (and beyond the scope of this article to address). The fact is that the Bible is unequivocally clear about this question. To say that the Bible is wrong on this matter is to undermine its reliability as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Article IV of our Confession of Faith goes on to state, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” For the church to affirm same-sex relationships would be to make something an article of faith that is not revealed in or established by Scripture. As a contravention of our doctrinal standards, that is an essential matter.

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

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

Closer to a Way Forward

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Commission Members at Work – COWF Photo

Last week the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church held its fourth face-to-face meeting. With nine total meetings scheduled, we are still not even halfway to the end of our process. We are aware that this process is taking more time and thought than some would like. It is not easy work.

The Commission is not trying to determine what the church should believe regarding sexual practice and marriage. We are concentrating on how we can and cannot live together. So time has not been spent on theological debate or trying to persuade others to change their position. We’ve done that for four decades, and going over the rationales for each position is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or create any kind of resolution.

The focus of this meeting was to solidify the foundation for a proposal by 1) coming to agreement about what we have in common as United Methodists, 2) summarizing what we have been hearing and learning from various parts of the church, and 3) identifying guiding principles for a way forward.

Our Core

We agreed on what forms our common core, the shared understanding of the Christian faith that helps describe our identity as United Methodists. We share a common desire to root our theology and actions in Scripture, even while we have sharp disagreements over how to interpret and apply the Bible to life. We share a Wesleyan theological heritage founded on:

  • Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds
  • Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith
  • The General Rules (do no harm, do good, attend upon all the ordinances of God/means of grace)
  • The Wesley Hymns

A key part of our identity that we are recovering is small group accountability and support. The class and band meetings of 18th century England have given way to modern spiritual formation groups, support groups, and accountability groups. We strongly believe in a life of Christian discipleship characterized by works of piety, mercy, and justice. Common liturgy, such as services of Baptism and Eucharist, link us together. And our church features bishops, an itinerant clergy to extend the mission of the church, and conferencing as our way of decision-making.

Of course, it is important to note that evangelicals, centrists, and progressives do not understand our core the same way. Differences of interpretation and application might mean that the core does not really unite us, but only serves as a starting point for development in separate directions.

What We Are Learning

We have received and processed significant feedback from North American caucus groups, general church agencies, seminary students, young adults, large church pastors, and United Methodist theologians and historians, among others. While this feedback has been helpful in understanding the issues and concerns that people bring to this conflict, the solutions people have proposed are in many ways contradictory and one-sided. As we narrow in on a proposal, we will need to try to accommodate the interests and concerns of all sections of the church, while knowing that we cannot fulfill anyone’s expectations completely. The ultimate proposal will be a compromise and blending of ideas and suggestions.

One major emphasis of this meeting was a deeper understanding of the distinct circumstances in the central conferences outside the United States. It is important to understand where these United Methodist brothers and sisters stand on the issues that divide us. But it is also important to understand their local situation. There are many countries in Africa and Eastern Europe that not only do not allow same-sex marriage, but actually have laws against homosexuality. Many of the European congregations and annual conferences are small and financially precarious.

Another segment during this meeting revolved around a greater understanding of our church pension situation. Some annual conferences have considerable unfunded liability for pensions earned by clergy prior to 1982. And as clergy and spouses live longer lives, that liability increases. Any proposal the Commission makes will have to address how that liability is cared for.

Principles for a Way Forward

In arriving at a proposed way forward, the Commission is dedicated to increasing the fruitfulness of the church and multiplying the Wesleyan witness in as many new contexts as possible. By allowing different groups to engage in ministry in different ways, we believe we can reach more people with the message of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ. We are trying to come up with the simplest possible proposal, one that can pass the General Conference with broad support.

We are looking for a way forward that provides enough separation between the disagreeing parts of the church, so that no one is forced to support a type of ministry that he or she cannot in good conscience believe in. Given the events that have transpired since General Conference 2016, the amount of needed separation is probably greater now than it was then. I am hoping for a solution where those who can live together are able to do so, while those who cannot live together are not forced to do so.

I am gratified that the Commission has begun sketching the outlines of a proposed way forward. The next several months will be crucial in helping us arrive at a way to resolve the impasse in our denomination. The outlines will rapidly become clearer, and the details will start to fill in.

A Heart of Peace

Some have complained that the Commission’s meetings are not open to the press or public. While I am a proponent of open meetings in most circumstances, I firmly believe we on the Commission could not have accomplished what we have so far if the meetings had been open. (Full disclosure: my colleagues who work most closely with Good News magazine disagree with me and believe the meetings should be open.) The need to worry about how one comes across in a polarized church and society would stifle creativity and the ability to “try on” ideas. Because of the trust and goodwill we have toward one another within our group of 32 members, we are able to say things that we might not have said in a public venue, and we can work through a messy process toward a clear solution. I along with many Commission members look forward to sharing publicly as much information as we can as soon as we can in this process.

We are grateful for, encouraged by, and dependent upon the prayers of United Methodists around the globe. As we on the Commission do our work, we are constantly admonished to engage with one another with “a heart of peace.” I am hopeful that this same attitude of humility, peace, and love will characterize not only the deliberations of the Commission, but all the blogs and discussions and meetings that will help the church process our recommendations. Finding a positive and God-honoring way forward for our church depends on it.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

I encourage you to read the more detailed report issued by the Commission this week that can be found here.

Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: A Review

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

The study guide produced by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, entitled Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, is designed to help congregations discuss the divisive and sensitive controversy over the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. It is drawn from an academic colloquy on this topic held at Candler Seminary in Atlanta in March of this year. It really does not engage substantively with the 24 papers that were presented at the colloquy, but does quote a few comments from the discussion times. The bulk of the substantive material from the colloquy is drawn from a paper by Dr. Charles M. Wood, who analyzes the churchwide study document Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision for the Church that was approved for study by the 2016 General Conference. For convenience, Wood’s paper is printed in the study guide as an appendix.

Chapter 1 describes the colloquy and why it was convened. It emphasizes our desire to bring to bear the intellectual resources of the Christian faith on our current dilemma. It describes the academic community as our “brain trust” that can help us think through the theological, biblical, and practical issues we face in our church. It invites us into a holy conversation, as we seek to understand the way that God has for our church to move forward.

Chapter 2 invites us to engage one another with our minds, not believing that persons who disagree with us are ignorant, stupid, or evil, but that we have different perspectives that need to be explored and understood. (However, this study guide gives only very limited opportunities to explore and understand the different perspectives on ministry with LGBTQ persons.) The chapter surveys what we mean by “church” and understands it as the sign and servant of the new reality that: 1) the saving love of God is meant for all people, 2) the saving love of God transforms, and 3) the love of God creates community. The church is visible and invisible, a mixture of faithful and faithless, striving to incarnate the love of Christ and be a faithful witness to God and God’s purposes.

Chapter 3 shows how the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church matters. As a church, we are able to touch the lives of hurting people and bring the love of God in concrete ways. We do this best in connection with each other. It touches on the history of denominationalism in America and why a denomination might be important. Hints are given about possible different ways of structuring our denomination that might give greater freedom or space for people to serve according to their consciences.

Chapter 4 attempts to set out parameters for a way forward for the church. Five principles from Wood’s paper are outlined:

  1. Subsidiarity – the idea that decisions ought to be made in the most significant context allowable or the lowest “level” of organization. (This is the basis for the “local option” approach to resolving our impasse.)
  2. Reconciled diversity – recognizing the legitimacy of Christian brothers and sisters despite disagreement. Persons are reconciled to one another in relationship despite disagreement. (Can’t we just all get along?)
  3. Reception – the idea that decisions by a governing body are not fully authoritative until they are “received” by the constituency. (This can be used to argue that because a portion of the UM Church does not receive the decisions of General Conference, those provisions are not fully authoritative.)
  4. Conciliar fellowship model – a “council of churches” way of organizing United Methodism, with general agreement around confession of the apostolic faith, recognition of each other’s members and ministries, shared celebration of the Eucharist, and appropriate levels of decision-making around common concerns. Each church would be semi-autonomous.
  5. Pre-conciliar fellowship – for groups where there are irreconcilable differences in Word, Sacrament, or Order. The “council of churches” would be for fellowship only and not decision-making. Each church would be fully autonomous.

The discussion questions are stimulating and well-written, although there are way too many questions for each chapter. A group leader would need to pick and choose which questions to use or lengthen the session beyond an hour.

The thrust of the book in terms of most of the questions and illustrations is toward the unity of the church. Several illustrations portray acceptance of same-sex behavior and persons. Negative consequences of a “split” are surfaced. The positive aspects of the United Methodist connection are emphasized. The subliminal message is that we ought to be able to find a way to stay together despite our differences over marriage and sexual ethics.

Conversely, there are no illustrations or advocacy for our current church position. There is no defense of the church’s teaching. There is no exposition about how the church might be in ministry with LGBTQ persons in line with our current teaching. It does not place the various understandings of same-sex behavior in the larger context of our beliefs about human sexuality in general. In fact, the “rightness” or “wrongness” of same-sex behavior is never addressed. The resource does not wrestle with the deep theological concerns that motivate evangelicals to contend for the current teaching of the church. Only a few Bible verses are referenced, relating to God’s love and focusing on the positive unity of the church. It simply assumes that we have these differences of opinion (without exploring why) and attempts to move forward from there.

Chapter 1 is basically an introduction. Chapters 2 and 3 develop a limited (rather than comprehensive) understanding of the church that is rooted in Wesleyan theology, rather than in Scripture. Chapter 4 is the most helpful, as it gets down to some concrete principles as to how we might resolve the church’s impasse and move forward.

If I were using this resource with a congregation, I would find it necessary to add material to provide balance and tailor some of the questions in a more neutral direction. This resource does provide a “toe-in-the-water” approach to discussing the controversies around LGBTQ persons. It makes no attempt to explore the differences of opinion, however, and it puts forward a very limited theological understanding of the church. It is biased toward a certain desired outcome. And it makes only limited use of Scripture. I had hoped for better from our church’s leaders who are advocating that we “love God with our mind.”

This Conflict Is About the Bible

By Thomas Lambrecht

For 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been in conflict over how the church should be in ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons. From the very beginning of this conflict, evangelicals have maintained that the conflict represented deeper issues where the church is divided. One of those deeper issues is our view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

This deeper division is brought to the fore in a resolution that will be considered at the upcoming annual conference session in Upper New York. The resolution (see page 94), submitted by Kevin M. Nelson on behalf of Schenectady First UM Church, is entitled “Rebuke and Repudiation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.” Although in this brief blog I cannot address all the nuances of the theological issues raised by the resolution, I would like to take a look at how the resolution outlines the theological differences over Scripture in our denomination.

The resolution characterizes “one group in this crisis, evangelicals/orthodox/far right” as using “a faith paradigm that emphasizes Biblical literalism, seeing Jesus through a doctrinal lens and upholding a set of core beliefs.”

  • Tagging evangelicals and orthodox United Methodists as “far right” squashes legitimate discussion and dialogue. That kind of toxic labelling is especially unhelpful within our global denomination, since orthodox UMs uphold the beliefs enshrined in our denomination’s doctrinal standards. Identifying worldwide United Methodism as “far right” is irresponsible and incorrect. Instead, traditionalists hold to what Bishop Scott Jones calls the “radical center” of Christian faith.
  • The resolution says we “see Jesus through a doctrinal lens.” In actuality, both liberals and conservatives see Jesus through a “doctrinal lens.” We all do. Evangelicals would clarify that we see Jesus through the lens of Scripture, since the Bible is the most true and comprehensive revelation of who Jesus is and what he said and did.
  • Unapologetically, we do “uphold a set of core beliefs.” That is the purpose of the Nicene Creed and our own United Methodist doctrinal standards (the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Sermons, and his Notes on the New Testament). These are the things that Methodists believe. Contrary to the protests of some within the UM Church, it is not wrong to defend them. In fact, ordained clergy promise to “preach and maintain” the doctrines of The United Methodist Church (Discipline, ¶ 336.10). Ordained elders vow to accept the church’s “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” (Book of Worship, p. 676).
  • Phrases like “Biblical literalism” are not very helpful without specific verses in mind. A Scriptural-minded disciple reads the Bible searching for its intended meaning in its historical context and seeking to then apply that meaning in our lives today. As John Wesley said, we look for the “plain meaning” of Scripture. In other words, it is possible to look for the literal meaning of Scripture without being literalistic. If it is poetry, it should be understood as poetry. If it is metaphor or parable, it should be understood in those ways. But we cannot stretch the Bible to mean something it does not say, nor may we disregard the plain and consistent teaching of Scripture.
  • Evangelicals believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who worked through the human authors to create a unique and authoritative revelation of God. We believe the Bible is to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit, as well, using our reason and the guidance of Church tradition, with the embodiment of scriptural teaching in our human experience.

By contrast, the resolution characterizes “another group, progressives/liberals/reconciling United Methodists” as using “a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.”

  • If one is going to stick with using unhelpful characterizations, this perspective would logically be known as “far left.”
  • We are told that this second group views the Bible “as human products that are the result of historical processes.” Absent is any mention here of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or the uniquely authoritative place of Scripture. If the Bible is merely a human book, it can be read and analyzed like any other human book, accepting whatever parts of it one agrees with while rejecting the rest. This view in fact contradicts the Bible’s own view of itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed [or inspired by God] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17, NIV).
  • The “historical-critical analysis” that many progressives use to understand Scripture flows from their understanding of the Bible as a human book, put together by human authors and compilers over centuries of time. They attempt to dissect the scriptures and analyze them as to their sources and forms, even to the point of deciding what in the Bible is true or authentic and what is not. While evangelicals believe in using scholarly tools to aid our understanding of Scripture, we believe it is more important to look at the Bible as it is, as we have received it, and in the form in which the Church recognized it as inspired and authoritative.
  • According to the resolution, the progressive approach “views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning.” In fact, the metaphorical meaning can sometimes trump the literal meaning for those who take this approach. There are metaphors in Scripture, but it would be a mistake to take “much of the Bible” as metaphor. Such a view can often become a way to simply disregard the plain teaching of Scripture.
  • The resolution claims progressives “look to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.” That is all well and good, but it is not enough. The Bible points us to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world and the Author and Perfecter of our faith. We are called not simply to emulate the character of God, but to surrender ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live as his disciples, seeking to obey all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). The emulation of godly character comes about not through our efforts alone, but by the power of the Holy Spirit transforming us from the inside out.

Admittedly, the Upper New York resolution does not claim to be a detailed or comprehensive exposition of the two different perspectives on Scripture it addresses. But just from the brief statements that are outlined in the resolution, one can see that we hold very different views about the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The orthodox view is that we are under the Scripture’s authority, while many progressives view themselves as authorities over Scripture, qualified to determine which parts of Scripture are the inspired Word of God and which are not, free to discard biblical teachings that no longer seem relevant or in step with a modern world.

Of course, those who read Scripture from an evangelical/orthodox perspective do not believe that every verse of Scripture is to be applied to our lives today as a literal commandment. (Common examples include observing the food laws of the Old Testament or wearing clothes with mixed fibers.) Our “doctrinal lens” and “core beliefs” give us guidance here. Our Articles of Religion state, “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth, yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (Article VI). There are objective principles of interpretation that guide us in how to apply the teachings of Scripture. And importantly, we do not have the same authority that Jesus and the apostles had to reinterpret Scripture or introduce new revelations from God, particularly if those revelations contradict the clear teaching of Scripture.

Can two such divergent theological approaches live together in one church? I would argue they cannot. There is no common ground to build on between them. One group appeals to Scripture, while the other group appeals to human reason and experience over Scripture. The two groups end up talking past each other. They sometimes use the same words, but usually with totally different meanings.

It is these two divergent theological approaches that have led to the two divergent understandings of human sexuality and marriage. One cannot divorce the one issue from the other. As we seek a way forward for our church, it is important to take into account the underlying theological approaches that drive us apart.