Study Demonstrates Connection between Theology and Church Growth

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

macleans

Via Maclean’s

In an article in the Review of Religious Research for December 2016, three researchers identified that Mainline Protestant congregations that are growing exhibited much more conservative theology than those that were declining. In the first empirical study of its kind, the five-year project found that “conservative theological positioning of clergy and attendees is a significant predictor of church growth.

Some previous studies had suggested that theology was not a factor in predicting church growth. However, those studies tended to rely upon asking only one or two questions of a single informant (usually the pastor). This new study surveyed entire congregations and asked many specific questions about religious beliefs and practices.

According to the press statement accompanying the study: “Over 2,200 regular Mainline Protestant church-goers from a mix of Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches in the province of Ontario were surveyed for the research with about half from declining congregations and half from growing. All clergy from the participating churches were also surveyed and interviewed. Via email and phone, a sample of over 125 congregants from the larger pool were interviewed as was a separate subsample of 70 new attendees of the growing churches.”

Written by researchers Dr. David Millard Haskell (Wilfrid Laurier University), Dr. Kevin Flatt (Redeemer University College), and Dr. Stephanie Burgoyne (Wilfrid Laurier University), the article is titled: “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.”

“One of the greatest obstacles to this study was finding Mainline Protestant churches that were growing,” observes Dr. Haskell. “However, once we did, we were able to compare the religious beliefs and practices of the growing church attendees and clergy to those of the declining. For all measures, those from the growing Mainline churches held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.”

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Dr. David Millard Haskell

According to the research summary document:

  • “In terms of adherence to conservative theological beliefs (that is, beliefs reflecting a more literal interpretation of scripture and openness to the idea that God intervenes in the world), the pastors of the growing Mainline churches were the most conservative theologically, followed by the growing church attendees, followed by the declining church attendees, and finally the declining church pastors. For example, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb” 93% of growing church pastors agreed, 83% of growing church attendees agreed, 67% of declining church attendees agreed, and just 56% of declining church pastors agreed. When asked if “God performs miracles in answer to prayer” 100% of the growing church pastors agreed, 90% of the growing church attendees agreed, 80% of the declining church attendees agreed, and just 44% of the declining church pastors agreed.

  • “Attendees of the growing Mainline churches engage more regularly in personal religious practices. For example, 46% of the growing church attendees read their Bibles once a week or more versus 26% of the declining church congregants.
  • “Clergy of the growing Mainline churches engage more regularly in personal religious practices. For example, 71% of the growing church pastors read their Bibles daily versus 19% of the declining church pastors.
  • “Growing church clergy and congregants are more focused on bringing new members into the Christian faith (that is, more focused on evangelism) than declining. For example, 100% of the growing church pastors agreed “It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians” and 78% of the growing church attendees agreed, while just 56% of the declining church congregants agreed and only 50% of the declining church pastors. Furthermore, when asked to describe the purpose or mission of their church, growing church attendees most often spoke of evangelism, while it was most common for declining church attendees to name various and separate social justice activities as the purpose but without reference to religious motivation or outcomes.”

“Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” observed Haskell. “But if we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.”

The study additionally found that “growing Mainline churches featured contemporary worship with drums and guitar in at least one of their Sunday services, while the declining most often used a traditional worship style featuring organ and choir. In the regression analysis the use of contemporary worship was shown to have a significant positive effect on growth. The growing Mainline churches also placed more emphasis on programs for youth than the declining. In the regression analysis, emphasis on youth programming was shown to have a significant positive effect on growth.”

Furthermore, the research showed that “while contemporary worship and emphasis on youth programming both had a significant positive effect on church growth independent of theological conservatism, the authors of the study theorize that the doctrinal conservatism of the growing church clergy and congregants fuels such innovative strategies as contemporary worship and youth programming.”

According to Haskell: “When one’s doctrine reinforces a literal interpretation of such Biblical edicts as ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’ one is more inclined or motivated to use any number of innovative strategies to make the faith accessible to a wider community.”

Good News, The Confessing Movement, and other renewal groups within United Methodism have been saying for years that, in the words of the article’s title, “Theology Matters.” We have noted that areas where conservative theology predominates have been growing or holding steady, while areas where progressive theology predominates have experienced precipitous declines in church membership and attendance. This study demonstrates that our intuition is borne out by empirical evidence.

The researchers who authored the study suggest several possible reasons why conservative theology would have an advantage over liberal theology in promoting church growth. As reported in the research summary:

  • “Religious groups that actively recruit others or ‘evangelize’ will grow; conservative Protestant theology motivates evangelization. ‘Here’s how conservative Protestant theology appears to motivate evangelization,’ explained Haskell. ‘Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are “sure” that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life. They are equally “sure” that their faith has made their own temporal life the best it can be, and that, given the chance, it would do the same for others. Because they are profoundly convinced of these benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church. This desire to reach others also makes conservative Protestants willing to implement innovative measures including changes to the style and content of their worship service.’

  • “People are more likely to be drawn to, and join, groups that radiate friendliness and personal closeness. ‘Several prominent studies in the US have determined that congregations embracing conservative Protestant doctrine, more so than other secular or religious groups, foster acts of altruism and promote social cohesion and feelings of positive relational intimacy,’ explained Flatt.
  • “Conservative Protestant doctrine is strongly linked to personal happiness. ‘Conservative Protestant doctrine, more than liberal Protestantism and certainly more than ‘no religion,’ insists that God is active, loving and close,’ Haskell explained. ‘By extension, feeling that one has a close relationship with a loving God has been shown to be one of the single greatest factors in the promotion of personal happiness. For example, in their “Faith and Happiness” study of people around the world, sociologists Rodney Stark and Jared Maier found people who feel extremely close to God are nearly twice as likely to be happy as those who do not feel near to God. Other peer-reviewed studies in the US have shown that, among the various religious groups in that country, those holding conservative Protestant orientations are the happiest. To connect all the dots… a church with a doctrine that enhances happiness keeps its members and draws others.’
  • “Just as a clear map helps us get where we’re going faster, groups with a clear, unified mission or purpose tend to outcompete groups with ‘foggy’ or wide ranging mission and purpose. Those adhering to conservative Protestant doctrine find unity of purpose through reliance on a common external source: the Bible. They take the claims and ideas of Scripture as authoritative for what should be believed and how life should be lived. Conversely, those of a liberal theological bent reject the idea that there is ‘one right answer’ based on a single, ‘proper,’ scriptural interpretation; for them there are many right answers.”

“In any contest between products or ideas, those that claim to be the ‘best’ or the ‘right one’ or the ‘truth’ have an advantage over others that present themselves as ‘similar to’ or ‘one option among many’,” said Haskell. “Theologically conservative believers feel they have the ‘Truth’ and, while there will never be complete agreement, they are more unified in terms of priorities and purpose. That unity also makes them more confident in their beliefs and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own. Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring, or basically positive is an attractive combination.”

Of course, these sociological explanations leave out the possibility that God is keeping his promise to his people through Isaiah: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). There is power through the proclamation of God’s word, the good news of the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). That power comes from the Holy Spirit, who works through our words and actions to impact people’s lives through our witness (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:18-20).

Evangelicals within The United Methodist Church have consistently advocated for an understanding of the faith rooted in Scripture, 2000 years of Christian tradition, and outlined in our United Methodist doctrinal standards. We have done so because we believe these things to be true. “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16).

But we also believe that the best chance for the Church of Jesus Christ to be fruitful and flourish is through faithfulness to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). This study bears out our contention that a return to a more evangelical understanding of the faith will help our church arrest its decline and begin to grow, once again. “[God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). The Lord wants everyone to hear and to come to life-transforming faith in Jesus Christ. When we offer that consistent witness, people will respond!

Links to articles related to the study:

The Guardian

Maclean’s

Religion News Service

OneNews Now

Faithwire

 

 

 

Is the Tupper Just Resolution Overreach?

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By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

My colleague Walter Fenton recently reported on the “just resolution” that was reached in September over a complaint filed against the Rev. Michael Tupper of the West Michigan Annual Conference. Tupper had performed a second same-sex marriage after having agreed to a just resolution for performing a prior same-sex marriage. (In other words, this was his second offense.) A just resolution is an agreement on how a complaint over a violation of the Discipline is to be resolved, which then means that no church trial is necessary. It is essentially a plea bargain that is accepted by both sides.

A quote in Walter’s article caught my attention. “This just resolution is a rejection of the authority of General Conference,” said the Rev. John Grenfell, Jr., a former Detroit Annual Conference district superintendent and a long time advocate for clergy and laity in church disputes. “It grants permission to two elders to redefine the life and mission of the church, when only General Conference can do that.”

Does this just resolution overstep the bounds of what an annual conference can do? Does it usurp the role of General Conference, and if so, what might this portend for the future of Methodism?

First, it is important to be aware that this “just resolution” is another in a long line of unsatisfactory responses to violations of our covenant life together. There are no meaningful consequences for violating the Discipline. Instead, the violator is put in charge of a process of “educating” clergy and laity about how to live together in a new way. This approach was first used in the Amy DeLong case in Wisconsin, where a trial court (jury) sentenced the Rev. DeLong to write a paper on how to preserve the unity of the church and set up a process that allowed DeLong to guide the annual conference into a new way of doing ministry with LGBTQ people. Since then, this approach has been implemented in “just resolutions” from New York to Oregon and places in between. It is an abuse of the just resolution process that essentially uses a violation of the Discipline as a means of trying to change the church’s teaching and practice. It turns the idea of covenant accountability on its head.

Often, these “just resolutions” are entered into by representatives of the church who themselves do not support the teachings of the church. That was true in the Tupper case as well, as the Counsel for the Church (who agreed to the resolution) and new Michigan Bishop David Bard both favor changing the church’s stance on same-sex marriage.

But the recent Tupper case in Michigan goes far beyond the approach of earlier “just resolutions.” It seeks to “initiate a plan for the Michigan Area to become a model for our denomination of what the ‘Big Tent’ option would be like if it was [sic] implemented by the General Conference.” In other words, the Michigan area is going to implement a solution to the impasse over marriage and sexuality that only the General Conference has the power to implement.

Lest there be any confusion about what a “Big Tent model” might mean, the “just resolution” states “the ‘Big Tent’ option includes proposals for revisions to The Book of Discipline … that would allow local churches the freedom to discern whether to receive an openly gay clergyperson and allow pastors the freedom to discern whether to officiate at same sex weddings.” The “Big Tent model” would ignore or nullify the standards for ordained ministry (¶ 304.3), stating that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained or appointed as clergy. It would ignore or nullify the prohibition of performing same-sex marriages by United Methodist clergy or in United Methodist churches (¶ 341.6). And it would ignore or nullify the fact that all of these actions are listed as chargeable offenses in ¶ 2702.1b.

The “just resolution” goes on to set up “Training Sessions for all Michigan SPRC chairpersons … in helping them to set up a process of discernment in every local church … regarding their readiness to accept the appointment of a gay clergyperson.” In addition, it sets up a “Training Session for all Michigan clergy … to offer pastoral care for LGBTQI individuals who are considering marriage or ordained ministry.”

In other words, these are not just proposals for changing the Discipline at the next General Conference. These are plans to live as if the Discipline has already been changed. It usurps the power of General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for the church and the only body that can change the Discipline. This “just resolution” is patently illegal under church law and should be challenged before the Judicial Council.

But what does this “resolution” portend for the future of Methodism?

The Michigan plan is just another step down the road of annual conferences acting autonomously and independently of each other and of the General Conference. It is a sign that the church is already in schism.

More and more, the church is becoming a federation of annual conferences, each with different standards for ministry, different understandings of the church’s mission, and different applications (or ignoring) of church law. The United Methodist Church is no longer one body with unified beliefs and practices. If the Discipline becomes a set of optional guidelines instead of a unifying covenant, I can imagine annual conferences changing the standards for approving persons for ordination. Some conferences may accept candidates for ministry who earned their education at seminaries not on the approved seminary list. Safeguards in the appointment process for clergy to churches could be ignored. This is where the “Big Tent” or “local option” approaches will take us.

The problem with this setup is that our annual conferences are geographical, while our differences are theological and not easily demarcated along geographical lines. There are strong evangelical congregations and clergy in predominantly liberal annual conferences, and there are strong progressive congregations and clergy in predominantly conservative annual conferences. These theologically minority congregations have fundamental disagreements with the direction of their respective annual conferences. Those disagreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for the minority congregations to carry out ministry with integrity within a setting with which they profoundly disagree. And being in such a setting severely hampers those congregations’ ability to thrive and grow.

A second problem with this setup is that a “Big Tent” or “local option” approach is only a way station on the way toward the mandatory acceptance of same-sex marriage and ordained practicing gay clergy. Pro-LGBT activists will not rest until every church is required to perform same-sex marriages and accept practicing gay clergy as their pastors. The societal momentum within the U.S. supports this kind of shift. And the “local option” allows annual conferences in Africa and elsewhere in the world to maintain their current practices, while enabling the U.S. to shift over completely to a gay-affirming posture.

From my conversations with African leaders, I do not believe African delegates to General Conference will accept the “local option.” Even if they were allowed to maintain their faithfulness to Scripture on these issues, they would not be willing to allow the rest of the church to turn away from the church’s traditional teachings. Without African and U.S. evangelical support, the “local option” or “Big Tent” would probably be defeated at General Conference, as it was in Portland this year.

But because our system of church government relies upon voluntary compliance, annual conferences that refuse to comply with the Discipline will be able to continue to do so. At least ten of the 55 U.S. annual conferences have gone on record as saying they will ignore the Discipline on the issues that divide us. It would require draconian accountability measures to bring those annual conferences back into conformity with the Discipline. Such measures would probably precipitate separation on the part of progressive annual conferences.

As long as church leaders and annual conferences are willing to ignore or disobey the Discipline, the unity of The United Methodist Church will be threatened. It is such a willingness to act independently of, and contrary to, the will of the body that is tearing the body apart. That is the situation facing the Bishops’ Commission on the Way Forward, as it begins its meetings in the coming months.

Unpacking “Incompatibilists”

 

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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

 

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part III

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

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In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous posts are HERE and HERE. It is important for us to critique one another’s approaches to Scripture, in that it is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. In this concluding post, I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Comparing one set of biblical interpretations to other sets, without recognizing their differences.

Haynes employs the tired comparison of the Bible’s teachings on same-sex behavior with the supposed justification of slavery and the subordination of women in Scripture. He argues that, since the church has changed its mind on slavery and the role of women, it can change its mind on homosexuality. It is important when interpreting Scripture to look at the whole, as well as individual teachings. Regarding both slavery and the role of women, the Bible shows a trajectory leading toward the understanding we have today.

While the Bible recognizes slavery as existing in the society of the time, it never commands people to be enslaved, and in fact it regulates slavery among the Israelites in such a way as to make it less onerous. I Timothy 1:10 condemns slave traders as ungodly and sinful. In Philemon, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to condemn slavery.

The Bible consistently raises the level of women’s value and treatment above the heavily patriarchal society in which most of the Bible was written. Jesus spoke to women as equals and welcomed them as disciples. There were female leaders in the New Testament church. Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is no male or female was revolutionary. There is a trajectory that would lead the church to elevate the place of women and recognize women as equally capable of leadership and ministry.

In the case of both slavery and the treatment of women, the position we have evolved to today is based on the clear teaching and trajectory of the Bible. Regarding homosexuality, however, there is no such trajectory. All references in Scripture to same-sex practices are negative, both in the Old and New Testaments. We embrace the truth that all persons are created by God and bear his image, and are therefore to be treated with love, dignity, and respect. But there is no warrant in any scriptural teaching for evolving into the approval or affirmation of same-sex behavior.

  1. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Haynes says, “Adultery is condemned fifty-two times in the Bible, self-righteousness seventy-nine times, covetousness forty times, and idolatry 169 times! Are we seeking to bar all these behavioral sinners from marriage, ordination, and membership?” Haynes seems to be saying that, since we don’t enforce behavioral standards with regard to other sins, we should not do so with regard to same-sex behavior.

First, the church’s laxity on issues like divorce, greed, and pride is lamentable. Preaching and teaching against these sins and others, as well as a ministry of redemption and restoration, is much needed. (I would note that the Bible does permit some instances of divorce, so that is not a black-and-white situation. UM News Service recently reported that the Liberia Annual Conference has a standing rule against divorced clergy being nominated to serve as bishop.) However, laxity in working against some sins does not excuse laxity in working against other sins.

Second, there is no lobby or organization working to change the church’s teaching that adultery and idolatry are sinful. Most everyone acknowledges that the things Haynes lists are indeed sinful and ought to be avoided. We may be imperfect in our ability to avoid those sins, but we strive to avoid them. On the other hand, Haynes has joined others represented by Reconciling Ministries Network, Affirmation, Love Prevails, and the Love Your Neighbor Coalition who are organized specifically to say that same-sex conduct is not a sin. That is a far different matter than acknowledging our imperfection at living up to biblical standards—it is changing, or rather overturning, those standards altogether.

As Haynes is quite aware, no one is saying that persons living a sinful lifestyle ought to be barred from attending church or even getting married, whether that lifestyle is unmarried heterosexuality, greed, pride, or any other sin. But to allow for same-sex marriage is to completely change the definition of marriage and explicitly place the church’s blessing on same-sex relationships, which would be contrary to Scripture. Further, we expect ordained clergy to live to a higher behavioral standard, not just in terms of our sex lives, but in terms of our personal habits and interpersonal relationships (see Book of Discipline, ¶ 304.2-3). In fact, some clergy persons have tragically lost their credentials and been fired because of heterosexual sin or infidelity.

  1. Choose one truth of Scripture and read everything else in the Bible in light of that one truth.

Martin Luther is famous for this error, when he disparaged the book of James because it did not sufficiently reinforce Luther’s pet doctrine of salvation by grace and faith alone. (James talks about the need for works, as well, as an outgrowth or demonstration of our faith.)

Haynes resorts to the tried and true commandment to “love your neighbor.” Anything that does not exhibit love for neighbor (in Haynes’ view) is not to be accepted as biblical teaching.

Taking this approach, however, closes out the possibility that each book of the Bible—indeed, even each passage—has its own voice and its own point to make. Much of biblical interpretation consists in balancing truths that are held in tension. God is three, and yet one. Jesus is God, and yet fully human. God is love, and yet holy. Doctrinal error creeps in when we lose our balance—when we emphasize one side or the other of the equation too much. Too much “three-ness” in God yields three gods. Too much oneness in God omits Jesus and the Holy Spirit from divinity. We need to give each biblical author his/her own voice and let that author teach us, before we then integrate and balance that teaching with the rest of Scripture.

If one is to pick a particular scriptural truth to emphasize, “love your neighbor” would be a good candidate. Haynes’ problem is that he defines loving our gay and lesbian friends and relatives as affirming and approving of their relationships and behavior. But that is a faulty definition of love. Jesus loves each one of us infinitely, so much that he willingly came to earth as a human being and gave his life for us. Yet, Jesus does not approve of all of our behavior. When we sin, he confronts us lovingly (and sometimes sternly) through the Holy Spirit. We don’t perceive that discipline as a lack of love (see Hebrews 12:4-11). There is no contradiction between loving our homosexual neighbor and maintaining the church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is wrong in God’s eyes. Just as there is no contradiction between loving our neighbor and believing that their pride, greed, or idolatry is wrong.

Dr. Haynes concludes his article with a quote from John the Elder:

“Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The same John the Elder also says:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:5-7)

As we address difficult and emotional subjects in the church, may we seek to balance God’s love and God’s light, aspiring as did Timothy to be one “who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). To have the Bible as our authority means to hold it “as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. 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” (The Confession of Faith, Article IV).

I hope this series of posts will help us gain clarity on how we approach Scripture to understand and apply its message to our lives today. May we learn from each other, “as iron sharpens iron,” and come to a unified understanding in the church that will form the basis for moving forward together in unity.

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part II

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

In this series of blog posts, I am addressing the approaches taken by Dr. Donald Haynes in his recent article A Biblical Analysis of Homosexuality. The previous post is HERE. This discussion on the proper understanding and application of scriptural teaching to the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons is the most important discussion we can have, in that Scripture is our primary determinant for our beliefs and our practices as Christians. Here I am continuing to address a few of Haynes’ approaches that I consider problematic in gaining a proper understanding of Scripture.

  1. Using the results of scientific inquiry to overturn the teachings of Scripture.

Haynes says, “While the Bible makes seven references to homosexual conduct, it never mentions homosexuality as a genetic sexual orientation.” But there is no such thing as “genetic sexual orientation.” Scientists have identified no “gay gene.” The American Psychological Association states: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation … no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” So Haynes’ appeal to science is undercut from the beginning by that very science.

Haynes goes on, “What if a genetically homosexual person cannot wish or pray or choose one’s way out of their same sex attraction? Would it not be cruel of God to bring someone into the human family only for the purpose of condemning them?” Here, I believe Haynes is engaging in theological exaggeration to support his point. He characterizes the argument in a way that no orthodox Wesleyan would agree with.

First, we must be clear that God does not condemn anyone for their attractions or desires. Otherwise, all of us would be condemned! It is only when those attractions or desires lead to behavior that is contrary to God’s will that it becomes a sin (James 1:13-15). Alternatively, if we entertain and nurture desires or attractions that lead to sin, we may be guilty of sin (Matthew 5:22, 28). But even when we sin, we have the possibility of forgiveness and restoration through the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s goal is to reshape both our actions and our desires in the image of Jesus.

Second, Haynes overlooks the fact that we all have a “sin orientation” – that each of us has an inborn tendency to have desires and attractions toward sin. The attraction could be toward anger, greed, revenge, lying, or promiscuity. These attractions toward sin are not the result of how God made us, but of humanity’s fall into sin and rebellion (Genesis 3). We all battle sinful desires and seek God’s grace to withstand and overcome them. Just as we will not be free of all sinful desires until we get to heaven, we should not expect that persons with same-sex attraction will be free of all instances of that attraction until they get to heaven.

But while we cannot “wish or pray or choose” our way out of attractions toward sin, we can indeed pray and choose not to succumb to those attractions and engage in the sin itself. Haynes is not asking us to have grace toward persons who have fallen into same-sex sin, so that they may receive forgiveness and restoration. He is asking us to redefine a sin as not-sin. He is asking the church to teach that homosexual conduct is not sinful, but to be affirmed in the same ways as heterosexual conduct. That is quite a different matter.

While we welcome the insights of science (which are often tentative and incomplete), we ground our understanding about morality, right and wrong, in the timeless truths of Scripture. Otherwise, we have given up the authority of Scripture as our primary guide to faith and life.

  1. Arguing from silence.

Haynes says, “Holy Scripture never refers to homosexuality in the context of a loving relationship between two consenting adults whose sexual orientation might be naturally homosexual, and who have a committed, monogamous relationship or marriage.” Leaving aside the point that science does not support that persons “might be naturally homosexual,” what does Haynes’ statement mean?

It could mean that the biblical authors were unaware of the possibility of a loving, committed same-sex relationship. However, historical research has demonstrated that such relationships did exist in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (see Plato’s Symposium and Philo of Alexandria’s Contemplative Life, cited in Gagnon, page 137, note 33-34). Certainly, Paul would have been aware of such relationships in the context of the much more libertine sexual climate of the Mediterranean world of his time. And if we believe that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, he is certainly not unaware of the possible lifestyles that could exist.

It could mean that the biblical authors meant to condemn only abusive or idolatrous same-sex relationships, while allowing loving, committed ones. Given that every reference in Scripture to homosexual behavior is negative, one would think that the authors would mention the exception that merited acceptance, in order to clarify what the Bible really teaches.

It could mean that the biblical authors did not mention loving, committed same-sex relationships because they believed that the existing references adequately covered the issue. If the prohibition in Leviticus is taken to be of all same-sex behavior, then there would be no point in the authors reinforcing that this also applied to loving, committed relationships. The bottom line is that there is no approving reference to same-sex relationships, even though the Bible spans over 2,000 years of human history and encompasses a wide variety of cultures, including Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.

Arguments from silence are always fraught with uncertainty and not something one can build one’s theology on.

  1. Ignoring Scriptures that don’t support your viewpoint.

One of the most significant shortcomings in Haynes’ article is that he ignores the consistent and complimentary heterosexual thread through Scripture based on Genesis 1 and 2, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. When asked about the possible circumstances of divorce, Jesus pointed his listeners back to God’s original intention for marriage and human sexuality, quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created us male and female, as complementary and equal persons who jointly exhibit the full-orbed image of God (1:27). Out of this gender difference and complementarity, God forges a one-flesh unity in the commitment of heterosexual marriage (2:24). Throughout Scripture, the expression of our sexuality is envisioned to lie only within this God-sanctioned relationship.

It is to heterosexual marriage that Paul turns to picture the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5). Here the difference is as important as the complementarity. Christ and the Church are different in many ways, yet the Church aspires to a Christ-like life, and the two find unity in their relationship as Bride and Groom, culminating in the great marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation.

Haynes does not explain how the constant thread of heterosexual marriage from Genesis to Revelation supports the affirmation of same-sex relationships. He also does not explain how such affirmation would affect the theological significance given to marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church.

Haynes also glosses over the list of ten different behavioral sins in I Corinthians 6:9 that are condemned by Paul, with the note that some of the Corinthians were each of these things, but had been redeemed by Jesus Christ. NLT translates one of those words as “those practicing homosexuality”. The important point here is that the Greek word Paul uses, arsenokoitai, is a direct transcription of the two words used in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22. It constitutes a direct allusion and restatement of the Levitical prohibition by Paul as binding on Christians (indeed, all people). To ignore this connection is to miss a significant verification that this Old Testament law holds true for New Testament Christians.

I hope these blog posts are helpful in thinking through how we as the church interpret the Bible on this sensitive issue. My next post will look at ways we improperly compare one biblical teaching with another and how we can distort the teaching of Scripture by focusing too much on one biblical truth.

How Not to Interpret the Bible – Part I

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Bible

Understanding and applying the teachings of Scripture to our daily lives is not rocket science, but it is also not kindergarten. Thankfully, many of the most important teachings of Scripture are straightforward and understood from a plain reading of the biblical words. Other teachings, however, are more difficult to glean from Scripture without a basic knowledge of the historical background and the rules of interpretation that have been developed over the centuries to aid such understanding.

Unfortunately, a teaching of Scripture that was once considered clear and easily understood has now been obscured and complicated by many efforts to rationalize a change in the church’s position. I am speaking of the church’s understanding of homosexuality. A recent article by Dr. Donald Haynes illustrates some of the pitfalls of improper biblical interpretation. While I have great respect for Dr. Haynes and his teaching and writing over the decades, I was disappointed by the approach he took toward Scripture in this article.

Because we believe in the authority of Scripture as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice,” it is important that we discuss and critique one another’s interpretations of Scripture. Biblical interpretation is done not solely as an isolated individual, but in community with brothers and sisters in Christ, and particularly in community with Christian leaders down through the centuries. Therefore, our approaches to Scripture ought to be open to discussion with one another, that we might learn from each other. In that vein, I would like to take several blog posts to engage Haynes’ approach to interpreting biblical teaching.

My overarching critique of Haynes’ approach is the same one I have of many others who engage the Bible on the subject of human sexuality. Namely, they often seem to have a conclusion in mind (the affirmation of same-sex practice) and then seek to find ways to explain away or disregard the teaching of Scripture in order to bring it into harmony with that conclusion.  I would like to use Haynes’ article as a way to point out some ways that Scripture is often misunderstood and misapplied.

  1. Misclassifying certain verses and/or lumping unlike verses together into a category that can be disregarded.

Dr. Haynes places the foundational verses relating to homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) into the category of “Mosaic cultic laws, most of which we ignore.” He then goes on to cite various laws from Leviticus that we no longer observe, such as prohibitions against eating blood, crossbreeding animals, and blending fabrics. He could have also cited the prohibitions against eating certain foods, like pork. “By what logic do we insist that God still wills that homosexual conduct be punished if we merely wink at the others? In Christ’s death on the cross, I believe we are saved by grace through faith, ‘not of works lest anyone should boast.’”

Haynes has a theological problem here, in that he seems to discount the need for Christian disciples to maintain our conduct within biblical boundaries of behavior. Yes, we are saved by grace and not by works. Our success or failure in living by God’s standards is not what determines our salvation. But God saves us to live a godly life. We are saved for a life of holiness, not just from a life of sin. The New Testament is replete with instructions on how Christians are to live (more on that in a moment). Our acknowledgement that we are saved by grace through faith does not relieve us of the responsibility to determine as best we can how God wants us to live, and then by God’s grace to do our best to live that way.

Haynes’ interpretive problem here is that he classifies the prohibitions against homosexual conduct as “cultic laws”—laws relating to the Old Testament system of sacrifice and worship that included a heavy emphasis on ritual. But if Haynes wants to classify all of Leviticus’ “Holiness Code” as cultic and no longer applicable today, he has to throw out the laws against incest, adultery, bestiality (all in Leviticus 18), stealing, lying, idolatry, fraud, mistreating the blind, slander, hatred, revenge, sorcery, prostitution, and cheating in business (all in Leviticus 19). Nearly all Christians would agree that these laws still apply today. There is no indication that they are connected exclusively to Old Testament ritual.

United Methodist doctrinal standards helpfully distinguish between “the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites” and “civil precepts” on the one hand, versus “the commandments which are called moral.” “No Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience” to this latter type of commandment (Articles of Religion, Article VI). It is plain that laws relating to sexuality are not ceremonial or governmental in nature, but moral (in contrast to the other examples Haynes points out). That is how we can distinguish the Old Testament commandments that still bind us today. These distinctions, by the way, are based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, not dreamed up by later church leaders (for example, Mark 7:14-18, Acts 10, Hebrews 8-10).

Haynes seems also to want to say that only the Old Testament commandments that are quoted in the New Testament are still applicable today. But it hurts his case that prohibitions against homosexuality are repeated in the New Testament, as well, which leads to our next point.

  1. Misinterpreting and misapplying the biblical and cultural context to nullify the teaching in question.

Haynes turns to Romans 1:24-27 and limits Paul to “raging against the Roman culture of idolatry.” Haynes goes on, “Given that he’s writing from Corinth – a city known as the ‘sin city’ of the Mediterranean world – Paul was likely referring to both the male and female prostitutes that were the norm in pagan temples.”

It is important to note that not all pagan religions of the time involved temple prostitution; only a few did. It would be a mistake to read idolatry into all the prohibitions against homosexual conduct, as idolatry is not the basis of the prohibitions in I Corinthians 6 or I Timothy 1. More importantly in Romans, Paul sees homosexual conduct as a result of idolatry, rather than an expression of idolatry. Of course, there is an element of idolatry in the “worship” of the “perfect body” that is sometimes found in particularly the male gay community. But that same idolatry of the human body can be found even more frequently in the heterosexual community, so it is not distinctive to homosexuality. Therefore, it would again be a mistake to say that Paul is only concerned about homosexual conduct that is found in pagan temples or that is related to idolatry.

My next blog post will address the proper use of science in interpreting Scripture, as well as other interpretive shortcomings in Haynes’ approach to biblical teachings on homosexuality.

Ministry Board Shirks Responsibility

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Book of Discipline

The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference board of ordained ministry recently decided to recommend a woman married to another woman for commissioning as a deacon. BWAC communicator Erik Alsgaard and Good News’ Walter Fenton reported that the board recommended Tara “T.C.” Morrow for commissioning as a Provisional Deacon. If that recommendation is endorsed by the clergy session of the annual conference on June 1, she would be commissioned by Bishop Marcus Matthews.

Paragraph 304.3 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Morrow’s commissioning would be a clear violation of that provision.

This recommendation marks a failure of the vetting process for clergy candidates in Baltimore-Washington Conference from top to bottom. Morrow would have had to receive an annual recommendation from her local church charge conference, which clearly would have known she was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church. She would also have had to receive a recommendation from her district committee on ordained ministry, which should have known she was married to another woman. (The recommendation of another self-avowed practicing lesbian for ordained ministry in the Rio Texas Conference in 2013 gained a lot of notoriety in the church press.) And the recommendation of the conference board of ordained ministry requires a 75 percent majority vote in order to pass. That means at least three-fourths of the board approved recommending her for commissioning, despite knowing of her situation.

At every level, the vetting process failed. If Morrow had been living with a man without being married to him, there would have been no excuse for these three bodies to certify her candidacy or recommend her for commissioning. But because she is married to a woman, all three bodies failed to do their due diligence and/or deliberately decided to disregard the requirements of the church.

As Alsgaard reported, “’Two people of the same gender being married or living together is a basis for investigation,’ [board of ordained ministry chair Rev. Charles] Parker said, ‘not a basis for a decision,’ citing ruling 1263 of the Judicial Council – the church’s version of the United States Supreme Court. ‘Self-avowed’ is defined by the Book of Discipline (footnote 1 for ¶304.3) where a person has ‘openly acknowledged to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.’ ‘Practicing,’ Parker said, according to Judicial Council rulings 1027 and 980, is understood to mean ‘genital sex’ with a person of the same gender.”

“Parker, who serves as senior pastor at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington, D.C., said that the Board engaged in a process with and for Morrow that sought to rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’ and create a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations.” Ironically, according to the article, “In the case of Morrow, he said, ‘we all know that she is married. We can make assumptions, but we don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices whether they are hetero or homosexual.’”

While creating “a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations” is laudable, it is no substitute for fulfilling the responsibilities assigned to the board by the Book of Discipline. The board is required to ask candidates for provisional membership this question: “You have agreed as a candidate for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness of the gospel, and in consideration of their influence as ministers, to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life, and to this end agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God. What is your understanding of this agreement?” (Discipline, ¶ 324.9o)

Knowing that Morrow was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church should have provoked further questions from the board. But they “don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices.” That is simply irresponsible. And it is the “don’t ask” part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, the board, in seeking to “rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’” actually persisted in it. The opposite of “don’t ask” is to ask—and the board failed to do so.

If a candidate came before the board with indications they had been in treatment for alcoholism or drug abuse, it would be incumbent upon the board to inquire further about the candidate’s treatment, recovery, and suitability for ordained ministry. The board had to examine dozens of pages of material submitted by the candidate, including a psychological exam, a physical exam, and a theological exam. Any or all of these might indicate further questions to be asked in order to clarify a candidate’s suitability. Yet in this one instance, knowing what it knew, the board failed to inquire.

The board of ordained ministry is assigned the responsibility on behalf of the church to examine in detail every candidate for ordained ministry in order to ensure that the persons are qualified and suitable to serve. This is a fiduciary responsibility they exercise on behalf of all of us. It is impossible for all the clergy members of an annual conference to get to know each of the candidates and make their own assessment of the candidates’ qualifications. We entrust the board with this responsibility. When the board fails in its responsibility, it erodes the trust that we all have in the church and its processes.

The blatant disregard of the requirements of the Discipline exhibited by the board is one reason that many evangelicals are frustrated at the church and angry with their more progressive colleagues. If church leaders cannot be trusted to follow our agreed-upon covenant, then there is little hope for a healthy future for the church.

That is why the Renewal and Reform Coalition is promoting legislation at the 2016 General Conference that would close loopholes and enhance accountability to our covenant. In the absence of voluntary compliance and trust, more forthright rules are required. One of the proposals is to broaden the definition of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex union or marriage with a person of the same gender. By the public act of such a marriage service, the person is acknowledging that they are living as a homosexual person. Such determination should be automatic, not requiring a trial or other forms of verbal gymnastics to demonstrate an obvious reality.

The bottom line is that many progressives want to make it impossible for the church to maintain its scriptural teachings and requirements. But that would be a church without integrity. And a church without integrity can have no unity. It would be an unhealthy body that would collapse in upon itself.

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Change on Marriage and Homosexuality Could Cost UM Church Millions of Members

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By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

 

As the 2016 General Conference approaches, progressive United Methodists are pulling out all the stops to push for a change in the denomination’s position that would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. They seem to be taking this course in total disregard of any possible negative consequences for the future of United Methodism.

The United Methodist Church is already facing a projected drop in membership of about 130,000 members per year in the next few years. That is the equivalent of eliminating the Arkansas Annual Conference or the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference every year! What would be the impact on U.S. membership of a shift in the denomination’s positions on marriage and sexuality?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) provides a cautionary example that continues to unfold. According to a recent article in Charisma based on analysis in the Presbyterian Layman, the PCUSA has lost  nearly 285,000 members in the three years since they granted denominational approval for same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. This represents the loss of 100,000 more members than the previous three-year period. Over the past three years, the denomination has lost nearly 15 percent of its membership.

In the wake of the radical PCUSA decision, hundreds of PCUSA congregations have withdrawn to unite with a more evangelical Presbyterian denomination. Additionally, thousands of more conservative members have left the PCUSA to join the independent church down the street.

The picture is not getting any brighter for the PCUSA. Denominational officials project membership losses for 2015 and 2016 of 100,000 per year, with losses of 75,000 per year in 2017-2020. Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee observed that “year over year losses of more than 90,000 members per year is institutionally unsustainable. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of closing an average of 1,000 PCUSA churches a year.” Since 2005, the PCUSA has lost over 645,000 members. Projected losses of 500,000 over the next five years will bring the total loss to 1.15 million members, cutting the denomination’s 2005 membership nearly in half.

Predictably, it is not the loss of members that is stirring the Presbyterian pot, but the loss of revenue from per capita assessments (their equivalent of UM apportionments). Revenue to the national PCUSA is projected to drop from $13.5 million in 2012 to $11 million in 2020. Under proposed budgets, the national PCUS will run a half-million-dollar deficit in 2016, with deficits exceeding $1 million starting in 2018. In the absence of drastic budget cuts, the unrestricted reserves are projected to run out in 2021. In the meantime, denominational askings are proposed to rise 23 percent by 2018 from their 2010 level. By 2020, the askings will be 30 percent higher than 2010. Where there are fewer members, they will need to pay proportionately more to keep the denominational machinery going—or the machinery will begin to be dismantled.

What if this took place in The United Methodist Church? What if the UM Church adopted the Connectional Table proposal to permit same-sex marriage and ordination? What if the same fallout happened to U.S. membership in our denomination that took place in the PCUSA?

Can you imagine being down to 3.5 million members in the year 2030 from the current 7 million? Can you imagine losing or closing over 10,000 congregations (one-third of the current total) over the next ten years? Can you imagine the need to raise apportionments by one-third over the next 15 years, even with yearly budget cuts? By 2030, U.S. membership would be less than one-third of the global United Methodist makeup (unless the more conservative churches in Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Philippines also withdrew from the denomination). The ministries of our denomination would be left at only a shell of their former strength.

Is this picture of precipitous decline the preferred future of progressive United Methodists? Despite the cautionary example of not only the PCUSA, but also The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, progressive UM’s insist that “it won’t happen to us.” The idea that “we’re different” is only a whistling in the dark denial of reality. The United Methodist Church consistently polls as more conservative at the grass-roots level than any other mainline denomination. If other mainline churches suffered such grievous turmoil and membership loss in the wake of adopting gay-affirming stances, what basis is there to think that the UM Church would react any differently?

One hopes that progressives and sympathetic moderates will take another look at the damage done to other denominations before persisting in trying to inflict the same on our own UM Church.

NOTE: for a previous blog on the PCUSA membership situation, see “Changes in PC(USA) Bode Ill for Methodism”

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UM Agencies Broaden Agenda to Promote Homosexuality and Transgenderism

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

therefore-go-umc-gc2016Evangelicals have often predicted that the effort by progressives to radically change United Methodism’s view of marriage, ordination, and sexuality is only the first part of a much broader agenda to overturn traditional Christian social ethics. The latest efforts by our denomination’s advocacy agencies (General Commission on Religion and Race, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and Young People’s Ministries) to promote the acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism represent an expansion of the advocacy agenda in ways that most United Methodists would find troubling.

This advocacy is found in the handbook for delegates of General Conference (called the Advance Daily Christian Advocate—ADCA). Just released at the end of last week, this handbook has a section on “intercultural competence.” The agencies want “to support each delegate’s ability to build relationships across our diverse cultures.” Much of the information presented in this section is basic to understanding how to cope with personality and cultural differences.

But there is one page (whose authorship is not given) that outlines “Sensitivity on Holding Conversations Around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” It offers guidelines for conversation that delegates are expected to follow (although the guidelines were never voted on or approved by the delegates).

The first admonition states, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer (LGBTQ) persons are our siblings in Christ and should be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect.” With that principle, everyone can agree.

Beginning with the second admonition, the guidelines begin to go off the rails. It encourages us to be aware of the presence of persons with different sexual orientations. “Many may identify as bisexual, queer, lesbian, gay, or other identities.” This guideline assumes that there are multiple (“other”) sexual orientations that exist and are part of the normal human experience. It further assumes that “many” persons exhibit these various identities. Evangelicals believe that our identity is found in our relationship to Jesus Christ, not in our sexual attractions. We also believe that some sexual attractions are not good or positive and are to be resisted, not celebrated. Studies have consistently shown that less than five percent of the population exhibit one or another of these various attractions at some point in their lives. That hardly constitutes “many” (fewer than 43 out of the 864 delegates). Yet it seems to be part of the agencies’ drive to normalize homosexual and bisexual practices, portraying these as common and normal in hopes of convincing delegates to affirm these attractions and practices.

The third admonition stipulates, “Do not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past. Ask someone their pronouns before using gendered words to describe them.” Ten days in Portland with this kind of recommended protocol before every conversation will make General Conference a perfectly dreadful experience for everyone involved.

One assumes that the recommendation is offered in the event that a person who looks and dresses like a woman may want to “identify” as a man (and vice versa). One assumes that there may be a few instances of this taking place. But the underlying message is that gender is a fluid, changeable concept that is subject to the feelings and desires of the individual. For the most part, however, our gender is part of our God-given personhood bestowed at birth and unchangeable. It is not desirable for a person to attempt to change his/her gender. This third admonition buys into the current fashion that gender is self-determined, rather than God-determined. And it represents an escalation of the LGBTQ advocacy into the arena of transgenderism.

The fourth and fifth admonitions posit that LGBTQ persons ought not to be referred to as “prostitutes, adulterers, pedophiles, murderers, confused, unchristian, an issue, etc.” and that their marriages, covenants, or relationships ought not to be compared to bestiality. Evangelicals agree that inflammatory language ought not to be used in describing any person, including LGBTQ persons.

At the same time, we need to be very sensitive to allowing legitimate debate and discussion about the rightness of certain sexual and gender practices. The question of how the church ought to regard marriage and sexuality is an issue that merits prayerful biblical study, theological reflection, and conversation. Placing artificial limits on language is just a clumsy attempt to make it impossible to discuss these questions and potentially intimidate people who are unwilling to affirm homosexuality and transgenderism.

Unfortunately, these guidelines on conversation are all one-sided. There is nothing in these guidelines to delineate how evangelicals and traditionalists are to be talked about. In the past, those who have embraced a traditional perspective have been called bigots, homophobes, unenlightened, uninformed, narrow, or a “child of the devil.” The name calling can go both ways. In either case, it needs to be avoided. The one-sided character of these guidelines calls into question their objectivity and poses the possibility of an underlying agenda.

The guidelines’ draconian nature appears in the final admonitions, which expect that facilitators (presiding bishops, committee chairs) should rule such “behavior” (using improper language) out of order. And if facilitators do not do so, delegates are expected to interrupt and challenge the improper language, making everyone responsible for being the “political correctness police.” A more calculating strategy for silencing the voice of those attempting to uphold biblical teaching cannot be imagined. If I don’t like what you are saying, I can shut you down by accusing you of using improper language.

I want to emphasize again that evangelicals oppose all violence against individuals for any reason, including LGBTQ persons, and oppose the use of disrespectful and inflammatory language in all debate, including debate about LGBTQ persons. However, these guidelines go beyond encouraging respectful debate and seek to engender thought control—or at least debate control—in a way designed to tilt the playing field. The agencies involved ought to withdraw the guidelines. If not, delegates should not feel bound by guidelines that have not been approved by the General Conference and let their conscience be their guide.

A Matter of Perception

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Lego

How one acts depends upon what one sees.

My wife and I sometimes disagree about what clothes I am able to wear. This is because we sometimes see clothes as having different colors. She will see black, while I see dark blue. She will see gray, while I will see green. No matter how hard we try, we cannot convince the other that they are wrong. We are each certain that we are seeing the correct color. And of course, that influences what clothes we believe can go together.

There is a deep difference of perception within The United Methodist Church today. (Actually, there are several differences of perception.) One group perceives that the Bible (and by extension, God) mandates that sexual relationships be maintained only within a marriage between one man and one woman. Another group perceives that the Bible is not clear about that issue and leaves room for same-sex marriages. Some even go so far as to perceive that the Bible is really outmoded when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, and that it is perfectly acceptable for people to engage in sexual relationships whether or not they are married (and no matter which gender people are), as long as those relationships are consensual and life-affirming.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. Those in the first group believe the church must set a clear boundary prohibiting sexual relationships outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Many in this group believe that it is a matter of fundamental obedience and faithfulness to God to maintain this boundary. Those in the second group believe the church must enlarge its boundaries to encompass same-sex relationships. Many in this group believe it is a matter of fundamental human rights (and obedience and faithfulness to God) to ensure that same-sex relationships are not only allowed, but affirmed and supported. Those in the third group believe that the church shouldn’t be in the business of setting boundaries in the first place. Many in this group believe that the church’s role is to allow people the freedom to determine for themselves (in conversation with God) what is right or wrong for them.

Just as in my disagreement with my wife about what color we see, it is nearly impossible to convince people in the other groups that they are seeing incorrectly. Because each group has such a vastly different perspective, the groups are pulling the church in different (often opposite) directions. This is a recipe not only for stalemate and “gridlock,” but it is harming the church’s ability to minister in this world. Because we perceive differently, we cannot agree on what the church stands for and what ministry the church should and should not provide.

How can we decide?

The church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) had a problem of perception. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (vs. 17). What the church perceived was different from what Jesus perceived in them. I think it would be best to agree with Jesus’ perception, don’t you? He offered the remedy of true wealth (gold refined in the fire) and white clothes to wear to “cover your shameful nakedness.” But before they could get these things, they needed “salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (vs. 18).

Jesus alone can change our perceptions. It is essential to be in relationship with him. He knocks at the door of our lives and desires to have fellowship with us, which will transform our perceptions (vs. 20).

According to my perception, the current United Methodist teaching defining marriage as between one man and one woman and limiting sexual relationships to heterosexual marriage has many advantages. It is consistent with the univocal message of Scripture, with 2,000 years of near-unanimous Christian teaching, and is supported by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Those who perceive things differently have to fudge the teachings of Scripture and go against centuries of Christian tradition, as well as disregard the perception of the vast majority of the worldwide Body of Christ.

But all three groups maintain that they are being led by the authentic Spirit of Christ and that they are being faithful and obedient to what God wants. Since United Methodists don’t have a pope to make the final decision, we turn to General Conference. However, many who disagree with General Conference no longer feel bound to honor what the General Conference decides. Their way of perceiving things causes them to believe that they must follow a “higher law” than to submit to the church. We are not talking here about disagreements over what shirt goes with what pair of pants. We are dealing with foundational matters of the inspiration of Scripture, our theology of marriage and sexuality, and our theology of the church.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. When we see so differently, how can we act together or in concert? How long can we live in a church where some groups see other groups as unfaithful, and where some groups have determined to act according to their perception, no matter what the church says?