As Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church’s decision to delay paying apportionments for 2015 continues to generate lively discussion, allow me to offer a few observations about some of the other arguments against withholding apportionments. Once again, I am not advocating the withholding of apportionments, and I have always encouraged the churches I served in pastoral ministry to fully pay apportionments, as they were able. Nevertheless, I find some of the arguments against withholding worth comment.
My first post dealt with the reason Mt. Bethel is withholding and engaged the idea that “this is not how United Methodist polity works.” My second post commented on the idea that withholding apportionments is not loving. Let me deal with two more arguments and round this series out with a conclusion.
“Withholding apportionments will hurt good ministries.” When apportionments are withheld in bulk, it penalizes ministries that are worthy of support.
I have noted in my previous post why churches sometimes have to withhold bulk amounts because their annual conference mixes together multiple categories of apportionments, making it impossible for a local church to pick and choose which items they will support.
Some churches that have withheld apportionments in the past give at least some of that money directly to annual conference and general church ministries that might otherwise be hurt by their non-payment of apportionments.
Nevertheless, it is true that some good ministries will get hurt by (especially widespread) withholding of apportionments. At that point, it is important to understand that the withholding is not so much a financial or ministry decision, as it is a statement of conscience. It is a local church attempting to voice its concerns in the only way that is being heard and responded to. In Part I of this series I mentioned that other attempts to engage with the Council of Bishops, such as the “Integrity and Unity” statement, met with virtually no response. When a local church feels that it is not being heard, it may believe it has to do something drastic to gain the ear and response of those in the denominational structure.
Harm to good ministries can be minimized by 1. annual conference leaders being proactive in listening to and responding to the concerns of laity in local churches, 2. local churches channeling their giving directly to those ministries in lieu of apportionments, and 3. recognizing that withholding is not a long-term strategy, but normally lasts only a short time until someone responds to the concerns that are being raised. The failure to respond or a coercive attempt to force compliance with paying apportionments will, in the current climate, be counterproductive and harden opposition. It could force committed pastors and laity — and even whole congregations — to leave The United Methodist Church.
One blogger suggested that if a church cannot in good conscience pay apportionments, they should leave the denomination and surrender their keys to the building. I find that to be a short-sighted way of addressing a congregation’s concerns. However, if over a long period a congregation finds itself unable to conscientiously support the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church, I believe separation from the denomination is a realistic option. That actually happens with some regularity across the country, usually by small congregations that are able to leave with their buildings through a negotiated agreement with the annual conference or by congregations that do not have a building.
The preferred outcome, however, would be to address the congregation’s concerns first, in an attempt to see if the congregation can continue to be a vital part of United Methodism.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Just because some parts of the church are doing wrong (by disobeying the Discipline on same-sex marriage and other matters), the answer is not for other parts of the church to also do wrong.
This argument does have some weight. However, one must ask if there is a moral equivalence between violating the commands of Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality versus a short-term violation of one of the requirements of our Discipline.
It is actually progressives who have set the precedent for doing “wrong” to attempt to correct another “wrong.” They believe the church has done wrong by denying marriage to same-sex persons and denying ordination to self-avowed practicing homosexuals. So they have responded by doing the wrong of violating the Discipline’s prohibition of both. They believe that by doing the wrong of violating the Discipline, they can correct the greater wrong (in their minds) of the church’s position on marriage and sexuality. Is that not what civil disobedience is, in the great tradition of protest and civil rights?
Some evangelicals have taken a page from that playbook and believe that by doing the wrong of violating the Discipline in withholding apportionments (usually only for a short time), they can correct the greater wrong of parts of the church violating Scripture and other parts of the Discipline in performing same-sex marriages without consequence. For people on both “sides,” this is a step of last resort.
In all of my posts, I have noted that the criticisms of withholding apportionments are equally pertinent to those who are violating the Discipline by performing same-sex marriages and ordaining and appointing self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. What is fair about requiring different people in the church to play by a different set of rules? If progressives are able to violate the Discipline with impunity, then why not evangelicals? Many of the critics adopt an “end justifies the means” approach to deciding which violations are acceptable. Violations that support changing the church’s position on marriage and sexuality are allowed, but violations that oppose such a change are not. Progressives should not be surprised when evangelicals adopt progressive strategies that appear to be working.
That leads me to the conclusion I want to emphasize: The United Methodist Church has reached an impasse in which, for many, the current status quo is unacceptable.
Progressives believe that it is unacceptable that they are not able to perform same-sex weddings and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. So they have decided to take matters into their own hands and violate the church’s teaching by doing both. They are in the process of trying to create a new reality in which the Discipline no longer governs the conscientious actions of progressives, and that they are allowed to do what they believe is right, no matter what the Discipline says.
Evangelicals and traditionalists believe that it is unacceptable that some of the church’s clergy and bishops are able to violate the specific teachings of Scripture and the democratically-passed provisions of our Discipline. Were the Discipline to be changed to allow for same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, many evangelicals and traditionalists would find themselves needing to withdraw from the denomination. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, the murky new reality that allows what evangelicals and traditionalists believe to be sinful practices to be endorsed by church leaders is causing them to rethink whether they can continue to support and participate in The United Methodist Church.
The withholding of apportionments is a last-ditch attempt by some to restore accountability and unity in the denomination based on Scripture and the majority opinion of the church. If that accountability and unity are not restored soon, many evangelicals and traditionalists will find it necessary to withdraw from United Methodism.
Neither “side” is willing to live with the current status quo. Evangelicals were willing to live with the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as long as progressives respected and abided by the decisions of General Conference. Now that that is no longer the case, they cannot live with the disobedience. Progressives could not live with the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, where they had to abide by the Discipline. That is what prompted them to begin their movement of disobedience. They will not be willing to give up doing same-sex marriages and are even beginning to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
So the church is at an impasse. Neither “side” can in good conscience give up their position. Rather than continue the resulting stand-off and harmful conflict, would it not be better to negotiate a way for the factions to separate? If such a separation is to take place, it should be done in an orderly, fair, and negotiated way. I believe that some sort of denomination-wide separation is at least a realistic possibility, either through amicable separation or through some form of a jurisdictional solution. But if such a denomination-wide way forward is not enacted, it may happen anyway as congregations and clergy depart from a denomination they can no longer in good conscience support.