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Reflections on General Conference and the Aftermath

The events of General Conference and the aftermath have been painful. Some, like me, are thankful for the outcome, that the historic and what we believe to be the Biblically faithful position has again been reaffirmed. The thin margin between opposing sides reveals the depth of the division though. Many, many people are deeply saddened, disappointed, frustrated, and extremely angry. I can understand that. I can’t say I haven’t felt that way when things haven’t gone the way I thought they should. I take no pleasure in the angst and pain of others. This General Conference has been revelatory in many ways.

One clergy colleague said, this General Conference has revealed that the denomination is “a nasty, mean rat bastard.” While I do not appreciate the language, and do not agree, I do appreciate the honesty. Emotions are running high, of course, but we do need to be completely honest about the nature of our differences.

gc2016-plenary-floor-584x388
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

In response to another conservative colleague’s statement affirming the traditional position, but also insisting that all people are still welcome in the church, a progressive clergy colleague said it was nothing but a hurtful and hateful statement. She insisted that unless she as a gay person is accepted completely, including the goodness of her sexual behavior, then it is just a message of hate. I disagree, but I appreciate the honesty. Other pastors who have tried to present what they see as more moderate and balanced messages have been severely rebuked for making excuses for great, even grave, harm done to the LGBTQIA+ community.

This type of rhetoric didn’t just start. Long before General Conference 2019, promoters of the liberal One Church Plan and the more progressive Simple Plan said similar things. They insist that the church needs to change to be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people because the traditional position is doing harm, greatly and even gravely. As I shared before, these kinds of statements were made repeatedly at two listening sessions in my own conference in early January (See my reflections HERE). During the General Conference and after, that refrain has only grown louder, stronger, and more explicit. Progressives and Centrists clearly believe the traditional position of the church is doing great harm; that it is egregiously unjust, even evil. Many American bishops have themselves repeated this refrain.

Bishop Will Willimon, a One Church Plan supporter, basically framed General Conference as a battle between the pure-hearted, pious progressives and centrists, and the conniving and calculating conservatives. One Church Plan supporters like him, many American bishops among them, were calling “for generosity and openness from the podium, [while] Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals,” he said. I’m not sure if Bishop Willimon is subtly alluding to the false rumors that were being spread that Africans were bribed by American conservatives to vote their way, but it could be taken that way. Bishop Willimon does appear to double down on the idea at the heart of the One Church plan that the church should be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, but the enlightened Western liberal elite just need to provide a measure of tolerance for conservatives until they eventually come around. His disdain and contempt for supporters of the conservative position was thinly veiled (See article HERE).

The disgust, disdain, and contempt of others, like Bishop Bruce Ough, was not really veiled at all. He seemed quite comfortable framing it as a clear-cut case of good verses evil, the traditional position of course being on the latter side and doing great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. For Bishop Ough conservatives are “the problem.” He also doubles down on not allowing churches to exit the denomination with their property for conscience sake. (See his video HERE).

Bishop Ken Carter was more diplomatic, but not entirely coherent. He reiterated the refrain that the church has done great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. He also expressed appreciation for the passionate faith of conservative evangelical United Methodists. And he also doubled down on the idea that remaining together in the same church together despite these deep differences are what it means to be the body of Christ. He is quoted as saying, “We are a church that includes people with different visions of the kingdom of God,” and “I believe that’s the body of Christ” (See article HERE).

I agree with Bishop Carter; we do have different visions of the kingdom of God. But I do not agree that is what it means to be the body of Christ. Unity at all costs, no matter how serious the contradictory and competing views are, is not a recipe for unity at all. We need at least a reasonably similar and complimentary vision of the kingdom if we are going to have unity. It appears that what Bishop Carter perceives to be theological diversity is his highest priority. But I think it is the very attitude of doctrinal indifference that John Wesley called confusion and a curse as he alluded to Ephesians 4:13-14 (See the oft misquoted Sermon 39 Catholic Spirit).

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. ~ Eph 4:13-14 ESV

Exaggerating our differences is wrong; downplaying our differences is wrong too. Both cloud the truth. General Conference and the aftermath has revealed just how stark the differences are. I’m not saying there aren’t sincere people on both sides, and truly in the middle trying to figure things out. But the truth is for a great many on the progressive/centrist side, this is a matter of grave injustice and hate. I know if they sincerely believe that, they cannot help but to fight tooth and nail to keep people from expressing views they find hateful and harmful, and trying to convert people to their vision of the kingdom. But that’s also why conservatives were not buying the assurances given in the One Church Plan. Bishop Ough again reiterated that the One Church Plan was imperfect but a stepping stone to a church of perfect inclusiveness, which would inevitably exclude the expression of traditional beliefs. Richard John Neuhaus put it this way:

Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/the-unhappy-fate-of-optional-orthodoxy

Yesterday a progressive leaning colleague, whom I don’t really know, messaged me and graciously asked what I would say to the LGBTQIA+ people. Here’s a slightly edited version of my response (edited for my fumbling thumbs mainly).

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I have offered clear and specific teaching and guidance to my congregations for years, not only on this issue, but on the traditional Christian position on sexual morality in general. I have never talked about it in a way that singles out any particular class for special condemnation or for special exemptions. I have had members from all walks of life, who struggle with many different kinds of temptation. I have had church members who have disagreed, but we listened to each other very closely. Some have shifted to my viewpoint; others still aren’t sure, but they know they are much more informed.

What I would say today to anyone who is LGBTQIA+ is that God loves you and I love you. You are created in the image of God, but as with us all, that image has been distorted by sin. Sin corrupts our desires and makes us want and want to do things that are not good. The power of sin enslaves us all beyond our own ability to choose otherwise apart from grace. But grace by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can set us free through forgiveness and transformation. Transformation, however won’t be consummated in this life; it will be consummated in the new heaven and earth (see Rom 5-8).

In the meantime we will all have to struggle together against powerful temptations and forces that will seek our conformity to the ways and corrupted desires of a fallen world (see 1 John 2:15-17). Whether it be pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth, we all have to be on guard against the devices of the enemy. The grace of God in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit makes salvation possible, but not easy. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and enter into a life of self-denial to follow Jesus on the hard path that leads to life. Christian faith is not just measured by what we gain, but also by what we are willing to lose and give up. There is a serious cost to discipleship, but not to be compared to the glory of the New Creation. Christ calls us to die to our old way of life corrupted by sin to be people of the New Creation. The New Creation is not something we are called to create ourselves, but a reality that has been created for us to enter into by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

“Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'” ~ Matt 16:24-25 ESV

There are many people from the LGBTQIA+ community who have accepted that kind of invitation. One is my friend Angy, who was same-sex attracted and acting on those desires. She says she realized that it wasn’t really preachers like me who were condemning her. She says she came to believe it was actually those who were affirming her in sin who were condemning her. She has been outspoken to share her testimony, but the voices of people like her are not provided with the same platform.

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For some the message I shared above is pure hate; for others, like my friend, Angy, it is genuine love. That is the contrast that is at the heart of our dilemma and lack of unity in the United Methodist Church. The truth is we are not in the dilemma we are in because we have talked about this too much; the truth is we have not talked about it openly, specifically, and honestly enough.

We do have different visions of the kingdom of God, very different visions. The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed requires repentance and self-denial on the part of everyone, no special condemnation, no special exemptions. The grace of God makes it all possible; and we all need it.

No Other gods or goddesses? #UMCGC2019

“We never talked about belief, we just shared our lives and spoke of the divine feminine in ourselves and in the world. The goddess we spoke of never felt to me like a substitute for God, but simply another aspect of the divine. Just like God’s aunt.

When I tell other Christians of my time with the goddess, I think they expect me to characterize it as a period in my life when I was misguided, and that I have now thankfully come back to both Jesus and my senses. But it’s not like that. I can’t imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I can’t imagine that God doesn’t reveal God’s self in countless ways outside of the symbol system of Christianity.
In a way, I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshiping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.

In fact, I felt guided by God the whole time I sojourned outside of the church. The divine source of my life and my identity perhaps knew that I needed to bask in a female face of God for a good long while outside the church before I ever could return to it whole and be able see the divine feminine in my own tradition. If feminist scholar Mary Daly was right, that “If God is male, then male is God,” then there was some undoing to be done inside of myself after a childhood of being told that God is male and I am not (but sixth grade Jimmy over there is!).” ~ (From the book Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber writing about the goddess of Wicca)

A couple days ago I received the following quote on a Facebook post of my last article from a United Methodist, who considers himself a centrist. He sent the quote above to me, thinking it should alleviate any concerns about heresy!  Here’s what he said:

“A bit unexpected and shocking but not really heretical. God has been described in a multitude of images over the years.”

Many United Methodists are not very discerning. In fact discernment has fallen on very hard times, along with biblical literacy and trust in the reliability and veracity of the Bible. Thus, it’s no surprise that Nadia also believes the Bible is vague and ambiguous; as she would put it, “It’s not clear about sh&#.” But let’s just do a little thought experiment here.

Imagine part of the above as a conversation between Jezebel and Elijah (1 Kings 18ff).

Jezebel: “Baal never felt to me like a substitute for God, but simply another aspect of the divine. Just like Yahweh’s uncle.”

“Why can’t Israel worship Yahweh AND Baal?”

Elijah: “Yahweh has revealed to us that he is the one, true God, and all other gods are pretenders and deceivers!”

Jezebel: “But it’s not like that. I can’t imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I can’t imagine that God doesn’t reveal God’s self in countless ways outside of the symbol system of [Israel].”

Elijah: “God has revealed the truth in his written word. We must be faithful to what God has revealed. We are to worship no other gods and make idols to bow down to them.”

Jezebel: “How can we really be sure that the your covenant with Yahweh is really from God? And even if it is, how can we know what it really means? It’s so vague and confusing. There are countless gods and goddesses worshiped among the nations. Who are you to say they and their ways of life are wrong? You are so narrow-minded Elijah!”

“Israel can worship Yahweh without disparaging the beliefs of other people!”

Elijah: “God has revealed himself and his will. I believe it is clear and true. I trust the word of Yahweh!”

 

So the issue is not whether the One true God has feminine characteristics. One of my favorite passages of Scripture is in Isaiah 49:14-16, where the Lord, Yahweh, promises Israel that he will not forget them and abandon in spite of their rebellion. There Yahweh  compares himself to a nursing mother and the compassion she has for her child. Yet in Isaiah 46:5-9 (ESV) Yahweh also says:

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble. “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me”

It’s one thing to speak of the feminine aspects of God’s nature; its quite another to say

Nadia BW Gloria Steinem
NBW, Gloria Steinem, and vagina statue.

other gods/goddesses, whose followers engage in practices such as ancient rituals of sorcery and sexual practices specifically forbidden in the Bible, are also legitimate expressions of the same God. This is just a pagan way of thinking. And this is the end result of refusing to believe that the Creator has revealed his nature, character, and will in a reasonably clear way in Scripture and in his Son, Jesus. Dare I say, it is the end result of being more committed to the idea of “theological diversity” than the biblically defined Lordship of Jesus Christ!

The Son, by the way, did say he was the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Biblically speaking, this should not be a great surprise as it is a direct corollary of the First Commandment. Generally speaking the pagan worldview begins with experience; the Judeo-Christian worldview begins with revelation (for more on this listen to RC Bishop Robert Barron discuss “The Return of Paganism HERE; I also recommend John Oswalt’s book, The Bible Among the Myths, for more depth).

When a person doubts the possibility of a clear revelation from God the Father in Scripture and in the Son, and when they exalt their own experience and reason above that revelation, the result will be idolatry. Idolatry and the licentious practices that go along with it are the end result of this kind of confusion of the divine. That’s why it is not far-fetched to compare Nadia Bolz-Weber’s melting down purity rings to turn them into a statue of a golden vagina to the Israelites’ making a golden calf (Ex 32). It’s also not surprising that this stature is directly associated with unfettered sexuality and the child sacrifice that takes place in abortion.

Golden Calf Painting
The Adoration of the Golden Calf – 1633-4, Nicolas Poussin

Despite those that have tried to dismiss all this because Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran and not a Methodist, the fact is she remains incredibly popular among progressive United Methodists. She is a frequent and very popular speaker in progressive United Methodist circles. I shared my experience in the previous article. The following messages were shared by other United Methodists in response to my article and objections to it.

One person in another conference, whom I do not know, sent the following private message:

“Thanks for the follow back. I’m embarrassed to say I doubted the seriousness of your article and Nadia Bolz-Weber. I did what I always encourage people to do and did my own research. She is scheduled to speak at several UMC churches (and strongly embraced and promoted) in my area. Churches that are lobbying hard for One Church Plan. I have been more blind than I believed. We have a lot of praying to do. Thanks for your strength and courage. I’m still in shock that the denomination I’ve known since my UMYF days has let this unspeakable debauchery into our churches. Peace and God bless.”

You certainly can’t say she’s running around rogue promoting her false doctrine without the sanction of leaders in our denomination or her own. Her own Bishop praised her profusely, compares her sexual reformation to Martin Luther’s, and says her teaching is much needed in the Church!

A UM pastor in another conference wrote the following in reply to someone trying the downplay and dismiss any concerns by saying Bolz-Weber is not Methodist.

FYI, Nadia was the lead speaker at a preaching workshop in the NCCUMC last year and I had to watch a video of her thoughts assigned subject in RIOM (residency in ordained ministry). They also had us read some of her writings. She seems to be a Rock star for many in leadership in my conference. Just sayin… ~ Rev. Dusty Sprouse

Our problems run much, much deeper than differences over sexuality. In spite of all those who will continue to try to downplay the seriousness of all this, I would highly recommend we heed the grave warning of Jesus.

… I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. ~ Rev 2:20

There is a limit to what Jesus will tolerate!

May God be merciful, and grant wisdom and discernment.

 

How Can We Be One? #UMC General Conference 2019

On January 5th and 6th I participated in two General Conference listening sessions in my Annual Conference. We heard various and diverse opinions on people’s hopes for the upcoming special General Conference of the United Methodist church, which is slated for February 23-26 in St. Louis. I was one of about a couple dozen people over the course of two sessions to give 3 minutes speeches to the entire body after a time of small-group round-table discussions with various delegates.

Throughout both sessions some expressed their desire to see the church change to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. More than once the denomination’s current official position in the Book of Discipline, which in a nut shell is that sex is for marriage and marriage is only between one man and one woman, was condemned as being discriminatory and hurtful to the LGBTQ community. More than one person speaking for progressive change insisted that since being gay is not a choice then it is wrong to not bless same-sex unions. There were several implicit comparisons—one very explicit—between sexual orientation and race. At least one speaker spoke of a scientific consensus along those lines with regards to sexual orientation.

More than one speaker on behalf of the progressive view also condemned the traditional view as harmful and even deadly. That is, that the traditional Christian view is actually causing people to kill themselves. A mother of a gay son, who took his own life, actually spoke to that point. It is incredibly heart-wrenching to even think about. I can imagine how emotionally devastating it would be to lose a child like that.

Other progressive speakers used the issues of the church’s evolution on the issue of slavery and ordaining women as analogies for how we should also think differently about the Biblical passages that prohibit homosexual behavior. More than one progressive speaker admitted that Bible is clear on the issue, but they just don’t think those verses apply anymore in light of modern knowledge and experience. One woman said: “We know what Leviticus and Paul said, but we should interpret those passages as we interpret the passages on slavery” (i.e. as no longer relevant today). One basically said, the Bible is a flawed book written by flawed men who gave their opinions about the will of God at the time, but they were wrong. Another gentleman used the argument that since Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything about it then it must be okay, and it doesn’t really matter what Leviticus or Paul say.

There really wasn’t  anything in these arguments that I haven’t heard before. All of these comparisons and assertions are dubious at best, and one assertion is pretty insidious and sinister really. The race comparison is just false, as is the idea that there is a scientific consensus behind such an analogy. Consider the American Psychological Association on the cause of sexual orientation:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual 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; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.aspx

That is a far cry from being just like race or eye color, which is another comparison I’ve heard quite frequently. I’m not saying that the APA supports the traditional Christian view; they certainly don’t. The APA, as with almost all of secular society, believes that all consensual sex between adults married or not is perfectly normal and healthy, and most of the APA, based on the ideology of their predecessors like Alfred Kinsey, would likely believe that it is sexual repression, not expression, that is unnatural and unhealthy. Their conclusions and advice are based on a particular set of philosophical presuppositions and a worldview that is quite different from the traditional Christian worldview. And these secular philosophical presuppositions are too often asserted as scientific fact. The truth is some just believe that people should be able to have consensual sex with whomever and however they want without any negative judgment. It’s no secret that people with this ideology often have tremendous contempt and disdain for the traditional Christian view, which they see as backwards and repressive. This is the dominant view we encounter almost exclusively in pop culture and secular media and entertainment.

Nonetheless, as the LGBTQ+ acronym itself suggests other types of sexual attraction/desire and orientation are more appropriate analogies. For example, a few weeks ago a United Methodist shared a video from a site called “Queer Theology” promoting the acceptance of polyamorous people (people who desire to be in multiple sexual relationships simultaneously) like him. In the video a young man talks about his polyamorous (possibly bi-sexual?) orientation and how he thinks the Biblical metaphor of the Church being the bride of Christ justifies those types of relationships (i.e. because, he said, Jesus is in intimate relationships with multiple people at the same time). Other progressives have also followed the logic to these other expressions of sexual desire to condone and bless any expression of consensual sex with marriage only being optional. As a matter of fact, one plan being put forward to the special General Conference called “The Simple Plan,” would remove restrictions regarding sex outside of marriage altogether from what I understand.

From the traditional Christian worldview, however, we believe that sin corrupts and distorts our God-given desires and enslaves us apart from God’s grace to those desires. Think about the way Paul describes a person enslaved to sin in the flesh apart from the power of the Spirit in Romans 7. The person thus bound, even when he knows better, cannot not sin. A person in the flesh, apart from grace, has no choice, but is left asking, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). Of course the answer comes in the next verse and the next chapter: “God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25). In chapter eight Paul describes the new life and freedom we have through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Whereas in the flesh bound by sin, we cannot submit to God’s law because we will not; in the Spirit we are freed from the power of our corrupted desires for joyful obedience to the will of God! (Rom 8:1-17). This is true for all of us no matter how our corrupted desires manifest themselves in our lives sexually or otherwise.

And of course this does not mean our desires will be completely transformed on this side of the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. In this life we will still have to deny the fulfillment of our sinful desires and put them to death by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:12-13; also Col 3:5ff). As Jesus said, we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily to follow him (Luke 9:23). And, of course, we will need to be plenteous in mercy and forbearance with one another in the struggle together.

As far as the slavery comparison goes, that is also a bad analogy. Even some of the best liberal scholars admit that the Bible is clear and unequivocal in it’s unconditional prohibition of homosexual practice. The regulations even under the old covenant for Israel were designed to be a system of mercy for the destitute, as hard as that might be for us to imagine. And even within the old covenant regulations of slavery there was already a quick trajectory toward freedom every seven years and in the year of Jubilee. It was not a system based on race and lifelong chattel slavery as developed in colonial and Antebellum America. And there is nothing to suggest that the Biblical model of slavery was to be required to continue to exist in every time and place. Again this is not a good analogy, and it would be better to look at the trajectory of sexual morality in the Bible with regards to …. sexual ethics. As the Sermon on the Mount makes clear, the trajectory was not toward a more liberal sexual ethic. A similar argument can be made for women in ministry as there is already precedent for woman exercising prophetic ministry and leadership even in the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament. At least these two issues are not straightforward and unequivocal in the same way that the prohibitions against homosexual behavior are.

As for the charge that the conservative Christian view is actually causing harm and even death, I can say that the disproportionate rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies, among other problems, in the LGBTQ community is concerning and heart-wrenching. Any time someone takes his or her own life it is incredibly alarming and sad. A teenage boy in my kid’s high school took his own life last week. He left a note saying in part at least it was because his girlfriend broke up with him. I’m sure he was troubled in many ways. It is heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine what his former girlfriend is going through as a result.

There’s a movie called “Prayers for Bobby,” starring Sigourney Weaver, who plays a conservative Christian mother who became an LGBTQ advocate after her gay son, Bobby, took his own life. The movie portrays Bobby’s depression and suicidal tendencies as resulting from the rejection he experienced from his conservative Christian mother and his church. But even in the movie it shows that Bobby finally took his own life after being distressed by seeing his boyfriend flirting with another man. To try to lay the blame primarily at the feet of the conservative Christian community is incredibly manipulative and really quite insidious. It is a lot more complicated than that.

Is the message to traditional Christians that you must give up your convictions and accept the progressive view or you are responsible for people’s deaths? This will only lead to more anti-Christian sentiment and more legal maneuvering to suppress the expression of traditional Christian views in society. But will this really lessen the disproportionate rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies in the LGBTQ community? There is evidence to suggest it will not.

This is not, however, to suggest that it is okay for parents or churches to completely reject and disown their children for any reason, whether they come out as bi-sexual, polyamorous, gay, or as just refusing to be celibate outside of marriage as a strict heterosexual. My children may disown me, but, by the grace of God, I’ll never disown them, but that does not mean I’ll agree with everything they believe and do.

At our listening sessions, nevertheless, every progressive speaker who expressed condemnation of the traditional view in the terms described above, also expressed support for the “One Church” Plan, which purports to make room for both progressive and traditionalist views in the same denomination. It’s really hard to understand how people who believe the traditional view is so harmful would be content with being affiliated with people who still promote it. The One Church Plan does actually liberalize the definition of marriage and only allows for slender exemptions for the traditionalist conscience. It will also quickly bring about the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the United States by delegating that decision to the Annual Conference clergy sessions, where only ordained elders and deacons will have a say (with the exception of a few lay people and local pastors who happen to be on the Board of Ordained Ministry).broken rope

The part of conscience that the One Church Plan does not protect is conscience in terms of affiliation. Progressives show they understand the importance of this when they make motions to divest clergy pension funds from companies that do business with the state of Israel, for example. And by not allowing for a gracious exit, the One Church Plan allows local church property and assets to be used as leverage to create a fellowship of the coerced rather than the committed, as some have put it.  I think it is clear that most progressives support the One Church Plan because it gives them the upper hand to maintain control of the denomination in the U.S. The exemptions they give traditionalists now can be taken away later (consider how the Episcopal Church has recently revoked exemptions originally given to conservatives when they first officially liberalized their polity; the Presiding Bishop has recently brought sanctions against the Bishop of Albany).  Progressive United Methodists will not be content to allow space for what they see as grave injustice for long. Is the One Church Plan really a recipe for “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3)?

When it was my turn to speak at the listening sessions in my Annual Conference this is what I said:

 I speak today on behalf of the modified traditional plan; I believe it is the only plan that will allow for unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In John 17 Jesus prays that his disciples may be one (vv. 11 &22); he also prays that they will be sanctified or made holy according to the truth of God’s word (v. 17). We do not have unity because we do not have a shared vision of holiness and truth.

The argument is really not about whether Scripture identifies all forms of homosexual practice as sin. Liberal Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says, progressives should be honest that they are in fact “rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture” in light of the authority of modern experience.[1] Walter Brueggemann argues that the revelation of Jesus shows that the prohibitions against homosexual behavior were just wrong.[2] Our own Adam Hamilton makes a similar argument by saying that some Scripture was never inspired of God. Yet according to Matthew 5 Jesus said:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

I pray for unity, but not a unity based on what is at least a partial rejection of the authority of the moral law in Scripture. This is not in harmony with the teaching of Jesus or our own doctrinal standards that express the sufficiency of Scripture (Article 5) and the ongoing authority of the moral law (Article 6), which was an essential for John Wesley. Jesus, in John 14:15, says, “if you love me you will keep my commandments.”

Without a shared vision of holiness and truth we cannot have unity. The “One Church” plan will not bring peace; it will prolong infighting and intensify it by localizing it to the Annual Conference and local church. The traditional plan allows for the possibility of unity around a shared vision of holiness and truth; it also allows for amicable separation for those who have contradictory and competing visions.

The call to maintain the unity of the Spirit in Ephesians 4:3 must be understood in light of what Paul says a few verses later about the goal of building up of the body of Christ. The goal is to work

until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,.. (Eph 4:13-15 NRSV).

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” Commonweal Magazine, 6/11/2007,  https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0. accessed 1/3/2019.

[2] Marlena Graves, “It’s Not a Matter of Obeying the Bible: 8 Questions for Walter Brueggemann,” On Faith, https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2015/01/09/walter-brueggemann-church-gospel-bible/35739. accessed 1/3/2019.

Below you’ll also find a link to a video where I recently discussed the plans that the special General Conference will be presented and explain why I disagree with some of the most common reasons given for changing the official position of the UMC. It may be useful in having conversations in churches from a conservative perspective.

How Wide the Divide? #UMCGC2016

The United Methodist Council of Bishops proposed more discussion at a later date to try to resolve differences over human sexuality. But what if the controversy over sexuality really is just a presenting symptom of a much wider divide? Maybe this is and has been such a big deal for so long because it really is a much bigger deal than some want to admit.

Of course there are those who are genuinely unsure about these issues that we could honestly identify as in the middle. If confusion and uncertainty about what to believe is really the issue, then why would we be so rash to haphazardly abandon the existing and longstanding, universally accepted until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, teaching of the Church, which is still the teaching of the vast majority of the Church universal.

But as for those on the left, including those who call themselves centrists but are obviously and clearly progressives in alliance with progressives, and for those of us on the right the issue is not really confusion and uncertainty. By certainty I’m not talking about an absolute epistemological certainty that God alone has; I’m talking about clarity of convictions, an assurance of faith. We believe what we believe firmly, even though, as Alister McGrath has argued, as Protestants we may intuitively hold our beliefs provisionally. And our differing beliefs run much wider and deeper than what we think about sex.

When I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM) in my conference a few years ago for provisional membership, based on a conversation that I had with one person along the way, I was deemed to not be quite “theologically diverse” enough, although I was passed for provisional membership on the Elder track anyway. I was passed but not without extra requirements. One was a reading assignment. The conference approved psychologist I had to meet with before I could go before the BOM recommended to them that I read a book, “Six Ways of Being Religious”.

This was because when the psychologist asked me to tell him how I would handle conflict in the church, I gave the example of when I led a Bible study and discussion around the controversies concerning marriage and sexuality in response to questions from both liberals and conservatives in the church I was pastoring at the time. I told him we had people in the middle who were confused by it all, and some on the right and some on the left. I told him that I had come through a lot of confusion myself after reading and listening to people on all sides of the issue along with much prayer and Bible study. I had come to a traditional viewpoint and did not hide that fact from the group or my church. We had a great, even if sometimes intense, discussion during that group study. I did my best to accurately present viewpoints from both sides, and people within the group on both sides felt and were free to share theirs. No one left the group and we all remained friends, even though I clearly shared my view, which includes the belief that this is not an indifferent matter. Everyone was thankful and appreciative for the discussion.

For sharing this the psychologist deemed me not to be “theologically diverse” enough and after explaining that he believed himself that all religions really point to the same ultimate reality, he recommended the book I mentioned above, although that is not what that book actually argues. In addition to that reading assignment the BOM also recommended – in writing – that I read Harvey Cox’s book “The Future of Faith, wherein he argues that orthodox confessional faith was actually a corruption of the original more “diverse” form  of Christianity, which he seems to believe is captured in the Gospel of Thomas and apparently Gnosticism. He considers confessional (i.e. the development of creeds) orthodoxy to be a corruption of the original faith, which he believes was more “diverse” and “open”, conveniently, kind of like progressive Christians like him. He even seems to throw John Wesley into the mix of what he believes to be the problem. I wonder what Wesley would think of a Methodist BOM recommending such reading?

I didn’t have a problem reading the book, I have learned the hard way of the importance of considering other views, but when I complained to some colleagues that it seemed quite suspect that the BOM would require me to read such a book that bashes orthodoxy, including Wesleyan orthodoxy, some said the BOM probably just wanted me to consider other views. Okay. Well my experience through provisional membership (I have self-delayed interviewing for full-ordination for the past couple of years) has proven otherwise.

The BOM also required me, for other reasons, to take another Christian education class on teaching Bible study after I had already completed the MDiv. So I took a class, which had undergraduate and graduate students in it. The professor overtly bashed evangelical conservatives and explicitly deemed evangelical Bible study curriculum to be “theologically problematic” but gushed over the theology of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, pantheists, who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus . She also had students look up Bible verses where Jesus seems to speak negatively about family to argue that Jesus didn’t really care about family values like ‘some’ Christians do today. Another time she had us look up verses in the epistles that mention the “gospel” (singular) to argue that those verses were telling us that the four “Gospels” were more important, I suppose to try to neutralize some of the unpopular messages of Paul in the epistles. At any rate, those verses in the epistles are obviously talking about the general content of the Gospel message not the four Gospels specifically. Both were shameless, egregious exercises in proof-texting and eisegesis, which I challenged to little avail.

I also participated in a special RIOM (official provisional clergy mentor group) that made it available for us to go to special meetings and conferences, including a trip to the Holy Land. In all cases, with the exception of one meeting at a conservative UMC that I wasn’t able to attend, the progressive bias was incredible, outrageous really. I was subjected to meetings where conservatives like me were called “Pharisees” or worse, one where it was openly questioned, after what was basically a reconciling church promotion, whether an African American candidate for Bishop should be seriously considered because she is theologically conservative. How bout that for a commitment to ‘theological diversity’?

The conference that was almost the last straw for me was when our RIOM group and a couple of others were taken to see the future of the church, at least according to the theories of the ultra-progressive Episcopal theologian, Phyllis Tickle, whose view are similar to those of Harvey Cox. It was a conference featuring Tickle, who ended up not being able to attend for personal reasons, and the Lutheran (ELCA) “Pastrix” (title of one of her bestselling books), Nadia Bolz-Weber, the main speaker.

I read most of her book, “Pastrix”, on the way to the conference. In it she talks about how she believes the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt as she promotes syncretism, and how she used the baptismal covenant to bless and rename a transitioning transgender, an experience she compared to the conversion of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther. At the conference she bragged about how she used the baptismal font as a chocolate fountain for a party after a worship service as an example of her many intentional acts of “holy irreverence.” She also made fun of the Methodist notion of “going on to perfection” and said in terms of the means of grace, she doesn’t do sh&#. Talking about a prominent conservative figure, she called him “bat sh%# crazy”. She does believe in the bodily resurrection though! Whatever that may really mean to her.

I seemed to be the only one who didn’t think she was the greatest thing since sliced bread in the auditorium of the Methodist retreat, Epworth by the Sea, in St. Simons Island, Georgia. On the way home though, one of our leaders did, however, question whether the Pastrix cussing every other breath was really in keeping with a holy life! Of course that was the least of my concerns.

How wide is the divide? Much wider and deeper than many want to admit. This crisis issue of human sexuality is such a big deal, because it is a much bigger deal than some will admit.

When it comes right down to it, we not only have competing visions of Christian sexual ethics; we have competing visions of the Christian faith, really two different religions as has been argued since the first half of the 20th century. Although some at the 2016 UMC General Conference voted down making the Nicene Creed a doctrinal standard because they may have thought it unnecessary in light of our Articles of Religion and Confession of faith which explicate further many of the same truths, I wonder how many voted it down because they have the faith of Harvey Cox who sees the creed as a corruption of a supposed more original faith.

We are of two minds because we are, in the main, of two different spirits. When it comes down to it, one vision of the faith seems to be an open-ended syncretism where it is Jesus by addition, thrown into the pantheon, if you will. The other is a monotheistic Trinitarianism where it is Jesus by submission, surrendering to the One true God who has revealed himself most fully in the person of Christ by the illuminating and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough that we consent to the same terminology when we have diametrically opposed meanings and beliefs. The so-called commitment to theological diversity is really just a commitment to theological progressive-liberalism, which is apparently open to all things, except those who aren’t.

The bias should be obvious, and the marginalization and demoralization of conservative evangelicals in the American context is real. It is true that were it not for our African brothers and sisters this discussion would have been settled in favor of the progressive view long ago. And as the church seems to be moving in a more conservative global direction despite what looks like a progressive full-court press at this year’s GC, now they want to prolong the debate even further. Does anyone really believe that if things were going in the other direction, in favor of the left, that calls for delay and further discussion, would be taken seriously? When the committee for General Conference who put together the “Handbook for Delegates” assumed the new theories of gender neutrality to be settled reality and advised all delegates to “.. not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past” and to ask everyone what pronouns they prefer, he, she, or something else (p. 39), I wouldn’t count on it.

bridge-across-chasmHow wide is the divide? We are of two minds because we are of two spirits. There is a mighty gulf between us that God did span at Calvary, but we can’t pretend like we can live together on both sides as one church. We have to choose one side or the other. I know this is stark, and for some, harsh language, but it is true. Why don’t we admit it and take action accordingly to allow for an amicable separation? This is much more gracious and generous than anything we’ve seen in the other mainline denominations, which have gone in favor of the progressive view. It would just be an official acknowledgement of what is a present reality made more evident by progressives defiance. The divide is great and it is real. Let’s get real and do something real about it.