The Global Church is on the Move

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to meet with several dozen seminary Presidents from around the world who are part of a ministry known as Overseas Council. For over forty years, Overseas Council has been mentoring and training leaders from around the world who are now leading emerging seminaries, churches and mission agencies to serve the dramatic growth of Christianity in the Majority World. Sometimes we forget that church growth inevitably stimulates the growth of seminaries and mission agencies, because the latter exist to serve the local church. When any church movement emerges, they quickly cry out for trained pastors. When any church planting ministry emerges, they quickly cry out for trained missionaries, and so forth.

The gathering in Indianapolis is part of a mentoring program whereby seasoned seminary Presidents from around the world are paired with newly appointed seminary Presidents. Mentoring happens throughout the year. However, once a year all the Presidents and mentors come together for sharing of ideas, intensive training sessions and shared problem solving. When you are part of a gathering like this you cannot help but sense that you are really on the front lines helping the church in the extension of the gospel. I have longed believed that training men and women for leadership in the church is one of the most important and sacred tasks of the church.

Brothers and sisters, the global church is on the move! They are planting churches at a blistering rate. People are responding to the gospel in unprecedented ways. There are, of course, a myriad of problems. No movement of the Spirit is not without messiness and the ever present signs of human frailty. But, beneath it all one cannot help but see the mighty hand of God.

I am indebted to Dr. David Bauer, Professor of Inductive Bible Study at Asbury Theological Seminary for first pointing out to me the significance of Acts 5 where we encounter the honesty of the New Testament as it records the story of Ananias and Sapphira right in the midst of the account of dramatic growth. It is a good reminder. Don’t let the unfaithfulness of the Ananias’ and Sapphira’s who pop up in every generation keep you from seeing the amazing work of God. It is all too easy to fall into despair and forget that Jesus promised that He will build His Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it! The church is not merely the instrument of God’s work in the world; the church is what God is building in the world. The bride is being prepared for the marriage supper of The Lamb (Rev. 21:1-4). Thanks be to God!–

A Way Forward? My Response Part 7: The Way Forward. Let’s Not Divide, Let’s Multiply!

This is the seventh and final part in a blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church

Is There a Way Forward?

We now come to the time for proposing positive, alternative solutions.

First, we must begin with the realization that we cannot legislate our way to unity and peace. This is a deeply spiritual and theological crisis, not a technical and legal one. I believe that every side of this divide will agree on the following three statements:

(1) Our communion has been impaired and our public witness is confusing to the world.
(2) Our ministerial covenant has been broken and the open defiance of the current Discipline will only get worse.
(3) The United Methodist Church is in a state of crisis which is clearly impeding our capacity and effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Whatever proposals are finally “put on the table” must begin by calling all Methodists to a time of prayer and fasting for His divine guidance. We need clear guidance between now and 2016 so that decisions can be made at General Conference which, however difficult, will bring us to a new place as the “people called Methodists.”

Although these blogs have focused on various biblical, theological and ethical difficulties with the Hamilton proposal, we should not forget that one of the great problems with this or any solution like it has little to do with theology or Christian history; it is the challenge of brand identity. We currently have a church situation where a seeker walking through the doors of a United Methodist Church can experience dramatic contrasts. A church must have a known and trusted identity. This is a problem for both the progressives and the conservatives. The progressives would be “held back” by the conservatives who continue to fight for traditional values. Likewise, the conservatives do not have the space to create a brand identity for historic orthodoxy because of the dominance of progressive voices throughout the country and because the appointment system does not guarantee that a pastor with particular theological commitments will always be sent to a church with those same theological values.

I am not currently prepared to endorse any particular “way forward.” I think a proposal should arise out of holy conferencing before a clear avenue for action is made clear. I do think that Adam Hamilton is entirely correct in his observation that separating the church would have grave consequences. Could we really avoid the nasty and expensive lawsuits which have plagued the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians? Can any divorce of Christians be amicable? Would both groups be glad this took place 100 years from now? I do not know the answers to these questions. It may be that some form of amicable separation is what ends up happening. However, I would like to put on the table an alternative idea based on multiplication rather than division.

Possible Solution: Multiply, not Divide

One possible pathway which avoids separation would be to multiple, not divide. Under this scheme, the United Methodist Church would remain as the single title of the corporation. All pensions and general church land and buildings would be owned by the United Methodist Church. The church, in that sense, remains united. It would not only be structural, but the United Methodist Church as a whole would still be bound together by the General Rules, Wesley’s Articles, his Notes on the New Testament and his 52 canonical sermons. However, the denomination would oversee two separate Methodist movements which are under two separate Disciplines. The first would be known as the Methodist Church or the Progressive Methodists, or whatever name the progressives deem appropriate. This movement would be permitted to endorse progressive ideas and to freely change the Discipline in whatever way they believed was best for the sake of the mission of the church and evangelizing the society, as long as the change could be justified to be consistent with the founding principles of Methodism. The second movement would be designated by a distinctive name (words like orthodox, confessing, historic, and evangelical have been suggested). Whatever this Methodist movement is called, the important point is that it would retain historic Christian values and be committed to an historic understanding of orthodoxy, fully embracing the great themes of Wesleyan Christianity (universally accessible atonement, prevenient grace, entire sanctification, holy living, discipleship, and so forth).

Each of these two “arms” of the United Methodist Church would then convene key clergy and lay leaders who have been active on both sides of this struggle to write up a basic manifesto of the core values and guiding theological, cultural and missional principles which would form the fresh expression. This would not, necessarily, become part of the future Discipline of each branch, but would serve as a popular document which lay and clergy alike could read and understand. A year of conversation, reflection and prayer would allow time for each church to prepare for the vote and for the necessary judicial changes to be made so that two Disciplines could be enacted. On a set Sunday across the country (this would have a huge PR affect in the national media) every church would vote as to which expression they would identify with. Since there would be no “default” church, but two new expressions, a majority vote would have to be utilized to determine the new alignment. The members who were disappointed in the outcome of the vote in their particular church would be encouraged to align themselves with the alternative expression. Each Bishop on the current council would also be asked to align themselves with one or the other expressions of the church. All current ordained pastors would remain members of the United Methodist church (for pension purposes), but would be asked to align themselves with one of the branches (for appointment purposes). This does mean that in some cases two bishops living in the same geographic area would be providing episcopal oversight for each of the different expressions of the church. The apportionment system would be dramatically revised, focusing more on global ministry, local church initiatives and a mandatory episcopacy support fund. This could lead, over time, to whatever cooperative structures would best serve the church, including, potentially, certain structures which would effectively serve both branches of the United Methodist Church. District Superintendents would be senior pastors who would focus more on mentoring younger pastors, encouraging evangelism and overseeing catechesis and discipleship initiatives. The two Councils of Bishops (conservative and progressive) would function independently, but would be given greater authority over their respective branches than in the current structure. Both bodies, the Methodist Church and the Confessing Methodist church would be members of the World Methodist Council and both would participate in the World Methodist Conference.

Conclusion

There are pros and cons to this approach. Perhaps there are more cons than pros. But, in my hopeful moments, I believe this “multiplication” plan could also unleash a vigorous new wave of evangelism and church planting such that the membership losses of the last fifty years could be completely reversed in only 25 years. We must get re-focused on mission and evangelism! But the daylight is almost gone, night is at hand. Something must be done. We cannot keep pretending that our current covenant is holding. It is time for some bold action. Our Wesleyan heritage is too precious to keep traveling down the road of the status quo. If the truth were told, almost all of our churches (on both sides of the divide) have largely relinquished a clear exposition of Wesleyan distinctives. In addition, we have already experienced the “quiet schism” of millions of members who have left our beloved church. It is time for a true Wesleyan renewal to begin in the United Methodist Church. Let us pray, fast and commit ourselves to God and then, in true Wesleyan fashion, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work and, by God’s grace, forge a new future for our great movement.

A Way Forward? My Response Part 6: Biblical and Theological Reflections on the Proposal.

This is the sixth part in a seven part blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church has been discussing homosexuality in earnest for decades. This month marks thirty years since my ordination as a United Methodist pastor, so I have listened to this debate for my entire ministry. I have also been attentive to the Presbyterian (both here in the USA and in the Church or Scotland) and Episcopalian / Church of England discussions over the same period. One of the striking differences between the contours of the United Methodist discussion and the counterpart discussions which led to the breakup of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches is how seldom Methodists have actually discussed specific biblical texts related to homosexuality, or, for that matter, invoked a deep discussion about a biblical theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality. I remember, for example, heated discussions in the Presbyterian church over the precise meaning of arsenokoitēs and malakos as found in I Corinthians 6:9. What exactly is a homosexual offender? What was a male prostitute? Similar discussions have taken place regarding 1 Timothy 1:10 which has been translated variously as ‘homosexual’ (NASB), ‘people who have intercourse with the same sex’ (CEB), ‘male homosexuality,’ ‘men who practice homosexuality’ (ESV), etc. The passage in Romans 1 often involved serious, reflective discussions on what exactly was meant by women who “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” or what was the potential range of condemned acts in Paul’s statement that “men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Is this limited to pedastry, or would it include, as most scholars have concluded, adult consensual homosexual acts? My point is that this is an entire area for discussion which has been largely unengaged in the Methodist church. I readily acknowledge that all of these discussions have taken place in our seminaries, but it hasn’t really become part of the public church discourse as it has in other denominations. Our conversations have mostly focused on pastoral care, the need for generational sensitivity for evangelistic purposes and wanting to portray ourselves as inclusive and welcoming, not closed and angry. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward.

On the conservative side the situation has not fared much better. A few conservatives have pointed out that this discussion is, on a deeper level, about biblical authority and not merely the presenting issue of homosexuality. But, for the most part, the conservatives have focused the discussion more on their outrage over disobedience to the Discipline, than on the disregard of Scripture. But this seems to me to be a tenuous strategy (though I understand the pragmatism of it). To insist that we are really, really upset that Bishop Talbert, for example, has disobeyed the Discipline, while remaining silent about the real problem, namely, violating the teaching of the New Testament is problematic. However, if we were really focused on the New Testament, then Bishop Talbert would be required to demonstrate how his acts are consistent with the New Testament (a very steep climb, indeed), as opposed to merely disregarding the Discipline which everyone acknowledges is not God-breathed. Sometimes Methodists have to be reminded that we are part of the larger Christian tradition which, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about our Discipline. Furthermore, those of us who are fighting for historic Christian faith must recognize how difficult it will be for us if the UMC does change the Discipline in 2016 and then asks us why we are then not ready to obey it as we have insisted to them this past year. At that point, we will be forced to appeal to Scripture. My point is that we should go ahead and pick up our tent and move onto those grounds now, not later. We would be much more energized by a discussion of the NT than a discussion on the Discipline. Thus, I strongly advocate that we insert into this discussion a vigorous discussion concerning the teaching of the New Testament and reasonable guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. Each side is speaking too generically about their “love of Scripture.” We must engage the Bible and the Wesleyan theological tradition with more faithfulness – that is a call to everyone involved. I remain convinced that there is no stronger, more perfectly balanced and nuanced statement which affirms men and women as created in God’s image, yet lovingly laying down creational boundaries for our good and His glory, than the New Testament.

A Way Forward? My Response Part 5: What about the whole LGBTQIA community?

This is the fifth part in a seven part blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church

Andy Crouch, in a recent article in Christianity Today helpfully observes that the church is mistaken and out of touch by framing the current debate about sexuality as whether the church should “accept” or “reject” same sex marriage. To do that is to focus one on tiny wave and miss the tsunami which is about to engulf us. The proposal by Hamilton seems to think that if we agree to this proposal we just might put this issue behind us. On the contrary, we are just on the front edge of this issue.

Even the acceptance of same sex marriage assumes, for example, stable sexual orientation. In other words, it assumes that someone is oriented towards a different or same sex as a permanent reality. Today we hear quite a bit about the LGBT and the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer/Questioning, Intersexed and Asexual) community. However, the proliferation of letters beyond L and G in the growing LGBTQIA lineup clearly demonstrates that there is far more going on than a discussion of same sex marriage. Today, the debate also includes, for example bi-sexual, transgendered and intersexed persons. In fact, I read a recent writer who is part of the LGBTQIA “community” who referred to those who speak of only “gay” and “lesbian” as living in the “dark ages.” His point was that the real issue today is not about sexual attraction between men and men or women and women, but, more fundamentally, about the freedom for gender non-conformity and the full disassociation of gender with any physiological markers. In other words, this is not a discussion about sex or marriage, it is a discussion about the elimination of all gender boundaries and assumptions about gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation. This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body. This debate has enormous implications for historic Christian teaching concerning the body. This, in turn, has even deeper implications for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ and our own bodily resurrection at the end of time.

For example, the very notion of same sex marriage assumes that we are referring to men who may be sexually attracted to other men, or women who may be sexually attracted to another woman. But what about someone who claims to be a “man” trapped in a woman’s body and wants to marry a woman. In this case, they fiercely resist being called a homosexual couple, but would argue strongly that they are actually a heterosexual couple since sexual identity is no longer identified with particular physiology, but with inner dispositions.

As far as I can tell in reading the proposal, the proposed legislation focuses solely on the church’s response to practicing gay and lesbian persons. Thus, the document is silent on the actual current state of the national conversation.

I am not suggesting that A Way Forward anticipates that the church would accept any of the above relationships as compatible with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We are not told what the ethical and theological boundaries might be laid. Perhaps, the current proposal has not anticipated the full theological ramifications of what is actually happening in our society. Once the gender line is given up, it may not be so easy to respond to, for example, polygamy, concurrent bi-sexuality, or someone who does not believe that gender should be related to any particulars of human physiology. Therefore, it seems incumbent upon those who framed A Way Forward to articulate in writing whether the proposed legislation would apply to other groups besides gay and lesbians. Transgendered persons are now being cited as the new focus of civil rights. For example, the current proposal points out that that if a local church voted to fully include practicing gay and lesbian members then “they would be held to the same standard heterosexual clergy are held to: fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” Would this standard, therefore, prohibit a bi-sexual or pan-sexual persons from expressing their orientation to more than one gendered partner, effectively forcing a bi-sexual person to make a lifelong commitment to one sex or the other? What would happen if a person who is married (either heterosexually or homosexually) to someone but, over time, gradually begins to recognize a different interior gender orientation? Do we believe that gender identity is or is not related to physiology? The bottom line: The United Methodist Church had better reflect deeply on the true nature of this crisis and the full implications of this proposal before quickly overturning thousands of years of Jewish-Christian teaching.

Did God create us “male and female” or is it possible that He created us LGBTQIA, etc.? In Mark 10:6 Jesus teaches that God created us “male and female.” Furthermore, the New Testament teaches us that this sacred relationship is mysteriously linked both with the image of God in humanity and the relationship between Christ and His Church. This affirmation of the body as the good creation of God does, in fact, imply certain ethical boundaries to our subsequent life choices and decisions. Therefore, there can be no functional, pragmatic answer which ignores these created boundaries. To make gender a matter of heart disposition rather than bodily physiology has huge implications for the Christian view of the body as good. The Bible portrays the heart as deceptive, the mind as needing renewal, but the body as good. The only real way forward is a solution which is deeply theological, marvelously sacramental and richly biblical. It will recognize the divinely created sacredness of our bodily sexual differentiation.

A Way Forward? My Response Part 4: Why this “Third Way” will not Succeed.

This is the fourth part in a seven part blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church.

The entire argument found in the proposal, A Way Forward, is centered on the hope for a “Third Way.” The proposal sees a church at war, torn between two angry groups; one conservative and traditional, one progressive and innovative. The conservative group is determined that the UMC retain their current prohibition against homosexual behavior or they will leave the church. The “progressives” will not stop fighting at General Conferences until the whole church comes around to the total acceptance of homosexual behavior. The proposal A Way Forward claims to be a compromise or “third way” which will bring the two groups together by creating legislation to accommodate both sides and, hopefully, usher in a period of peace and unity. The proposal must be tempting for many Methodists who are tired of re-fighting this fight every four years and who are desperate for any solution which might bring peace and stability.

However, this proposal will not achieve what they hope, but for reasons which may not be so obvious on the surface. In the early days of this debate there was a strong push to emphasize that Scripture condemns homosexual behavior, not homosexuals as persons. It was pointed out that the pertinent Scriptural texts focus on behavior and not, for example, homosexual orientation. This is what eventually led to the current UMC position which affirms the person, but condemns the behavior.

We all realize, however, that quite a bit has changed in the last few decades related to this point. Now, it is widely argued that the reason the church should not and, indeed, cannot make the distinction between “behavior” and “person” is because a growing number of homosexual persons believe God created them to be homosexual. In other words, homosexual identity is, in their view, part of who they are, not merely a behavior they engage in. What this means is the homosexual identity is now part of one’s ontology (identified with our being), not a behavioral choice. Homosexuality is no longer about the freedom to choose, but, more fundamentally, about one’s very being – that is, a civil rights issue. Today, homosexual identity – at least in the wider culture – is viewed as no different from racial identity. To deny homosexual rights, they argue, is an act of discrimination which must be stopped.

The problem with A Way Forward is that it doesn’t seem to recognize the significance of this shift. Once homosexual identity is accepted as integral to one’s basic ontology by progressives, then any compromise between the two groups is immoral. The reason is that once this is accepted as a basic civil right, then it is a matter of justice and equality for all. Thus, they cannot rest until justice is enjoyed by everyone. This is why it is a false hope that this proposal, if accepted, would result in no more fighting every four years at General Conference. A compromise would only work, hypothetically, if we had already agreed that this was a disagreement about behavior. However, I’m not so sure that progressives would agree that this is just about behavior. Isn’t the debate in a very different place today?

It is important for the church to teach, in contrast to the culture, that the New Testament sees practicing homosexuals as persons of sacred worth who are involved in a behavior which is sinful, and that homosexual identity should not be regarded as an ontological identity. Indeed, homosexual behavior should be treated conceptually the same as other sins on Paul’s sin lists. A Way Forward will, therefore, not result in any less fighting at General Conference until this point is clarified. The more likely scenario is that this proposed legislation would unleash thousands of new battles in local churches across the country. One of the great virtues of our Methodist system is that we have removed many of our struggles from the life of the church and allowed District Superintendents, Jurisdictional and General Conferences, and the Judicial Council to adjudicate our grievances and to help mediate “holy conferencing.” This legislation will change that. If adopted, expect more conflict and division, not less. The basic reason is that there is no “middle ground” between a group which is convinced that this is a question of behavior and a group which sees it as a civil right based on ontology.

In the days before the Civil War, five bills were passed by congress which became known as the Great Compromise of 1850. The gist of the Compromise was to allow slavery in some states, allow flexibility in some areas, and prohibit the spread of slavery in new territories acquired by the United States. It was hailed as the solution which would keep the country from Civil War. However, the same error which was made in the Great Compromise is now being repeated in A Way Forward. The reason is because slavery was, fundamentally, not about the rights of States, or the economy of the South; it was about the ontology of persons whose racial identity was part and parcel of their creation by God. The Great Compromise did not prevent the Civil War, and this legislation (if based on an ontological assumption regarding the nature of homosexuality) will likely spur on the separation of the church, not prevent it.

The document A Way Forward must weigh in specifically on whether they believe this “third way” is about mediating different views about homosexual behavior, or if they accept the argument that homosexual identity is part of one’s creational ontology. If, on the one hand, it is agreed on both sides that this is a discussion about homosexual behavior (as the current Discipline assumes) then this changes the nature of the discussion. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the progressives believe that homosexuality is about ontological identity, then this severely restricts the possibility that this document will achieve any cessation of conflict at future General Conferences.

A Way Forward? My Response Part 3: Legislation in a Post Modern Church

Legislation in a Post-Modern Church

This is the third part of a seven part series in response to Adam Hamilton’s proposal, A Way Forward.

Let us now focus on the actual legislative aspect of the proposal. The proposal seeks to keep the current Discipline language which states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.” According to the proposal, this language is retained and remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. Then, in a strange legislative vision, it goes on to create a second level of legislation which would allow Methodist churches to legally disobey the Discipline and, with the support of their pastor and a 66% vote, formalize same-sex marriages. Likewise, annual conferences could vote and choose to ordain and appoint gay and lesbian pastors. So, legislatively, the UMC would be put in the unenviable position of having to write legislation whereby, on the one hand, a law was established, only to be followed by another law which would allow people to disobey the earlier law.

We end up with two completely different “orthodoxies” – one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One church would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other church would teach that it is a sacrament. One church would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other church a sign of wholeness.

The fact that the document actually proposes this without blinking just might be an indicator that we have now embraced post-modernity. Indeed, this just might be one of the clearest examples of a truly post-modern document in the contemporary United Methodist Church. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become, in their view, a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known. Let’s not forget that there has been precious little haggling over the meaning of actual texts in this struggle. The loss of energy for the real serious exegetical work has demonstrated the new meaninglessness of such an endeavor in a post-modern world where everything is possible and nothing is certain.

Alas, why would we think that the epistemological crisis which has engulfed post-modernity would only influence the way this generation reads the Bible? If the Bible is now read as nothing more than 1st century “perspectives” where nothing can be truly known for certain, and we have no objective revelation from God, then why wouldn’t we expect that this is how the Discipline might be regarded as well? Now, even morality is market driven, commoditized, and, distributed by “supply and demand” through a super majority vote to the church nearest you. What is moral on main street just might not be regarded as moral across town, but, ne’er mind, everyone gets what they demand.

The document is highly pragmatic, even though it is clothed in religious language. Truth as truth (revelation) has been deposed. We are left with seemingly endless shades of personal opinion and personal preferences, all equally legitimate, with no way to adjudicate anything. So the only thing left to do legislatively is to legislate endless accommodations.

The tragedy of this epistemological collapse is that not only can we no longer read the Bible with confidence; we can’t even get guidance from John Wesley or Phoebe Palmer. But, take heart, the church has seen much darker days than this. In times of difficulty God always raises up better hearers of the gospel. Never forget that the gospel of Jesus Christ is still true and the pre-eminence of the light of Christ will guide us to better days.

Tomorrow’s blog will explore whether this “Third Way” can actually work.

A Way Forward? My Response. Part 2: What is the Basis for Church Unity?

What is the Basis for Church Unity?

This is part 2 of a seven part blog series on a recent proposal put forth by leading United Methodists entitled, A Way Forward. The underlying assumption of the proposal, A Way Forward, seems to imply that the cause of the church’s dis-unity is a fight over homosexuality and, therefore the key to church unity is to “agree to disagree” about this issue. But, have the endorsers of this document misdiagnosed the nature of the church’s unity?

The second sentence in the document says “The ongoing debate over homosexuality continues to divide us.” Later, the document declares that most of our churches “stand to lose members if the UMC divides into two churches over homosexuality.” The point is driven home repeatedly by using the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ 20 times in a short three and a half page statement. However, it is important to remember that agreement about homosexuality is neither the basis of, nor the source of, church unity. This issue is, at best, the fruit of a deep problem, but it is not the root and should not be regarded as such.

The church is unified by the glorious gospel under the headship of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ. No legislation can produce the power of that unity. Our problems run far deeper than the current debate over homosexuality. In fact, if the “crisis” over homosexuality were to disappear tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the nature or gravity of the crisis which is engulfing the UMC. One of the key statements in the document which I heartily agree with is the statement that a break away Methodist denomination which is formed solely around opposition to homosexual behavior would be a disaster. On this point, Hamilton and I agree. However, the reverse is also true. A UMC which is conceptualized as unified because we come to an agreement on how to handle this particular issue is a faulty notion of unity.

I would suggest that while the document tries to capture some larger themes of the church and a few Wesleyan distinctives, the thrust of the document, and certainly the whole of the actual proposal which is put on the table is focused on one issue: homosexuality.

Why are we being asked to believe in a quick legislative “single issue” fix for a problem and crisis which has taken fifty years to come to full fruit? The reason is because we have lost sight of some of the larger issues which are upon us and the real basis for our unity as the church of Jesus Christ. Our difficulties are far graver, much deeper, and more difficult to address than the single issue which is raised in The Way Forward. I will briefly mention just three examples of the “deeper issues” we face.

First, we have experienced a slow decline in our confidence in the authority of Scripture. This has been well documented across most mainline denominations, and the UMC has not been immune to this. We simply do not have the respect and holy reverence for God’s Word that we once did. We are a long, long way from Wesley’s famous cry that he was homo unius libri – a man of One Book! How does this apply to sexuality? Our increasing orientation towards contemporary cultural attitudes, rather than a biblically formed world-view, has resulted in a gradual acceptance of the culture’s definition of marriage: a social arrangement for personal fulfillment. The whole biblical, theological vision for marriage has been lost. We are a long way from a solid Christian understanding of marriage as reflecting the image of God, mirroring the Trinity, characterized by reproducibility, self-donation and mutual submission, and providing a window into the mystery of Christ and the church. All of this was lost long before homosexuality emerged as an issue in the church. The focus on one issue also obscures the larger scriptural assessment of sexual brokenness which includes adultery, fornication, the avalanche of pornography, human trafficking, the commodification of women and sexuality in sales and marketing, and so forth. Again, these deep issues were being laid at the doorstep of a largely silent church long before homosexuality became an issue. So, homosexuality is merely one presenting problem, not the root problem.

Second, the loss of biblical authority has also had a big influence on theological education and the kinds of courses which men and women take as they prepare for the ministry. A thorough “core” grounding in biblical studies, theology, and church history has been supplanted by endless specialized courses which have inadvertently created a rise in “specialized” knowledge, but a decline in basic grounding in the deep truths of Christianity which unite all Christians of all ages. We must recover a distinctly Christian consciousness. One of the clear signs of our times is how muddled the gospel message has become in our churches.

Third, there is a narrow denominational parochialism which seems to blind leaders to the grand faith of the church of Jesus Christ through the ages and around the world. The greatest hope of The Way Forward seems to be the institutional survival of a particular denomination called United Methodist. The document longs for a kind of structural unity at all, without a proper consideration of the real basis for unity which is the gospel itself. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for our dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. It is indestructible because He has promised to build it – and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. He doesn’t need me or anyone else to “save the church” from extinction. Our death as a church – as with any church – comes only by separating ourselves from His Headship. If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.

Tomorrow’s blog will focus on the post-modern perspective of the proposal.

Is a Way Forward for a “United” Methodist Church Really a Way Forward? Part 1

Introduction

Adam Hamilton and a group of leading United Methodist pastors have recently issued a proposal entitled A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church. This is a document which must be taken seriously and responded to in a careful, thoughtful way. My purpose is not to vilify or criticize anyone who has written or signed this document. On the contrary, I believe that they are all deeply concerned about the state of the church and they sincerely believe that this proposal is “a way forward.” Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter and the other co-signers have all served the church with distinction and I want to express at the outset my heartfelt appreciation for their service. They sincerely hope and pray that this proposal will result in a specific legislative act at the 2016 General Conference which will give birth to a new chapter of church unity. In my estimation, this proposal will not achieve these lofty goals, but will result in the further demise of the UMC and will actually increase our disunity and impair our communion with one another. Our Methodist heritage is too precious to lose! We must all work together to preserve the great deposit of Wesleyan faith for the world.

Holy Contention, Holy Conferencing

This is the first of seven blog posts on this document. Let me say at the outset that I believe in “holy contention.” This means that those of us who are United Methodists have the right – and responsibility – to discuss, evaluate and press one another about any proposal which is put forth which has such important implications for our future and our witness in the world. This is not a reason to lament. We must make an important distinction between, on the one hand, “in-house” family contentions and, on the other hand, public disputes which bring one another before a secular court. Without holy contention we would be Arians and have never received the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian formulation. Without holy contention there would have been no Reformation. Without holy contention there would have been no dissent movement which gave birth to the Methodist revivals. All of these glorious moments in the history of the church were enabled because of genuine contention for the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were each testing the true nature of the gospel and the truths of God’s Word. We are in such a test today. We need to examine ideas, talk with one another and sit down at the table and discuss things as brothers and sisters in Christ who love each other. Surely we all agree that whatever policy or Discipline statements or legislation which emerges at the end of this discussion must make sense biblically, theologically, historically, ethically and pastorally. We owe it to those who have gone before us and have contended for the faith to end up with something which resonates and rings true to the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. After all, Christianity did not start last Tuesday, and it is our job to receive it and pass it on faithfully while, at the same time, being faithful to the context to which we have been called.

What Exactly is the Proposal put forth by Hamilton?

Let’s start by trying to capture as succinctly as possible the proposal which has been put forward. The line of argument and proposal is as follows:

The Problem Stated:

(1) The United Methodist Church is divided over the issue of homosexual behavior. Some believe it is “incompatible with Christian faith” whereas others believe that same sex marriage is the moral equivalent of heterosexual marriage.

(2) The Biblical texts which condemn homosexual behavior (e.g. Rom. 1:26, 27; I Cor. 6:9; I Tim. 1:10, etc.) reflect a first century cultural perspective, not the timeless will of God for the church.

(3) Opinion polls reveal a dramatic shift in attitudes about homosexual behavior.

(4) A split in the United Methodist Church would bring irreparable harm to both sides.

(5) The United Methodist Church needs a “third way” between the two sides which will restore unity and bring peace.

The Solution Proposed:

(1) The current language of the Discipline regarding homosexuals and homosexual behavior would be retained and left unchanged. The current Discipline affirms the following:

a. the sacred worth of all persons,

b. homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian teachings

c. the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals is forbidden, and pastors are prohibited from celebrating same-sex unions.

(2) Any local church with the support of the pastor and 2/3 vote of the congregation would be permitted to reject the Discipline’s statements regarding homosexual behavior and adopt their own inclusive views and practices.

(3) Annual Conferences would also be granted the authority to reject the Discipline and could decide to ordain gay and lesbian clergy.

(4) Local churches that remain faithful to the Discipline would not be forced to accept gay or lesbian clergy as their pastors.

(5) By re-locating this debate to the local church, it will end the rancor, animosity and debate which has dominated General Conference every four years and replace it with peace and unity around our common heritage and shared goals.

This is the beginning of a series of blogs about the document so that, over time, the full implications of it might become better understood.

Tomorrow’s post will raise the question, “What is the Basis for Church Unity?”