Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VII): Can We Receive Some Better Questions, Please?

This is the final article in this series on the Uniting Methodists document and the “local option” solution. The proposed solution to our conversations about same-sex marriage and ordination is to allow local churches to decide whether they will or will not perform same-sex marriages and allow the annual conferences to decide whether or not they will ordain homosexual, bi-sexual, gender non-conforming, and transgendered persons. The previous six articles examined this solution from various angles to discern whether this is a wise direction for our beloved denomination.

I know that there is a general weariness about this issue and a sense that because we have been discussing it for 45 years we should surely be able to decide one way or the other by now, and move on. However, the reason we cannot, and will not, be able to ‘move on” is that, despite 45 years of debate, we have never actually had a proper discussion about it. The driving questions raised in these articles about the nature of church unity, the authority of scripture, the exegesis of key texts, the Christian view of the body, God’s design for marriage, and so forth have all been silenced under much weaker questions.

We have all been subjected to endless vague questions which have been wearily imposed upon our beloved church: “Is it not time for the United Methodist Church to become more inclusive?” “Haven’t we been called to love all people?” “Just as we have evolved in our views regarding slavery and the role of women, is it not time to evolve our views regarding homosexuality?” We must insist that better questions be asked. There is too much at stake. Our church deserves our best thinking.

Sometimes questions wrapped up in the word “inclusive” have tacitly carried the assumption that the church has some moral obligation to embrace every conceivable view which is put forward, even if it is a new doctrine invented last Tuesday. Sometimes the word love is ripped from its biblical rootedness in God’s covenantal holiness, turned into a modern emotional disposition, and then used as a lever to convince us that we cannot “love our neighbor” unless we also embrace the sins of our neighbor. Sometimes we are asked to believe that the church, in disobedience to scripture (e.g. attitudes towards women, minorities, or slavery), is equivalent with the actual teachings of scripture. Sometimes we hear the phrase, “my experience teaches me”—as if experience is the final arbiter of any dispute, carrying more weight than Scripture itself. Sometimes we are given endless pragmatic arguments about how our empty pews will be filled with young people if we just “get on the right side of history.” Sometimes we are told that because same-sex marriage is not explicitly condemned in the Apostles’ Creed, this is all much ado about nothing, neglecting the point that no sins are listed or even mentioned in the Creed. Sometimes we hear statements which confuse the church’s glorious diversity with the accommodation of endless human preferences. Sometimes we are told that passages which have been abundantly clear to the church for 2,000 years are suddenly unclear and no one has a clue what they mean. We are not given an alternative solution to consider, and weigh on its merits. We are just lulled into the sea of what Michael Ovey ingeniously calls “imperious ignorance.” I could go on, but these are a few examples of the intellectually fragile position into which we have allowed ourselves to be pushed.

What we desperately need is a proper, nuanced conversation about church history, biblical texts, theology, and pastoral care. We must, frankly speaking, grow up and act like we are part of the church of Jesus Christ which stretches back through time and around the globe. We are not a human organization like the Kiwanis Club. We are the divinely commissioned church of Jesus Christ. We must have a rebirth of both catholicity and apostolicity. We must pray for a renewed encounter with our own vibrant tradition which continues to call us to be a people of “one Book” and to “spread scriptural holiness.”

Brothers and sisters, even if it takes more time, let’s insist on a better framework of questions. These weak questions have led to weak thinking, more divisiveness, and, at times, the shaming of those who adhere to the official position in the Book of Discipline. Weak questions have led to the incapacity to speak prophetically to a culture which is in deep malaise. We have become like the doctor who thinks that he or she cannot properly treat any of their patients until they catch every disease that they have.

Mirslov Volf, the well-known theologian, statesman, and author writes in his landmark book, Exclusion and Embrace, “Vilify all boundaries, pronounce every discrete identity oppressive, put the tag ‘exclusion’ on every stable difference—and you will have aimless drifting instead of clear-sighted agency, haphazard activity instead of moral engagement and accountability, and, in the long run, a torpor of death instead of a dance of freedom” (p. 64f). May the Risen and Exalted Christ wake us up from this protracted denominational slumber, for our only hope is in His divine action. This is not the time for either clinched fists or wringing hands. Rather, it is the time for open arms lifted up to the Lord of all who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He can raise us up to new heights of proclamation, witness, and hope.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VI): Is There a Divine Design to Marriage?

One of the areas where I find myself in agreement with the progressives is their exasperation that we, as a church, might be known as “those people who are opposed to homosexuality.” This is a valid point. We must be known for what we are for not what we are against. The progressive solution is to essentially agree with much of the culture on their views of sexuality and the human body. We have dedicated five articles in this series to demonstrating why this is neither wise nor prudent if one of our shared goals is to remain firmly within the bounds of historic Christian faith. The solution which would reinvigorate our church would be to re-cast the positive Christian vision of human sexuality and the theology of the body.

Our problem as a denomination goes back many decades because our vision for the very nature of Christian marriage itself has been lost. The whole notion that there might be a divine design to marriage is never addressed. In fact, many Christians, quite tragically, embrace the larger societal view of marriage. This is the popular narrative in broad form: Marriage is a way to find personal fulfillment and make you happy. Marriage is defined, so the narrative goes, as a legal arrangement which allows two people to fulfill each other’s emotional and sexual needs and desires, and find economic stability.

Accepting this narrative is the source of many of our woes.  Individual freedom, personal autonomy and fulfillment are very high values in the West and marriage has been domesticated to fit within that larger utilitarian framework. The culture has a utilitarian view which sees marriage as a commodity.  We should have a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant. The utilitarian vision sees the body of a man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car—is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not. Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color, or not; are your teeth shiny and straight, or not? In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

Since the church has unwittingly accepted the wider culture’s view of marriage, we have very little room to maneuver. Once a functionalistic, commodity-driven, utilitarian view of marriage is accepted, then we really have no solid ground to stand on in opposing a whole range of new kinds of relationships which might be called marriage. As the mantra goes, “Why should we care who someone loves as long as they are happy?”

We must remember what Jesus did when he was asked the burning question of his day: “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Matt. 19:3). Rather than answer directly, Jesus directs them to return to story of creation and remember God’s original design for marriage. Jesus does not answer their question, he re-frames the question. We must learn to ask the right question.  Unfortunately, the first right question is not, “should the church support same sex marriage?” or “should we permit the ordination of homosexuals?” Jesus’ reply teaches us that to answer that question without first understanding God’s original design tacitly ends up accepting all the broken presuppositions which gave rise to the question in the first place.  The first right question is this: “What is God’s design for marriage?” 

Jesus calls us back to the creational, covenantal and Eucharistic mystery of marriage. First, by creating us male and female God designed two different, complementary glories who come together as one. It is the primordial sacrament of creation which would someday become the grand metaphor for Christ and the church celebrated in the marriage supper of the lamb. In Ephesians 5 when Paul commands husbands to love their wives, he tells us that he is speaking ultimately about the mystery of Christ and his church. In the Scriptures, the body is primarily a theological category, not a biological one.

Second, marriage was designed to invite us into the mystery of creation by becoming co-creators with him. Through the miracle of childbirth, we actually participate with God in creation by becoming co-creators with him. Indeed, while honoring the special calling of celibacy, the church understands that the building of families is at the heart of God’s design. This is one of the many reasons why the church has never declared moral equivalency of marriage between a man and a woman and a homosexual marriage.

Third, the family unit has been designed by God to reflect the mystery of the Trinity itself. Husband and wife become, through the gift of family, father and mother, and they stand before God with their children as a sign and seal of the Triune God. The family is meant to be a reflection of the Trinity with mutual gifts, submission, joyful exercise of kingly and queenly authority, love, discipline, self-donation, and becoming co-creators with God.

The Bible begins and ends with a marriage.  It is one of the great threads which connects the great themes of creation, redemption, and even the Triune nature of God himself. We must reject the notion that marriage is merely a human institution which can be shaped or defined by a majority vote as we see fit.  I plead with our church leaders, there are many things we can vote on in the church, but the definition of marriage is not one of them.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part V): Are We Now Facing a New Gnosticism in the Church?

The purpose of this entry is to examine the sixth and final article of the Uniting Methodists “local option” document which focuses on Ordination. This article represents a dramatic, but largely unnoticed, shift in the 45-year debate going on in the United Methodist Church. The focus of the debate over the last twelve General Conferences (1972 to the present) has been over the normalization of same sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I have already noted in the first two articles in this series that two of the deeper struggles we are engaged in, namely, the true nature of church unity and the authority of Scripture have been insufficiently addressed. However, there is a third deep issue, also neglected, which the final article of the Uniting Methodists document brings to light: The Christian view of the body.

The sixth and final article moves beyond the issue of same sex marriage and asks the church to permit the ordination of homosexual, bi-sexual, transgendered and gender non-conforming people. The sixth article does not compel any annual conference to do so, but would permit any annual conference in the country to “ordain LGBTQ persons.” This is mirrored by the November 9 letter from the Council on Bishops which calls for a “way forward” for “LGBT inclusion.” I assume that most of our readers are familiar with the designations behind these letters. For decades we have been discussing whether or not to normalize and affirm, with the church’s blessing, committed lesbian and gay relationships and invite them into the sacramental state of Christian marriage. However, this sixth and final article would allow any annual conference to ordain not only lesbian and gay persons (LG), but also bi-sexual (B), transgendered (T), and queer or gender non-conforming (Q) people.

This is entirely new ground and raises a new range of questions. It also demonstrates what I have pointed out for years; namely, that the normalization of same sex relationships was never the “end” of any debate, but just the beginning of a whole new range of affirmed states, the end of which we do not yet know. If LG, then LGBT, then LGBTQ—what possible objection would the church raise against LGBTQIA, as so on. The point is, once the church is prepared to relinquish the natural gender distinction established in creation, then no other boundary can possibly hold.

The Uniting Methodists document reserves ordination for its final article. Ordination for any ecclesial body is the highest and most sacred act of “setting apart” for ministry. Ordination is intended to embody and display holiness to the world through human vessels set apart for word and sacrament. Even though I have multiple higher degrees, including the PhD, which allows someone to call me “Dr.” my 90-year-old mother always addresses any letter she writes to me as “Rev. Timothy Tennent.” I asked her about it one time and she said, “even though you are a doctor, there is no greater honor than being called into the ordained ministry.” She’s right. It is surely among the most sacred honors a church bestows.

The Uniting Methodists document invites bisexual and gender non-conforming persons into ordination without a clear explanation of how, or if, this might challenge our traditional theology of the body and human sexuality. We have spent 45 years discussing gay and lesbian relationships, but not 45 minutes on this. I could explore these in more detail, but I would like to focus on the ordination of transgendered persons. It is here that we see with greater clarity that our struggle has never actually been about who can have sex with whom. Our struggle is over the Christian view of the body.

The affirmation of one’s decision to change their gender, either through hormonal therapy, or through various operative procedures, moves us towards a gnostic view of the body. Many of our readers will remember that one of the fiercest theological struggles of the early church was the struggle against gnosticism. Gnosticism refers to a wide range of movements which claimed that they had special “knowledge” about reality. The word gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” for knowledge. One of the doctrines espoused by gnostics is that the material world is evil. The “spirit” or “inner light” of a person is trapped inside a body, which is regarded as untrustworthy or evil. The early Christians fiercely resisted gnosticism, as this struggle is found in many passages in the New Testament. The idea that a person might be a male trapped inside a female body, or a female trapped inside a male body reflects a low view of the body. The notion that someone who is biologically male or female can decide that they really are another gender, or no gender at all, because of some insight “on the inside” has enormous theological and ethical implications related to the Christian view of the body. Gnostics say, “You cannot trust your body, but your heart is pure.” Christians say, “Your heart is deceitful, but your body can be trusted.” Indeed, for the Christian, the whole physical world has been declared “good.”

Any disassociation of the “real you” from your biological, God-given, bodily identifiers has historically been regarded by Christians as a grave error because, in one stroke, it erodes two major Christian doctrines. First, it erodes the doctrine of creation. Creation, for the Christian, is good and can be trusted. This is what makes scientific inquiry possible. Christians have always believed that there are moral boundaries inherent in the created order and one of these is that God created us “male and female.” This is declared in the creation account (Gen. 1:27), and reaffirmed by Jesus himself in his discourse on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:4-6). Christians have never accepted the notion that we can autonomously decide what gender we are, or declare that we have no gender. Second, it erodes the doctrine of the incarnation. Christians fiercely opposed the gnostic view of the body because, in the end, it disparages the doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus Christ has come “in the flesh” (John 1:14). The Apostle John is so strong on this point that he says that anyone who does not recognize that Jesus came “in the flesh” (not just a spirit inhabiting a fleshly creature) is not of God, but of the spirit of the Antichrist (I John 4:1-3).

This historic Christian view of the body has absolutely nothing to do with the increasingly popularized “regional view” of sin which is being propagated in our church today. This argues that what is regarded as sin in the southern USA may not be regarded as “sin” in California. However, this kind of teaching can only be sustained through a reader determined method of interpretation which assumes that every reader of the Bible has the right to shape multiple potential meanings of a biblical passage for himself or herself. This is to be contrasted with an exegetical approach, based on a careful reading of the original context and grammar of the Bible—on its own terms, which allows it to speak God’s revelation clearly to us.

Let us be clear. Transgendered people, like all people, have been created in the image of God and are men and women of infinite worth and should receive, like all people, the hospitality of churches who open their doors wide to all. There is nothing sinful about an attraction towards the same gender. Only our overly sexualized culture demands that all attractions culminate in sexual activity. Likewise, there is nothing inherently sinful about having a gender identity crisis. We all have struggles which the gospel addresses and which calls forth the wonderful pastoral gifts which Methodists are known and admired for. What must be opposed is any so-called solution which espouses a non-Christian view of the body.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part IV): Is Homosexual Practice Condemned in the New Testament?

We are finally prepared to examine the details of the most prominent “local option” proposal known as the Uniting Methodists Document.  The first three articles in this series focused on various foundational issues about the true nature of church unity and the primacy of Scripture in adjudicating conflicts, both explicitly stated in our Discipline, but insufficiently emphasized in the way this has been framed for the church.

The Uniting Methodists Document contains six articles, the first three of which would be embraced by the vast majority of Methodists: The commitment to make disciples for the transformation of the world, the role of evangelism and social justice in fulfilling the mission of the church; and the commitment to the Discipline of the church.

The last three articles (4, 5, and 6) represent the heart of the Uniting Methodists proposal and each of these articles will be the focus of the next several entries in this series.

The fourth article is titled, “Interpretation” and is expressed as follows: “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.” This is an important claim. This statement is claiming that both sides of this issue are committed to “biblical authority.” This lies at the heart of one of the two foundational issues noted in the earlier articles. The New Testament contains numerous prohibitions against unauthorized sexual behavior. On this point, there can be no dispute. The question is whether any of these prohibitions would include homosexual acts, especially between consenting adults.

There are a number of passages, especially the so-called “sin lists” in the New Testament, which employ a range of Greek words and need exploration.  The primary terms are as follows: porneia, akatharsia, malakos, komos, and arsenokoites. As I understand the “progressive” argument, they insist that what is condemned in the New Testament sin lists is not consensual, committed sexual activity between two men, but exploitative sin such as pederasty (sexual activity between a man and a boy). This argument is not entirely false. The New Testament does condemn a practice reflected in the Greek word malakos which refers to “effeminate call boys”—a form of prostitution in the ancient world which was exploitative and would clearly fall under the category of pederasty. It is also true that there are some broad, more general words for sexual immorality used in the New Testament which do not specifically name any particular sexual behavior.

The two most prominent examples are the words porneia (from which we get our word “pornography”) and akatharsia. Porneia means “sexual immorality”—a broad term for a whole range of sexual sins without specifically naming what those sins are. The word akatharsia means “sexually impure” or “immoral sexual sins.” Again, it is a broad term without specifically citing what sexual sins fall into that category.  There are other broad words like komos which is used quite broadly to refer to everything from excessive eating, to general carousing, to sexual orgies, and so forth. Thus, the progressives are correct in noting that several of the terms in the New Testament do, in fact, refer specifically to pederasty or to broad terms which cover a range of sexual misconduct without specifically mentioning homosexuality.

The trouble with this argument is that it ignores a mountain of other biblical evidence which makes it exceedingly difficult for progressives to, in the end, offer a convincing case. First, the word arsenokoites is also used in the “sin lists” of the New Testament. Arsenokoites means “a man who practices homosexuality.” There are several reasons why it is difficult to argue that this word refers only to pederasty. Arsenokoites appears in the Pauline sin list right along with the other terms. In other words, in I Corinthians 6:9,10 Paul specifically condemns porneia and malakos as well as arsenokoites. It is clear that malakos and arsenokoites are not interchangeable words. Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Furthermore, Paul would have been familiar with the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). It is this Greek word arsenokoites which is used in texts in the Old Testament such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which quite explicitly condemn homosexual activity. This happens again in I Timothy 1:10 where he identifies both the general word “sexual immorality” (porneia) as well as homosexual practice (arsenokoites).  (By the way, this passage is also where Paul condemns slave-holding, dispelling the other common argument made by some of our leaders that the Bible somehow endorses slave-holding and we now have better insights than they had). Of course, once it is clear that arsenokoites is forbidden by the New Testament, then it also would fall under the general categories of “sexual immorality” (porneia) and “sexually impure acts” (akatharsia).

Second, we also must not overlook Paul’s argument in Romans 1:26 where he states that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” While there is legitimate debate about the full scope of the phrase “dishonorable passions,” it is quite clear that Paul is not limiting the discussions to pederasty since he is referring more generally to departures from God’s natural design. In short, the New Testament is consistently negative about normalizing same-sex behavior, and nowhere in the Bible are there positive or affirming portraits of same-sex behavior.

Third, we must not forget the positive teaching from Genesis 2 which is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 19:5-6: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.'” The New Testament only explicitly condemns 67 “named sins” even though we realize that sin is a much bigger category. Just because the New Testament never explicitly condemns polluting a river does not mean that we have license to do it. The New Testament theologically enshrines biblical marriage between a man and a woman and, as shall be developed in a future article, all other sexual acts are disallowed. However, the theological case for marriage as between a man and a woman will have to wait.

But, for now, it is clear that the Uniting Methodists document requires that we consider all of the language around sexual immorality in the New Testament as either generic, non-specific or only referring to a very tiny slice of sexual immorality; namely, pederasty.  Yet, as we have seen, the exegetical case for this is not defensible. If we are being asked to sign off on this option and “agree to disagree” on this issue, then we will need to have a much better conversation about the biblical data which pertains to this question.

I, for one, remain completely unconvinced by the progressive argument and am actually disappointed that they would argue so strongly about their commitment to biblical authority and yet provide no serious exegetical argument for the dramatic changes they wish to usher into the life and faith of the church. To move a named sin from a New Testament “sin list” and declare that we are now to regard it as a sacrament is unprecedented. Christians have every right to resist this doctrinal innovation which is being embraced by a few declining mainline denominations in the western world.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part III): Experience, Scripture, and the Quadrilateral

This is the third installment in a series of reflections on the current crisis within the United Methodist church over human sexuality. According to the November 9th press release from the Council of Bishops, the “local option” is one of the three options currently under consideration to help resolve this debate. The local option would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership, and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. The purpose of this blog series is to explore the implications of this particular proposal.

From the outset, I have argued that unless there is broad agreement on certain foundational principles, then the final decision will not result in a flourishing church. In my opinion, our leaders have not been attentive to these foundational concerns. First, as noted in the earlier articles, there has been an insufficient attention to a proper theological and biblical understanding of the basis of church unity. Instead, unity is being interpreted as the institutional survival of the United Methodist denomination. But, we must first secure our Christian identity before we are in a position to properly rescue the denomination. It would be very helpful if the letter had simply repeated what is already in our Discipline regarding the definition of unity: “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task).

The second foundational concern we are exploring is the authority of scripture. The November 9th release from the Council of Bishops notes several “values” which are guiding the process. The three primary values noted were unity, space, and contextuality—all for the sake of mission. It is unclear whether this statement was just being descriptive, noting publicly that these were the values which were at work in the three proposals developed by the Commission, or if the Council was being prescriptive in stating that these are the values which should guide the process. The statement did indicate that the Bishops are not, at this point, demonstrating a preference for any of the three options. In either case, there is the notable omission that there is no reference to the value of the final decision being biblical, or that, in the end, Scripture has any role in deciding this crucial issue. Like I would expect from many of you, I found it scandalous the Council of Bishops would put out a pastoral letter about such an explosively contentious issue—which needs to be resolved and which threatens to tear our church asunder—and never mention the Bible or Scripture in the entire document.

Throughout my thirty-three years of ministry as an ordained United Methodist pastor there has been a notable and consistent lack of interest in scriptural references to matters of human sexuality, not to mention the deep theological structures which underpin marriage in the Bible (e.g. creation account, theology of the body, body of Christ imagery, marriage supper of the lamb, etc.). To be fair, theologians and biblical scholars have been invited to deliver papers to the Commission. However, the influence this has had on conversations, proposals, and blog posts, etc. in the wider church has been tepid. There are, of course, passing references to how certain broad biblical themes such as justice or mercy, but not the deep, thoughtful theological and biblical engagement with specific texts which is required. This will be addressed more in the fourth installment of this series.

The paucity of biblical engagement is due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about the so-called “quadrilateral” which has been popularized in our denomination. The quadrilateral, rightly understood, is about the primacy of Scripture and the secondary role which tradition, reason, and experience should play in our theological and ethical deliberations. We are, after all, the “people of one Book.” What the quadrilateral is not, however, is a statement of four equal values. Yet, in our deliberations one sometimes gets the impression that the quadrilateral has been flipped on its head. In our conversations, pastoral considerations and anecdotal stories tend to rule the day. In other words, we have turned the quadrilateral on its head and we often end up using experience as the definitive lens through which we understand scripture and tradition.

It would be very helpful if our commitment to the primacy of Scripture as the final authority in the life of the church were to be made clear. Our Discipline says, “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (p. 83). There is nothing wrong with highlighting values like contextuality and space, but neither should be understood as primary values. The church deserves to see the biblical and theological evidence which supports whatever proposal is set forth. This, in turn, will enable us to have the proper discussion we need to have between now and 2019. For, indeed, whatever decision is reached by the Commission on the Way Forward, or any other proposals which warrant consideration, must be accompanied by a well-argued case which makes sense theologically, biblically, and historically—if it has any chance of being adopted by the General Conference in 2019.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part II): The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture

This is the second installment in a series of reflections on the “local option” to resolve the current crisis in the United Methodist Church. The “local option” would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. In future installments of this series, I will address the specifics of the most prominent “local option” proposal, known as the Uniting Methodists Document. However, there are several foundational issues which must be addressed before we can properly reflect on the proposal and determine whether it is likely to produce the unity and flourishing which is clearly hoped for and intended by those who propose it.

The first foundational issue addressed in the earlier part of this series was the meaning of the phrase “church unity.” I suspect that the vast majority of us would agree that our unity with Christ, the historic gospel, and our fellow believers around the world and back through time should be the primary concern for all of us, whereas the ongoing institutional structure of the denomination known as United Methodist is a separate, though also very important, concern.

I think those who are advocating that the United Methodist church embrace new doctrinal positions related to sexuality and gender identification genuinely believe that both kinds of unity can be achieved through their proposals. In other words, they do not see any gap between the proposal for the ongoing organizational unity of the United Methodist Church and that deeper unity which we share with all Christians through all the ages. It is too early in this series to render a judgement on this point, because we are still establishing foundational issues. At this point I am merely making the point that, hypothetically speaking, if there was a gap between the teaching of a particular denomination and the teaching of the New Testament then we should all agree that this represents a problem. The New Testament is, of course, one of the great unifying forces in the life and faith of the church. If we do not have the commitment to a proper understanding of unity, then we will likely not make substantial progress in resolving our crisis.

The second foundational issue has to do with the nature of Scripture itself. In short, is Scripture authoritative in the life of the church, or not? This is not a question intending to nullify the role of tradition, reason or experience. The question is whether Scripture is one of several sources of authority, or if Scripture has a final voice in deciding doctrine among the people called Methodists. This leads to a second, but equally important question. If Scripture is authoritative, then how is the meaning of Scripture known and received in the life of the church? I am not convinced that the crisis within United Methodism is about who can have sex with whom. That is, of course, the leading presenting issue; but it has always been evident to many that the deeper issue has to do with the authority of Scripture and how we interpret and apply Scripture to the various issues which are before us.

It is also too early in this series to make a judgment regarding whether or not the normalization of homosexual behavior is consistent with biblical teaching. We will need to exercise patience here. My point in the first two articles is to establish two foundational points: First, we should value and give a greater voice to the deeper unity, and focus less on the structural, organizational meaning of the word. Second, we need to develop much more time reflecting on our views of Scripture and how it is interpreted. This is essential for any hopeful progress on the issues which are before us. Often in conflict the “presenting question” is not the actual question. I am suggesting that there are several questions such as “What is the nature of church unity?” and “Does the Scripture hold final authority over the life and faith of the church?” which are far more important than we realize. The next installment will focus on the authority of Scripture and how it relates to tradition, reason and experience.

Seedbed recently published a helpful book on this matter of properly understanding the authority of Scripture by Dr. David Watson, a great colleague of ours at United Seminary. It’s called Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part I)

One of the phrases which will become more and more prominent in the next few years within United Methodist churches will be the phrase “local option.” This is a proposed solution to the current crisis in the United Methodist church over same sex marriage. While there are several local option proposals, they all share the conviction that the General Church should not render a final decision on this issue, but leave it to the conscience of local churches and annual conferences to decide. Local churches would make their own decisions regarding membership and pastoral appointments of LGBTQ persons, and annual conferences would make decisions regarding ordination.

This is the first of a series of articles dedicated to exploring the ramifications of the so-called “local option” solution. Since there are several nuances to the various local option proposals, I have chosen of focus on the Uniting Methodists document because it is the most well-known proposal within this category. The Uniting Methodists document is made of up six articles, the last three of which make the following points:

+ The biblical position regarding homosexual behavior is unclear.
+ Clergy should neither be required, nor prohibited, from performing same sex weddings. It is a “local option” privilege which allows each clergy to make this decision.
+ The United Methodist denomination should allow all annual conferences to decide whether they will ordain lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and queer Christians (LGBTQ). This would be a “local option” for all annual conferences.

Future blog posts will deal with each of these three positions. However, before the specific details of the proposal are examined, it is important to deal with several foundational issues which have given rise to this proposal in the first place. The framers of this document are clear that they are motivated primarily by a desire to maintain church unity. The local option solution is widely regarded as the only way to keep the church from hopelessly splitting into three or more factions. Therefore, this proposal is widely regarded as the greatest hope for church unity.

Our Episcopal leaders often remind us that they have sworn in their consecration vows to “uphold the unity of the church.” However, there seems to be confusion about what is meant by 
“church unity.” When some hear the phrase, “uphold the unity of the church” they think this is referring to the organizational and bureaucratic churchly machinery known denominationally as the United Methodist church. This is not true. When Jesus said “I will build my church” He was referring to the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ throughout space and time of which He is the Lord and head. Our unity is rooted in that sacred unity. Our unity is in Jesus Christ. Our unity is in the gospel. Our unity is with the people of God around the world and back through time. If keeping the unity of the church was an organizational, denominational mandate, then there would never have been a Reformation. The Reformation was not fundamentally a schismatic movement—but the church’s greatest act of catholicity. It was a remembering of the ancient faith and a return to the apostolic message.

I am not advocating for the separation of the United Methodist church into multiple pieces. 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. The Lord does not need us 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.

Ultimately, I would carry a profound sadness if, in a few years, we are forced to accept the dissolution of the denomination through which I was brought to faith. My point is that there are more important matters at stake. We must first understand what the basis of church unity is. We should be far more concerned about our adherence to the historic gospel than our adherence to our bureaucratic structures. In eternity, no one will care five cents whether you were a United Methodist or not. Denominations come and go. The gospel is forever. If it takes new wineskins to capture the great and vibrant wesleyan message, then bring on the new wineskins.

What we cannot accept are pragmatic notions about church unity which are disconnected from the real source of our spiritual unity. After all, if we are going to quote consecration vows, let’s quote all of them; namely that our leaders have also sworn to “guard the faith.” This is the point. The vow to work for “unity” and the vow to “guard the faith” are two sides of the same coin. One makes the other possible. Whether a movement called “United Methodist” survives is not nearly as important as if the gospel itself prevails among the people called Methodist.

The Reformation 500 Years Later: Three Lessons for Today

Today, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. There are countless celebrations taking place around the world. I thought I would dedicate space on my blog today to reflect on a few key lessons from the Reformation which might help us in our own struggles today.

First, complaining about abuses in the church does not a Reformation make.

It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed (and also mailed) his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. If you take time to Google the 95 theses you will quickly see that they are more of a laundry list of complaints than they were a positive statement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not difficult to complain about the church. This is not the genius or source of the power of the Reformation, even though we are known as the “protestors” (Protestants). The real spark which lit the Reformation was when Luther took time to read the New Testament in Greek and he re-discovered the gospel in that famous quotation from Habakkuk which Paul quotes in Romans 1:17—“the just shall live by faith.”

The lesson for us today is that it is not enough to complain about all the ways the church has erred and lost its way. The real source of an awakening is found when the gospel itself is rediscovered in the life of the church. Today, the crisis in the church today is not, fundamentally, a programmatic problem (i.e., the need for better church programs); nor is the crisis fundamentally a budget problem, or even a membership problem. Our problem is the loss of the gospel itself. When the gospel is re-discovered, then we will not be able to contain the vibrancy and life which will emerge. The re-discovery of Romans 1:17 and the centrality of Christ was the spark which led to hundreds of thousands of new Christians, as well as millions of baptized church-going Christians who gloriously heard the gospel for the first time.

Second, the Reformation was the church’s greatest act of catholicity.

If you lived in the 16th century, you would have heard a fairly constant refrain that the Reformers were schismatic and were a threat to the unity of the church. In 1555 three godly Anglican bishops, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake—all for being schismatic. Thomas Cranmer is probably best known today for being the author, editor in chief, and compiler of the Book of Common Prayer, the most influential prayer guide ever published. It is now evident that those men died because of the gospel itself.

In addition to the charge of being schismatic, the transcripts of their church trials reveals that they were also burned at the stake for the following: (1) Belief that the Bible should be rendered in English, the language of the people; (2) Belief that the laity should be able to receive the cup at communion, not just the bread; (3) That salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the works of the law. These are not schismatic beliefs. These are the rediscovery of the deeper catholicity which binds all true Christians together, regardless of denomination. Today, we must remember that our unity is found in the historic church which stretches back through time and around the world. The basis for our unity is in Jesus Christ and the gospel, not in any kind of organizational unity. Denominations come and go, the gospel is eternal.

Third, the Reformation brought about the rebirth of catechesis.

One of the signs of a church in the throes of death is the loss of catechesis. The young are not trained in the faith. The great doctrinal truths of the gospel are not taught to a new generation. People grow up in the church with no real clarity about the distinctiveness of the Christian message and the essence of the gospel. The Reformation brought on a whole new wave of gospel training and equipping of the young and newly baptized Christians. The basic introductions to the Christian faith were everywhere: Larger, Shorter, Genevan, Heidelberg, and Westminster Catechisms were among the most famous and have been used by millions of new believers all over the world. Today, we would use the word “discipleship.” A renewed church is a church committed to discipleship and the equipping of all believers for the work of ministry. The wonderful phrase from the Reformation which captured this was “the priesthood of all believers.”

Praise God for the Protestant Reformation! There was, of course, much more work to be done. Wesley extended the Reformation to new areas which had been neglected by the 16th century reformers. Today, we need renewal in many more areas. My fervent prayer this day is that the church would, once again, experience a profound awakening and renewal. For the gospel of Jesus Christ remains the power of God for every generation.

On the Need to Be Prophetically Irenic

The call to be irenic is an important and valuable one in today’s climate of divisive and destructive engages between people in an increasingly divided society. Saint Peter, for example, calls us to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). This text provides the perfect balance for our calling. On the one hand, we are called to defend the historic gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to joyfully affirm the biblical teaching, even if the cultural winds are blowing strongly in our face. But, we are to do it with a posture of humility and grace. As Christians we have not always been effective at this balance. Sometimes, we can express truth in ways which are harsh and destructive and tragically disconnected from the larger vision of God’s redemptive work in the world. At other times, we have been guilty of a cowardly passivity where we have not joyfully defended the clear teaching of Scripture.

Today, it is particularly vital that Christians understand the difference between a “position” and a “posture.” A theological position is, in itself, not necessarily irenic or non-irenic. How that position is expressed can certainly be done in a way which is irenic or not. However, being irenic is a posture, not a position. Peter’s use of words like “gentleness” and “respect” bear this point out. It is not unusual today for positions themselves to be regarded as non-irenic, thereby confusing a “position” with a “posture.” This is a categorical error.

There are many Christian “positions” which the world, and even some in the church, find inherently offensive. Let me give a few examples. To say, Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is a position which is offensive to many people. Likewise, positions on God’s final judgment, the emphasis on the blood of Jesus, or the teaching of Scripture that marriage is a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman all fall in the category of difficult positions in today’s cultural climate. However, it is a categorical error to identify these positions as inherently non-irenic. They are positions, not postures. Each of these biblical truths, and dozens like it, can be expressed in ways which are compelling and beautifully integrated into the beautiful tapestry of the biblical vision. However, we must boldly reject the notion that we are not “irenic” simply because we hold scriptural positions which are at odds with the culture around us.

Most of us who are reading this blog have belonged to churches long lulled into the sleepfulness of Christendom which, over many centuries, gradually sanded down all the sharp edges of the gospel. We gradually began to mistake western, cultural civic religion as the actual gospel proclaimed in the New Testament. We gradually began to believe that the “no cost” gospel of “easy believism” was actually the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now that we are clearly emerging into a post-Christian culture, it is a new challenge for many of us to re-discover the prophetic, radical message of the gospel. However, this is not an easy transition. The mainline solution to this problem has been, broadly speaking, to make fairly predictable concessions to the surrounding cultural milieu in the hope that the new generation will, once again, fill our churches because the church will retain its “historic” role as being in the cultural center. We have long enjoyed the fact that Christians have positions of political power, since the vast majority of our Presidents, Senators and congress members were also members of the church. But, we are clearly seeing the sunset of that long cherished assumption. Indeed, this has always been the besetting sin of civil religion and has never been true to the gospel. The more difficult, and, frankly, more painful, task is to re-read the Scriptures and allow it to take root fully within our lives and in our churches. We desperately need a return to a robust, scriptural Christianity embodied by Christians who are holy and who deeply engage (not retreat) in ways which demonstrate not how much we are really like culture, but rather the stunning alternative to which the rule and reign of God calls us to. We must boldly proclaim the gospel, but do it with an irenic posture. It is not irenic for the church to become just another cultural echo chamber. It is not irenic to refer to unbiblical beliefs and practices embraced by Christians as merely “different perspectives.” We are called to be a prophetic witness to the saving work of the Triune God in the midst of a depraved and lost generation. This is precisely what the Apostle Paul calls us to when he says that we are to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16).

New Room Conference: Four Defining Themes

New Room Conference refers to a “new space” where brothers and sisters from across the various expressions of our movement (Wesleyans, Free Methodists, United Methodists, Nazarene, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, etc.) gather for ministry, equipping, and fellowship. Our fourth gathering was held in Franklin, Tennessee and brought together over 1,500 pastors and leaders for three days.

New Room is a “new” space for those across the entire spectrum of Wesleyan/Holiness denominations to be encouraged to pursue four things: travailing prayer, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, banded discipleship, and church multiplication. This is exactly what happened at New Room. Unlike many evangelical conferences, we devoted hours and hours of time for prayer and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, we are calling all members of our tribe to become part of a “band.” Finally, we had a closing day emphasis on the role of church planting in an increasingly post-Christian context. I am convinced that these four themes—travailing prayer, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, banded discipleship around the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and church planting, are the four elements necessary if we are to effectively “sow for a great awakening.”

I told those gathered at New Room that an examination of church history reveals that the church has faced a major crisis roughly every 500 years. The first was in connection with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. and the struggle to eradicate Arianism from the church. It was the fight for high Christology and full-orbed Trinitarianism. That victory led to a massive growth in the church and the first signs that we were going to become a global movement.

A little over 500 years later the church had another major crisis known as The Great Schism (1054 A.D.) which tragically separated the Western and Eastern church. This crisis also led to a major new thrust in church planting and growth in the church.

The third crisis happened 500 years later in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg sparking the Protestant Reformation. Four new strands of Christianity emerged—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Radical—each spawning hundreds of thousands of new Christians and a massive new thrust in church planting. The Wesleyan revivals were an extension of that struggle.

We are now 500 years from the Reformation. The church is again in crisis. It is as if God has a yard sale every 500 years to shake the church free from various besetting attachments and cultural compromises and calls it back to the vibrancy of our beginnings: biblical fidelity, high Christology, Trinitarianism, discipled believers, devoted prayer, global mission; these are the themes which have re-emerged at every major great awakening. We believe we are on the cusp of another great move of God in our time. Let’s pray and cry out, “Come on!!” “Come on!!” “Lord, please deliver us, and make haste to help us!”