We are less than five months from the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Conference will be held in St. Louis, Missouri, and has been especially called to “examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and exploring options to strengthen the unity of the church.” Since our last General Conference in 2016 the Commission on a Way Forward has spent over two years seeking to resolve our differences and has presented three pathways forward. Of the three options, the one adopted by the Council of Bishops is known as the One Church Plan. This plan would remove all prohibitive language regarding sexual identity from the Discipline. This would represent a dramatic departure from historic Christian teachings because it would authorize a new definition of marriage as being between “two adults.”
We should be encouraged that nearly 40% of our Episcopal Leaders courageously opposed the One Church Plan. But, tragically, the majority of our bishops are promoting the oxymorically named “One Church Plan” hoping to obtain sufficient delegate votes to pass this legislation in 2019. However, before this proposal is brought before the General Conference we deserve to have the following question answered: What is the biblical basis for this re-definition of marriage?
Our Discipline still endorses the Bible as the final authority in the life of the church. Historically, John Wesley declared that he wanted to be a “man of One Book.” The phrase “a man of One Book” goes back to the thirteenth century Latin phrase homo unius libri (man of One Book) and refers to our solid historical commitment to affirm the Bible as the Word of God, the revelatory foundation for all church faith and practice. Therefore, every delegate deserves to hear the biblical rationale for the One Church Plan. I have read several of the episcopal letters which have been posted online to various conferences, as well as a half dozen or more articles written about this subject by our episcopal leaders, or those serving on the Commission. However, not a single one provides any careful biblical exposition to support same sex marriage. Not one. This should alarm us all. None have explained to the wider church their understanding of a range of biblical texts which appear to condemn homosexual behavior. We need to ask, what is their understanding of the meaning and usage of porneia, akatharsia, malakos, komos, and arsenokoites in the New Testament? Is their argument that all of these words refer to either general non-specific immorality, or the very narrow practice of pedaststry? Is their view that these prohibitions are culturally bound and no longer apply to us today? Has any exegetical work been presented to any annual conference? If so, could this be shared with the wider church? Doesn’t the church deserve to see a biblical exposition of Genesis 19:1-11 and Lev. 18:22; 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7, and Matthew 19:4-6, and so on?
The tone of the letters we have received is pastoral. I want to say that I agree with our leaders that we do need to develop better pastoral care towards all people, including gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, and asexual persons. However, we should never use pastoral care as a tool to normalize sinful behavior. Nor is pastoral care a substitute for a sound biblical argument based on good exposition.
Why are so many Methodists prepared to accept a plan which has not yet been convincingly demonstrated as consistent with biblical revelation? Over history the church has attempted to chart a course away from biblical revelation dozens and dozens of times. In every case it was attempted as way of breathing new vitality into the life of the church, helping people escape from the so-called “backward world-view” of the Bible, helping to make the church more “culturally relevant,” or attempts to get the church “on the right side of history.” These are all the same arguments we are hearing today. Well, those attempts over the centuries have all failed. In every case, the church which charted a course away from biblical revelation has withered. Those who returned to biblical revelation and embraced the gospel afresh have experienced renewal and revitalization.
We have a big decision to make in St. Louis in 2019. Will we, as a denomination, return to historic Christian faith, or will we press forward with another cycle of decline by moving further away from historic faith? Let me encourage the beleaguered faithful here: If we are given a clear path to orthodoxy, we can reverse all of the declines of the last 50 years in 25 years. Our denomination can return to vibrancy. However, if we are not given a path to orthodoxy then we will continue to wither. If we accept the One Church Plan without any accompanying, well-thought out biblical and exegetical argument, then the real tragedy is that February of 2019 will be remembered as the historical moment when the People Called Methodist went from being the people of “One Book” to the people with “No Book.”