What Has Happened to the People of One Book?

Monday, October 8th, 2018

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.”


  • Steve Atha says:

    It is alarming and the Methodists aren’t the only ones in error. Lately many Church leaders seem to be prone to viewing the Bible as outdated and flawed. What a stumbling block this is to those seeking the Lord under their preaching…

    • Bonnie Brown says:

      AMEN, Dr. Tennent! And I agree with Steve, the previous commenter, that UMC members aren’t the only ones in error due to their Biblical stance. However, Biblical change is preceded by fervent praying; and that is what we must do between now and February. God bless Dr. Tennent for standing strong and firm!

  • Chad says:

    Plenty of the same scholars used in your very classrooms have made a case using the whole of scripture. Luke Timothy Johnson and Walter Breuggeman are but two. And surely nobody would accuse them of not seeing scripture as authoritative as is so often done in this battle that is raging. But it is easier to claim scriptural authority for one side in order to dismiss the other as only about “pastoral care.”

    And the other side has been just as harmful with words like love and justice. They only belong to the camp of full inclusion and any conservative must be bigoted and hateful.

    The far bigger problem is the level of vitriol towards fellow Christians coming from both extremes.

  • Dr. Tennent,

    Your desire for serious Biblical exegesis is warranted for these matters regarding human sexuality. I would welcome such effort from the committee or our Bishops. At the same time, I would also welcome from you a concrete, pastoral, and orthodox vision for how to welcome LGBT persons into the church. I’m ready to commit to a Biblical understanding of sex, marriage, and gender. I’m confused, however, in seeking a space where the Holy Spirit is alive and at work among the church where straight and gay people flourish in unity. Help me.

    • Terry says:

      The best way to welcome LGBT persons into the church is the same way we should welcome anyone else into the church, “repent and believe the good news!” But, I guess that has gone out of fashion.

  • Terry says:

    I would like to know what is meant by “pastoral care”? Is it something like “how long do you let sinners continue to be sinners in the midst of your local assembly”? Was Jesus not showing “pastoral care” when He said “go and sin no more”?

  • Steve Atha says:

    Whenever homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, it is always in the context of being in a state outside the will of the Lord- same is true of the other varieties of sexual sin. It’s clear God wants us to have pure lives that observe boundaries in order to walk in the way He walks. He loves us and looks out for us in revealing this to us.

  • Ngoni says:

    This is a powerful statement Dr. Tennent, as I listen to comments and discussions from both the conservatives and liberals something always struck me. It is the story of Jesus Christ calming the storm. We the people called Methodists are like disciples, but this time around we don’t even want to invite Christ to deal with the crisis. We have all the answers and there is no place for Jesus Christ to take charge. Someone once said, “When leaders can’t separate right from wrong then Right or Wrong will lead the leaders”
    The institutional side (Government)of the United Methodist Church needs serious scrutiny or else we end up applying wrong behaviors where they are not warranted.
    On the other hand the spiritual movement, the living organisms, the body of Christ, the church in worship should engage the tenets of our mandate seriously.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Let’s have more plain speaking from Dr. Tennent. This is a salutary message for the church. What’s coming is a ferocious battle with all the rhetorical and operatic forces that would sever us from our historic, essential understanding of Scripture.