May 23, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, May 23, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
United Methodists decide not to decide on homosexuality, avoiding schism—for now
The big religion story for the past two weeks has been the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, a two-week meeting that happens every four years and, as just about everyone understood, the meeting that would set the direction for the future of the United Methodist Church. The United Methodists represent the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, second only to the Southern Baptist Convention. They have about 12 million members worldwide, over 7 million in the United States.
The stage for understanding was set as Mark Tooley wrote an op-ed piece at the beginning of the meeting, a piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal—Tooley, who is a United Methodist and President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, described the meeting as a fork in the road, posing this question in his words,Show Full Transcript
“Will United Methodism turn inward and remain a mostly liberal Protestant church? Or will it become increasingly evangelical and global?”
He went on to write,
“Nearly all the mainline churches in recent years [that is the mainline Protestant more liberal denominations] have officially affirmed same-sex marriage and actively gay clergy, followed by schism and decline.”
He then commented,
“The United Church of Christ, once a flagship mainline denomination, recently predicted losing 80% of its members over the next 30 years.”
Just consider that earthquake. It has predicted losing 80% of its members over the next 30 years. In his article, Tooley celebrates the fact the United Methodists have not fully gone down this path, but he notes the denomination has debated Christian sexual ethics at every General Conference since the year 1972. Just consider that. In the year that Richard Nixon was overwhelmingly elected to a second term in office as President of the United States, the United Methodist Church, facing cultural and sexual theological tensions at the time, defined homosexuality as incompatible with Christian belief. That was the position taken in 1972 and inserted in the denomination’s authoritative guide that is called the Book of Discipline and that statement has been up for debate every four years since 1972. We’re talking about a denomination that is now clearly facing either schism or exhaustion, or a measure of both.
But as the meeting in Portland came to a close, as Emily McFarlan Miller reports for Religion News Service,
“Amid protest, song and fears of a denominational breakup, United Methodists at their quadrennial General Conference decided yet again not to decide anything regarding LGBT rights.”
She went on to say,
“But in a groundbreaking move, the delegates from the U.S. and abroad voted 428-405 [note how close that vote was] to allow the church’s Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to discuss whether to accept same-sex marriage or ordain LGBT clergy.”
That sentence is noteworthy for its journalistic hedging. Again, as Miller writes, the delegates decided narrowly “to allow the church’s Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to discuss whether to accept same-sex marriage or ordain LGBT clergy.”
The really important thing we need to note here is that what Miller is describing is exactly what she reported in the first paragraph. This is a denomination that decided, yet again, not to decide. But at the same time, the exhaustion I described earlier is clearly very evident, as is the threat of schism, which is very real. And for that reason, the United Methodists decided that they would do something more bureaucratic than anything else, and that is assign the bishops the task of establishing a commission to come back and bring a report.
Was this a victory for the more evangelical wing of the church or the more liberal wing of the church? On that score, we’ll simply have to say time will tell. But neither side got what they wanted out of the 2016 General Conference. Evangelicals in the church have celebrated the fact that they did not face defeat, but at the same time the bishop’s recommendation includes this language, and I quote,
“We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts.”
That cannot be encouraging to conservatives. It appears to at least hold the seed of a total victory for the liberals in the church. Nevertheless, even at this stage, that isn’t going to happen without a fight, and it’s certainly not going to happen without an argument. And the intensity for the argument is going to come from Africa and from other nations outside the United States. Tooley pointed to this in his op-ed piece in the beginning of the meeting that was published in the Wall Street Journal. He says,
“While other mainline denominations shrank, United Methodism grew, thanks to its overseas membership. Since the 1960s the church has lost four million Americans but it has gained five million new members in Africa.”
He then continued,
“Africans, who are in general theologically conservative, now account for 40% of members and will soon become a majority. This leaves liberal Methodists frustrated.”
Well, it leaves them frustrated, but it also leaves liberal United Methodists, in effect, running out of time. If they do not act quickly to revise the church’s Book of Discipline and to revise its sexual ethic, if they do not convince the church to abandon its teaching that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian belief, then they will find themselves vastly outnumbered with no hope effectively of reversing the church’s position. There are huge lessons here for all Christians and for every denomination; one of them was brought home in another article at Religion News Service by Emily McFarlane Miller. This underlines what’s at stake in terms of the struggle within the United Methodist Church and in a very heartwarming fashion, it demonstrates the tenacity of Christians from Africa in asserting biblical fidelity.
As she begins her story, Miller introduces the Rev. Jerry Kulah who she says “has nothing but gratitude for American Methodists.”
She explains why,
“In 1833, they sent their first missionary to his country, Liberia, which was founded for freed American slaves.”
But she goes on to say, this Methodist pastor from Liberia said,
“However, the church has taken on strangely a new direction. People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.”
Speaking words that every American Christian needs very much to hear, the pastor went on to say,
“It’s mind-boggling, and it baffles the Christian leader from Africa — I speak for all of Africa — it baffles the mind of the Christian leader from Africa, who ascribes to the whole Bible as his or her primary authority for faith and practice, to see and to hear that cultural Christianity can take the place of the Bible. United Methodists in America and other parts of the world are far going away from Scripture and giving in to cultural Christianity.”
While the church has been declining in the United States, as we have noted, it has jumped 329% in the Africa Central Conference, 201% in the Congo, 154% in West Africa—that in just the last 10 years. As the membership trends indicate, American United Methodists leaning more liberally are soon to be outnumbered by those from other parts of the world who are holding to a far more evangelical and conservative understanding of Christianity and biblical authority.
Another really important analysis came in The Atlantic by Emma Green when she was describing the General Conference and she was explaining why the African United Methodist are so tenacious on the issue of biblical authority, especially in particular when it comes to the definition of marriage and sexual morality. She cited an American pastor as explaining it this way:
“‘To become a Christian, people in African were making decisions to take on traditional family structures. So they were already putting a lot on the line.’ This is one reason why people from these places tend to be firmly opposed to changing the Church’s position on sexuality.”
She makes this analysis,
“They have already shifted their lives to accommodate their relatively newfound faith.”
That’s to say that these African United Methodist, newly found Christians, have dedicated their lives to the gospel of Christ and they have put their lives on the line. It has cost them in terms of how they had to arrange their own lives and even how they relate to their own families, having paid that price in order to be faithful to the Bible and faithful to the gospel, they are not about to be intimidated by liberals from the United States. The different avenues now open to the United Methodist Church were described very well by the pastor of a 12,000 member of a more evangelical United Methodist Church in the Houston area, that is Robert Renfro; he was cited in Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic. He summarized the three options in these words,
“One is that, eventually, say over the next 20 years, [traditional] views will become so solidified and so widely supported that those who want to change them will give up.”
He’s speaking, of course, of the resurgence in membership in Africa and other places outside the United States. That would represent a victory for conservatives in the church. Second, there is, he said, the possibility that the liberals will win, they are confident,
“Eventually they will win, [because] culture is changing, old people are dying off. If they can hold the church together long enough, [they think,] then we will see the light.”
But Renfro says he doesn’t actually hold to either of those two positions.
“I and others say, ‘Why fight for the next 20 years? How does that honor Christ?’” he said. “We’re in a cage match, and we can’t escape each other, and we can’t quit fighting.” He thinks members of the denomination should figure out “a way to bless each other and, with respect and civility, go our own way.”
As the General Conference came to an end, you could find spokespersons for both conservatives and liberals both saying that the most likely outcome is still a division or schism of the church, and you can find people on both sides of the issue arguing that that is actually the best way out. Both sides fully recognize that this assignment of the task to the bishops to create a commission to investigate the matter is only a tactic that can delay the inevitable for so long.
One proposal that was voted down at the General Conference was proposed by Adam Hamilton. He’s the pastor of a Methodist megachurch in the area of Leawood, Kansas; it’s a church known as the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. Hamilton had argued for a local option, in effect, for the fact that local conferences would have the ability to choose their own understanding of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual clergy and the larger question of homosexuality in Scripture.
Hamilton deserves credit for putting his own beliefs on the record in terms of writing. In a book entitled When Christians Get It Wrong, he deals directly with the issue homosexuality in Scripture and he also reveals his own understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He wrote that the Bible is a document he described as both divine and human; he spoke of the human authors of Scripture and said,
“They were people who had a deep faith in God, and at the same time they heard and understood God in the light of their culture and times. The Bible is the timeless inspired Word from God found within the writings and reflections of very human authors.”
This is, in effect, a neo-orthodox understanding of Scripture, its inspiration, and authority. This holds to the fact that the Bible contains the Word of God, but is not itself the Word of God but rather within the words of Scripture, which are not understood themselves to be inspired, is believed to be the inspired Word of God. It is a message that has to be liberated, according to this theological understanding, from the constraints and even the prejudices of the human authors of Scripture. In his book, Hamilton says that when it comes to sexual morality, the Bible is in effect a mixed picture. It includes timeless truths that should be principles in force today, but it also includes clear teachings that the church is no longer to consider to be authoritative. He wrote in these words,
“When it comes to sexual matters, there are passages that I believe do capture God’s timeless will, passages that forbid adultery, sexual immorality, and promiscuity.”
So, he asks,
“On what basis do we decide that some things are still binding and others are not? I suggest,” he says, “that we decide this by evaluating passages in the light of Jesus’s two great commandments, love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now as that statement makes clear, this puts the church in the position of judging Scripture, not Scripture in the position of judging the church. The church becomes the norm whereby the Scripture is to be interpreted and understood to be authoritative rather than the Bible being understood as the norm that judges all teaching and belief within the church. This is the very point the Reformers fought for in terms of the Reformation formula Sola Scriptura. His position becomes very transparent in dealing, for example, with Paul’s clear statements in Romans chapter 1. Hamilton wrote,
“I have no doubt that for Paul the idea of a man being with a man was unnatural. It seemed unclean; it just seemed wrong.”
Later, he asked about Paul’s writings of sexuality if they are “describing Paul’s understanding of sexual norms or do they describe God’s timeless will.”
Here we simply have to understand that if the church is in the position of deciding where Paul is speaking and where the Holy Spirit is speaking, we will face absolute disaster. What Hamilton is describing is what is known in theological circles as a trajectory hermeneutic. It’s important for all Christians to understand what we’re talking about here. This is the proposal that in the Bible you see certain ethical directions that are pointed to and revealed in Scripture, revelations that will unfold in terms of the experience of the church beyond Scripture. And so you have those who are arguing that we can abandon clear teachings of Scripture because the Bible itself provides a trajectory to move beyond the explicit words of Scripture. Once again, that’s a recipe for absolute theological disaster. That means the church never knows what God actually intends for us concerning matters of morality and sexuality; it means that the church actually never knows what the gospel is. Once we make a division between what the apostle Paul is writing and what the Holy Spirit is saying, we’re in big trouble.
Another very important lesson for all Christians was revealed in terms of comments made by Maxie Dunnam, he’s the President Emeritus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and one of the most respected evangelical voices in the United Methodist Church. Speaking to a group of fellow evangelicals as the meeting was unfolding, Dunnam said that the problem was the attempted substitution of experience over Scripture. One of the moves successfully blocked by conservatives in Portland was an effort to try to break the discussion down into small groups, a process some called “holy conferencing.” The idea was that here it would be a shift to experiential conversation rather than doctrinal, theological, or biblical argument. Dunnam responded to that with these words,
“First of all, we are not going to be intimidated or manipulated by the hypocritical notion of holy conferencing. We’re going to stay at the table, but it’s going to be at the table of the truth of the gospel and historic Christian witness, staying at the table, not to try some experience that we can all share. In fact,” he said, “we’re going to call out the sentimental, totally idolatrous kind of way that concept is being used. We’re not going to substitute feelings and experience for the truth of the Christian teaching.”
Later Dunnam said,
“We’re going to demonstrate that our loyalty and commitment to unity is not through structure and institutions, it is through doctrine, discipline, and mission.”
As I said at the onset, this is a very important story not only for the United Methodist Church worldwide and for its future, but a story that demands the attention of all Christians as we think through the very same issues. Here we have the last of the American mainline denominations that has not yet officially changed its teaching in order to join the sexual revolution. But the pressure on this denomination is immense.
A poll released as the meeting was under way indicated that a majority of United Methodists in the United States hold to more liberal positions on homosexuality, whereas the opposite is true amongst those United Methodist elsewhere in the world. But the United Methodist conversation helps us to understand that the issue is always in the end about the gospel and about the authority of Scripture. This is a question of whether or not we know what sin is, if we can trust the Bible to tell us God’s pattern for human sexuality rooted even in creation, and where human beings understand sinful behavior to point to our need for a Savior. It’s not just about sexual morality—sexual morality is important—the bigger issue here is that sexual morality, as revealed in Scripture, is about God’s plan and purpose for humanity and about our brokenness and our need for redemption through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those liberal Protestant denominations that have joined the sexual revolution have also abandoned the gospel. If we do not know what sin is, we can’t possibly rightly point persons to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But the second thing we see is the centrality of the issue of biblical authority. Either the Bible is the Word of God, or it merely contains the Word of God. If it merely contains the Word of God, then we’ve got to find the Word of God within it. We’ve got to look at Scripture as a basically fallible human witness within which there is some degree of divine inspiration. Once we adopt that understanding of Scripture, the church itself becomes its sole authority and there’s no reason why the church can’t simply decide it will abandon this particular biblical teaching while claiming to continue others.
I cited the proposal by Adam Hamilton in order to demonstrate that it’s not just the fact that these liberal denominations include outright theological liberals who deny the authority of Scripture, we also see the presence of those who, like Hamilton, are arguing for a more neo-orthodox understanding that places the church in the position of judging Scripture while continuing to claim that the Scripture at least contains the Word of God.
But there is an infinite gulf between claiming that the Scripture contains the Word of God and affirming and confessing that the Bible is the Word of God. The historic faith of the church is rightly described as orthodoxy, not neo-orthodoxy. The moment you put any qualifier—“neo” in this case, meaning new—you actually don’t have orthodoxy at all, because the very reality of orthodoxy is making certain that we are saying exactly what the Apostles said, teaching exactly what the Reformers said, understanding that we want to state the Christian faith—affirm it, teach it, preach it, and apply it—exactly as there has been a consensus of the faithful throughout the centuries based upon the prior authority of the Bible as the Word of God.
Next, we must also hear the judgment from Christians in other parts of the world who are now looking to the United States wondering how Americans can be so quickly seduced by another gospel. But then as we bring this consideration to a close, we have to go back and affirm exactly what Maxie Dunnam said, and that is that we cannot trade experience for divine revelation. And we also need to note that the United Methodists have put a premium on experience. That makes the statement by Maxie Dunnam all the more courageous and important. But as Dunnam insisted, it is John Wesley, the founder the Methodists who should have the last word. He said,
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid,” Wesley said, “lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” And this will undoubtedly be the case, Wesley concluded, “unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
And to that statement by John Wesley, every biblical gospel minded Christian should be in full agreement, even as we remind ourselves of our responsibility to pray for other denominations and other churches, especially in light of the issues now faced by this United Methodist Church.