May 3, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, May 3, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Trump expected to sign executive order on Thursday protecting religious liberty, our first freedom
Yesterday, several news reports surfaced indicating that on Thursday, President Donald Trump is expected to sign a sweeping executive order protecting religious liberty. This is a big story. Religious liberty has actually been used without irony by many in the news media and also in terms of cultural influencers with quotation marks around the term as if it’s not a real thing, but rather something invented by those who are now trying to assert their religious conviction in both their public and private lives. While running for the White House successfully in 2016, President Trump had indicated his support for this kind of executive order. And this over against the backdrop of rather aggressive executive orders signed by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, executive orders and policies that infringed upon the religious liberty of Americans.
Earlier this year one of the most liberal magazines in the country, The Nation, indicated that it had received a leaked copy of the draft proposal. It is not known if that leaked copy was actually a draft of the executive order that President Trump reportedly will sign on Thursday. And furthermore, at this point it is clear that it is not responsible to speak about the content of this executive order until the President not only releases it, but signs it as is now expected on Thursday. Why Thursday? Well, it coincides with the National Day of Prayer and also it is known that the White House has invited several conservative religious leaders for what is expected to be a public ceremony of the signing of this executive order.Show Full Transcript
Religious liberty is often and rightly identified as America’s first liberty, and there it is, of course, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But one of the things we also need to recognize is that religious liberty isn’t just first among other liberties, it is absolutely foundational to all that remain. When we’re talking about religious liberty we also need to recognize that we believe that religious liberty is a gift from the Creator, not from any government. But we do believe that it is the responsibility of government to protect and also to respect the religious liberties of its citizens.
Some of the live issues that are expected to be covered by this executive order have to do with the kind of headline news that we have seen in a rather constant flow for the last several years. For one thing, just remember the so-called contraceptive mandate handed down as part of the ObamaCare legislation and just remember now that we’re talking about several years in which the Obama administration steadfastly defended a policy that required religious employers and that includes not only private businesses, but also ministries, most infamously the Catholic ministry known as Little Sisters of the Poor, that’s the group that ended up suing the Obama Administration all the way to the Supreme Court. Just remember that that contraceptive mandate is indeed signal one in terms of recent issues about the infringement of religious liberty. That has to do with the enforcement of a mandate that all employers must not only provide contraception as a part of the ObamaCare legislation, but also all forms of contraception, including some that are suspected to involve abortion, that is abortifacient forms of birth control.
But remember that the issue has expanded, the list of concerns has expanded dramatically. Just remember the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent by the Obama Administration to the principals and presidents of America’s schools and colleges mandating that they must allow those who were born female to use male locker rooms, changing areas and showers and the reverse also. Now you put all that together along with recent cases having to do with florists and cake bakers and photographers participating, being forced to participate in same-sex weddings, consider the fact that we have had several states crack down on Christians who have indicated that they simply cannot involve themselves in celebrating a same-sex marriage without violating their Christian conviction. Consider the fact that this kind of executive order is not only timely it is also necessary.
Timothy Alberta and Shane Goldmacher reporting for Politico yesterday said,
“President Donald Trump has invited conservative leaders to the White House on Thursday for what they expect will be the ceremonial signing of a long-awaited—and highly controversial—executive order on religious liberty.”
And they confirm that at least two major sources inside the administration had given them the confidence to go ahead with the report. But you’ll notice that in that opening paragraph, they used words like “long-awaited” and also “highly controversial.” Now in a country like the United States of America founded on the respect for liberty, you would expect that religious liberty would be respected by the government and by the vast majority of our citizens, indeed it should be respected by all American citizens. But what we have seen in recent years is a head on collision between religious liberty and the moral revolution that involves LGBTQ issues. And make no mistake, it’s now an unavoidable collision. Those who are driving that revolution have made clear that religious liberty is going to have to give way. These advocates and activists are very clear they will sacrifice the religious liberty of their neighbors in order to push a very clear agenda in the law, in the courts, and public policy in the schools throughout the culture.
Remember also that in recent months, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, most particularly its chairman, released a report—this is an official federal government commission—indicating that religious liberty, again often used only in quotation marks, is basically a camouflage for prejudice. As the chairman of the commission made clear, he sees religious liberty as nothing more than an argument that is being used by religious conservatives as they find themselves on the receiving end of the kind of power and coercion that comes from a moral revolution such as we are now experiencing, and by that we mean a revolution in morality.
Now remember that at this point all we have are well-substantiated reports that President Trump will sign such an executive order on Thursday. But already late yesterday, the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, indicated that if the President were to sign such an executive order, well, you know where this is headed, they will sue. At this point on The Briefing, I’ll simply say that it’s encouraging to know that the President is expected to sign an executive order protecting religious liberty on Thursday. But we will wait until the president signs the order and releases its text before making further speculation about what might or might not be in the executive order that hasn’t even at this point been officially announced. But it’s also telling that at this point it has already alarmed the secular left, which is why the ACLU has already warned that it will sue.
United Methodists to hold council on LGBT questions in 2019 after high court rejects openly gay bishop
Next, shifting to major news that came from an American denomination, in recent days the United Methodist Church has indicated that it will hold a special session of its General Conference to deal with LGBTQ issues in 2019. The actual text of a statement from the church said that the issue at the center of this special General Conference will be LGBTQ inclusion.
The United Methodist Church is one of America’s major denominations. It was actually the largest Protestant denomination in the United States until the 1960s when it was overtaken by the Southern Baptist Convention. But the United Methodist Church has been trending liberal for the last several decades, but that’s not an uncomplicated story. Like so many of the other mainline Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church have been moving in a liberal arc since at least the 1930s and 40s. But then something very interesting happened. The church opened its membership to global congregations and most of those congregations and most of those growing congregations in Methodism are not even located in North America, they’re not in Canada, they are not in the United States, they are rather in what’s defined as the Global South. And those congregations, it turns out, tend to be quite more conservative than many of the established United Methodist Churches in the United States.
The United Methodist Church holds its General Conference every four years. The last one was held in 2016. That means that the next church-wide General Conference should be held in 2020 and it will be, but this is a special session. It was made necessary because in the 2016 General Conference, the United Methodist were so split on the issue of LGBT inclusion, and that includes membership and especially openly gay clergy and bishops, the performance also of same-sex weddings, that there was an effective delay, a postponement of the inevitable of dealing with these issues. The decision was at least in part postponed because there is a very real fear or concern on the part of many Methodists that this issue will lead to an eventual schism or division in their church. That’s not an unfounded suspicion. As a matter of fact, some of the most loyal conservative United Methodists who have been working for decades for an evangelical recovery in their denomination within the last couple of years have openly called for a division of the church over this issue.
Reporting on the call for this special General Conference of the church, writing for Religion News Service, Emily McFarlan Miller indicated that the special session was necessary in order “to settle questions of LGBTQ inclusion that have vexed the global denomination for years.”
Now there are several key words in that sentence: “questions,” yes questions that demand an answer. The verb “vexed,” these questions have vexed, troubled the global denomination for years, but the other keyword there is “global.” If this were merely a decision to be made by North American United Methodists, well, the United Methodist Church probably would’ve followed the more liberal trajectory of the other mainline Protestant denominations, as they are known, years ago. But now that it is a global denomination, that situation is very different.
Now one of the things to keep in mind is that we’ve been watching over recent years the division in the Anglican Church, that is the communion of churches that are centered in and were born in what’s known as the Church of England. But in that case you have national churches that are at least partly autonomous. So the Episcopal Church in the United States as far back as 2003 elected and consecrated an openly gay bishop and similarly, the Church of England has taken at least some steps towards a far more liberal position. But the Anglican churches in African and South American countries have generally taken a far more conservative position. The difference between the Anglican Communion and the United Methodist Church is that the Anglican Communion at a global level has no police or enforcement powers in terms of the national churches. The United Methodist Church in this sense defines itself globally as a single church and thus it does have, at least constitutionally, the power to enforce its discipline and laws on all of its churches and ministers, wherever they are found around the globe.
Now at this point it’s very important to stipulate that those who try to uphold a biblical standard of sexual morality, a definition of marriage and a requirement for ministry, don’t have to do anything to change the discipline of the United Methodist Church. That’s because as far back as 1972 the church adopted language in its official law and discipline, stating that self-avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained because, and I quote, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But since then as many reported in the media, more than 150 United Methodist clergy have come out as gay. That states quite succinctly the law and the theological judgment of the United Methodist Church in 1972. The question is, does is still represent that conviction now? Clearly in terms of a significant percentage of United Methodist in North America, they want their church to move in a very more liberal direction and they’ve already been moving that way, trying to force the church in their direction. In recent times we have seen one married, lesbian bishop consecrated in what’s known as the Middle Sky area, which includes churches in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and one United Methodist Church in Idaho. This is the bishop known as the Reverend Karen Oliveto. But late last week, a tribunal of the United Methodist Church came to the conclusion that her election and consecration as a bishop was out of order in terms of the church’s discipline. That same tribunal by a 6 to 3 vote also said that the church’s discipline requires all clergy and bishops to make the commitment “to abide by, and uphold the church’s definition of marriage and stance on homosexuality.”
That tribunal did not remove the bishop from office, but it served to note that the church will deal with the issue, and it made a very clear judgment concerning what the church teaches and what it constitutionally requires of all its jurisdictions in congregations, all of its ministers and bishops as well. But one of the most interesting things about this is that this tribunal, voting 6 to 3 late last week also stated that “under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law.”
Now that’s really important because over the last several years some ministers have clearly defied the law by coming out as gay, some have come out in terms of performing same-sex ceremonies—all this in violation of the law—some bishops have been complicit and involved in this. And when it comes to Bishop Oliveto, we have had an openly gay, married, lesbian bishop elected by one of the jurisdictions of the church. Conservatives, the more conservative members of the United Methodist Church, including several leading clergy and some bishops, have asked openly the question as to what it means to be a church if the church’s law, discipline, and rules can be routinely ignored or, for that matter, violated by those who are the clergy bishops and other leaders of the church.
One Methodist leader trying to push the church in a more liberal direction in violation of Scripture made very clear the role of Scripture in the issue. He described the meeting coming up in terms of the special session as “an anticipated and appropriate final summons for the church to get its head out of the sand and to faithfully engage reality instead of pandering to fear-based scriptural interpretation.”
Now what he means by fear-based scriptural interpretation is simply taking the Scripture seriously and understanding that Scripture is binding upon the church. This is the typical kind of language we hear quite routinely from the theological left, but at least it serves the purpose to make clear that the central issue is never actually sexuality, but rather Scripture, the authority of Scripture in the church.
We’ll be watching developments in the United Methodist Church very, very closely. This is a big story, it’s going to be a very interesting story, but we also need to note that this special-called session isn’t going to be held until 2019. And the final decisions probably will not be clear or ratified at least until the next General Conference of the church in 2020. That’s a long time to wait and furthermore, these issues aren’t going to simply be put on hold for the next two or three years. Some of these issues just might be clarified before the church even holds this special session.
Church of Scotland report considering same-sex marriage sets Jesus and Scripture at odds
But now switching from the United States and the situation in the United Methodist Church, we go to Scotland and a recent report that was leaked out of the Church of Scotland. It was leaked in recent days, and then the Church of Scotland went on to release officially the draft report from a special theological forum. Once again, the issue at the center is the authority of Scripture. The presenting issue or catalyst for the discussion and the report are the issues related to sexuality. The Church of Scotland has been one of those churches that has of late been trending in a far more liberal direction. Once the report of the theological forum had been leaked and public conversation began, the Church of Scotland moved up its timetable to officially release the draft of the report. On its own website, the Church of Scotland declared,
“The Theological Forum has published its latest report on ‘An approach to the theology of same-sex marriage.’ The report will be considered by Commissioners to the General Assembly in Edinburgh next month.”
The church then acknowledged the fact that the report had been leaked and they said,
“In light of the report appearing in the national press, the Principal Clerk has authorized its immediate publication to allow Commissioners, members of the church and members of the public to understand fully the content and context.”
According to the statement from the Church, the General Assemblies being asked to consider two key issues. Number one,
“Authorize the Legal Questions Committee to undertake a further study on the legal implications of conducting same-sex marriages and report back to the General Assembly [of the Church of Scotland] in 2018.”
“Invite the Church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologize individually and corporately and seek to do better.”
Now in terms of that second statement, there are certainly ways that Christians and Christian churches have sinned against gay people. But you’ll notice that in the context here holding to a biblical understanding of sexuality, holding to biblical authority, holding to a biblical definition of marriage, all of these are basically included in what is described here as merely “a history of discrimination at different levels.”
Simply the fact that the language is employed in this way serves as a powerful signal of the direction the report is taking. But it’s actually a good deal more interesting than even you might expect. One of the interesting things in the statement from the church is that what the forum is calling for is “constrained difference.” That is to say, the Church of Scotland is going to try to avoid further schism. There have already been several conservative departures from the denomination by calling for the existence of two polarizingly opposite positions in the church, those who on the basis of conviction cannot recognize marriage as anything other than the union of a man and a woman and others who are determined to go ahead and recognize and perform same-sex weddings. But this “constrained difference” to which the church says it’s committed means that those who are biblical conservatives by remaining in the church are in their own way endorsing others within the church who do defy the authority of Scripture on LGBTQ issues and most particularly on same-sex marriage.
Like so many reports in this kind of denominational committee, the report indicates one side of the argument and then the other side of the argument, but it begins with the use of Scripture and the authority of Scripture. The report makes a distinction between conservatives who are according to the report committed to the written text of Scripture and to more liberal persons who make a distinction between the written text of Scripture “and the living word of God, the latter being associated with Jesus Christ who speaks to us in our hearts and consciences.”
That’s a breathtaking argument. It affirms the abandonment of Scripture, claiming instead a different source of revelation, an even higher source of revelation, which is personal religious experience, which is claimed to be in the Spirit of Christ. The most devastating aspect of this report is the juxtaposition between what’s identified, again these are the actual words of the report, “as the living words of Scripture” and what’s identified as “the living word of God,” that is Jesus Christ who speaks to us in our hearts and consciences. Now they went on to say,
“According to this argument we owe our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, rather than adherence to the literal words of Scripture.”
Now that’s a stunning statement. Once again, you have the living Christ set over against the words of Scripture. That is a juxtaposition that the Lord Jesus Christ himself most fundamentally did not allow, and faithful Christianity cannot allow that distinction. But it’s a key distinction for a church or for a segment of a church that is determined to undermine and overthrow biblical authority. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what this report calls for. Another thing we need to note here is that this theological forum in the Church of Scotland represents something of a breathtaking honesty, because nowhere in this report did they try to make any argument that what they identify is that literal words of Scripture, otherwise known as simply the words of Scripture, can in any way be construed as to affirm same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior or relationships. It seems they at least in honesty have given up that argument, but the argument they now use is one with which we are familiar: just abandon the words and grammar of Scripture in order to instead follow what is claimed to be the living Word of God, which comes to us internally.
Now one of the key issues in the Reformation is the Roman Catholic Church’s affirmation of a two-sourced theory of revelation, that is Scripture and tradition as interpreted by the church. But here you have the Church of Scotland birthed in terms of John Knox and that same Reformation that once stood resolutely for the theology of the Reformation, including Sola Scriptura, that now denounces effectively the very idea of Sola Scriptura by adopting its own two-sourced theory of revelation, which means the words of Scripture and also a higher authority, which is what is claimed to be the living word of God, which is an inference that comes from the church by its own experience and intuition.
For the last few days, I’ve been in London, England and during the course of these days I found myself at Bunhill Fields, that is the cemetery where John Bunyan and so many Puritans are buried, and right across the street Wesley Chapel. We can only imagine that John Wesley would be absolutely appalled that the authority of Scripture in this way would be undermined by so many in his church that this would even be a live question. And when it comes to the Church of Scotland, we do not have to wonder what the reformer John Knox would say about this debate and this report in terms of his own church. He would be mincing no words, and nor should we.