Posts Tagged ‘homosexuality’

Tell me again why the issue dividing the UMC isn’t “essential”?

June 28, 2017

Last April, I publicly disagreed with James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer (who used to write a column in the liberal mainline journal Lectionary Homiletics, to which I subscribed early in my ministry), over the issue that threatens to divide our denomination in 2019. Dr. Howell wrote a blog post in which he said that, irrespective of our convictions on the subject of human sexuality, it isn’t a question of “essential” Christian doctrine. Therefore, why should the UMC divide over it?

He never responded to my objections, unfortunately.

Yesterday, in an unrelated Facebook thread, we disagreed on a different matter. He wrote the following:

I thought about ignoring it, but why? Do I believe that unrepentant sexual sin risks excluding someone—eternally—from God’s kingdom? Do I believe that to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that it’s better for us pastors to tie a millstone around our neck and throw ourselves into the sea than to cause believers to stumble?

So I wrote the following (no response yet):

If that’s true, then I trust that you’ll search the scriptures and understand why our church’s doctrine on human sexuality is, indeed, a non-negotiable “essential” of the faith—just as it was for the Jerusalem Council when the church retained the Bible’s proscription against “porneia” [translated “sexual immorality”], even as they ruled that Gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised or follow other ceremonial aspects of the law.

If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then surely you’ll agree with me that our church can’t place the need for “unity” ahead of holiness, just as Paul himself refused to do in 1 Corinthians 5, for example, when dealing with the man committing incest. Since incest is condemned in the identical context alongside homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20, it’s difficult for those of us who embrace the authority to scripture to believe that one is a serious enough sin to divide over but not the other.

If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then you’ll understand why appeals to the Articles of Religion or the creeds or anything outside of scripture ring hollow when determining what is “essential” and what isn’t. Unrepentant sexual sin, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom. Nothing less than heaven and hell, therefore, hang in the balance. That being the case, surely you and I agree, committed as we both are to the authority of scripture, that the issue that is dividing our church counts as “essential.”

Andrew Wilson makes the revisionist case for idolatry

May 9, 2017

I see you, Gospel Coalition—going all Babylon Bee on us.

Andrew Wilson applies nearly every argument made by sex-and-marriage revisionists to idolatry. Here’s what he has to say about how we “traditionalists” have misused Paul:

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who’s sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage” (Romans 1), the problem isn’t really idol worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, isn’t that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He’s talking about people who were naturally worshipers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?

Not only that, but none of his references applies to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities—statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone—and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions. (Some see an exception in the way he talks about coveting as idolatry in Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, but these obviously reflect his desire, as a first-century Jew, to honor the Ten Commandments.)

In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he’s not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves and women), and it’s about time we recognized that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.

Having Christian convictions doesn’t mean we have God “100 percent figured out”

April 7, 2017

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post about Dr. Howell.

He only appears to offer one reply per commenter, so he didn’t reply to my second comment. But in response to another dissenter, who also challenged him on scripture, he refused to take the bait. Instead, he wrote the following:

I guess I keep hoping that readers will join me in the faithful posture that we don’t have God 100% figured out just yet, that however much we know, we’ve missed something, so we have learning and growth ahead and this might be the time. Doesn’t imply an outcome, just a dream of something besides defensiveness and fault-finding on both sides.

This sounds nice at first. He’s right: none of us has God “100 percent figured out”—not even close! We are finite and fallible. We see through a glass darkly. By all means! So Dr. Howell’s comment seems humble. And what kind of jerk must be to be so presumptuous—so arrogant—to think that I do have God 100 percent figured out? People with strong convictions on this issue must think they have God 100 percent figured out!

But not so fast…

Dr. Howell’s implication is obviously false. To believe that we know something about God isn’t the same as believing that we we know everything about God. Indeed, classic Christian theology teaches that God is unknowable apart from what God has chosen to reveal to us. And how does God reveal himself? The primary way is through his holy Word, the Bible. This is, in fact, the only infallible way that any of us possesses.

Progressives like to interject at this point that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible, but that’s a false choice. Yes, Jesus is the Word of God, and he is the perfect revelation of God. But everything we know for sure about Jesus—given that he ascended to heaven and now reigns at the right hand of the Father—we know from the Word of God that is the Bible. If someone has received a “revelation” about Jesus that contradicts what’s revealed about him in scripture (cf. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons) we rightly reject it.

So as I said in my original comment to him, there’s no getting around it: if the different sides to this conflict in the UMC are going to listen to one another, which Dr. Howell says he wants to do, we need to talk about what we believe about the Bible. This, I suspect, will be the heart of the division in our denomination.

Please don’t patronize us, Dr. Howell

April 6, 2017

The Rev. Dr. James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer, published a popular blog post yesterday about sex, marriage, and sexual sin—the issues that threaten to split our denomination in 2019. He says that his post is “something of a final resort” as an appeal for unity, rather than division.

In response to it, I posted the following on Facebook:

While I appreciate Rev. Howell’s irenic tone here, I would have to “die on that same hill” with Talbot Davis, in part because the apostles in Acts 15 seemed willing to. Or else why include the caveat of verse 20 against porneia [Greek for “sexual immorality”]? And what did porneia mean to the apostles, and does it mean something different today and why?

But even to have that discussion involves exegesis and hermeneutics—and before long we’re knee-deep in a discussion about the authority of scripture. Still, Howell says we’re not really arguing theology. Really? It feels like we are. As much as Howell wants us to listen to one another, I don’t feel “listened to” when he says otherwise. In fact, I feel patronized. But enough about my feelings! Good arguments don’t depend on feelings. (Do they?)

He gives reasons why our disagreement isn’t over an “essential” of Christian faith. But surely he knows that “my side” has a counter argument. Why does he give no evidence that he’s heard it? If he has, surely he wouldn’t resort, for example, to an argument over the Articles of Religion, the General Rules, or Wesley’s sermons. What about the Bible? I don’t think anyone on my side will be persuaded apart from a biblical argument.

But Rev. Howell and I do agree on this: Essentials of the Christian faith are worth splitting over.

I also posted a similar comment on his blog. He wrote this in reply:

But can’t you feel your (and my, we all do it) selectivity? Exegesis couldn’t be clearer regarding what to do with our possessions, or with whom you eat dinner, or whether to accumulate pension funds, etc. We roundly ignore these items or rationalize, don’t we? But then on homosexuality we become literalists?

To which I wrote,

I’m confused, James. Are you saying that you believe the church’s traditional doctrine on sexuality is correct, but, since we fall short in all these other areas, we’re hypocrites to try to follow it?

By all means, the Law can only condemn us. And when it does, we fall on our knees and thank God for the cross of his Son Jesus. We don’t shrug and say something like, “My greed, or my hypocrisy, or my idolatry is no big deal.” It is a big deal; it will send us to hell apart from Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

So do we ignore or rationalize other ways in which we sin? I’m sure we do. We’re terrible sinners, after all. But inasmuch as we become aware of our sin, we repent. And as pastors we teach our flock to do the same.

Do you disagree? Have I misunderstood you?

I want to underscore one point I make above: Despite protests to the contrary, Dr. Howell hasn’t heard me—or people on “my side”—if he doesn’t understand why we believe these issues related to sex are essential to Christian faith. We make this argument from scripture—not from creeds, confessions, or founding documents of our denomination. If the Bible is our ultimate authority that guides faith and practice (which United Methodists say they believe), then it’s no use arguing from lesser authorities.

By the way, the same creeds, confessions, and founding documents that fail to mention sexual sin also fail to mention any number of sins about which Dr. Howell and Methodists on the left wing have also “become literalists.” By Dr. Howell’s logic, should we disregard the Bible’s teaching on immigrants, for example, because we ignore so many other “clear” teachings of scripture? I suspect he would say no.

Because of scripture, we believe that without repentance, the practice of homosexuality—alongside many other sins that all of us have committed—risks excluding us from God’s kingdom eternally. While I don’t expect Dr. Howell to agree with this conviction, I do expect him and my fellow United Methodists who disagree with “my side” to understand what’s at stake for us.

Please don’t patronize us by saying that we’re not really arguing theology or that matters pertaining to (nothing less than) eternal life or death aren’t “essential.”

If you believed what we believe about this or any other sin, you would agree that, in the interest of love, it is essential.

Are there “false prophets” in the UMC?

March 6, 2017

In a podcast I listened to this morning, a Bible scholar and professor said that one of his students recently told him that the Old Testament portrays God as having “anger issues,” whereas the New Testament portrays God as loving, compassionate, and merciful.

This characterization of the Bible makes me want to facepalm—not simply because the so-called “God of the Old Testament” is loving, compassionate, and merciful, but also because the “God of the New Testament” (if you’ll allow a distinction for a moment) is a God of judgment and wrath. Indeed, he is a God who sends people to hell. Jesus says so. The epistles say so. Revelation says so.

The reason that many Christians believe that the “God of the New Testament” is different, I suspect, is because they believe that Jesus’ many frightening words about judgment, hell, and wrath don’t apply to them. In my sermon yesterday on Matthew 7:13-29, the series of warnings at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I asked myself and my congregation to imagine that they did. (Because they do!)

And lo and behold: without even trying, I preached a pretty good Lenten sermon on the first Sunday of Lent!

Among other things, my sermon included some words about the LGBTQ issue, which threatens to split our denomination (literally) in the next two years: by 2019, a specially called General Conference will decide once and for all how to move forward—together or separately. I said the following:

Have you entered the narrow gate, are you traveling on the hard road that leads to life? If so, shouldn’t your life look noticeably different from the vast majority of people who are just “going with the flow” on their way to hell?

I mean, right now in our own denomination, bishops and church leaders are meeting—they’ve met this month and they’ll meet in the months ahead—and they are deciding whether or not to change our church’s doctrine concerning sex and marriage. And I completely agree with theological progressives in our church when they say that our doctrine is hopelessly out of step with our culture—that it’s offensive to most people; that it’s difficult to follow.

And why wouldn’t it be? “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Beware of false prophets who tell us that the gate is much wider and the way is much easier than Jesus says! And I’m afraid that too many of our bishops and church leaders are doing just that!

But even as I say this, I risk coming under judgment for my own self-righteousness, for my own anger, for my own pride. Because this “narrow gate” and “difficult road” also demands that our lives bear fruit—which isn’t simply adhering to all the right doctrines, but rather, being inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the “fruit” Jesus refers to in verses 15 to 20 is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Is our life showing evidence of this fruit? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate, and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.

As has been the case throughout my present sermon series in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary inspired and convicted me. Concerning the “false prophets” of vv. 15-20, he writes the following:

If we are not to enter the Broad Way to destruction we will need to be continually liberated from those who beckon us to it. Moreover, “[t]he difficulty that there is even in finding this [Narrow Gate], requires that right guides should point it out to us” (Tholuck, 417). Jesus now tells us how to defend ourselves from false prophets. First of all, recognize their traits. False prophets almost always wear sheep’s clothing, that is, they have seemingly Christian ways. “Sheep” in Matthew are symbols of present or future believers… This presents us with a difficulty: what is the difference between a Christian appearance (sheep’s clothing) and a Christian effect (good fruit)?

It is the first subtlety of false prophets that they appear Christian. False prophets rarely wear wolves’ clothing. They are often (though not always) sheep-like, Christian-seeming, in earnest, and apparently the real item. This is why Jesus has to warn us about them at all.

Betz, 527, notices that the greatest danger facing disciples is not persecution but false prophets, luring us on to the easy road. His observation is corroborated by the multiple appearances of false prophets (from within the church) in Jesus’ warnings in the Sermon on the End of the World (see 24:4-5, 11, 24). Henry, 94, observes that “Every ‘hypocrite’ is a ‘goat’ in sheep’s clothing; but a ‘false prophet’ is a ‘wolf’ in sheep’s clothing, not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has.”[1]

Many people, including colleagues and even friends in ministry, would strongly disagree with me (and Bruner, I’m guessing) that the effort to revise the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality and marriage represents the work of “false prophets.” But if Bruner is right that false prophets are people in the church—our church, any church—who seek to “lure us on to the easy road,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility? To ignore it, after all, is to put our souls at risk—again, if Bruner’s interpretation of Jesus is correct.

For my progressive colleagues who tend to give extra weight to the red-letter words of Jesus, please consider his words here, too. Please heed these warnings!

As always, I write this as a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 352-3.

I’m joining the Wesleyan Covenant Association

October 14, 2016
Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, addressing the inaugural WCA conference.

Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, addressing the inaugural WCA conference.

Last Friday, I joined over 1,700 fellow United Methodists from around the world, including many clergy colleagues from North Georgia, at the inaugural meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association in Chicago.

You can read about the meeting here. According to a founding document that was approved at the meeting, the organization exists to “advance vibrant, scriptural Christianity within the global United Methodist Church.” It continues:

We affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture. We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.

We affirm classical Wesleyan doctrine and the historic faith, which the church has used to define the parameters of Christian teaching.

We believe that both women and men are called to and gifted for ordained and licensed ministry, and both genders are able to hold any role of leadership within the WCA.

The WCA specifically renounces all racial and ethnic discrimination and commits itself to work toward full racial and ethnic equality in the church and in society.

We believe marriage and sexual intimacy are good gifts from God. In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union. We affirm faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness as equal paths of discipleship.

In grace and truth, we seek to love God with our whole hearts and afford every person compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity.

Among other things, the WCA urges our bishops to fulfill the promise they made at General Conference to appoint and convene a commission to resolve the crisis that threatens our denomination’s existence, and to do so quickly. It urges them to call a special General Conference in early 2018 to vote on this commission’s proposals. It rejects any plan for unity that involves the so-called “local option,” which allows individual congregations or clergy to decide whether or not they’ll submit to historic Christian doctrine regarding marriage and sexual ethics.

I affirm each of these points. And along with the WCA, I reject “unity” at any cost. If we can’t agree on a proposal that will enable our church members to live together with integrity and in good conscience, then let’s create a plan for separation.

I know this sounds drastic. Why has it come to this? Why has the WCA formed now?

One reason only: Since the bishops promised to form their commission at General Conference in May, in exchange—they vainly hoped—for breathing room to solve the problem, covenant-breaking among clergy and annual conferences has only increased. As one WCA statement points out, “at least nine boards of ordained ministry or annual conferences and two jurisdictional conferences have pledged not to conform or comply with the requirements of the Discipline.” One jurisdictional conference even elected a bishop who is herself in a same-sex marriage, in defiance of church law.

In general, I’m a reluctant “join-er” of organizations. But I decided to be part of the WCA because, like Wesley, I am a “man of one book”—or at least I want to be. And despite what you’ve heard, the issue that divides our denomination isn’t marriage and sexual ethics—those are merely symptoms of the real issue.

The real issue is the authority of scripture: will we as a denomination be faithful to God’s Word or won’t we?

A part of me wishes I could be among the famous “Methodist middle,” and sit outside the ring while Methodists further to the left and right of me duke it out. It would certainly be better for my career. But I can’t. When I was ordained in 2010, I told God, my bishop, and our annual conference that I believed in our church’s doctrines, which included its traditional stance on marriage and sexuality. My fingers weren’t crossed behind my back. I wasn’t equivocating.

I wasn’t even—to use the popular parlance of candidates for ordained United Methodist ministry—”conflicted.” Not by 2010. I’ve long since repented of the ways I played fast and loose with God’s Word in the years during and shortly after attending a liberal mainline seminary. But in 2010, I meant it.

My point is, if I weren’t convinced at ordination that our church was right about marriage and sex, that this is what I believe God is telling us through his Word, based on our best exegesis and interpretation of scripture, I would have found another church in which to minister. At least I hope I would. (God knows I’m a hypocritical sinner.) To do otherwise would compromise my integrity even more than it is routinely compromised by sin.

All that to say, within the next couple of years—in fact, before the next scheduled General Conference of 2020—we’ll know whether or not we will, as a denomination, strive to be faithful to scripture as our “primary and final authority on all matters related to faith and practice.”

In the meantime, I intend to play my part to ensure that we do. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

That’s why I went to Chicago last week. And that’s why I’m joining the WCA.

Which of these things is not like the other?

July 25, 2016

Our poor Council of Bishops… Having only had 44 years’ notice, how could they have possibly foreseen widespread ecclesial disobedience after they kicked the can labeled “LGBT controversy” down the road last May at General Conference? Back then, they said they would convene a specially appointed commission to recommend splitting up our denomination a way forward on the issue at a called General Conference some time before 2020.

They’re still working on it, as they say in this statement, even as the Western Jurisdiction and several annual conferences are breaking church law.

Still, you have to admire the diplomacy of the following sentence, which goes out of its way to blame both sides for this present crisis. Let’s see… Which of these three is not like the other?

“The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences, the intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association and the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council president, in a detailed statement outlining the actions taken.

Please note: The convening of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new organization of like-minded evangelical United Methodists, which was formed in response to the ecclesial disobedience of the Western Jurisdiction, does not break church law.

But UMC progressives are asking conservatives to believe something

May 28, 2016

In my previous post, I complained about a clergy colleague who, in a blog post, said that theological conservatives don’t “believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, when the authors of scripture condemned homosexual behavior in the strongest terms possible, they weren’t condemning homosexual relationships as we understand them today—as loving, consensual, monogamous, and covenantal. That wasn’t part of their “knowledge base” concerning homosexuality.

The Bible, therefore, has little to say about the issue that risks splitting our church today. So we are free to interpret this momentum to change our church’s doctrine on sex and marriage as nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit.

He then argues that the Bible isn’t an exclusive repository of all truth (a point that no one, to my knowledge, disputes). So why are we Methodists hitching our doctrinal wagon to something about which scripture is silent?

In my brief reply, I wrote:

No. What revisionists on this issue ask us to believe is that the Holy Spirit is “showing us something new,” which contradicts what the Spirit has already shown us.

Arguments about truth outside of scripture are beside the point. Quantum mechanics is beyond the scope of the Bible. Sex and marriage are not.

To these brief words, another clergy colleague said, “Brent- really not sure anyone is asking you to believe anything. 🙂 ”

His point is that under the changes that many people within the UMC are proposing, progressive clergy will be free to solemnize gay weddings just as conservative clergy will be free not to. We’ll all have freedom of conscience on this issue.

Aside from the fact that I was using “asking us to believe” as a figure of speech, and that I was using “us” collectively—to represent not only me but the church as a whole (I assume that progressive clergy will try to persuade their congregations to see things their way)—is my colleague’s statement even true?

For one thing, we are a “connectional” church. I could be appointed to the same local church as a progressive pastor or deacon who opposes the traditional view that I hold. Am I supposed to be O.K. with their teaching or preaching something to my congregation that I believe is deeply in error? Am I supposed to tell the congregation that, despite what they’ve been told by my well-credentialed colleague, he or she is wrong? Or vice versa?

Or am I supposed to ignore the issue in the interest of peace and harmony? (Not that most United Methodist clergy aren’t already doing this.)

To say the least, this would create great confusion among the flocks that we shepherd.

So, yes, even if we change our doctrine to reflect an “agree to disagree” position on this subject, the church would be asking me to believe something important: It would be asking me to believe that the issue of homosexual behavior is a matter of theological indifference, or of merely secondary concern next to the main task of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Never mind that from my perspective we’re not making disciples properly unless we’re teaching them to repent of their sin, which includes all sexual sin, and to obey God’s Word, which includes his words about sexual complementarity as one prerequisite for marriage.

A majority African UMC? I can’t wait

May 25, 2016

Aside from contributing my “thumbs up” to a few friends’ Facebook posts over the past couple of weeks—the lowest form of social media slacktivism—I surprised myself at how silent I remained throughout the ten days of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Portland.

In case you haven’t heard, no resolution related to sexuality and marriage made it to the conference floor for a vote. As it stands today, therefore, UMC doctrine remains unchanged. Meanwhile, legislation that emerged from committees indicated a theologically rightward tilt, as our denomination is on the verge of becoming majority African.

I, for one, can’t wait! I hope they send missionaries over here to teach us how to be Christians again!

The reason no legislation came to a vote is because the Council of Bishops headed it off with a  plan of their own: Sometime before 2020, a specially called General Conference, whose membership will be identical to the group that met in Portland last week, will vote on proposals made by a CoB-appointed commission. The commission’s membership will supposedly reflect the global membership of the church.

In other words, as thousands of others have already pointed out, the bishops’ plan amounts to “kicking the can down the road.”

I’m disappointed. I was rooting for one piece of legislation that passed committee known as the CUP Plan. It would have strengthened accountability (in the form of minimum sentences) for clergy who break covenant with the church by performing “gay weddings” (the “stick”). At the same time, however, it would have offered progressive congregations a gracious path to exit the denomination while retaining their church property (the “carrot”).

It stood a reasonable chance of passing from what I’ve read. Now we’ll never know.

Regardless, I hope that this soon-to-be-appointed commission will make a similar proposal—or if not, at least have the courage to propose splitting the church up. The differences between traditionalists like me and revisionists are irreconcilable. As I’ve often blogged here, there is no middle way. Methodist “centrists” are either those who haven’t thought it through or (more likely) are progressives who are willing to bide their time until, they believe, cultural pressures will force the church’s hand. Adam Hamilton, for one, wrote that within ten years—after the older generation dies off, presumably—homosexuality will no longer be an issue for us Methodists.

As I blogged at the time, what do young people know about scripture that older generations don’t know? Because as always, as always, as always, the issue that divides us comes down to the authority of scripture.

Besides, what credibility has Western culture earned such that it should dictate what the church does and believes?

Nevertheless, this professor, from the UMC-affiliated Claremont School of Theology, rightly questions whether biding one’s time is a realistic option for progressives in light of shifting demographics in our church:

By the next General Conference, since the UMC is growing only in areas with a more traditionalist viewpoint on LGBTQ inclusion, the church’s position as a whole is almost guaranteed to become more conservative, not less in the coming yearsSome progressives I talk to acknowledge that bringing about a change in the current rules will now take at least 16 years, with some predicting 30-year struggleAre we willing to live with our current divide for another generation? In light of our denominations plunging membership, does the church even have time to wait sixteen years, much less thirty or more?

In other words, if the progressives couldn’t get what they wanted this year, they’re far less likely in years to come.

To his credit, whether he agrees with “my” side or not, the author seems to understand the stakes for theological conservatives like me.

I often don’t see this same understanding of the stakes among many progressive clergy I know. For example, one of them posted a link to his blog post on social media yesterday. He was complaining about how we conservatives often (rightly) frame the issue in terms of Christian orthodoxy. He disagrees, writing, “When I hear [orthodoxy] used in this context, I find the speaker often actually means that he or she does not believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

To which I replied:

No. What revisionists on this issue ask us to believe is that the Holy Spirit is “showing us something new,” which contradicts what the Spirit has already shown us.

Arguments about truth outside of scripture are beside the point. Quantum mechanics is beyond the scope of the Bible. Sex and marriage are not.

Again, no one has to agree with theological conservatives in order to fairly represent what we believe.

General Conference wasn’t a total wash: Conservatives won a clean sweep of five new members of the Judicial Council—our church’s Supreme Court. And, by a wide margin, they withdrew our church from a pro-abortion ecumenical organization that the UMC helped create back in the early-’70s (those were the days!). They also removed language in our Discipline that explicitly affirms Roe v. Wade.

All that to say, I hope our bishops can see the writing on the wall and do the right thing.

Why Adam Hamilton is still wrong (Part 2)

May 6, 2016

In a post last week, I began examining Adam Hamilton’s latest salvo in his effort to change our United Methodist doctrine on sexuality. I wrote mostly about the way he conflates the Bible’s words about slavery and women with homosexual behavior. He argues that traditionalists like me are bound to be inconsistent in our interpretation of scripture if we nevertheless oppose slavery and support women in ordained ministry. Hamilton’s argument is a kinder, gentler spin on the popular “shellfish argument.”

As I said in my earlier post, however, before revisionists like Hamilton accuse my side of inconsistency, they might look in the mirror: If they reject what the Bible says about homosexual practice, on what basis do they affirm what the Bible says about anything related to sexual behavior?

Needless to say, if this question occurred to Hamilton, he doesn’t address it. In fact, notice the seemingly high-minded way he criticizes both conservatives and progressives in our current dispute. I suspect that the following two paragraphs are an attempt by Hamilton—a “centrist” on the issue—to stake out middle ground between two extremes:

Conservatives on this issue (by the way, one can be progressive on a host of issues, yet conservative on this issue, and likewise one can be conservative on a host of issues yet progressive on same-gender marriage) base their views of the incompatibility of same-gender relationships on a particular way of reading the Bible, which in turn is based upon a particular, but often inconsistently held, way of understanding what the Bible is and how God speaks through it.

Progressives on this issue, likewise, base their willingness to embrace same-gender relationships as acceptable to God on a certain way of reading the Bible, one that is also based upon a particular, but not always clearly articulated, way of understanding what the Bible is and how God speaks through it.

If you were a neutral observer, knowing nothing about the issue, which would you rather be—a conservative or a progressive? After all, we conservatives are “often” inconsistent in our view of scripture, whereas progressives are “not always clearly” articulate about their view. The problem with progressives, in other words, is not that they’re ever wrong, but that they don’t communicate very well.

Hamilton’s blog post aims to remedy that situation.

To that end, he devotes some paragraphs to our understanding of the inspiration of scripture. I’m sure he says more about this in a recent book in which he introduced his “three buckets” hermeneutic. But he says a lot about it here that merits consideration.

On the issue of same gender acts, [the Bible’s authors] wrote based upon their understanding of human sexuality, in the light of the prevailing same-gender practices of their time.

What were the “prevailing same-gender practices” that the Bible’s authors were writing against? In a series of rhetorical questions, he offers clues. Here’s the first one:

Do Moses’ words commanding that men who lie with men should be put to death express the heart of God towards them?

There are a number sins that merit the death penalty in the Old Testament—including sins that many of us have committed, whether they include homosexual sex or not. Whether or to what extent these death sentences were actually imposed in ancient Israel, the only true theocracy that has ever existed, is interesting but beside the point. The point is, the sentence itself is just, even as (we hope) mercy will often rise above justice.

Besides, all of us humans have already received the death penalty for our sins. We will all die, after all, and when we do, it will ultimately be because of our sin. Isn’t this the clear teaching of Genesis 2-3?

To suggest, as Hamilton does, that this just penalty for our sin—any sin—fails to “express the heart of God,” makes the gospel incomprehensible.

The starting point of the Good News of Jesus Christ is Bad News. We all deserve death. We all deserve God’s judgment. We all deserve God’s wrath. We all deserve hell.

In nearly the same breath, however, I need to say, “Nevertheless…” God loved us too much to simply leave us in that helpless condition, and so he implemented a rescue plan for humanity, which meant that God himself, the Word made flesh, would suffer and die in our place.

For the sake of argument, suppose Hamilton conceded that the unanimous opinion of almost two-thousand years’ worth of reflection on scripture was correct, and that God really is telling us through his Word that homosexual behavior per se is a serious sexual sin of which we must repent or risk being excluded permanently from God’s kingdom. Given that ancient Israel was, uniquely, a theocracy whose criminal penalties are no longer binding (as Jesus himself demonstrates with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2-11), would Hamilton still say that the death penalty was, even in the context in which these penalties were originally prescribed, unjustified?

In other words, did the death penalty fail to “express God’s heart” even in its original context?

I’m guessing that Hamilton would say that it didn’t express God’s heart. In which case the Bible’s authors didn’t merely get it wrong on what Hamilton refers to elsewhere as “five or six verses about homosexuality”; they got it wrong on hundreds, if not thousands, of verses!

If so, what’s left of one’s doctrine of scripture and its inspiration?

I’ll say more about that later.