Posts Tagged ‘LGBTQ’

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.

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.

Why Adam Hamilton is still wrong (Part 1)

April 28, 2016

In these days leading up to our United Methodist Church’s General Conference, many Methodist clergy who support changing our Book of Discipline‘s still-orthodox doctrine on sexuality and marriage have become increasingly vocal on blogs and church-related websites. None is more high profile than mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.

When Hamilton first publicly stated in a 2012 sermon that he now supports changing our doctrine, I wrote about it.

He doesn’t make any new arguments in a blog post he published yesterday, except his tone is more assertive. In his 2012 sermon, he seemed almost circumspect as he shared his testimony about his “conversion” on the subject, after years of towing the traditionalist line. Today, by contrast, he’s far more confident, encouraging his fellow revisionists to hold our denomination together for just ten more years, after which this will become “a non-issue, as even most evangelical young adults in the United Methodist Church see this issue differently from their 40- and 50- and 60-year-old parents and grandparents.”

I suppose, as a 46-year-old theologically conservative evangelical, I should be insulted: What would today’s Methodist teenager or 20-something know about human sexuality that the rest of us don’t? And why should their opinion hold sway? Do they have a biblical case to make on the subject that we haven’t considered before? As even Hamilton would concede—I think—the argument for changing our doctrine must be rooted in scripture.

Maybe Hamilton will get around to making a biblical argument. There’s no evidence of one here.

Instead, he argues about our understanding of the Bible itself. First, he describes a recent letter he received from a group of conservative United Methodists in Nebraska urging him, as a delegate to General Conference, to resist the pressure to change our Discipline. They said, “We believe that the Holy Bible is God’s Word, and that His Word is unchanging.”

Hamilton writes:

These fellow United Methodists seem to be stating that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word, and that it should be applied without question today because “His Word is unchanging.”  But I don’t believe this is actually how they approach Scripture.  Nor is it the way Christians have generally approached Scripture across the last two millennia.

First, let me say that unlike Hamilton, I do believe that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word. I have no “Bucket No. 3” in my doctrine of scripture. In other words, if it’s in the Bible, it’s there because the Holy Spirit guided its writers to put it in there—for a reason.

But Hamilton would say that if I truly believe that, then I’ll inevitably be inconsistent in my interpretation and application of it.

Then, as if he hasn’t listened to any counterargument from my side over the past 40 years—not to mention in my little blog post four years ago—Hamilton continues to conflate the issue of homosexuality with slavery and the subordination of women: since the Bible got it wrong on those subjects, he argues, how can we be confident that the Bible isn’t wrong about homosexual practice?

Please note: He’s not merely saying that our interpretation of scripture has changed over the millennia in light of better exegesis of the texts; he believes the Bible is simply wrong to begin with. As he said in his discussion of buckets, some scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

If you think I’m being unfair, consider the following exchange that Hamilton had on Twitter yesterday after he linked to his blog post:

hamilton

Ooh, burn! 

Does Hamilton really mean to say that we can’t hold the Bible as “authoritative” if we nevertheless believe, for good hermeneutical reasons, that parts of it are no longer binding on us today? I’ve dealt with this in many other blog posts, but this is a good starting point. Among other things, I say the following:

[C]ontrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.

If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.

We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.

For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.

(Seriously… Read the Glenn Peoples’s post.)

I reject Hamilton’s premise that the Bible got it wrong when it comes to slavery and subordination of women. I fully endorse Asbury president Tim Tennent’s “trajectories” argument. And along with N.T. Wright, I believe that the case for women in ordained ministry comes from scripture. Among other things, I believe that Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene as the first apostle in John 20—literally the apostle to the apostles. I believe it’s deeply significant that Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle” in Romans 16.

Does the Bible have any such trajectory away from its condemnation of homosexual practice? Or does the same thinker who wrote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” also warn that homosexual behavior, if left unrepented, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom?

But even if I accepted Hamilton’s premise about slavery and women, his argument is a red herring unless or until he demonstrates that there’s some connection between slavery, women, and homosexuality. You can’t just say, “We were wrong about slaves and women, therefore we’re wrong about homosexual practice.”

Are we also wrong about incest? Or polygamy? Or premarital sex? I ask because I’m sure that Hamilton has many convictions in common with our traditional understanding of sexuality. By his logic, you could say, “Yes, but we were wrong about slavery and women, so… who’s to say?”

Talk about picking and choosing!

I have more to say, but this will have to do for now.

United Methodists only like to argue about the LGBTQ argument

April 11, 2016

While I was on vacation last week, a couple of blog posts from United Methodist leaders reminded me that we are in the midst of a politically divisive season. No, not that season… I’m talking about the United Methodist Church’s General Conference 2016 in Portland, which begins next month.

First, Dan Dick, a theologically progressive United Methodist minister and author, argues that if our church splits over issues pertaining to homosexual behavior, it will have done so because we have chosen “personal desire over the will of God.”

God’s will, from Dr. Dick’s perspective, is unity above all else. We are united in baptism, which—because Methodists are sacramental—we believe is primarily an act of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, therefore, the Holy Spirit has already said that our LGBTQ-affirming brothers and sisters, including sexually active gays and lesbians, are included in our church. So who are we to say otherwise?

Dick writes, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of our behaviors and/or beliefs.”

Moreover, since this essential unity can’t be abrogated by human action anyway, including splitting the church, we may as well learn to live together. In fact, to do otherwise is to “reject God, renounce Jesus, and revoke our baptism.”

Strong words!

If a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian were reading Dick’s words, he might be forgiven for thinking, “Physician, heal thyself!” As Riley B. Case puts it in the comments section:

Following this logic we need to renounce our United Methodism and our Protestantism and go back to Rome. Since 2016 is the year before the 500-year anniversary of the 95 theses, we could perhaps vote at General Conference to disband and repent. After all, blood is thicker than water.

Another commenter includes these insightful words from John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, regarding church schism (Sermon 80, On Schism, ¶ 17):

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a minister of the Church of England. And I have no desire nor design to separate from it till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet, and right, and my bounden duty to separate from it without delay. To be more particular, I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel. Yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the church without omitting this, without desisting from the gospel, I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue to unite with any smaller society, church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.

Moreover, since Wesley himself endorsed, however reluctantly, the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the former British colonies of America, how can he be considered anything other than a schismatic?

Clearly, Wesley himself, unlike Dick, did not value unity above all else. If Dick thinks Wesley was wrong, I wish he would say why. Does Dick know something about the nature of baptism that Wesley didn’t know?

Not to mention the authors of scripture!

After all, I’m sure the man committing incest, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, also happened to be baptized. Yet Paul tells the church in the strongest terms possible to separate themselves from this man—for the sake of the man’s soul. Suppose some leaders in the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul: “No, Paul, we think it’s perfectly O.K. that this man is committing flagrant, unrepentant sexual sin, which is condemned alongside homosexual practice in the exact same context of Leviticus 18 and 20.”

Would Paul write back and say, “No problem. You’re all baptized, after all. God has accepted this man committing incest. You need to as well”?

It boggles the mind.

Of course, I am making an argument from scripture, which few Methodist leaders these days have the stomach for. Certainly not Dick. He seems so bored with the biblical argument that he can’t even bother to make it. He only argues about the argument:

The Bible offers a cultural community/purity code that has absolutely nothing to do with the post-enlightenment morality codes of Western civilization.  What we want the Bible to say about homosexuality it simply doesn’t say.  Sure, it is named as “a sin”, but not as some would like to define it today.  In context, it was a disobedience to God and a violation of community because it did not fulfill the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Those who wish to make it about the sanctity of marriage must be careful, because it cannot be separated from issues of divorce, bloodline, polygamy and a much broader (less-sex-based) definition of adultery.

As I’ve argued in many places in this blog (here, for example), the biblical case against homosexual practice goes far beyond the “thou shalt not’s” of a few proof-texts (although inasmuch as scripture says “thou shalt not,” we Methodists, who say we affirm the primacy of scripture, better pay attention!); it mostly has to do with complementarity of male and female. This is affirmed loudly by Jesus in Matthew 19 and its parallels. Contrary to Dick’s assertions, Jesus’ words there, along with Paul’s in Romans 1 and Ephesians 5, say nothing about procreation.

But Dick’s point here is to say that we can’t know what Paul and the other authors of scripture meant when they wrote about sexuality—except they didn’t mean what we mean today. (At least Dick concedes that the Bible says that homosexual practice is a sin, so that’s progress, I guess.) His words remind me of something I wrote in my review of Daniel Helminiak’s revisionist book, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.

The author’s point is that everything we think we know about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality is wrong…

[I]f Helminiak is correct, we have no idea what kind of Bible we have—because the Bible is so hopelessly obscure that none of us unschooled in the nuances of Hebrew and Greek can begin to decipher it! Words no longer mean what we think they mean—despite what a broad consensus of Bible scholars and translators have told us for 2,000 years.

Fine… We don’t know what Paul means by “unnatural” (Greek: para physin) in Romans 1:26. Why stop there? How do we really know what “love” means in John 3:16?

If Dick (and Helminiak) are right about the obscurity of the Bible, then we have another problem: Suppose God wanted to tell us through his Word that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin. What would God say that he hasn’t already said? How would the Holy Spirit have guided the authors of scripture to put God’s intentions into words such that they couldn’t be dismissed as culturally relative?

What would the Bible have to say about homosexuality to convince revisionists that God is telling us that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin?

I ask because, if the revisionists are right, they rule out that interpretation before they even start! Why? Because, they say, their world is different from ours and vice versa.

In the second article, on the UMC-affiliated Ministry Matters website, Rev. Dalton Rushing tells us that he believes in the primacy of scripture, yet he says that his convictions regarding the “legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships” comes from “hours of study of scripture, of the doctrines of the church, of science. It comes from conversation and communal discernment. It also comes from hours and hours of prayer.”

Do you see the contradiction?

If we Methodists accept the primacy of scripture, then the authenticity (or not) of homosexual relationships depends on nothing other than what God is telling us through his Word. Inasmuch as tradition, reason, and experience help us understand what the Bible says, that’s good and useful. But they have no veto power over the Bible.

(And before anyone asks, I am happy to argue about Albert Outler’s so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)

Rushing says that apart from his convictions about the LGBTQ issue, “you’d be hard pressed to argue I’m not a classical Wesleyan evangelical.” If so, then he would surely agree that the Holy Spirit does not reveal something to us today, even through “hours and hours of prayer,” that contradicts what the Holy Spirit has already revealed to us in scripture.

Besides, I’m sure the apostle Paul prayed a lot, too. Ahem…

Like Dan Dick, Rushing is only arguing about the argument. I would like for him to actually make his argument.

Early in his article he writes:

While I would argue that [the LGBTQ issue] is not the most important issue facing the United Methodist Church (the church lost nearly 5% of its worshipping membership between 2012 and 2014, according to the most recent statistics available), the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is certainly important.

Really?

Because if the UMC splits this year—or General Conference sows the seeds of a split in the near future—the denomination that’s left in its wake will lose much more than five percent of its membership in two years. And if it lost those members in part because it changed its doctrine on sexuality to reflect Rushing’s convictions, he would probably say something like this: “It’s unfortunate, but if that’s the price the church had to pay in order to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, then so be it.”

I could be wrong, but why wouldn’t he say something like that? From his perspective, our church is condoning something evil. Isn’t it? Denying full equality to gays and lesbians; discriminating against them in ordination and marriage; actively harming them through our witness and our doctrines, perhaps even leading some to commit suicide (as I’ve been accused of doing on more than one occasion).

If Rushing believes he’s right, how could he not believe that the LGBTQ issue is bigger than simply losing members?

So here’s something I have in common with most theological progressives in our denomination: I believe the stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to this issue.