Posts Tagged ‘United Methodist Church’

Anything happening in the news this week?

March 27, 2013


Finally, a sensible Facebook meme!

Even if I supported something called “marriage equality,” which I don’t, I couldn’t change my profile picture to say so—unless I backed it up with substantial action. Otherwise, I’d feel like a hypocrite. So I give credit to the pastor of one United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem whose church announced that it will no longer perform weddings until the denomination recognizes same-sex marriage. I strongly disagree with the church’s convictions, but at least they’re taking action. (Apparently, according to this article, such a stance doesn’t violate our Book of Discipline.)

The statement from the church’s pastor, Rev. Kelly Carpenter, regarding this policy change included these words:

It is unconscionable that our denomination denies ministry to some while making it available to others based on the God-given identity of LGBTQ people. The national opinion and political culture is rapidly changing on the issue of gay marriage. Our United Methodist denomination has failed to lead the way in this struggle for equality, and will once again have to catch up to the culture.

Oh, dear.

As for what I think about this mess, allow me to point you to the blog of Dr. Glenn Peoples, a theologian and apologist whose own country, New Zealand, is currently debating the identical issue. I can hardly recommend his most recent post more. Needless to say, my thinking on the subject mirrors his. Since he’s invested time writing his thoughtful post and doesn’t have an Easter sermon to write or Holy Week responsibilities, etc., I’ll excerpt relevant portions. By all means, please read it in its entirety.

Near the beginning of his post, Peoples writes:

As I hope is true of all sincere people, my values and beliefs about life, reality and everything inform the way that I evaluate any law, policy or opinion. I wouldn’t be a very honest person if I held to a range of beliefs that committed me to rejecting a policy but I pretended to agree with it because I felt that the culture expected it of me.

In other words, if I really believe what I say I believe—what the United Methodist Church believes, along with most of the universal Church—about human sexuality and marriage, how could I not think that redefining marriage would be a tragic mistake? I don’t believe that God gives us rules to follow just to spoil our fun. And if I believe, as I sincerely do, that God tells us through scripture (and tradition and reason) that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s intentions for creation, then no one should be surprised that I oppose redefining marriage to say otherwise.

As for Rev. Carpenter’s concerns about our church “once again having to catch up to the culture,” I couldn’t care less. No Christian pastor should! Fretting about where our church stands in relation to our culture’s sexual ethics is laughable!

Peoples continues:

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About Adam Hamilton’s recent Washington Post op-ed

February 27, 2013

Despite my uncanny resemblance to the man (or is it Rob Bell? I can’t remember), I continue to “agree to disagree” with my fellow United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton on his recently revised stance on human sexuality. I only mention my disagreement again because of his recent op-ed in the Washington Post. 

Some prominent United Methodist clergy, including Asbury Seminary president Timothy Tennent and pastor Maxie Dunnam, have weighed in on it here and here. While Hamilton doesn’t add anything to the argument in his sermon last fall, which I wrote about in some depth, his emphasis in this piece is on the analogy to the biblical treatment of slavery (and, he adds parenthetically, “the place of women”). Regarding those many verses in the Bible that seem to condone or justify slavery, Hamilton writes the following:

Abolitionist preachers argued in their sermons that the verses related to slavery in the Bible were a reflection of the cultural context and times in which the Bible was written and did not reflect God’s endorsement of slavery. They argued that there were “weightier” scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery. This was the position that Lincoln himself adopted.

One day soon, he says, most of us Christians will view the church’s stance toward homosexuals the same way.

Both Tennent and Dunnam argue (as I tried to) that this analogy, powerful as it seems at first blush, doesn’t hold water. As Hamilton has surely preached before on numerous occasions, the Bible’s “clear trajectory” moves away from slavery and female subordination. Hamilton knows, for example, that if slaveowner Philemon takes Paul’s words to heart—that Philemon should treat his runaway slave Onesimus as a fully equal brother in Christ, who is master of us all—and all Christian slaveowners do likewise, then the institution of slavery is subverted from within until it no longer exists. This is, in fact, exactly what happened: by the Middle Ages, slavery was illegal in the Christian West. (Yes, it tragically reemerged with African slavery, but those parts of the Church that endorsed it weren’t being faithful, first of all, to scripture itself, not to mention tradition.)

Since Hamilton knows all this—and has surely preached and taught it before—don’t you think it’s disingenuous for him not to say so? In other words, contrary to his argument, it’s not merely “‘weightier’ scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery,” it’s also scripture’s direct words about slavery itself that destroyed the institution—again, my colleagues in ministry have it right when they talk about a clear trajectory.

No such trajectory exists for homosexual behavior. On the contrary, those verses that speak against same-sex sexual behavior (“five or eight depending upon how one counts,” Hamilton writes) move in the opposite direction.

As he did in his sermon last fall, Hamilton continues to stress the relatively few verses related to homosexual behavior, over against the “100 plus verses on slavery.” If the Church can set aside those hundred-plus verses in order to declare that slavery is immoral, he argues, surely it can do the same with those few verses related to homosexuality.

I don’t know why he thinks this is a good argument.

How many times does the Bible have to say, “Do not covet,” for us to know that coveting is wrong? How many times does it have to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for us to know that we really ought to do so? Unless Hamilton believed that those “five to eight” verses were insufficiently clear, then he’s not making his point.

See, he knows what those five to eight verses are clear enough: that’s not his argument. Although I accept that there are eight verses rather than his five, Hamilton is too good a student of the Bible to go on one of those flights of exegetical fancy in which he pretends words no longer mean what they plainly seem to mean, as I described here.

No, his argument is that those verses, though clear enough, are cultural and time-bound and don’t reflect God’s timeless will.

He also offers this:

In my own life, it was both reading the Bible’s passages on same-sex intimacy in the same light as passages on slavery (and violence and the place of women) and coming to know gay and lesbian people that led me to see this issue differently, particularly children who grew up in my church who loved God and sought to serve Christ. As I listened to their stories I saw that they did not fit the stereotypes I had been taught about gay and lesbian people… And their faith was as authentic as that of anyone else in my congregation.

You mean gay and lesbian Christians can also love and serve Christ as well as the rest of us sinners? Their faith is as “authentic” as straight people’s faith? Who said otherwise? A handful of fundamentalists? Westboro Baptist? What kind of straw-man argument is this?

Will the many gay and lesbian Christians who nevertheless accept and abide by the Church’s traditional teaching and remain celibate appreciate that Hamilton realized—rather late in life, apparently—that they, too, are authentically Christian? Of course, Hamilton doesn’t allow for the possibility that such Christians exist—or that celibacy could ever be a viable option for anyone, even though both Jesus and Paul clearly endorsed it!

One final problem with his article occurs in the final paragraph. He conflates the church’s stance regarding homosexual behavior with preachers “decrying the rights of homosexuals today.”

Not so fast! The question of “rights” is strictly a political question. And if you want to talk about political remedies for unjust discrimination against homosexuals, I’m all ears. I stand alongside our Book of Discipline in opposing discrimination. But this is entirely a separate question from whether the church itself should endorse same-sex marriage or ordain non-celibate homosexuals. None of us, gay or straight, has any “rights” before God.

This just in: “Former atheist becomes minister”

May 1, 2012

We won’t see the above headline any time soon, but it happens. By contrast, a friend asked me what I thought about this piece from All Things Considered yesterday. A United Methodist pastor in Florida named Teresa MacBain came out in March as an atheist.

First, I’m relieved that she had the courage of her convictions and resigned. Out of love, she might have done so quietly for the sake of the congregation that she has now wounded. On the other hand, maybe she wants to proselytize for her new-found lack of faith. If so, she’s off to a good start! The only other way a United Methodist pastor can attract national headlines these days is by coming out of a different closet!

Second, I wanted more information than the story provided. Is she an ordained elder or a (lay) local pastor? (The difference in theological training between the two is vast.) How was she doing in ministry? Did she have any trouble with the churches she served? Was she well-regarded among her peers? Did she get along with parishioners in her current church? Did she have friends in ministry in whom she could confide? If not, why not?

In his recent memoir Hannah’s Child, theologian Stanley Hauerwas said he used to wonder early in his career what would happen if he woke up one day as an unbeliever, having invested so much of his life into a faith he no longer possessed. What would he do? Christianity pays the bills. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are many clergy who, like MacBain, no longer have to wonder—they’re living it.

One thing is sure: No clergy person should get in a place in which they feel isolated. That’s a recipe for disaster.

On my first day of Systematic Theology class at Emory many years ago, my professor, a brilliant and intimidating German Lutheran theologian and pastor, warned us that we need a foundation for our faith that goes beyond mere personal experience. If your Christian faith is built only on your experience of God, he told this classroom of budding pastors, “there’s a chance you won’t even be a Christian ten years from now. Personal experience changes. You need a faith that’s more substantial than that.”

Even as he spoke those words, I imagined that most of the class didn’t believe him. If MacBain were sitting in his class ten years ago, I wonder if she would have believed him?

My prof didn’t think you could do the work of theology without apologetics. We need to be able to defend what we believe. We have to reason through why it makes sense. We have to know why we believe what we believe. “Because the Bible (or the church) tells me so” isn’t sufficient.

His message inspired me, and I bought in. That’s in part why I just finished this two-part series on evidence for the resurrection. It matters that we not simply take these foundational truths about Christianity “on faith.” As I said in Part 1 of “Reason to Believe,” we need faith, by all means, but it isn’t or shouldn’t be blind faith.

MacBain kept an audio journal of her experiences on her iPhone. In one, she said, “Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.”

“One of those sheep.” “Blindly follow.” Ugh. Is this really how you experienced all the people you loved and served in ministry? As sheep blindly following? That’s what you think of them? Not to mention your own husband, who continues to be a believer!

Rest assured, my eyes are wide open, Ms. MacBain.

Just tell me what they decide about the gay stuff

April 28, 2012

We are, as United Methodists, in the throes of the quadrennial battle royale known as General Conference. We have some important business to decide—drastically restructuring the church and putting an end to guaranteed appointments for clergy, both of which I strongly favor.

But as has been the case every year since 1972, the single issue that captures the public’s attention is, yes… homosexuality.

I don’t believe believe that anything will change on that front. When the dust has cleared in Tampa, the UMC will continue to support two-millennia of consensual biblical exegesis and tradition and prohibit non-celibate gays from being ordained and clergy from performing gay weddings.

While this position is in sync with the vast majority of the universal Church (our position is congruent with the Roman Catholic Church, for instance) it will continue to isolate us from our fellow mainline Protestant churches. The difference isn’t mostly that we’re being more faithful to scripture; it’s mostly a matter of church polity.

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More on gays and the UMC

March 1, 2012

A Facebook friend linked to this article advocating for gay equality in the UMC. I didn’t feel like starting a Facebook flame-war by responding to it there, but that’s what this blog is for, right? 😉

The author, a retired UMC pastor named William McElvaney, refers to a letter from the Council of Bishops from last year reaffirming their commitment to upholding the Book of Discipline, especially its stance against homosexual unions and the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals.

This opinion piece is typical of people representing that side of the issue. As the church approaches General Conference this spring, these voices will only grow louder. Even my many colleagues in ministry who, like me, affirm the church’s position, won’t link on Facebook to articles representing their viewpoint.

Being against gay equality in any guise, even for the best of reasons, isn’t cool. And the fear of being uncool, let’s face it, motivates much of our behavior.

McElvaney accuses the bishops of “double-speak.” How can they uphold the Discipline while at the same time speaking of love and grace? “The claim of offering grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ is disingenuous at best and simply hollow in the eyes and ears of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

First, the bishops’ claim is only “disingenuous” if they don’t really believe what they’re saying. If the bishops believe that homosexual behavior is harmful and, yes, sinful—as two millennia of biblical exegesis and tradition maintain—then it would in fact be unloving and ungracious for them to say otherwise.

While the bishops’ position is “hollow in the eyes and ears” of some gay and lesbian Christians, what about those many gay and lesbian Christians who, despite their orientation, seek to be faithful to the most obvious reading of scripture and Christian tradition by remaining celibate? They are out there, and they don’t believe our church’s position should change. McElvaney isn’t doing justice to their struggle.

McElvaney writes, “The bishops’ more excellent way, as difficult as it may be, is not finally to be ecclesiastical enforcers of church law but to be courageous educators and exemplars of God’s radical agape for all through Jesus Christ.”

Why can’t they be both? The same Jesus who said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” was also the one who said “go and sin no more.” Since both statements originate with Jesus in the same passage of scripture, I hope that both are compatible with “radical agape.”

I love McElvaney’s use of the word “radical,” by the way. As if his side were courageously going against the cultural grain!

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Cheerleading in the AP for repeal of Methodist gay ban

June 21, 2011

One AP writer is obviously rooting for the UMC to overturn its ban on gay ordination and marriage

The Associated Press is responsible for a wildly misleading article about the United Methodist Church’s ban on gay marriage and ordination, which appeared yesterday on many news websites including the USA Today. Read the article for yourself and see if you can’t detect which side the reporter is on in the dispute.

As someone who mostly slept through church polity class in seminary, I can only imagine how complicated the UMC’s system of government is. I don’t expect reporters not steeped in the nuances of the Book of Discipline to get the details right. But this article fails any standard of objective journalism, including answering the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. I know these are lean times in the newspaper industry, but don’t they still employ editors?

Here are some major problems with the article, paragraph by paragraph.

Methodist pastors have been marrying same-sex couples or conducting blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions for years with little fanfare and no backlash from the denomination.

Where? Who? How many? Is the lack of backlash from the denomination because the denomination doesn’t care that clergy are breaking church law, or are the clergy performing these services secretly? The latter seems far more likely, especially since—as the article rightly points out—there have been periodic church trials over the years against clergy who perform these services.

In fact, according to the article, the minister whose trial is being highlighted, Rev. Amy DeLong, is only on trial because she told church officials what she was doing. If she hadn’t done that, she likely would not be on trial now. But it wouldn’t be because the UMC didn’t have a problem with it—or that they were silently endorsing her actions.

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No Methodist pastor was fired for agreeing with Rob Bell

March 25, 2011

My Facebook homepage was in a twitter (Ha! Notice what I did there?) this morning because of an online report about a pastor who was, according to the article, fired because he spoke up on Facebook in support of Rob Bell’s not-even-universalist-but-what-if-it-were new book Love Wins.

Here’s the lede:

DURHAM, N.C. — When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

This is nonsense. I’m not surprised that the reporter got it wrong. Reporters usually get religion- and church-related stories wrong. But shame on my fellow Methodist clergy who believe it. At the very least, it means they didn’t pay attention (at all) in United Methodist polity class in seminary.

Granted, I slept through much of the class myself, but let’s be very, very clear: A local church cannot fire a United Methodist pastor. This is so fundamental to Methodist polity it almost can’t be emphasized enough. It’s one of the great strengths of our church, because in theory it gives pastors great freedom and security to proclaim the gospel with boldness.

If Rev. Holtz preached or taught something that his local congregation couldn’t abide, the local church, by means of the SPR, could recommend that the bishop send them a new pastor. If the bishop agrees, Holtz would be appointed somewhere else. He wouldn’t and couldn’t lose his job unless he were brought up on charges before the conference, tried, and found guilty of some serious violation of our Book of Discipline. The Executive Session (the clergy) of the Annual Conference would then have to approve the dismissal.

There’s probably more to the process than that, but to find out I would have to actually get out of my chair, walk over to my bookshelf, get my Book of Discipline out, and look it up.

The point is this: What Rev. Holtz says that he said is not a fireable offense by any stretch—but even if it were, he couldn’t be fired in the manner reported. This is a non-story. Who knows what actually happened, but he’s not being martyred by the church for boldly standing up for his convictions—even if he wants to portray it that way. Say what you will about us Methodists, we are sticklers for following the rules, and the rules come from our Discipline.

This part of the story is obviously true:

Gray Southern, United Methodist district superintendent for the part of North Carolina that includes Henderson, declined to discuss Holtz’s departure in detail, but said there was more to it than the online post about Rob Bell’s book.

The retired bishops’ statement

February 2, 2011

Here we go again… Today a group of 33 retired United Methodist bishops released a statement urging the repeal of ¶304.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which includes these words:

The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

Since this paragraph has been and will continue to be the source of much unchristian behavior on all sides of the issue of homosexuality in the United Methodist Church, we need to work harder as a church to figure out what we believe about human sexuality and why we believe it—and why it matters in the first place. (I even contributed what I hope was a thoughtful reflection on the subject a while back when we were doing our “Tough Texts” series.)

As I was reading the retired bishops’ statement, however, I was reminded of of something Christian ethicist (and estranged United Methodist) Stanley Hauerwas wrote in response to a pastoral letter that the United Methodist Council of Bishops drafted regarding the threat of nuclear war in 1988.

I am not convinced such statements foster the sort of moral discourse necessary for the church to sustain an ongoing witness. Indeed, I suspect there is almost an inverse ratio between the undisciplined character of the Methodist people and the radical nature of our social statements. We draft radical statements as a substitute for being a radical people pledged to witness to the world that God’s peace is not just some ideal but a present possibility for us.

In our present case, could it not be said that our retired bishops have drafted a radical statement as a “substitute for being a radical people pledged to witness to the world that God’s way of being human is not just some ideal but a present possibility for us”? As I wrote in that earlier post,

Does our sex-worshiping culture commit idolatry—even if we understand sexuality differently today? Is it possible for gay and lesbian Christians to affirm the truth of this scripture (and others) if they are in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship? What changes do all of us—gay and straight—need to make in our lives in order that our sexual conduct not become destructive, idolatrous, and life-denying?

These are not rhetorical questions. I’m not sure how to answer them. If I were a retired bishop, however, I would at least want to engage these questions (and others) deeply before proceeding with what amounts to a radical change to our Discipline and our church life. Until we do engage these questions, how do we know for sure that we’re not just selling out to our sexually pathological culture?

If we’re going to be good Methodists, let’s please follow our Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture first, then tradition, reason, and personal experience. I fear the bishops are letting personal experience short-circuit the other three. Sentiment and fear are not a sufficient basis for making this change.

Stanley Hauerwas, “On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War: A Pacifist Response to the United Methodist Bishops’ Pastoral In Defense of Creation” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 429-30.