Monday, April 25, 2016

"Clarity" in United Methodist Theology: a Necessity or a Tool for Takeover?

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is two weeks away. Predictably, the issue of human sexuality has received top billing; in the meetings of the delegation from North Georgia, of which I am a part, this issue has been discussed more than any other. I have written about this issue a number of times; it is indeed an issue about which I have strong feelings.

Sexuality, though, is not the issue which I suspect will be the most consequential to the future of the United Methodist Church. The issue I suspect will most impact the church--and, if successful, has the potential to deal the church the most damage--is much more insidious. This issue is spread across multiple legislative committees and many pieces of legislation, and it amounts to driving out theological exploration within the United Methodist Church and pushing us toward a narrowly defined faith which would tie the hands of our evangelists, restrict the work of our theologians, and dramatically damage the robust witness of the United Methodist Church.

In the name of creating theological clarity--in many ways, a noble task--several pieces of legislation threaten to dramatically remake the church in the image of those writing the legislation.

Such a goal is never explicitly stated, of course, but the goal is woven throughout multiple pieces of legislation. Take Dr. Bill Arnold's rewrite of "Our Theological Task," for instance (60676-FO-¶105-G). In the preamble, Arnold proposes amending Our Theological Task to note that reason, tradition and experience
must be brought to bear in faithful, serious, theological consideration upon the living core of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture, our primary authority. We turn to these three in the process of interpreting Scripture (a process known as hermeneutics), but not as independent sources of truth.
At first glance, there is nothing revolutionary here. Of course, scripture is primary. Of course, the other sources and norms are used to interpret scripture--interpretive lenses, if you will--rather than being co-equal with scripture. But this is not what is written here, and thus would be written into the Discipline. What is written is that there is no truth apart from scripture. Reason, tradition, and experience are not "independent sources of truth" in this rendering, never mind where they fall in the hierarchy with scripture.

Think about this for a minute. There is a proposal, with significant chance of being included in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which says that reason, tradition, and experience are not "independent sources of truth." It does not say "lesser sources." It does not say "informing sources." Whatever the original intention, this legislation literally says that reason, tradition, and experience are not independent sources of truth. This is nitroglycerin, not theology.

Our Theological Task does not exist for the purpose of subverting United Methodist Doctrine! In fact, we have clear Doctrinal Standards, and while it is true that the results of engaging Our Theological Task sometimes stands in tension with the Doctrinal Standards, this tension is carefully crafted to keep one foot firmly planted on the terra firma of sound doctrine, while allowing for theological imagination in the academy and the church. We would never allow the American Medical Association to say that we already have the only text we'll ever need, primary though it is--the human body--and that anything that challenges our traditional understanding of that text is not an independent source of truth. There seems to be a movement in some corners of the church to dispense with Our Theological Task altogether, damaging our witness and moving us toward a faith that demands agreement in all things, essentials and non-essentials alike.

The proposed damage is not limited to Our Theological Task. Take, for instance, a proposal from Joel Watts (60587-MH-¶1422.3-G) to require all full-time faculty at any United Methodist seminary in the United States to
sign a statement affirming their personal agreement with and commitment to the basic, ecumenical Christian doctrine of Articles I, II, and IV of the Methodist Articles of Religion and/or of Articles I, II, and III of the Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church (¶104). 
On the surface, this commitment seems fine. As clergy, I certainly affirm these doctrines. But I am a church pastor, not a professor. I know of many United Methodist seminaries who employ exemplary Jewish faculty in the area of Biblical studies. Should we fire these people, allowing seminaries to only hire three professors who refuse to sign such a statement? Beyond this, what in Heaven's name are we doing talking about requiring faculty in our seminaries--faculty who are tasked with doing theology--to sign a statement binding their scholastic work in any way?

Or take the requirement (60228-MH-¶1414.2-G), proposed by Beth Ann Cook, that all members of the University Senate--the governing body of United Methodist higher education--be United Methodist. Again, on the surface, this sounds great; of course United Methodists should drive the conversation about our colleges and seminaries. But the purpose here is more than just ensuring theological consistency. By requiring United Methodists in every single position on the Senate, we are limiting a large number of trained, accomplished higher educators to provide input on the very subject out which they are the most knowledgeable. What is more, the entire slate would be voted upon by the General Conference, which means that if the slate were not approved, you'd watch before your very eyes a takeover of our seminaries on the floor of the General Conference.

I do not mean to make more of this danger than necessary; I do not have a significant sense of how successful these proposals are likely to be. Neither do I mean to argue that there is some shadowy coordinated attack afoot. But I would note that while the gate of General Conference petitions is (necessarily and appropriately) wide, I did not randomly pluck these petitions from the Daily Christian Advocate. Each of these petitions was written by a prominent United Methodist leader: Bill Arnold chairs the Biblical Studies department at Asbury Seminary; Beth Ann Cook is a member of the board of Good News, a conservative renewal movement; and Joel Watts is a prolific blogger.

Finally, let me widen my focus a bit and argue that my problem with all I've listed here is not even necessarily theological; while you might quibble with my belief in the legitimacy of committed same-sex partnerships, you'd be hard-pressed to call me anything other than an orthodox Wesleyan evangelical. My problem is that these pieces of legislation, and several petitions like them, would consolidate power in unhealthy ways: power over the makeup of University Senate; power over the historic academic freedoms enjoyed within the academy; and power over Biblical hermeneutics, resulting in the illegitimacy of any interpretive lenses other than those which match the existing biases of those in power.

Theologically speaking, I am no radical. But if the authors of these petitions have their way, I'm not sure there would be room for me in this remade United Methodist Church; I am not sure there would be room for many of us. And perhaps that is precisely the point.

Monday, April 18, 2016

On Church: Episode 12, CHURCH GROWTH

Numerical growth continues to be a goal of congregations today, decades after the advent of the church growth movement. In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about growth and its implications for the church today.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sexual ethics and the pro-LGBTQ argument within the United Methodist Church

The 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is less than forty days away, so the online chatter about hot-button issues is reaching a fever pitch. Predictably, it is the issue of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people that gets the most press. While I would argue that it is not the most important issue facing the United Methodist Church (the church lost nearly 5% of its worshipping membership between 2012 and 2014, the most recent statistics available), the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is certainly important. For what it is worth, I am on record as an advocate for full inclusion.

I am hesitant to contribute to the chatter, as I think these matters are best discussed face-to-face and within the context of relationships in the local church and the annual conference. That said, as I have been called out, in a way, I feel it necessary to respond.

By way of context, The Methodist Federation for Social Action, a liberal caucus group within the United Methodist Church, posted a brief blog post by an anonymous clergy person in which the author says this:
"It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules."
While I am sympathetic to much of MFSA's organizing on behalf of those on the margins (including those who identify as LGBTQ), I find this article to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, which is far different than being prophetic. I'm in favor of universal birth control access--the thrust of the article--but as UMC clergy, we already have this access. Advocating for those who don't have this access is a worthwhile goal, but I fail to see how a clergy person's public rebuke of the UMC's sexual ethic helps that cause. This seems like an argument crafted to stir the pot rather than bridge divides. As I noted in a tweet, if accepting this kind of argument is what it means progressive, I don't know what that makes me (more on this in a minute).

Talbot Davis, pastor of Good Shepherd Church, a United Methodist congregation, agrees with me about the misguidedness of the MSFA blog post, but he takes the argument several steps further than I am willing to go--or that I find appropriate. (Davis and I are friendly; we hope to find time to get together at the Southeastern Jurisdictional conference this July where we are both delegates. I should note that I have great respect for him.) Davis argues in Ministry Matters that the MFSA post, and comments associated with it, prove that those who favor changing the United Methodist Book of Discipline to include full inclusion of LGBTQ people are "dismantling the entire sexual ethic that has helped define the Christian faith for two millennia," leading to "sexual anarchy." That Davis, an opponent of full inclusion of LGBTQ people, would believe these things is hardly surprising. But he does not stop there. Davis continues:
If you are a United Methodist centrist and are heading to Portland still undecided in how you will vote on the Conference-defining issue, please remember: a “change the language” vote unleashes a generation of clergy who have so rewritten our sexual ethic that it will not be in any meaningful sense Christian.
In essence, his argument is this: those who favor full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the United Methodist Church are unleashing an "anything goes" sexual ethic. What is more, he says--does not suggest, but says!--that those who what to change the Discipline's definition of marriage likewise want to do away with the stigma against premarital sex. To be blunt: the argument that those of us who argue for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church have no integrity on sexual matters is an argument so full of wet straw that it practically self-combusts.

1. To suggest that MSFA is equivalent to being "progressive," and that "progressives" must buy into what MSFA says hook, line, and sinker, is similar to saying that "conservatives" must accept the hateful nonsense of the Westboro Baptist Church. Of course these two entities are not equivalent, and of course the WBC doesn't speak for conservatives. But why do I have to accept the rhetoric of an organization of which I am not a part, simply because I identify, in some settings, as "progressive?"

2. The lines we draw between "conservative" and "progressive" theology are not as clear as Davis describes. Let me use my own life and ministry as an example. I have been known to talk about my theology as "progressive" as it relates to the issue of full inclusion, but that is simply because that one issue seems to be the dividing line for us. To be honest, my theology is a mixture of conservative and liberal, but (with the exception of full inclusion), you'd be hard pressed to argue I'm not a classical Wesleyan evangelical. I believe in the literal resurrection. I believe in the virgin birth. I believe in the primacy of scripture. I place a high value on conversion. I believe that the business of being the Church is the most important thing in the whole world. I believe the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and lives of believers. I believe Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. I believe sex is sacred, and that marriage is the only relationship strong enough to stand up to its power. I could go on.

3. The classic division of "conservative" and "progressive" political ideology, beyond the LGBTQ matter, does not mirror "conservative" and "progressive" theological divisions.  For instance, in my own annual conference, considered one of the most conservative in the United States, it is not unusual to see resolutions related to immigration reform pass easily, supporting ministry with and the legitimacy of those who are undocumented.

4. I am not unique in my theological perspective. Many (if not most!) of my colleagues who identify as "progressive" are similarly classically Wesleyan evangelical. We have just been convicted of the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships and want LGBTQ people to be able to enter into that marriage covenant. I maintain that this is, in fact, a conservative argument. It is also no longer a fringe position. We sometimes paint clergy who advocate for full inclusion with the broad brush of "radical;" in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, these clergy are often exclusively appointed to liberal churches. I've been called worse things than "radical," but whether you agree with this argument or not, I maintain that this theological bent is well within the mainstream.

5. Our conviction related to the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships is not, as Davis suggests, a result of "The church of me and now [trumping] the faith of we and history." I will, again, speak for myself here, but my conviction 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.

6. In other words, when Davis says:

"Once you become more enlightened than the authors of Scripture when it comes to same-sex intercourse, then you are inevitably more enlightened when it comes to premarital sexual intercourse as well,"
he is making a claim that simply is not true. Beyond my own rejection of the claim that I am pretending to be "more enlightened than the authors of Scripture," let me be clear. I believe in the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships, and I believe in the legitimacy of marriage for straight and LGBTQ people alike. I also hold traditional views on premarital sexual intercourse and on the primacy of scripture. In fact, I believe my position decreases the frequency of premarital sexual intercourse by opening the institution of marriage, a holy covenant, to more people. Davis's "inevitably" simply does not hold up to reality.

In summary, to suggest that those "centrists" among us who believe in--or are beginning to support--the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships are somehow opening the pandora's box of sexual libertinism is neither factual nor fair.

I don't mind being disagreed with. I do mind being misrepresented. As we chatter before--and during--General Conference, let's be people of grace and truth.