By / Feb 27

What just happened?

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is the largest mainline denomination, the second-largest Protestant denomination (after the Southern Baptist Convention), and the third-largest Christian denomination.

In 1972, the UMC added affirmations about human sexuality to their Book of Discipline, a document which collects the laws, doctrine, administration, organizational work, and procedures of the denomination. Included in the Discipline were the statements, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

This language on sexuality has become increasingly unpopular with elements of the denomination that affirm homosexuality and same-sex marriage. During the 2016 General Conference, the Council of Bishops proposed the appointment of a 32-person committee called the “Commission on a Way Forward” to help the Council of Bishops submit a recommendation to a Special Session.

A Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church met on February 23-26 to “examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.” A majority of the delegates present voted to uphold the language on biblical sexuality.

What were the options considered by the Special Session?

During the Special Session, the delegates considered three options by the Commission on a Way Forward:

The One Church Plan: This plan “gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” It would have removed the language from the Book of Discipline used in the United States that restricts pastors and churches from conducting same-sex weddings and annual conferences from ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexual persons. It would also have added language that intentionally protects the religious freedom of pastors and churches who choose not to perform or host same-sex weddings and Boards of Ordained Ministry and bishops who chose not to credential or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexual persons.

The One Church Plan was intended to honor “the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue.”

Connectional Conference Plan: This plan “reflects a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services. This plan creates three values-based connectional conferences that have distinctive definitions of accountability, contextualization and justice.” The plan would allow for the creation of new “connectional conferences” or joining one of the three values-based connectional conferences. Each connectional conference would have its own policies regarding LGBTQ weddings and ordination.

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan would require “accountability to the current Book of Discipline language.” It would also broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals. It would also require bishops and every annual conference to “certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.” Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the “autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.”

The Council of Bishops recommended that the denomination adopt the One Church Plan.

What was the outcome of the Special Session?

The delegates at the Session voted 438 to 384 in favor of the Traditional Plan.

How does this outcome affect the denomination?

To understand how the Special Session decision affects the denomination, it’s helpful to understand the polity of the UMC.

The UMC’s primary grouping of people and churches is the conference. Groups of local churches in a geographic area are organized to form a district, which, in turn, are connected to annual (regional) conferences. Jurisdictional conferences around the globe are also connected to the General Conference, an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that generally meets every four years. Comprising delegates elected by annual gatherings of regional conferences, it is the only body that can speak for the denomination and set official policy in the Book of Discipline, the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves.

The Special Session had the authority to amend or uphold the language about sexuality. Additionally, new language will be added to the Book of Discipline that will make it harder for existing UMC churches to affirm homosexuality. For example, according to the plan that was adopted,

Annual Conferences will need to decide if they can fully abide by United Methodist Discipline in matters of human sexuality. Those that can do so will indicate that by their vote. Those that cannot in good conscience follow The United Methodist Church’s Discipline will form or join a self-governing church that gives them the freedom to perform same-gender marriages and ordain self-avowed practicing LGBTQ persons.

By voting to uphold the biblical view of sexuality, the LGBTQ faction in the denomination will almost assuredly split from the General Conference and thus disassociate from the other conferences and other local churches within the UMC. Local churches and clergy have until the end of April 2020 to decide whether they will remain in the denomination or leave and join a self-governing body.

By / Feb 20

What constitutes true marriage? Does marriage really have to be between a man and a woman? Or is love between any two adult partners all that is needed? Does marriage have to last a lifetime?

Can we trust the church in its understanding of marriage? If we can’t, then what can we trust the church with?

Ironically, there is significant confusion in the Church. I’m thinking of the church of which I am a part, the United Methodist Church. A number of our ministers have performed marriage ceremonies between same-sex couples, knowing this is a violation of our understanding and doctrine of marriage. At the 2012 General Conference (the only body in our church that speaks for the whole denomination), the policy forbidding the blessing of same-sex unions was challenged but upheld. The conference delegates also left in place the church’s official doctrine declaring support for “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”

At this 2012 General Conference, it was reaffirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman by stating:

We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Though numerous clergy have violated the position of the church on this issue of marriage, recently it reached an almost unbelievable level of violation. A retired bishop disregarded the request of the Resident Bishop of North Alabama and the Council of Bishops and performed a blessing of the wedding of a same-sex couple in Alabama. That retired bishop now faces formal charges, at the urging of the Council of Bishops.

Another bishop of our church responded to the whole issue by acknowledging that we United Methodists are divided in our understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, and pleaded that we live civilly with our differences. The way he stated this was shocking to me.

As I have stated many times in the past, I acknowledge my human sinfulness, and do not presume to believe that my position is the unequivocal truth. I cannot know God’s Truth on this issue, and can only stand on my limited conviction of what I believe. I will not force my convictions on those who believe the opposite.

 My question to the Bishop is, given your admission that you “cannot know God’s truth on this issue,” why can’t you trust the Church?  And if you can’t trust the Church on this issue, how do you determine when to trust her and what you can trust her with?

 Who are our chief shepherds and teachers in United Methodism? Our pastors and bishops are our chief shepherds and teachers. The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the church in defining who we are and what we believe, thus the General Conference establishes the doctrine and discipline of the church.

 We don’t need theology based upon our personal opinions. As John Calvin pointed out, the human heart is an idol factory. If we are going to be a church that is a part of the Church, what we need is biblically informed theology so that we can stand against the tide of humanism as the “people of God” set apart to represent God’s Kingdom.

We United Methodists are united with nearly all Christian authorities and bodies across history and culture in how we view marriage: as a relationship instituted and ordained by God for the lifelong relationship between one man as husband and one woman as wife.  From the beginning the church has considered marriage the most intimate of human relationships, a gift from God, and a sacred institution.  Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith. Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider it a Sacrament. Biblically, it is to be “held in honor among all. . . .”[Heb. 13:4]

In his teaching, Jesus Christ underscored the importance and sacredness of lifelong marriage between one woman and one man. He stated that God had created mankind as male and female, [Genesis 1:27] and that in marriage “‘the two will become one flesh’. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”[Matt. 19:5b-6]

 This is the corporate, and continuing witness of the Church throughout history. We need to keep in mind that how we think must not be restricted to random feelings and even individual interpretation of Scripture. We need to be in harmony with the whole Body of Christ and all the saints now and forever.

I was pleased that recently the United Methodist bishop in Oklahoma was quoted defending natural marriage in his state along with the Catholic archbishop there and a Southern Baptist leader.  Theirs was the true unity of the Body of Christ.

If we can’t trust the church in our understanding of marriage, then whom are we to trust?