Are Methodists Really Mainline Anymore?

Jason Micheli —  June 20, 2014 — 7 Comments

Church-RainbowA few days ago a friend in my congregation emailed me, responding to a series of posts I’d written about the ‘Way Forward’ proposal in the United Methodist Church. The Way Forward is an attempt for a third way through the impasse over homosexuality which presently besets the church.

He writes- and, trust me, he’s not whatever comes to your mind when you think ‘liberal:’

In 1990 golfer Tom Watson, one of the best players on the PGA Tour and winner of 8 majors, abruptly resigned from the exclusive Kansas City country club where he had grown up and learned to play golf. He said that as a matter of personal integrity, despite great memories and a long association, he could no longer belong to an institution that discriminated aganst and blackballed Jewish, black, Hispanic and Asian prospective members.
I can belong to a church where members disagree about whether the Primeval History in Genesis is literally word-for-word true. That difference does not affect our ability to live, love and serve together in Christian community.
The homosexuality issue is different.
As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?
I question more and more whether as a matter of personal integrity I can continue to be a member of such a group. How can I acknowledge (witness) on a Facebook post that I am a member of a Methodist church and then look my gay and lesbian friends in the face the next day? Make no mistake, about 50 of my Facebook friends are gay or lesbian.
“A Way Forward” is something I can live with. I’m not sure that the status quo is. If I were not positive that you do not hold the hard-line position on his issue I would already be gone.
In case you skipped ahead, my friend’s point boils down to this:

Methodism’s posture towards gays makes for increasingly bad advertising.

Or as we like to call it in the Church: evangelism.

My own cul de sac of the United Methodist Church begins its annual 3 day conference today, and the first resolution on the docket is a motion to amend our denomination’s official language that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching*.’

If the resolution passes, not at all a certainty, the motion simply moves on to (possibly, maybe) be debated at the global meeting of the United Methodist Church in 2016.

 

Two full years from now.

 

Where most of the delegates will be from the most conservative parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination which educated me, just this week voted to allow gay marriages.
By the healthy margin of 429 to 175. You can read about it here.
Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’
The Presbyterians, as this article rattles off, join the ranks of other mainline denominations which have ameliorated their previous positions on sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Church of Christ. Not to mention 2 out of 3 of America’s Jewish denominations.
Which leaves who exactly other than the United Methodist Church as the remaining ‘mainline’ Protestant traditions that still take a hard line against gay Christians?
Can Methodists really consider ourselves mainline anymore when we now have more in common with Southern Baptists than we do Presbyterians or the Episcopal tradition whence we came?
Do we really want to be the last ones to this party?
What will be the demographic cost of lingering prejudice associated with our particular brand of Christianity?
And I know this is the place where some will want to interject and point out how the above mentioned denominations are all smaller than they were mid-century before they purportedly went liberal. Therefore, the argument always goes, United Methodists cannot change their position without losing members and their money.
Two quick responses:
If people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should change its stance towards homosexuality then the moral imperative of that belief- our compassion for people- should outweigh our ‘compassion’ for an institution.
Likewise, if people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should keep its stance towards homosexuality then that’s fine too so long as institutional maintenance is not the mission.
Two:

There’s a pernicious fallacy in linking the gradual decline of mainline Protestantism with its supposedly liberal policy positions.

We’re not the only ones in the decline as the Pew Survey on Religion has helpfully revealed. Southern Baptists and Evangelical Churches, no liberals and no friends of gay Christians, are in their own moment of decline and, were it not for immigration, ditto the Catholic Church in America.
The ecclesial decline to which we so often turn to homosexual-support for a scapegoat actually suggests a more general cultural shift towards secularism, a shift that shows no partiality to liberal and conservative alike.
And if what churches are really experiencing is a seismic shift away from religion in general, then the stakes of the current debate over homosexuality suddenly seem a lot smaller and more urgent.

How we vote on sexuality will not determine the demise or the future of the Church; how we tackle secularism will.

 

And if secularism is the true threat to the institutional faith then, to my mind, it’s all the more imperative that we do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.
*Of course, our denomination’s official language also marks out war, unfettered capitalism, alcohol and tobacco, and disregard for the creation as contradictory with our Christian faith so let’s keep things in perspective and not suppose sexuality is the lynchpin of the moral universe.

Jason Micheli

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7 responses to Are Methodists Really Mainline Anymore?

  1. Your friend’s comment: “How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil….” You should correct your friend, because this is not the affirmation or proclamation of the UMC.

    Your comment: “If people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should change its stance towards homosexuality then the moral imperative of that belief- our compassion for people- should outweigh our ‘compassion’ for an institution.” You might ask yourself whether it is possible for God to deny himself? Do you really think the Spirit is going to deny his Word?

    This discussion is way off base. This is Christ’s body; not man’s; not culture’s; not mine; and not yours. Money, membership, etc. are irrelevant. Jesus during his earthly ministry was never about numbers. He sent some aware and many left of their own accord. The church is not a civic organization. This discussion should be about 2 things: (1) What is the mission of the church? and (2) What does it mean to be follower of Jesus Christ? God has given us his Word to discern the answers to these questions. Any discussion that is not rooted in God’s Word is idolatry (i.e., man made religion).

    If the UMC takes the step to untether itself from the Word of God on this matter, it will undermine the authority of scripture for any number of other issues. It will sever itself from the body of Christ in so doing. It will become a dead denomination.

    There are other denominations which subordinate the Word of God to their cultural desires. Why can’t those within the UMC which feel likewise join one of them instead of changing the very fabric of the institution that John Wesley started?

    • Bob Oelschlager June 23, 2014 at 3:35 PM

      The friend who wrote to Jason has eyes that do not fail to see and ears that do not fail to hear and no misperceptions about the UMC that need to be corrected. UMC doctrine as expressed in the Book of Discipline is gay unfriendly at best; and prejudicial and anti-gay at face value.

      The traditionalist statement, “Those who are attracted to others of the same sex may be ordained as leaders in the UMC as long as they are and remain celibate” (Brent White), as an argument that gays are in fact welcome (???), speaks for itself in its absurdity.

      Blessings,

      • I agree with Bob completely. Brent White seems to think all the writers of scripture are infallible and not influenced by the culture of the times. Moreover, Brent apparently thinks the Holy Spirit is present only to bolster that culture, which would leave us all stuck in that time frame, women and slaves alike. Once again it is time for the UMC as an institution to see a more compassionate way forward. Same sex relationships and families deserve compassion and acceptance in the same manner as heterosexuals.

  2. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” [John 1:1 and 1:14]

    This discussion is exactly on target. It is the role of the church and its mission, therefore, to emulate Jesus, and it is our role to be a follower. It is certainly not to make a false idol out certain verses, especially when those verses are not compatible with Jesus’ life and teachings.

    If your position is that every word in the Bible is God’s word and that all the words are of equal importance, then you presume an infallibility on the part of the writer. However, the writer of scripture passes on revelation only insofar as he is able to perceive it. He is not immune to the cultural biases of his times. We all fall short of that because we are human; and as much as we would so desire it, we can only pray for a clearer understanding of “the mind of Christ.”

    Paul spoke of women keeping silent in the church, of women not taking leadership roles, of a slave continuing to serve his master. It has taken centuries to bring about changes here in the U.S. regarding the equality of women and the abolition of slavery. As much as I love Paul, he was not immune from the culture of his day.

    What are the guidelines one follows when trying to resolve an issue? We have scripture and the life and teachings of Jesus. When discernment is involved, I prefer to opt for that which I believe more nearly reflects the mind of Christ, which means that I’m opting for the more compassionate approach. Clearly, we do not choose whether we will be homosexual or heterosexual. And we all know the social, economic, and legal hardships endured by those who are drawn to same sex relationships through no fault of their own. Who would willingly choose these hardships if they had a choice?. No one.

    Jesus has nothing to say about homosexuality and very little about sexual sins. He reserves his harshest criticism for those who claim to love God but who do not serve the poor and the oppressed. Homosexuals surely fall into the category of the oppressed.

    The church as an institution has often fallen short when it comes to leadership. It took individual Christians and reform minded secularists, not the institutional church, to lead the charge against slavery, women’s rights, and the civil rights of African Americans over the years. How do you account for this? I believe it was the Holy Spirit working through the hearts and minds of secular citizens and Christian leaders to bring about a change that is more in keeping with the commandment to love one another. It is the Holy Spirit enlightening and teaching us the mind of Christ, as was promised. Pastors who have changed their minds about homosexuality and disagree with the UMC’s current position are neither heretical nor hypocritical, but rather listening to the voice of compassion and understanding as they interpret the Word of God through the Holy Spirit.

    Moreover, and more importantly, the Holy Spirit is not present to bolster the interpretation of scripture according to the culture of testament times, but rather to enlighten our minds and focus our hearts on what is the more loving and fair thing to do, i.e., the Christ-like thing to do. Those who disagree might want to consider giving the Holy Spirit a bit more latitude.

    So….it matters very much how you define Word. I choose the Word that took flesh.

  3. Juanita – I’ve enjoyed our dialogue. There are many things I could respond to in your latest posts, however, the issue of “culture” caught my eye, because it is a reoccuring topic in your posts. So, I would like to address that topic here.

    “Brent White seems to think all the writers of scripture are infallible and not influenced by the culture of the times. Moreover, Brent apparently thinks the Holy Spirit is present only to bolster that culture, which would leave us all stuck in that time frame, women and slaves alike.”

    “However, the writer of scripture passes on revelation only insofar as he is able to perceive it. He is not immune to the cultural biases of his times.”

    “Paul spoke of women keeping silent in the church, of women not taking leadership roles, of a slave continuing to serve his master. It has taken centuries to bring about changes here in the U.S. regarding the equality of women and the abolition of slavery. As much as I love Paul, he was not immune from the culture of his day.”

    You have referred several times in your posts to the relationship of the church and culture and, if I’m reading you correctly, you are arguing that: (1) scripture (by virture of its authors) is in some negative ways culture-bound to its past; and (2) the church needs to reinterpret scripture to be culturally relevant and inclusive. I think this point of view misses what the church at its roots and at its best has always been and is called to remain being: a counter-culture movement.

    From its very beginning, Christianity has been a radically counter-culture movement. Jesus, himself, opposed many of his culture’s religious norms. Just to name a few: He raised the bar on the marriage covenant (e.g., divorce and adultry); he raised the bar on who is my neighbor worth of my love; he raised the bar on foregiveness; he raised the bar on charity.

    If you attended a church last weekend that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, you may have heard Jesus say: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.

    “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it” (Matt 10:34-39).

    Many Christians don’t realize it, but one the attributes of Jesus’ counterculture message was his call to greater holiness. “So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

    Jesus earliest followers also spread a message that was radically counter-culture. The status of women and slaves were elevated; sexual immorality was condemned; pagan idol worship was condemned. All but one apostle were martyred for being counter-cultural.

    The topic of women in leadership in the church is still debated today. Anyone can pull texts out of context to proof-text any position they want. I have looked at this, not as a scholar, but as an educated layperson and agree with the many bone fide scholars (e.g., Ben Witherington III, N.T. Wright, Michael F. Bird, and Scot McKnight) who read the entire corpus of Paul’s work as supporting women in church leadership.

    However, aside from the leadership issue, the counter-culture message of Christianity was extremely attractive to women, who were instrumental in the rise of Christianity in the early centuries. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark states that “the early church was so especially attractive to women that in 370 the emperor Valentinian issued a written order to Pope Damasus I requiring that Christian missiionaries cease calling at the homes of pagan women.”

    Early Christians prohibited infanticide, abortion, were against serving in the Roman Legions. All of these were counter-culture.

    So, no, I don’t think the church should take it’s cue from culture. It was never intended to and should never bow to anyone or anything, other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors, who themselves were culture bound and sinners just like us, to write the words of God to the people of God accross every time and place.

    Holiness means the samething today that it meant 2,000 years ago, and the sins of 2,000 years ago remain sins today.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Does the UMC really believe that the LGBT are “evil” or “less than fully human”? | Rev. Brent L. White - June 23, 2014

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  2. On Regretting My Vote | think and let think - June 23, 2014

    […] This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/). […]

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