Preparing for General Conference 2020
July 16, 2019 By Good News
By Timothy Tennent
Leonard Ravenhill once said, “there is no greater tragedy than a sick church in a dying world.” The United Methodist Church is hurting and sick. It is one of the few things that people across the various divisions all seem to agree on. When the UM Church, or any church, is walking through this kind of travail it is important, in the words of the liturgy, to “lift up our hearts” and regain clarity on a few points that have been used to discourage United Methodists.
Is the Church of Jesus Christ “exclusionary”?
It is common for voices within the “progressive” wing of the UM Church to declare that those who adhere to historic orthodoxy (whether doctrines such as the uniqueness and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, or historical ethical positions such as defining marriage as between one man and one woman for life) as being exclusionary.
This charge was reinforced this past May at the ChurchNext conference hosted by the Rev. Adam Hamilton at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and attended by over 600 United Methodists. The accusation that “traditionalists” are exclusionary has been made so often in recent blogs and sermons and full page ads in local newspapers, that it requires a response.
Previously, we had three distinct “groups” within the UM Church: traditional, centrist, and progressive. The centrists claimed to honor both the traditionalist and progressive positions as pastorally sound and morally equivalent. Now that the One Church Plan has been voted down at the 2019 General Conference, many centrists are abandoning the position of “let’s agree to disagree and respect that both views are honorable” and are moving to align more with the full progressive agenda which seeks to silence and shame those who adhere to the global and historic position of the church regarding the definition of marriage. This includes resisting the traditionalists, with the narrative that Christians around the global connection who continue to hold a traditional view of marriage are exclusionary.
However, it is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages, belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and including even more diverse peoples and ethnicities today than at any time in the history of the world. The very idea that the church is becoming exclusionary is a false narrative.
Second, the reason the church is able to take root and flourish around the world among so many diverse cultures is because we share a common faith in Christ, and a common commitment to the Word of God, including a shared ethic as set forth in the New Testament. The “progressives” within the UM Church stand on neither historic nor biblical grounds by trying to introduce a unique set of ethical guidelines for one particular movement within the grand body of Christianity.
Indeed, the very reason for the church’s diversity is that its message is not rooted in any one culture or people, but reflects the universal truths of divine revelation. The meager attempts by a few in our midst to try to demonstrate that this new ethic is actually consistent with Scripture have failed the basic test of understanding Greek words; namely, the consistent way they are actually used by the authors and readers of the New Testament in the time in which they were written. In other words, original meaning is the gold standard in interpretation, and recent attempts to narrow the meaning of key biblical terms in order that they might conform a passage to modern sentiments has no lexical support.
The word “inclusive” understood both biblically and within the marvelous, expansive view of God’s grace, refers to the universal gift of salvation which is extended to all peoples, in all the earth. In other words, the gospel, properly understood, is inclusive. God’s grace extends to everyone. Therefore, our churches should extend wide, enthusiastic, and open arms to everyone. However, the word inclusive is now being used to embrace the idea that we should be morally inclusive of a wide range of ethical positions within the church regarding human sexuality and gender identity. This is unwarranted. All peoples, from all cultures, throughout all times have come to Christ and submitted to the teaching of the New Testament. That’s what it means to be part of the church. That’s what Charles Wesley celebrated in his beautiful hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast.” Everyone is invited, but those who do come, must come to Christ on his terms, not ours.
Are those who uphold the biblical and historic view of marriage unleashing irreparable harm on people, particularly those in the LGBTQ community?
It is truly remarkable how a position which has been clearly held and affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ for its nearly 2,000 years of existence can, almost overnight, become regarded as hateful, harmful, and exclusionary. It is painful to be a United Methodist Christian and hold to a position which continues to be the official position of our denomination, but be held in such open contempt and shame by many even in leadership. We are now being told that we represent “evil, injustice, and oppression” (words of the Rev. Junius Dotson, “Planning New Directions for the Church,” United Methodist News Service, May 22, 2019).
However, the United Methodist Church has explicitly affirmed biblical marriage between one man and one woman since our inception. It is true, that from the 1972 General Conference onward, this position has been challenged. Yet, the General Conference has voted down a range of proposals to redefine marriage a dozen times over the years, and a thirteenth time at the recent General Conference in 2019. In light of this history, let’s remember a few points.
First, there has been no change in the United Methodist Discipline since the beautiful double affirmation of 1972 which declared “all persons are of sacred worth” but that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In short, there is nothing “new” in our actual position before or after the most recent General Conference in 2019. The only change has been an attempt to legislatively hold pastors and bishops accountable to a Discipline that they have already sworn before God to uphold. Admittedly, this is embarrassing. But, as it relates to the actual position of the church, no change to the position of the church has been made. So, if there is “harm” it is not a new harm, but it is the harm which is inherent in this position for those who disagree, which has always been the UM position.
Second, there is an underlying assumption that the church must never hold a position which causes someone any pain or discomfort. This has been called the post-modern “tyranny of niceness.” It declares that the church, above all else, must never say anything that offends someone, because it may cause them pain. However, I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”
When someone says that the message of the church has caused “harm” we should not put our heads down and apologize. Rather, we should say, “Yes, the gospel both blesses and bruises us all.” Every true Christian has been bruised by the demands of discipleship, the call to die to self and to live holy lives, “taking up our cross to follow him.” We are all asked to give up our greed, our propensity to gossip, our jealousy, our disordered affections, our anger, and so forth. It is a long list which eventually encompasses every one of us with all the various sins we have a propensity to commit. Are we born this way? Yes, we are. It is known as the Fall. We are all members of a race full of sinners. There are no exceptions. Our hearts are deceitful and we need redemption. The gospel nails us all to the cross with Christ (Colossians 2:14). But, once that happens, it raises us up with Christ and gives us new power for holy living.
Christ rightly orders our affections. He takes away our greed and self-orientation. In short, those of us who have been bruised by the gospel, are now being blessed by the gospel. The blessing is always greater than the bruising. Whenever God says “no” to us, it always feels like “harm” and “hurt.” But God’s “no” is always his deeper “yes” since the way of righteousness and holiness is always the path of human flourishing.
John Wesley’s phrase from his general rules that we are to “do no harm” (cited regularly as the basis for defying the Discipline) has nothing whatsoever to do with dismantling the call to holiness and the pain which we all must accept when our lives pass through the cross of Jesus Christ. This point, of course, provides no license for any Christian to speak in a hateful or mean way to anyone. We must always be clothed with kindness and compassion, but yet resolute in defending the integrity of the biblical witness. Even as we affirm the biblical witness, there remains a vital and needed pastoral response to those who genuinely struggle with their sexual orientation or gender identity. This challenge calls for the church to develop and teach a more robust theology of the body as we disciple new Christians. A biblical theology of the body would move us away from being merely “against” something, to a more positive vision which celebrates the unitive and procreative vision of Christian marriage whereby we stand as icons of Christ in the world, reflecting the mystery of Christ and the Church, as well as the mystery of the Trinity.
What lies ahead? In the recently released pastoral letter titled “A Common Word from the Council of Bishops,” it appears that the bishops are searching for legislation which creates a “new way of embodying unity.” This probably means some form of restructuring or de-structuring the denomination which will allow for an amicable separation. I think the bishops are right to open this door and we should spend the next year focused on that, rather than simply repeating the pain and trauma of the 2019 General Conference.
The progressive clergy, in contrast, are unleashing a widespread plan of resistance which will defy the Discipline in order to try to destabilize the church so much that a majority will finally adopt a more progressive outcome at the 2020 General Conference. However, because of the growth of the church outside North America, the church is slowly
becoming more aligned with historic orthodoxy. Therefore, there is no reason for traditionalists to exit the denomination as there might have been had the One Church Plan prevailed. Instead, the momentum has shifted and the UM Church is clearly moving, ever so slightly, from being a mainline Protestant denomination in decline, to becoming a vibrant member of a growing global, Wesleyan movement. Within the next fifty years, if we are released from this cycle of conflict, we could become more, not less, mindful of our glorious heritage, and draw increasing strength from our slow, but steady, return to historic faith. Our focus now should be on the legislative work necessary to present an “amicable separation” plan which creates two or more separate denominations.
Throughout this process, let us take seriously the Council of Bishops’ call for “a season of deep listening.” But let’s be clear what the focus of our listening should be. That “deep listening” should be first and foremost to the Word of God as revealed in the text of Scripture.
Timothy Tennent is a United Methodist elder in the Kentucky Annual Conference. He is the author of several books, including Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology, and Invitation to World Missions: A Missiology for the 21st Century. This article is adapted from Dr. Tennent’s blog timothytennent.com.