By Thomas Lambrecht
Every person is to be highly valued. That value makes it important to listen to every voice, whether critical or supportive, to discern which elements in what they say would be helpful in understanding their perspective and/or refining our own.
That is why it is important to listen and respond appropriately to a recent internet open letter from 70 alumni of Asbury Theological Seminary critical of their seminary for supporting the Traditional Plan. That plan, which was enacted by the 2019 General Conference and is now part of our Book of Discipline, maintains the biblical teaching that the definition of marriage is between one man and one woman and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for heterosexual marriage. It also attempts to increase clergy accountability.
Of course, it is not surprising that some alumni of a large and historic seminary like Asbury actually disagreed with some of the things they were taught. Although I did not study at Asbury, my experience has proven that its graduates are thoughtful and independent thinkers. They do not march in rigid lockstep. The intellectual commitments of the school encourage such independent and critical thinking.
The dissent letter has caused a recent dustup on United Methodist social media. Ironically, 70 signatures represent less than one-fourth of one year's graduating class of United Methodist students at Asbury. Some on the list graduated as long as 50 years ago. Considering that Asbury has literally tens of thousands of United Methodist graduates over the decades, the small number makes the story search for newsworthiness.
More importantly, does the critique merit our attention?
The dissent letter states: "The [Traditional] plan also enforces harsh penalties through mandatory minimum sentences against LGBTQ+ leaders and LGBTQ+ allies. These are the same kind of sentences used in the United States criminal justice system that created mass incarceration, particularly among people of color in the United States. Stunningly, though the United Methodist Church opposes mandatory minimum sentences in the U.S. criminal justice system, the church will be utilizing these kinds of sentences to purge LGBTQ+ leaders out of its fellowship. The Traditional Plan is unbiblical in its construct and in its implementation."
The authors of the letter fail to recognize that mandatory minimum sentences are a last resort action to regain accountability to the church's requirements. Over the last several years, numerous instances of clergy openly and sometimes defiantly performing same-sex weddings resulted in no meaningful consequences for such actions. If the accountability system in place for the past 40 years had worked, there would have been no need for mandatory minimum sentences. If those who swore to uphold and be obedient to the Discipline had kept their oaths, there would have been no need for mandatory minimum sentences. It seems unfair to blame the church for trying to enforce its rules when those doing the blaming are the ones breaking the rules.
The dissent letter compares the church's mandatory minimum sentences to those imposed by U.S. federal and state governments resulting in "mass incarceration." This kind of overheated and nonsensical rhetoric is unhelpful and distorts our current reality. There is no United Methodist "mass incarceration." There have been less than a handful of instances over the last 30 years when a clergy person received a meaningful consequence for performing a same-sex wedding or union. The "mass incarceration" rhetoric is clever, but deceptive.
The letter's clumsy attempt to connect the church's teaching about marriage and human sexuality to secular justice practices that could unfairly affect "people of color" is a ridiculous attempt to paint biblical teaching as akin to racism. Racism is reprehensible and must be continually combatted by all people of good will, including United Methodists of all theological stripes. But to implicitly compare the church's biblical teachings, affirming over 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian doctrine, to racism is to stoop to character assassination.
In the most recent issue of Good News Magazine, Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, makes this important point: "[I]t 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."
Additionally, the ecumenical consensus of Christianity around the globe strongly supports the traditional and historic teachings on marriage and sexuality.
The dissent letter claims, "the church will be utilizing these kinds of sentences to purge LGBTQ+ leaders out of its fellowship." On the contrary, The United Methodist Church welcomes all people, including LGBTQ+ persons, into its fellowship, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God's redeeming grace. The "purge" rhetoric is one more misdirection.
The letter continues, "As we learned at our time at Asbury, to persecute people for who they are -- for who God has created them to be -- is a denial of the Imago Dei within each person. To stand in judgment over others and to attempt a systematic purge [misdirection again] of LGBTQ+ people through a series of complaints and trials is sin."
Here we reach the nub of the disagreement. Genesis reminds us that God created us male and female for each other (the opening words of the Service of Christian Marriage). That original creative intent has been spoiled by the sin and brokenness that affect all humanity and all of creation (Romans 8:18-25).
The answer to sin is not to accept the behavior and redefine it as acceptable to God (Isaiah 5:20). Rather, the answer to sin is repentance, redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ, and transformation of heart and life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is this deep theological disagreement over whether God created people to be LGBTQ+ and whether such sexual behavior is sin, that causes the divide among us. The two views are incompatible with each other.
The dissent concludes, "It is indeed far past time for members of the Body of Christ to rid ourselves of theologies and missional practices that deny the Missio Dei and which cause harm to others." It takes quite a lot of nerve to call all the church fathers and mothers, teachers and theologians for the past 3,000 years sinful and causing harm because they adhered to the scriptural teaching that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to God's will. On what basis would the authors have us adopt their understanding of the Missio Dei (mission of God in the world), as opposed to the one put forward by countless generations of Christian teachers and leaders?
Let's be clear, no seminary is above critique. The traditional understanding of Scripture is not above critique. The Traditional Plan itself was imperfect, and critique leading to its improvement is welcome. However, the dissent letter offers no constructive critique -- only name-calling. There is no engagement of the issues. It offers no theological undergirding for its criticism.
The letter offers yet another example that parts of the church are operating under completely different theological worldviews, unable to communicate effectively with each other. It is this disconnect that is causing untold harm to the church and to God's mission through the church. It demonstrates why the most effective and healthiest way forward is not to paper over this disconnect, but to acknowledge it as insurmountable. We need to find a gracious and loving way to walk separately according to our divergent worldviews. That would be far preferable than continuing to battle for control, engage in political gamesmanship, or call each other names. These behaviors (engaged in by all "sides") are not worthy of the Body of Christ.
Traditionalists are working with persons of differing theological perspectives toward an agreed-upon proposal that would end the fighting in the church and set all "sides" free to pursue authentic and life-giving ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, according to each particular understanding of the Gospel. Pray for this endeavor, as the 2020 General Conference seems to be our last best hope for an amicable solution to turn from conflict to focused disciple-making, world-transforming ministry.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.