United Methodist court upholds the majority of the traditional plan that affirms biblical sexuality:
Monday, April 29, 2019
By R. ALBERT MOHLER, JR.
The United Methodist Church made big news back in February and it did again last Friday. In February, in a special conference of the church, the United Methodists became the first major mainline Protestant denomination to confirm and hold fast a biblical understanding of marriage, sex, gender identity, and the definition of marriage. This came something as a shock, although it was the answer to prayers on the part of so many Christians, most importantly inside the United Methodist Church. It indicated something that had been building for years and that is, that even though in the United States the denomination had shifted in a more liberal position over the last several decades, it had also expanded its membership worldwide and most of the growth in the denomination is coming from Africa and Asia, for example, in the Philippines.
It was conservative representatives from those very churches who offered the decisive margin that was necessary to join with evangelicals and more conservative United Methodists in the United States, to uphold the churches decades-old policies concerning the definition of marriage. The requirements of clergy when it comes to sexuality and marriage. This was simply a massively important vote and United Methodists became the very first mainline Protestant denomination that refers to the historically more liberal denominations of establishment Protestantism to withstand the demand to normalize LGTBQ relationships, to recognize and ceremonialize same-sex marriage, to change the definition of the moral requirements for ministry and furthermore, to transform at the most fundamental level, the church's understanding of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships and behaviors.
But that was the big headline news from February. What was the headline news from Friday? It comes down to this. The entire decision, the vote undertaken, the policy approved by the special general conference was up for review by the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. That amounts to something like what takes place in the United States, where a law that has been passed by congress and signed into effect by a president of the United States, is later reviewed by the Supreme Court upon some kind of question or appeal. The Supreme Court can strike down the law in full or it can strike down the law in part. That's exactly what happened on Friday. But make no mistake, it was another huge victory for conservatives within the United Methodist Church.
Jeremy Steele, reporting for Christianity Today, tells the story this way, "Millions of United Methodists have been waiting and wondering where their denomination will ultimately land in a decades-long dispute over gay marriage and clergy, and if a major split over the issue is imminent or if the debate will continue at its general conference, once again, next year. The next senate, though the United Methodist Church voted in February to keep its traditional marriage stance barring congregations or conferences from performing same-sex ceremonies or ordaining gay clergy, whether that policy took effect in 2020 in the US depended on approval from the church's Judicial Council, which released its decision Friday afternoon. And the decision from the nine member council was to strike down seven of the seventeen policy items adopted by the general conference but to affirm ten."
That's the massively important news here, because the appeal that had been made to the Judicial Council was to strike down the entire decision of the general conference, known as the affirmation of the Traditional Plan. And to do so by means of a declaratory decision. That would be something like a preliminary injunction striking down the law before it could ever take effect. In this case, striking down the traditional plan in whole, not just in respective parts. But the Judicial Council did strike down seven of the points. The 10 that remain, however, are the most important in defining the churches biblical understanding on human sexuality, the expectations of clergy, and of course the definition of marriage. The specifics of what were upheld is really, really important. The traditional plan that was voted in by the general conference defines a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a person who is, "Living in a same sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual."
As Emily McFarlan Miller reported for Religion News Service, "The plan bars bishops from consecrating, ordaining, or commissioning self-avowed practicing homosexuals, even if they have been elected or approved by the appropriate church body. It prohibits those bodies from approving or recommending them as candidates as well." Furthermore, the traditional plan as approved and as sustained by the Judicial Council also affirms and amplifies the current procedures and penalties found in the United Methodist Churches basic book of doctrine and discipline. It's known as the Book of Discipline. And thus, a member of the clergy who performs the same-sex marriage will face a suspension without pay for the first defense and a loss of clergy credentials for the second. That might appear to be rather tepid when compared to more evangelical denominations. But let's just note this is a very important move counter to the general direction of mainline liberal Protestantism. This is the very first victory that conservatives have ever gained in one of those denominations, when a denomination have gone so far as to have openly gay bishops, clergy define the Book of Discipline of the church by marrying same-sex couples and furthermore, transgender clergy and clergy themselves. Ministers of the United Methodist Church who were themselves entering into same-sex unions.
The official doctrine of the United Methodist Church for decades has defined homosexual behavior as contrary to biblical teaching and tradition. It has made very clear the condemnation of same-sex behaviors. And of course, when it comes down to it, the formalization of those same-sex behaviors in relationships, including same-sex marriage or civil unions. But you have seen United Methodist on the left defy that Book of Discipline of the church, defy the standing doctrine of the Church, and seek to push the church by their own activism to the left following the example of the other mainline liberal Protestant denominations. And furthermore, they had been doing so in direct contradiction to and disobedience to the Book of Discipline and their own ministerial vows. And they had been getting away with it for decades, especially intensely over the last 10 years.
But now you're looking at a seismic effect, you're looking at an earthquake within the United Methodist Church. And unsurprisingly, those who are rejecting the vote and they are rejecting the decision of the Judicial Council, they are announcing that they are going to continue to defy the teaching of their church and dare the United Methodist Church to act against them. Of course, they're styling themselves as the resistance. And that follows a similar pattern we see elsewhere in the culture. But the big news here is that the resistance is having to resist a conservative affirmation rather than the opposite. That's unprecedented in modern American mainline Protestant history.
But there was even more to the news that came out of the meeting of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church on Friday, there were actually two actions and they were separate. One was to uphold in the main the traditional plan that was approved by the general conference, and the second action was to approve a measure known as the “Gracious Exit.” That's also extremely important. The fundamental reality is that the United Methodist Church is not going to be able to hold together. It is not going to be a United Methodist Church. The polarities within the denomination are simply too great.
Looking back to 1968, when the denomination was forged out of previous denominations coming together, the strings were already there. Conservative and liberal trajectories were already clear within the denomination, but they were at least able to hold themselves together by a form of institutional loyalty for decades. It's clear that that's over. It's not going to continue. Had the liberals won, the conservatives would have left. The conservatives won, and now the liberals are likely to leave. But we need to note a couple of other issues. But first, let's just look at the “Gracious Exit.” This means that the United Methodist Church, and here it is broken up into conferences that are the regional representations of the denomination. The denomination owns the church buildings of individual congregation. The congregations build the church buildings, but due to reversionary clauses, they actually belong to the denomination itself.
This means that for years in the mainline Protestant denominations, conservative churches that built their own conservative facilities, some of them absolutely grand, have been trapped within the denomination, and if they did for the sake of biblical orthodoxy leave those denominations, they often had to leave the properties that they had bought and built themselves behind. The United Methodist Church is adopting what's known as a “Gracious Exit” plan. Is going to allow churches to leave the denomination and to take their properties and buildings with them. That isn't the gracious, it's a graciousness absent from the liberal denominations like the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church USA, along with some other denominations who simply either kicked conservative congregations out or their property or made them buy the property back at exorbitant prices. Effectively, a form of ransom.
But one of the big lessons we're going to have to see here and one of the issues we're going to have to watch very closely is whether or not, the liberal faction tries to come back in the 2020 General Conference. It's held every four years in the United Methodist Church, and to require another vote to retake what they had lost. To try to reverse the decision of this special general conference that after all, was called back years ago in order to resolve the issue within the United Methodist Church. The big lesson here, liberals never give up. They simply never do. Especially on the LGBTQ issues, but also in the general doctrinal issues. You can see this in denomination after denomination.
You saw this very clearly in the early 20th century, when Protestant liberalism began to make its presence in virtually all of those mainstream denominations. One by one, they fell. When the liberals were defeated, they simply went back to their seminaries and divinity schools and then came back again. They're going to do the same thing in the United Methodist Church and this is not reading their minds, this is just reading their words. They have said that is exactly what they want to do.
But there's another final issue on the United Methodist front I want us to observe in the Nashville, Tennessee. Just a few days before the action of the Judicial Council, a woman by the name of Whitney Buchanan wrote a guest column for the paper. And in it she basically demands that the United Methodist Church take a re-vote on the same sex marriage ban and all the related issues in the traditional plan that was adopted. She says, "As a member of the United Methodist Church for 15 years still laying claim to the host and conference." She says more specifically, "A small church in East Tennessee with a pastor who fully supports the LGBTQ+ community. I was deeply saddened and ashamed to hear the church's decision to turn their backs on some of the most marginalized members of our global society." She goes on to demand that there be a re-vote, and then she says, "If the church refuses to do so, I along with many other members will willingly leave, as I do not want to belong to a religious entity that aims to indirectly or possibly directly harm the lives of the people I love." She then goes on to define exactly what that means, but you've already figured that out.
Later in her article she says, "I refuse to belong to a church that does not support same-sex marriage and fully support LGBTQ+ clergy members." She says that she refuses to belong to such a church, and yet she's told us that she has belonged to such a church for 15 years. The United Methodist Church did not adopt back in February a new doctrine. It affirmed its existing doctrine. Here's the kind of argument that the moral and doctrinal revolutionaries use over and over again. I refuse to be a member of a church that believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. I refuse to be a member of a church that believes in the substitutionary atonement. I refuse to be a member of a church that believes in the necessity of confessing the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I refuse to be a member of a church that refuses to sanction and celebrate same sex marriage. You go on and on. Look how often those statements are made by people who are and have been members of such denominations for a very long time. That was true in denomination after denomination. It's sadly but revealingly evident and the response to that special UMC General Conference in February.
You have people declaring that they simply refuse to be a member of a church that believes what the United Methodist Church has believed, virtually from the very beginning. And on a policy that declares homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching, is simply affirming what the church has believed for decade after decade. The decades in which most of those people took their own ministerial vows that went to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, which they now say they evidently never intended to do.
I will end looking at the United Methodist Good News on Friday, by observing that that second policy is known as the “Gracious Exit.” The denomination's Judicial Council was now affirmed the policy of a “Gracious Exit.” Now it's going to be very interesting to see if the liberals in the church indeed exit gracefully.