African Bishops challenge their colleagues

By Walter Fenton

The United Methodist bishops in Africa have released a statement calling on all UM bishops to fulfill “their shepherding responsibility (1 Peter 5:2-4)” regarding the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. The statement was released November 3, during the Council of Bishops’ fall retreat in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

Bishop David Yemba

Bishop David Yemba

In their statement, the African bishops said they are “deeply saddened that the Holy Bible … and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. Yet they continue to attempt to persuade members of the Church to incorporate these practices as an accepted code of conduct within global United Methodism.”

The 1,300-word statement also called attention to the “massive human rights abuses” committed by terrorists in Africa and throughout the world. It specifically named Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and ISIS as terrorist groups responsible for the murder, abduction, and displacement of thousands of people throughout Africa and the Middle East.

“Young men and women are being manipulated to carry out suicide bombings in order to destroy innocent lives and property. The Al-Shabab also continues to unleash untold havoc against innocent civilians in Somalia, Kenya, and other parts of Africa,” the statement reports.

“As a consequence of these crises, thousands of families have been ripped away from their homes and made homeless. Thousands of others have died from starvation, disease, lack of shelter, and crossfire bombing and shooting between warring factions.”

The College of African Bishops said they crafted their statement in September while meeting at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Eleven of the 12 active bishops in Africa were present at that gathering, as well as one retired bishop. The statement was unanimously adopted and signed by the twelve in attendance.

Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda. Photo by Jay Mallin (UMNS)

Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda testified Sept.19, 2012, before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. Photo by Jay Mallin (UMNS)

United Methodists across the connection will surely join the bishops in deploring the violence and suffering caused by terrorists. But their statement and recommendations to their episcopal colleagues regarding marriage and sexuality will undoubtedly stir controversy in a church quickly nearing membership parity between Africa and the U.S.

Membership growth in Africa has climbed rapidly. According to the most recent data from the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration, African membership climbed at the remarkable rate of 11.1 percent annually from 2008 to 2013, leaving it with 5.2 million members compared with 7.3 million in the U.S. If Africa’s membership gains have continued a pace, then by the end of next year it will have 7.1 million members, which would essentially equal that of the U.S.

United Methodists who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage, both in Africa and America, are increasingly at odds with some centrists and progressives in the church. Some centrists are willing to support what is called a “local option.” It would give clergy, local churches and annual conferences the right to decide whether clergy could perform same sex marriages and ordain openly gay ministers. Progressives go further, demanding a complete repudiation of the church’s teachings on these matters.

Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala of Mozambique. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM Communications.

Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala of Mozambique. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM Communications.

The African bishops’ remarks were clearly directed at some of their U.S. colleagues who have either approved of or countenanced clergy who have presided at same sex-weddings.

“One of our most progressive U.S. bishops once wrote that she wondered when the Africans would start thinking for themselves,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News. “Well, in this statement that’s exactly what they are doing, and it’s exactly what the church needs to hear. The Bible is God’s word and if we want God’s blessing upon our denomination, we must follow what it teaches. I am extremely grateful for their leadership and faithfulness.”

Shortly after the UM Church’s 2012 General Conference some U.S. annual conferences and the entire Western Jurisdiction called for the open defiance of the denomination’s teachings on marriage and sexuality issues. In a number of high profile cases, UM clergy, and in one instance a retired bishop, performed same sex weddings with little or no consequence for defying the will of the church. The mounting number of cases and the lack of accountability have heightened the decades long debate over the matter.

Bishop Innis

Bishop Innis

Earlier this year the Connectional Table (CT), the UM Church’s top administrative body, approved a plan calling for the denomination to liberalize its teachings on same sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The CT’s plan, “A Third Way,” calls for codifying in The Book of Discipline that marriage is between “two people,” and it would allow annual conferences to determine whether to ordain openly gay clergy.

Thirteen bishops are members of the Connectional Table, but there are none from Africa.

“The Council [of Bishops] would do well to heed the advice of their African colleagues,” said Renfroe. “The disregard for our teachings and the lack of accountability threatens the very unity of our church.”

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.

Comments

  1. I applaud the courageous stand taken by our brothers from Africa. It illustrates how the gospel demands truth, as Jesus does when he encounters us on our earthly way. Unfortunately, it seems the American Bishops are preaching “another gospel” than the one we find in God’s Word. We may discover that the locus of our church’s leadership will shift to Africa, as it has for the American Anglican Church, whose Bishop is in Rwanda..

  2. I misidentified the Anglican church in my earlier post; it should read Anglican Church of North America.

  3. Mike Cooper says

    This gives me hope, and I am grateful to God and our African bishops for this statement. This is what biblical leadership looks like.

    In Christ,

    Mike Cooper

  4. A remarkable statement of truth, courage, faithfulness and LEADERSHIP. Seems that American Methodists are being offered the gift of reverse missionary outreach. We have always thought of ourselves as the missionaries called to spread the Good News to other parts of the world, and have apparently done an outstanding job in Africa. Praise God. Hopefully we are in the beginning stages of receiving the gifts of missionary outreach from our African brothers and sisters in return. The recipients of historic evangelism are now offering themselves as a light to help right this Methodist ship. May God continue to bless the work that they do, and may they continue their leadership role through General Conference 2016.

  5. David Mullins says

    What other Gospel are you referring to, Bill?

    • ” For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. . . . For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.” – II Corinthians 11:4, 13

  6. Regiena Berry says

    the only bright spot I have seen or read about in a long time
    The African church is telling the truth, our American bishops are sticking
    Their heads in places never meant for church leaders.
    Please let the church be “the church” and not some hybrid no one can
    Even recognize .

  7. Nday Bondo says

    African Methodism is safe because it has got shepherds like King David (1 Samuel 17: 34-36) and Jesus Christ (John 10: 11-13) protecting them against all kinds of deviant movements threatening the church.

  8. Rev. Kevin Haley says

    I am encouraged to hear inspiring words of conviction on God’s Word and its truth come from some episcopal leadership in our denomination! I am discouraged that we do not fully embrace the concept of inclusivity by having any of the African bishops be members of the Connectional Table. Are we afraid of their global perspective in light of a distorted American cultural perspective?

    • Rev Haley,
      With the Connectional Table controlled by the liberal movement of our church, it would seem that they would be first and foremost in practicing inclusiveness, since that is the very thing that they continually accuse the orthodox folks of not practicing. Sure hope there’s legislation pending for General Conference that would actually result in INCLUSION of African representation on the Connectional Table — as well as other places in the UMC.

  9. If the Bible is literally true, and the Book of Discipline is the standard for the UMC clergy conduct, then the brothers and sisters in Africa are simply reminding the Americans of their charge. I do not expect that they would seek an applause for doing as the Discipline and church tradition instruct.

    When the Bible is read in light of the context and linguistic differences, it remains literally true, and also illuminated. When most Christians read the words or passages discussing “homosexual” in the Bible, they are reading terms and descriptions of physical intercourse, typically as a form of patriarchal/male dominance, or cultist worship rituals. When a 21st century individual from the LGBT community says she is “gay” or a “homosexual,” she merely means that she is attracted to someone of the same gender. The term no longer implies physical intercourse.

    That is a big deal, because there are plenty of heterosexual people who are faithfully married, and yet find others who are not their spouses to be attractive. Being attracted to someone is not a sin in the Bible, nor is it a sin by tradition, reason, or experience. What we are dealing with in my part of North America is a failure to communicate between Christians and the gay community.

    I think Ben Witherington III has quite a lot to say about the difference between attraction – or inclination – and behavior. Unfortunately, the Bible has nothing to say about homosexual inclination specifically. We default, therefore, to the same passages which discuss inclination and behavior for sexuality in general. Unless we are willing to adopt all of the Levitical law code from the Old Testament, and undo the Grace of Jesus that allows Christians to no keep kosher and to wear mixed linens, we had better not pick and choose some of the law to enforce as a proof-text for dispensing judgment upon a minority that needs a dispensation of love and grace in truth.

    “Don’t win arguments at the cost of losing souls.” That’s what I get from Jesus’ teaching the men about the woman caught in adultery. As for the woman, the words of Jesus – yeah, the word of God incarnate – was enough to comfort her, convict her, and call her to holiness: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

    • Thank you for your comments, Benji. The Book of Discipline does not prohibit same-sex attraction. It does not prohibit the ordination of a person who experiences same-sex attraction. The Book of Discipline, like the Bible in this case, is concerned with only behavior. Of course, lust of any kind (whether same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted) is also named in Scripture as a sin. But the focus of the BoD is the sin of same-sex behavior, as well as the sin of opposite-sex relations that are outside the bounds of marriage.

      LGBTQ persons are not merely trying to gain approval for their attractions. They want affirmation of sexual relations between persons of the same sex. That is the point behind their desire to have same-sex marriage legalized within the church.

      The church echoes Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery. We offer grace and forgiveness for past sin and support for leaving behind the sin. Unfortunately, LGBTQ persons do not want to leave their sin behind, but persist in it. Where there is not repentance, there cannot be forgiveness.

      As far as the Old Testament laws, United Methodists believe: “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” Since the commandments related to homosexual behavior are moral, similar to the commandments against adultery and incest found in the same chapter, they are still binding on us today.

      In Christ,
      Tom Lambrecht

      • Thank you, Tom, for engaging in a conversation rather than an argument.

        I know plenty of married couples who have no sex life. I also know a number (not a lot) of gay people. When I ask the ones I know about their desires and cravings, it tends to be “romantic” rather than sexual. I have pressed the issue two times to the point of asking, “So, do you have sex, and how do you think marriage will change your view on sex?”

        The lesbian couple (in their late 40’s) told me that they didn’t have sex, and it was a relief to find another person not interested in intercourse; one of them was previously in a heterosexual marriage where the husband demanded sex as his right to her body, and they had never talked about sex before marriage because they were raised in a staunchly conservative Christian home where abstinence before marriage meant total abstinence – her parents never discussed sex apart from “don’t do it ’till you’re married.” The other woman was raped in college by two men, and finds herself to be attracted to both men and women, but wants absolutely nothing to do with sex. However, they do profess their adoration for one another, and they both believe Jesus to be the Son of God, and the authority of forgiveness and judgment. I know they are a particular couple, but I am told that their views on sexless homosexual marriage is more common in the LGBTQ community than society at large is led to believe.

        The gay / transgender couple (in their 30’s) replied that they have a desire for sex. The one who has desires for sex also has compassion for his transgender partner, and so he infrequently masturbates instead of forcing sex upon his partner, or finding another gay man to have intercourse with. He does not feel rejection nor does he think he is being denied gratification; a position quite similar to a heterosexual husband who cannot have sex with his wife after vaginal birth. His transgender partner has prominent masculine physical features, but considers herself to be female, with attraction to men. The world has labeled her as “gay,” because she looks like a man, and has sexual desires for men. She was treated by physicians with testosterone injections when her parents tried to “fix” her as a teen, which did not make her attracted to women, but largely ended her sexual desires altogether. When she went into college, she decided to discontinue the treatments, perceiving them to be a “lie I was telling my body, the same way women use makeup to lie to themselves about their beauty.” She finished her degree in biochemistry, and at the time of our discussion, was completing her graduate studies in order to become a pharmacist. She rarely has any sexual desires, and so physical intimacy on any level is “infrequent at most.” In the eyes of society, they still qualify as a ‘practicing homosexual couple,’ even though the transgender partner is told she is gay, but considers herself to be heterosexual. Their experiences with faith were Jewish (transgender partner), and nominally Catholic (gay man).

        Neither one of them asked me to perform a wedding of any sort, but if they did, my default answer to both of these couples would be the following:

        Ordained elders and those seeking ordination with the United Methodist Church vow to abstain from officiating a homosexual celebration. Thus, I cannot perform a marriage for you, without the loss of ordination. However, if you consider yourself to be Christian, and you have worked out your salvation with fear and trembling before our Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel, then I would encourage you to seek support from the Episcopal church or the Metropolitan Community Church, where you will be affirmed by their congregations. My congregation would love you, but not fellowship with you.

        • This is Tom replying again. Benji, thank you for sharing the interesting stories of two unique couples.

          I would say in general that a sexual relationship is one of the constitutive parts of marriage, although at times in a marriage a sexual relationship is not possible. So it would follow that a relationship that has no intention of ever having a sexual component would not be considered a marriage.

          I would therefore consider the lesbian couple you describe to not be a married couple, but to be good friends. On its surface, such a relationship would not transgress biblical boundaries. I have known single women in past generations who lived together all their lives and had a close friendship without any sexual relationship. They don’t need to be married. They are living a friendship type relationship. Your example does point out what I have also observed, namely that many lesbians are such because they have been victimized by men. It appears both of the lesbians you talked to were victimized and wounded in some way. I would hope that there are ways the church could reach out to offer healing to their wounds in the name of Christ.

          I think your “default answer” is a good one. I’m not sure what you mean about the congregation being willing to love the couple but not have fellowship with them. I would think the congregation would want to befriend the couple, support them in their Christian walk, offer healing for their wounds, and be available for them to take the next steps in terms of coming to terms with their desires in light of God’s word.

          In Christ,
          Tom Lambrecht

    • Nday Bondo says

      I like the last paragraph from the November,5th Benji statement. John 8:1-11 narrative describes the UMC position on the issue at stake. The church is saying:” We don’t condemn Gays and Lesbians, we condemn the practice of homosexuality. Go and stop practicing it”

    • Sounds all well in and fine, but never forget that whether you are a child of God or a child of Satan, you are a sinner in need of a Savior. The child of God has admitted that, asked for forgiveness, accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of their life. Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. That being true, the Child of God flees from sin, not tries to justify it and pass blame on those who can’t accept their sin. Yes, Jesus loves us all, but He hates sin and the prideful people who don’t understand Christ has overcome sin,

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