Three Requests of My Centrist Friends – An Open Letter

Renfroe

Renfroe

By Rob Renfroe

Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to be in dialogue with several leading “centrist” pastors. I have gotten to know them well enough to know that I like them. They are intelligent and thoughtful. They care about people and the vitality of the church. In fact, many of them have built great churches that do much good in the name of Christ. And they are people of deep faith. They love Jesus and they want people to come into a personal relationship with him. In so many ways, I have the utmost respect for them.

Of course, I have also become aware of how differently we see some very important issues and how unlikely it is that we will ever agree on what the church should teach regarding sexuality and marriage. I find their arguments for changing the church’s position lacking biblically, theologically, scientifically, and anthropologically. I realize my arguments are insufficient in their eyes, as well. But I do believe we have created the kind of relationship that we can work together in a positive and helpful way as the church navigates its course into the future.

In that spirit, I have three requests for my centrist friends. And even before making them, let me say that I am open to how they might like me to change the dialogue.

First, please stop referring to us traditionalists as “the far right.” We’re not. In fact, we’re not even “the right.” We believe what the church has taught for 2000 years regarding sexuality and marriage. We are in solidarity with the vast majority of Christians around the world on these issues. At least 90 percent of Christians worldwide share our views. And we hold the majority opinion within the UM Church, an opinion that our denomination has held and reaffirmed for over 40 years.  How that makes us “the right” or “the far right” I have no idea.

It was a stroke of brilliance to brand yourselves “the centrists.” That may sound more sarcastic than I mean it. Seriously, it was a smart way of positioning yourselves. But holding a position somewhere between the church’s traditional position and those who would change it radically and immediately doesn’t place you at the center of the church universal or of the UM Church, for that matter.

Actually, I think we who hold to 2000 years of Christian teaching have far greater claim to the term “centrist” than those who stand to the left of it. We are as committed to stating that all persons are persons of sacred worth as we are to stating that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for his people. We are accepting of persons who identify as gay in our churches. And we preach that heterosexual sin is a bigger problem in the church than homosexual sin. I am sure there are Christians who are less accepting or more judgmental than we are. Call them “the far right” if you wish, but that’s not us.

I believe that we are the true centrists historically and globally when it comes to the Christian faith.  But, we’re friends, so I won’t fight you for the title. And I won’t use pejorative terms to describe you that I have heard some use – terms like “the accommodationists” or “the muddled-middle” or “the every man did what was right in his own eyes crowd.” It wouldn’t be respectful, just as “the far right” isn’t. I am good with “traditionalist,” “conservative,” or “evangelical.” I prefer “orthodox” but I know claiming that term for myself and others like me is offensive to you, so I won’t fight for it. But please, lay off “the far right” moniker. I think we all know it’s not fair or accurate.

Second, please don’t say any longer that we don’t really have a difference regarding the authority and the inspiration of the Bible; we just have a difference over its interpretation. I know many of you were once where I am and you even felt comfortable being called “evangelical.” But you have travelled some distance from where you were in your understanding of the faith and of the Scriptures. You see that as a positive, whereas I see it differently.

But all I ask is that you be honest about the distance you have travelled. When you believe that some parts of the Bible never were truly God’s word – that’s not just a difference in interpretation. It’s a difference in how we see the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures. You, I think, will admit that your view is different from the Apostle Paul’s which he expressed in 2 Timothy 3.16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …”

We all struggle to understand how God inspired the Bible. None of us are fundamentalists who believe God dictated Scripture, bypassing the knowledge, experiences, and personalities of its human authors. Even we traditionalists don’t believe God turned human beings into mindless keyboards that he employed to bang out his word. So we all wrestle with what it means to have the word of God in the words of men.

But that struggle is a different project than trying to determine which parts of the Bible are still God’s word and which parts never were. Taking a pair of scissors and removing the passages we don’t think God could have possibly inspired is not an act of interpretation. It’s more than that. It’s a decision about the inspiration of the Bible – which parts were inspired by the Spirit and which parts weren’t.

Of course this nontraditional understanding of the Scriptures raises all kinds of problems. It could be that even all centrists won’t agree which parts of the Bible never were God’s word, which parts were but aren’t any longer, and which parts still are.  Without another church council to determine a new canon, there will be many divergent opinions with none having a greater claim of authority than any other.  But the chaos that approach might create is a topic for another day.

The point is, please don’t muddy the waters by saying we have the same view of the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures. I hold to the same view as does the Apostle Paul. He may be wrong and y’all may be right. (To be fair, I’m not sure if all centrists share the same view on this.) I realize my view has real problems.  There are some very difficult texts I must be willing to state were inspired by God. Nevertheless, I do make that affirmation.

You believe your view of the Bible’s inspiration and authority is correct. I believe mine is. One day, we’ll find out who is right. But for now, let’s just all be honest and say our views are different.

Third, please don’t make the charge that we traditionalists are willing to separate the church because we have different views regarding sexuality. I have listened to one of you say on more than one occasion, “Are we really going to break fellowship because we have a difference of opinion on this issue?”

You know that’s not a fair representation of where we are, right? We have been willing to live in a church with different opinions on sexuality and marriage for over 40 years. We have never said we cannot be part of a church where different views are held.

The problem that we are facing now, the one that threatens our unity and could lead to schism, is not a difference of opinions or beliefs, it’s a difference of practice.  It’s pastors acting contrary to the Scriptures and to the Book of Discipline by marrying gay couples. It’s pastors who bless and who enable what the church states to be incompatible with Christian teaching. It’s bishops who refuse to enforce the Discipline in meaningful ways that take our covenant and vows seriously. It’s pastors who break the covenant that holds the church together by performing a same-sex marriage and then whose “punishment” is to write a paper telling the rest of us why we must live together in unity. It’s a bishop who attends the wedding of one of his pastors to a same gendered person performed by another one of his pastors and by his presence blesses their actions. It’s a bishop who marries gay couples himself. And most recently, on top of an entire jurisdiction voting to defy the church’s position regarding ordination and marriage, it’s several boards of ordained ministry that proclaim publicly their unwillingness to abide by the Discipline. It’s several annual conferences specifically stating they will no longer conform to the requirements of the Discipline. And by the end of July it may be the election of one or two openly gay bishops.

We don’t merely have a difference of opinion any longer. We could live with that. We have lived with that. But we now have different practices. We have rebellion, and we have many bishops who encourage and bless this rebellion, all the while claiming to be working for the unity of the church.

So, please don’t call us the far right.  We’re not. Please don’t try to smooth over our differences regarding Scripture. It’s more than interpretation. And please don’t present us as so small-minded that we can’t be in fellowship with persons who hold different views regarding sexuality. We have been in fellowship with people who see even more essential doctrines differently than we do. And we would continue in fellowship if our bishops would enforce the Discipline with integrity.

I’m grateful for knowing you. I think I’m better for knowing you. I think we will serve the church best by being honest about our differences and by being respectful in our terminology as we speak about each other and the issues. I feel sure we can do so. I really do like and respect you.

I’m happy to hear from you how I can do better in our dialogue, as well.

Rob

The Reverend Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.

Comments

  1. The Prodigal Son was a carnal thinking individual. The LGBT group is a carnal thinking group. Schism is not to be avoided at all costs. God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness ( that is to be set apart from the carnal). For the carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. The carnal minded folks have rejected God and it has manifested itself in rebellion, disobedience, and lawlessness of the doctrines and rules of the Church.

  2. Rob,
    Excellent analysis. “We have rebellion”. Yes, and more. These conferences that are now voting to abandon the church and openly defy the BOD are, in essence, voting to declare their independence from the UMC. These actions should help permit a less painful separation than originally feared. As for the centrists, it will be decision time because there is no center position on this schism. Either one believes the Bible or one does not on marriage and sexual immorality despite all the confusion and ambiguity that the left sows. For over forty years, the left has not been able to Scripturally refute the following Biblical fact: God’s created order for marriage is that between a man and a woman, and the practice of any sexual relations outside that is incompatible with Christian teaching and is, therefore, sinful.

    It is time. So please get on with it and end this irreconcilable division ASAP.

  3. Tom McCann says

    Rob –
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I regard myself as a ‘left-centrist’, so I think I can respond, for myself, to some of your comments.
    1. If you want to claim ‘centrist’ for your point of view, you’ll have to establish what’s on the right, not just what’s on the left. I guess there could be a more conservative position. For example, someone might advocate stoning homosexuals. That would certainly be more right wing. But in the current conversation, you represent the right wing.
    I also want to comment on the “2000 years of Christian tradition”. Actually it’s probably more like 3500 years of Judeo-Christian tradition.
    Somehow, when we decided to overturn Christ’ teachings on remarriage after divorce, that 1900 years of Christian tradition didn’t seem to stop us. And that issue alone is what makes the conservative, traditional, “2000 years” commentary an empty statement. The hypocrisy of how we treat different types of sin undernibes any argument in favor of the conservative position. If we can’t, as a church, learn to treat all sin with the same respect or disrespect, we’ll never overcome this problem. That’s ALL sin.

    2. The authority of the Bible. I’ll say once again that we have an issue with interpretation. We, as a modern Christian denomination, choose to follow some parts of the Bible strictly, and leave other parts on the table. We don’t for example, stone adulterers and homosexuals, and I’m not advocating that we do. But somewhere along the Christian journey, a decision was made that we stop doing that. In other words, that we quit carrying out God’s explicit instructions from His inspired word.
    I have been asking many people, for years, if there’s a standard for how we in the UMC judge sin in Scripture. How do we decide what is sinful? How do we decide the appropriate punishment? And can those standards be applied to all of Scripture, evenly? A standard that can be recognized and implemented in most if not all the Methodist churches worldwide? If you have an answer, I’ll be delighted. {Note that the quadrilateral is a process, not a standard}

    3. The Book of Discipline has prescribed procedures for what happens when a layman, Elder, or Bishop commits a transgression. Liberals have argued for forty years that the homosexual language is discriminatory. And they’ve been told for forty years, “If you don’t like it, go change the Book of Discipline.”
    So – back to you. If you don’t like the processes in the Book of Discipline, go change them. Nobody is going to go away just because somebody wants them to. People will go away because of a sense of injustice, authoritarianism, or downright hypocrisy. Follow the processes outlined in the BoD, and accept the judgments of those who we have entrusted to make those judgments. Complaining about the outcomes says you don’t really support the process in the first place.

    Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to express my thoughts.

    • Harcourt Mudd says

      @ Tom McCann

      Right and left are manifestations of the French Revolution not the Kingdom of the Trinity. The term “liberal” is a misnomer, “conservatives” are in fact classical liberals the terms were reversed around the late 19th and early 20th century. You are judging based on worldly views whereas God’s Kingdom is “not of this world” Rob clearly chose “centrist” so that you who judge by left and right (and center) would have an anthropomorphic base to start from.

      “For example, someone might advocate stoning homosexuals”

      -I have never seen nor heard of anyone advocating the stoning of homosexuals this suggests a serious lack of Biblical education. Anyone suggesting this is likely not a Christian and merely wants to use the moniker as a form of power.
      ……
      “Somehow, when we decided to overturn Christ’ teachings on remarriage after divorce, that 1900 years of Christian tradition didn’t seem to stop us.”

      -Who is “us”? I wholly disagree with no fault divorce which came with the rise of feminist movement a “leftist” ideology yet you lump everyone (including you) into this then are basically saying this is the fault of the “right” for allowing something they in fact disagree with (this is classic “leftist” doublespeak)
      ……
      “The hypocrisy of how we treat different types of sin undernibes any argument in favor of the conservative position.”

      -There is some sin that is worse than others especially the ones for which a sinner refuses to call a sin ; however the “right” view all sin as being fatal without the advocacy of Jesus – this is not mealy the position of the right it is God’s stated position (if one is to take the Bible for its word).
      …..
      “We don’t for example, stone adulterers and homosexuals”
      -Jesus came to fulfil the law which he did and forbid us from exercising judgments of CONDEMNATION for sins which is what stoning was. For this type of Judgement Jesus takes this mantle only to Himself. This however does not stop us from pointing out Gods moral truth: IT IS A SIN with a sinner in need of repentance.

      You could argue here that the Church has changed its punishments of sin over time, and this is true – there is no more burning at the steak for heresy as an example. But you are looking at history in a modern context. You have the internet and information anywhere any time. Until around 1440 there was not even a printing press and information was in the hands of a greedy few who lusted after power…and then came Martin Luther. You would then argue that as we are in the information age we have even greater access to information! I counter this by saying we have more access to information but FAR less UNDERSTANDING. What we have is information overload and a clear lack of decrement skills. When that happens we fall back on our feelings which are wholly untrustworthy (this is PERCISLY what is happening in our society – feelings over reason/logic).
      “How do we decide what is sinful?”
      – We could try looking it up in the Bible – hopefully there is not too much cobwebs and dust in our way. We could also try praying and asking for forgiveness instead of giving into our twisted and carnal desires – that might help.
      ………
      “Liberals have argued for forty years that the homosexual language is discriminatory”
      -indeed it is discriminatory against the sin not the sinner. One is not a homosexual, one practices homosexuality. You use the word “hypocrisy” but you are also a hypocrite – the discipline at the very least implies that we should not allow practicing murders rapists and thieves be preachers either but you do not mention them, why not? Should they not have the ability to lead a flock just as any other? Why not Charles Manson? Pol Pot? Why should we listen to anyone or anything for that matter?

      In your worldview no one or everyone should be a preacher because we do not process sin equally. If that were the case what is the point of listening to the Bible since it was written by sinful fallen men? Is it possible that God really does have a redemptive process? Could it be that sometimes we fail but to simply giving into our lust (no matter the preference) is something God universally calls a sin?

      • Tom McCann says

        “I have never seen nor heard of anyone advocating the stoning of homosexuals this suggests a serious lack of Biblical education.”
        Lev 19:13 “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

        ““Somehow, when we decided to overturn Christ’ teachings on remarriage after divorce, that 1900 years of Christian tradition didn’t seem to stop us.”
        -Who is “us”?”
        That would be the Methodist Church, gradually over the period of 1924-1966

        “How do we decide what is sinful?”
        – We could try looking it up in the Bible
        Yes, and I find the sin of adultery listed right there with the sin of homosexuality, in the Old Testament. In the Gospels, a lot about adultery, nothing about homosexuality. In the Pauline epistles, 2 or 3 references to both of them. Yet we accept and even celebrate adultery in the UMC.

        That’s enough. I won’t go on.

        • This argument that “there’s nothing in the Gospels about homosexuality”, the tallying of references to homosexuality versus adultery- – very disingenuous and unworthy of ministers. The same people who will criticize doing theology by “proof- texting” then turn around and want to make theological hay out of the relative infrequency of scriptural references to homosexuality.

          There is no condemnation of homosexuality in the Gospels because Jesus was preaching to Jews, who were familiar with the law of Moses and already recognized that to lie with another man was an abomination punishable by death.

          Jesus did not need to go back and reaffirm all the 600- odd laws God gave to Moses. It wasn’t his ministry to repeat Moses or add to Moses. What He did do, however, repeatedly, was point out when and how the version of the law presented by the religious authorities was actually a corruption of God’s law. This was preparation evangelica- – preparing people for the message He actually came to preach- – the gospel of the forgiveness of sins through God’s grace alone. But in order to depend on grace alone, the false righteousness they imagined they had needed to be stripped away, and the reality of the law’s condemnation of all people needed to be made clear.

          This is why Jesus shows repeatedly that God’s law requires not only outward abstinence from say murder, but also inward purity from the spiritual murder of anger, hatred, and unforgiveness; and the law not only requires positive obedience, such as making prayers or giving alma. The righteousness of the law of God requires those outward actions to flow from true love of God and our neighbor.

          Jesus was at pains to teach these things to the Jews, and not teach them that homosexuality was wicked, because they already knew that. They needed to recognize their own unrighteousness before they could receive the righteousness of God as a gift.

          This can’t be read as Jesus’ overturning Moses’ law about homosexuality, or as rejecting the contemporary understanding of the sinfulness of homosexuality. Rather we have to assume that by not addressing it he affirms the contemporary view as actually being the word of God. Otherwise, by failing to say anything Jesus would have left the Jews- – not to mention the church- – deceived as to God’s will regarding homosexuality.

          Of course, the sinfulness of homosexuality doesn’t rest only or even primarily on prescriptions in Leviticus or elsewhere. That homosexuality is a perversion of sexuality is evident from God’s creation of sexual intercourse together with marriage in Genesis 2 and from His blessing of fruitfulness on human beings in Gen.1. To simply count up the number of references to homosexuality in Scripture while ignoring God’s institution of sexuality and His explanatory comments at the institution is bumbling exegesis, proceeding from blindness or serpentine craftiness.

          The reality is that in preaching to the Jews of his day Jesus was dealing with people with significantly more knowledge of God than most of the pastors in mainline protestant churches, even though Jesus said they in fact didn’t know God at all.

          Nevertheless they at least did not deny that outward, bodily transgressions against the ten commandments were sinful. He had to get them to recognize that their inward man was at enmity with God; that unbelief, pride, lust etc. made them sinners even when they abstained from outward transgression of God’s commandments. That is why Jesus told the teacher of the law who recognized that “to love God with all your heart” and your neighbor as yourself was more important than sacrifice (Mt. 20?) that he was not far from the kingdom of God. He wasn’t far because he realized that the heart of the law is love of God, and that outward actions in conformity with God’s law were only truly acceptable when they flow from love of God. But he wouldn’t be in the Kingdom of God until he actually had the love of God in his heart. And that is not something human beings are capable of producing in themselves.

          But if Jesus appeared visibly to America today to preach, he wouldn’t be able to get this far with us- – particularly with most mainline pastors. Because we don’t even recognize that gross outward violations of God’s law are sin- – like sodomy or heterosexual fornication. We neither acknowledge the God who revealed His Law to Moses (that is, we are idolaters), not so we even acknowledge the moral law inscribed on human hearts at creation, and accessible to reason, as is evident from the fact that no pagan nation in history was so depraved as to call sodomite unions “marriage”. This should strike terror into our hearts, particularly mainline pastor’s hearts. But sadly, for the vast majority, it does not.

  4. Dave Ogden says

    I disagree strongly with Rob Renfroe. Arguing that 2000 years of a position makes it right would argue against many things that have changed in the church in the last 50 years or so. 90% of the world’s Christians may agree with you, but many of them are in countries where homosexuality is illegal and perhaps subject to the death penalty. Falling back on “it’s what the Discipline says” is not a real argument. Yes, pastors have violated the language in the Discipline, which is inherently contradictory – homosexuals are persons of sacred worth, but only if they do not act on the way that God made them. We all ignore some parts of the Bible, even the 2000 year traditionalists – since we do not follow the laws in the Torah. I believe that God is smarter than any of us give him credit for – his apostles described rules that made perfect sense in the understanding of the world 2000 years ago. Yes it is difficult to know what changes, but we all struggle with that. The traditionalists are saying that either science is wrong and homosexuality is a choice – or God made homosexuals to be inherently sinful if they act on the urges that God gave them

    • Chris Cone says

      “The traditionalists are saying that either science is wrong and homosexuality is a choice – or God made homosexuals to be inherently sinful if they act on the urges that God gave them”

      Or…
      They believe in a doctrine of original sin that incudes the belief that we are all born with a sinful nature.

    • God does not make mistakes…but the enemy Satan does. God would not create a homosexual and then tell him that that life is a sin and don’t practice what I created you to be.
      But anything Satan had a hand in (sickness, perversion, possession), God can FIX. Satan is here to steal, kill and destroy. He destroys heterosexual marriages, kills children through abuse and disease, and so much more. We let him do it. We don’t resist and many don’t even know he exists just like many don’t know or chose not to believe in the ONE true God. Sexual sin of any kind is sin and those who practice sin need deliverance that comes from God alone.

  5. Karen McGee says

    Right on Pastor Rob, there is only TRUTH in God’s word. May God bless you & all who work so hard for Good News!

  6. Licensed Local Pastor says

    Thank you Rob, very well written article. Based on your observations it appears that a split is well under way in the United Methodist Church. Oh by the way I prefer the term orthodox as well over traditionalist.

  7. Read this article. Read comments to this article. Overall very impressed with the article. For the most part impressed by the positive comments. The comments in opposition are not persuasive as they seek to normalize what God said is nothing more than sin plain and simple.

  8. Brother Rob, I’m concerned that your spirit is broken. I personally apologize that I have hurt you. Although I don’t know you personally, I sense a heavy heart that would resort to writing this article. I will do my best to speak in love, even if I have serious disagreement. Bishop Palmer from West Ohio shared at the General Conference about a strand of Jewish mysticism that emphasizes our common humanity and deep linkage to God. Not just for some but for all. It teaches, that each one of us is assigned an angel whose sole responsibility is to go before us in all of our comings and goings announcing “Behold the image and likeness of God”. Whether this is to be understood literally or not it more than suggests an image to keep in mind both about ourselves and our neighbor. Brother Rob, you are made in the likeness of God. Thank you for being you.
    Jay Hollis

  9. Jeff Nowak says

    Dear Rob. I have been contemplating Peter’s dilemma as Paul describes it in his letter to the Galatians. Peter has one foot in the world he knew and loved and another in the new revelation Paul is expressing in the letter. Circumcision was no small matter for the First century church. Paul’s preaching of a law free gospel must have been stunning to much of the church as it is emerging out of Judaism. I am feeling like Peter. I do share your reading of the scriptures, and people like Richard Hays and William Loader have made what I think are definitive statements about the bible and human sexuality. What is notable is that the Galatians letter presents a compromise for two deeply felt positions (2:8-10). I do not think we have done enough work on this issue to call for a split in our Church. Peter, it appears, was able for a time to live with this tension.

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