The Distortion Continues

Thomas Lambrecht

By Tom 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. 

Comments

  1. It should be no surprise that after violating their vows and openly defying our rules that a group of covenant breakers wrote a letter filled with misleading comparisons. It is to be expected. It is clear that The UMC is engaged in a civil war and all weapons will be brought to bear. Identity politics, lies, accusations, character assassinations, judicial challenges and retributions against those holding traditional views are simply arrows in the quiver to be fired off at will.
    Personally, I am getting tired of the line that we hold nothing against LGBT persons but we are simply trying to enforce the rules and there is no intent to purge our LGBTQ leaders. We are dealing with a group that defines itself by its behavior. A rock climber is such because he climbs rocks. If you outlaw rock climbing you outlaw rock climbers. LGBT persons are defined by their behaviors. Having prohibited those behaviors and punishing those leaders who enable such behaviors we will be in effect purging our ranks of LGBT persons. How can we think otherwise? The LGBT persons must deny who they are to remain included or suffer to be in a church that will never fully embrace them. That cannot last. The “love the sinner hate the sin” position simply angers them. Their argument is that having been created as gay their same sex attraction cannot be defined as sinful. The LGBT people must head for the exits or take over and force traditionalists out the doors. So yes, there will be a soft purge. That can’t be helped.
    As Tom said the two views are incompatible. For this reason there must be some very serious discussions on how the split The UMC and it must be done rather quickly. The longer we drag this out the worse it will be. It sure looks like the progressives are putting on a full court press to overturn GC 2019 next year and hold out some hope of doing so. They do appear to have organization and energy in their efforts and might even be successful. Either way one group or another has to go. Best to have some serious and meaningful discussions and a plan for division ready to go for GC 2020.

  2. Gary Bebop says

    Did we think Asbury to be isolated and safe from the Big Fight? Tom’s rebuke of the 70 Asbury alums tells us there is no Wesleyan-holiness sanctuary in this struggle. Everything is being contended. Every evangelical-orthodox institution of any merit will be turn to shreds by Progressive advocates unless the faithful speak up and resist. This is a fight to be joined, not a draft to be avoided. Tom’s “all in” but are we?

    • Gary – I have long felt the Bishops started a process in 2016 that could be regrettable and the longer we have seen the results of their way forward plan, it has indeed been just that. Then at this years GC the faithful were called names (by those OCP christian people) and disparaged in ways that no one would have thought. Their leadership, like Adam Hamilton, put out videos expressing shock and even suggested the ideal of withholding apportionments. Well, that happened and the GCFA just reported year-to-date reductions of nearly 5 million dollars. Then the re-affirmation of the TP in April was another problem for them. Now, one thing is for sure, the process has continued to worsen, and I believe it is because the faithful, as you suggest, are speaking up and resisting. Thank you for your comments.

  3. Jef Stemple says

    I really don’t understand the difficulty of dividing the UMC into two separate institutions. If both factions are truly following Jesus as they claim, then dissolve the denomination and generously disperse the UMC’s assets by gladly giving the ‘other side’ more than ‘your side’ is willing to take!

    • The basic problem is that the clergy by and large want to change the rules for themselves and they want to redefine sexual sins. The laity by and large want to adhere to the apostolic faith- and the traditional laity is grossly underrepresented at ac and consequently gc because the clergy generally pick lay leaders for their churches that they know agree with the clergy.

      I don’t really think there is a practical way to split. All the institutional leaders have the power and are convinced they know that god wants us to change our beliefs.

      There has been a lot of focus on progressive versus traditional believers, but the real divide is a supermajority of progressive clergy versus a majority a traditional believers in the congregation. If a split occurs by individual church there will simply not be enough traditional clergy for traditional churches, and too many progressive clergy for progressive churches.

      The other problem to splitting is constitutional. 2/3 at gc + 2/3 of ac would have to approve a split. However, they could circumvent this by just enhancing exit provisions with funding for exiting churches – but that means that one side would keep the official umc.

      It’s a mess- and all stems from our clergy that refuse to adhere to the oaths they have made.

  4. Fred Brown says

    Such huge disparity between much of our pastorship and the church membership. Our recent annual conference voted for their General Conference representatives. 70% of lay leaders voted in were “traditionalist”. 70% of pastors elected were “progressives”. This disparity is explained only by what most of our Methodist educational institutions are teaching. “Purging” violating pastors only addresses the current pastorship while the institutions continue to pump out future “violators”. While we need to evaluate and re-tool the Methodist educational system, the task is so huge tfor the Traditional Discipline that it makes more sense to focus on a split – sooner rather than later – rather than trying to “fix” this mess.

  5. Jim Wolfgang says

    I recently read in the U.M. News Service of a plan designed by two of our bishops that would propose allowing the denomination to separate into two or more denominations, with the “United Methodist Church” the name of the administrative organization that manages our present general boards and services such as “Wespath”. I know similar proposals are being developed in “progressive” and “traditional” circles. This is not a rehash of the “One Church Model”, it is a multi church model. I have a new sense of peace about the resolution of our church’s quandary with these proposals, and I sense this is a leading of the Holy Spirit guiding us. If the Council of Bishops in their January meeting would effectively discipline their renegade members and appoint covenant keeping bishops as the replacements this would keep the denomination intact, but will they? I believe it more likely we need to hear the call ” To your tents, O Israel”! How sad to see our once great United Methodist Church, the most authentic modern example of the new testament church, come to impending shipwreck. We can thank our “progressive” leadership for steering us to the reef. Still time to make a last minute course correction, but we need to make plans to build a new ship from the wreckage.

  6. Bob Linaberry-Charis says

    Lambrecht digs the trench deeper between the peoples called United Methodist.

  7. The bishop for the Kentucky Conference sent out a letter that upon first glance is trying to be conciliatory to both groups, traditional and progressive or extreme liberal. When examined closely, what I read was a letter of belittlement and berating the conservatives. His heart is troubled. We as a conference is causing “pain”, to those who seek to overthrow a universal truth. Truth that has transcended time and borders as an unacceptable behavior. I am not sure the “pain” they refer to other than not getting their own way. I noticed that the homosexual group and their supporters used a sales technique. I trained at various retail companies and their staff. It goes like this: when a salesperson hears an objection, they should first restate the objection, then deflect and redirect the response, putting the customer on the defense to find another objection. When you can logically take away their objections, this group then goes into the mode of deflecting and redirecting by saying we as a church are against all homosexuals “and their kids”. Rather than deal with the real issues of “leadership and marriage”, they resort to typical diatribe. They need the approval of a mainline denomination the size of Methodist in order propagate their lifestyles and tell the rest of the world “well you know the Methodist have seen the light and have gone our way”. Scripture talks about branches that need to be cut and thrown into the fire so the plant can produce fruit, rather than become totally unfit as a fruit for us to eat. I also know this bishop is progressive or liberal depending on how you are bent, and this is his tactic to get the people to look at themselves and to finally agree that he is right because after all, he is the Bishop and he is looking out for all of us. A divorce in this case could ease the “pain” of an ended marriage so they can marry whomever they wish.

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