Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
By Thomas Lambrecht –
Controversy is ramping up over abortion, as several states have passed more restrictive laws and some are contemplating the possibility that the Supreme Court might reverse the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The proposed new Global Methodist Church is unequivocal in support of a pro-life position. How are we to think about abortion in today’s social context?
The church would do well to follow the lead of Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun, who is best known for tending the needs of people in the slums of Calcutta, India, and received the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor worldwide. “Abortion has become the greatest destroyer of peace, because it destroys two lives, the life of the child and the conscience of the mother,” she said, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Let us thank our parents for wanting us, for loving us, for giving us the joy of living. … You are priceless to God himself.”
This is obviously a controversial and emotionally fraught issue. We need to pay attention to the experiences and feelings of women facing unwanted pregnancies and be prepared to support them from a pro-life perspective. There is also a need to think clearly, biblically, and theologically about the moral aspects of abortion, as well as being informed by the best science. My main concern is how Christians ought to put our beliefs into practice in our personal lives, more than how our beliefs should influence governmental laws regulating abortion.
The question hinges on how we understand the life that exists within a woman’s womb. Is it a human person? Is it a blob of cells? What exactly are we dealing with here?
There seems to be broad consensus that what exists within the womb is alive. After all, it is growing and developing and even has a detectable heartbeat by the sixth week of pregnancy.
Part of the Woman’s Body?
Some would say that a fetus is simply part of a woman’s body. Having an abortion for some is the moral equivalent of removing a tumor or having plastic surgery.
Against this view is the fact that a fetus has different DNA than its mother. If the fetus were simply part of the woman’s body, it would have the same identical DNA as the mother. But of course the fetus has both the mother’s and father’s DNA, combined in a new and unique way, so it has a distinct life from that of the mother.
While it is completely dependent upon the mother for sustenance, the fetus reacts independently to external stimuli. The fetus has periods of wakefulness and activity, independently of what the mother might be doing at the time. The fetus can respond to the sounds of music or the parents’ voices.
In Luke 1, we read how the baby John the Baptist leaped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice. As Elizabeth reports, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:39-45).
Ultrasound technology shows us that a fetus has a life and existence of its own. When it comes to the baby in the womb, the mother is dealing with a separate new life, which takes the question into a different moral category.
As reported by Emma Green in The Atlantic, activist Ashley McGuire recounts her own experience of pregnancy. “When you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”
A Human Person?
The question still remains whether the life within the mother is human and whether it is a person with all the rights and protections of a human being.
Here again, science comes to our aid. When the fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, it has all the necessary genetic code to describe its unique existence. From that point on, it is a matter of development. That development takes place rapidly and gradually over the course of the nine-month pregnancy. Even after birth, that development continues until a person reaches physical adulthood in their late teens. At what point during that development does a life go from being non-human to human? Or from being a non-person to being a person?
The Supreme Court in a later decision chose viability as the point at which the unborn child gains some potential protections of the law. That is the point at which the baby could survive outside the mother’s womb. That point is very difficult to establish, however, and medical advancements have been pushing the point of viability earlier in pregnancy. Crucially, what is different the day before a baby is viable from the day after is simply growth and development. No new physical structure is formed that yields viability. The baby has simply grown to the point where it could sustain its own life outside the mother’s womb.
The recent Texas law established a fetal heartbeat as the point at which the baby gains the right of protection. This is a more objective standard, since it can be determined without question from outside the womb. It marks a definite change in the status of the physical development of the baby. But again, there is nothing intrinsically different in an infant before it has a beating heart from after. It is still the same life in development.
Some moralists centuries ago placed birth as the moment when the baby becomes a human person, since it can now breathe the air. They drew upon the image of Genesis 2, where God breathes the breath/spirit of life into the dust, and the man became a living being. I have held and baptized a baby who died in her mother’s womb at nine months gestation. That baby was perfect in every way, except that it was not alive. It was just as much a human person as it would have been, had it been born alive two weeks later.
In some cultures, due to high infant mortality, parents would not name their babies until they were several years old and they had a decent chance of survival. Were those babies less human before they were named?
All these demarcation points are somewhat arbitrary. They are different points along a spectrum of development. The real change that takes place is when a sperm and egg unite to form a new life and it implants in the uterine wall for its life to be sustained. Going from independent cells to a new life is the most defensible demarcation point at which that new life ought to be protected.
“The more I advanced in my field of neonatology, the more it just became the logical choice to recognize the developing fetus for what it is: a fetus, instead of some sort of sub-human form,” said Colleen Malloy, a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University. “It just became so obvious that these were just developing humans.” (Reported in The Atlantic.)
The vast majority of abortions are performed as a “backstop” for contraceptive failure – either a failure to properly use contraception or because the contraception failed to prevent pregnancy. It is important to note that no contraceptive method is 100 percent effective. Sometimes, abortion is considered a form of contraception, but that is really a misnomer. Abortion does not prevent conception, it ends the life that is conceived.
This is where our overly sexualized culture does women a disservice. Women are often expected to engage in sexual relations without any form of commitment by the man, yet women are the ones who bear the consequences in terms of pregnancy. This is fundamentally unjust. But the answer is not to do away with the consequences by ending the pregnancy. Rather, the answer is to return to God’s plan for how we experience our sexual relationships.
God designed sexual relationships to be experienced within the context of marriage, which represents a commitment by the man to care and provide for his wife and any offspring that might be conceived. Without that commitment, women and children are left unprotected and not provided for. An irresponsible man simply expects the woman to have an abortion to eliminate the consequences of his irresponsibility.
Biblical theology teaches that men and women should reserve sex until marriage. This protects the woman from being taken advantage of, and it prevents the vast majority of potential abortions by reserving pregnancy and childbirth to the safety of marriage, where both the woman and her child are provided for. The CDC reports that 85 percent of abortions are obtained by unmarried women.
This approach to sexuality is counter-cultural. Jesus and the apostles consistently invite us to live by a different set of values and assumptions than our culture does. Such an approach also avoids the emotional pain, emptiness, and even the physical consequences of promiscuity. It is the healthiest way to live.
Rape and Incest
When discussing abortion, the exceptional cases of rape and incest often assume disproportional attention. They account for less than 2 percent of abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Pragmatically in terms of secular law, if granting an exception allowing 2 percent of abortions would end 90 percent of abortions, that is a trade-off that could make sense. There is certainly no reason to provoke controversy over the “hard cases,” when the vast majority of abortions do not fit those categories
“I was adopted nearly from birth,” reports Rebecca Wasser Kiessling, an attorney, wife, and mother of five. “At 18, I learned that I was conceived out of a brutal rape at knife-point by a seiral rapist. Like most people, I’d never considered that abortion applied to my life, but once I received this information, all of a sudden I realized that, not only does it apply to my life, but it has to do with my very existence.”
It is natural to want to end a pregnancy caused by a traumatic event like rape or incest. But how do we respond to precious souls like Rebecca?
Christians believe that God can work all things together for good and that God can take something meant for evil and use it for good. We must consider why the life of the child should be taken because of the crime perpetrated by the rapist. God can bring healing to the mother through the life of the child. And there are thousands of childless couples looking to adopt babies, for whom such a child could be a real blessing from the Lord.
“Those of us who were conceived in rape are not the’hard cases,'” Kiessling has testified. “It is those with the hardened hearts who would condemn an innocent child to death.”
Stewards of Life
Biblically, life is a gift of God. God creates life and expects us to be good stewards of the life we are given. While the mother and father play a crucial role in bringing new life into the world, ultimately, God is the one who forms life in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). Children are a gift from God (Psalm 127:3). His purpose for our life dates back before our birth (Jeremiah 1:5). God loves and values unborn children.
The issues around abortion are painful ones to wrestle with, and there are no easy answers. We can prayerfully consider how God would want to use the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves for our good, the good of others, and his glory. We do not want to close the door on the possibility of miraculously answered prayer.
At the same time, women with undesired pregnancies provide an opportunity for the body of Christ to come around them with love and support that would make that pregnancy manageable. We ought to be the hands and feet of Jesus in serving women and their unborn children with love and acceptance. Often, that support needs to continue past the birth and through the baby’s childhood, particularly for single mothers and women in poverty. The church’s pro-life ethic is not just during pregnancy, but extends through all of life.
The church can also offer the forgiveness and healing of Christ for women who regret their decision to abort a child. This is not an unforgiveable sin, and women ought not to be condemned to live with guilt and pain their whole lives. Jesus came to set us free from guilt and shame around all the brokenness we experience, including misjudgments and wrong choices that are costly.
In this cultural moment, Christians have the chance to speak up for the voiceless and powerless – both the unborn children whose lives are at stake and the women who feel compelled toward abortion. We have the chance to live out the ethic of life for both mothers and children. We can live by a different set of values and assumptions than our culture regarding sex and commitment. And we can offer the forgiveness and healing of Christ to a broken world.
Photo Courtsey of Shutterstock.
By Thomas Lambrecht –
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation provides a way for amicable separation to resolve The United Methodist Church’s conflict over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, particularly related to ministry to and with LGBT persons. Some within the institution of United Methodism are fighting tooth and nail to prevent separation from occurring. After all, the nature of an institution is to do whatever possible to maintain its existence.
These institutionalists have raised questions about whether the Protocol is constitutional under United Methodist Church law. They raise the valid concern that we do not want to pass a plan at General Conference that later turns out to be unconstitutional and unenforceable. Many General Conference veterans remember the 2012 General Conference passing “Plan UMC,” only to be told on the last afternoon of the conference that the comprehensive plan to reorganize the church was unconstitutional.
Therefore, it is important to consider the possible ways that the Protocol could be unconstitutional and try to assess whether that is indeed the case. The Rev. Dr. William B. Lawrence, professor of American Church History and former dean of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has written a paper arguing that the Protocol is indeed unconstitutional.
First, it is important to note that the Judicial Council – United Methodism’s supreme court – would be the body that would rule on the Protocol’s constitutionality. It would take a two-thirds vote, six of the nine members of the Judicial Council, to rule it unconstitutional. This is a fairly high bar, not easily achieved. This is especially true when one considers the Judicial Council’s goal: “When reviewing legislation for constitutionality, we defer to the legislative authority of the General Conference. In reviewing acts of the General Conference for constitutionality, our first inclination is to save legislation, if at all possible, and not destroy” (Decision 1210).
The Council of Bishops requested the Judicial Council to rule in advance on the constitutionality of the Protocol. In Memorandum 1407, however, the Judicial Council declined to rule, citing the fact that it might intrude on the legislative authority of General Conference by placing its “constitutional seal of approval on one proposed legislative item.” The Bishops could ask again for a ruling (with stronger arguments) or, more likely, the delegates of General Conference could themselves ask for a preliminary ruling on the first day of General Conference. Such a request would have to be honored, and it could provide important guidance to the legislative committee working on the Protocol.
Can an Annual Conference Withdraw?
The primary objection by Lawrence and others to the Protocol’s constitutionality is (they say) an annual conference is not permitted to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. Lawrence argues that such a vote would infringe on the authority of the jurisdictional and central conferences to determine “the number, names, and boundaries of the annual conferences” (Discipline, ¶ 40).
However, if an annual conference were to withdraw, the jurisdictional or central conference would simply redraw the boundaries of existing annual conferences to include the vacated area or form a new annual conference to cover the vacated area. The withdrawal of an annual conference does not negate the constitutional powers of jurisdictional or central conferences.
The Constitution does not forbid annual conferences from withdrawing, nor does it explicitly permit it. The Constitution does say that “the annual conference is the basic body in the church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on [several specific matters] and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution” (¶ 33). Since the power to allow an annual conference to withdraw is not specifically delegated to the General Conference, it is reserved to the annual conference to do so.
Even if that were not the case, under ¶ 16.3, the General Conference has authority “to define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences.” So the General Conference can give annual conferences the power to withdraw.
Importantly, the Judicial Council has already considered and ruled on this question. In Decision 1366 a ruling on the Traditional Plan, which originally contained a provision allowing annual conferences to withdraw, the Judicial Council said,
An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. This reserved right, however, is not absolute but must be counterbalanced by the General Conference’s power to “define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences” in ¶ 16.3. … We agree with the submitter’s argument that the ‘withdrawal of an annual conference does not negate the constitutional powers of jurisdictional or central conferences.’ … While the General Conference, under the authority of ¶ 16.3, may regulate the process and set the conditions for an annual conference to leave The United Methodist Church, the annual conference, having ‘reserved to it…such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution,’ exercises autonomous control over the agenda, business, discussion, and vote on the question of withdrawal. Consequently, we find that amended ¶ 2801.9 is constitutional.
Lawrence argues that this decision does not count, since the provision in question was never adopted by General Conference. At the very least, however, it provides clear guidance to the Judicial Council’s thinking on this matter. Nearly the same members that decided 1366 are continuing members of the Judicial Council today. It would be very unusual for them to change their minds and overrule a previous finding of constitutionality. In accordance with Decision 1366, the Protocol “regulate[s] the process and set[s] the conditions for an annual conference to leave The United Methodist Church.” It thus complies with what the Judicial Council requires, making the ability of an annual conference to withdraw constitutional.
Lawrence further argues that annual conference withdrawal under the Protocol is unconstitutional because it allows lay members of the annual conference to vote on the membership of its clergy – presumably by voting the annual conference to align with another Methodist denomination, which would automatically take all its clergy members into that other denomination. Lawrence writes, “It would remove [clergy] from membership in the [UM] church by sending them involuntarily into some other church body.”
However, clergy membership in the new denomination would be strictly voluntary. Under the Protocol, clergy who wish to remain in the UM Church are able to do so, even if their annual conference withdraws, and they would continue to be eligible for a UM appointment. The laity would not be voting on whether or not clergy would be members of The United Methodist Church. That decision would be up to the individual clergy involved. Under the Protocol, clergy who agree with their annual conference’s alignment decision would automatically move into that chosen alignment, while clergy who disagree with that decision can choose a different alignment. So clergy who wish to remain United Methodist may do so, even if their annual conference votes to align with a new Methodist denomination.
Another objection raised to the Protocol is that it does not require an annual conference to vote to approve the withdrawal of a local church. This objection is derived from ¶ 41, where a two-thirds vote of the annual conference is required to allow a local church to transfer from one annual conference to another within The United Methodist Church. Judicial Council Decisions 1366 and 1377 ruled that the provision allowing a local church to withdraw and join a new or existing Methodist denomination was unconstitutional because it failed to require that annual conference approval.
Judicial Council Decision 1379, however, reversed the previous rulings in light of the fact that “Paragraph 41 of the Constitution governs the narrowly defined circumstance of a local church transferring from one annual conference to another but does not apply to a local church seeking to exit The United Methodist Church.” Decision 1379 still required a simple majority approval by the annual conference for any church disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church. This requirement is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but is extrapolated from the fact that the annual conference is the basic body of the church.
But proponents of the Protocol would argue that ¶ 16.3 in the Constitution gives the General Conference authority “to define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences … charge conferences, and congregational meetings.” General Conference therefore has the authority to grant congregational meetings (church conferences) the power to disaffiliate and to specify that annual conferences do not have the power to approve of such disaffiliation. General Conference has the authority to limit the powers of an annual conference, just as it has the authority to grant powers to an annual conference, as long as the powers to be limited are not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution. Therefore, the ability of a local church to disaffiliate (and align with a new Methodist denomination) without annual conference approval is indeed constitutional under this line of reasoning.
The final objection to the Protocol’s constitutionality is that it should require a two-thirds vote at all levels. (The Protocol requires a two-thirds vote for a central conference to align, a 57 percent vote for an annual conference to align, and either a simple majority or two-thirds vote for a local church to align.) The requirement for a two-thirds vote for such decisions is not found anywhere in the Constitution, other than in ¶ 41, which was already ruled to be irrelevant to the process for disaffiliation decisions. Some would argue on a prudential basis that a two-thirds vote is preferable, while others would argue that a majority vote is preferable. Either way, however, there is nothing in the Constitution that decides the question one way or another. The Protocol carefully balanced the needs and circumstances of different parts of the church in arriving at the percentages chosen.
The bottom line is that all the major objections to the Protocol’s constitutionality are either without a basis in the Constitution or have already been addressed by Judicial Council. Delegates can enact the Protocol with the fairly strong assurance that it is constitutional. Of course, no one can guarantee what the Judicial Council might rule. That is why a ruling in advance of General Conference would be so helpful to the legislative process. In the absence of such a ruling, delegates can still proceed with confidence to adopt the most comprehensive and balanced resolution to our church’s conflict. The church needs this conflict resolved
Segment of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (1511). Public domain.
By Thomas Lambrecht-
As Christians, we believe God created the universe. He created it with a certain structure. That structure is reflected in the physical universe – what we call the laws of physics (and biology). He also created the universe with a certain moral and spiritual structure – what we call the moral law or natural law.
When we reject the physical laws of the universe, we suffer consequences. We cannot defy the laws of gravity and survive. The same is true when we reject the moral and spiritual structure that God created. There, too, we suffer consequences.
I would argue that many of the problems in the world today are because we reject the structure of things that God has placed inherently in his created universe.
Christians point back to Genesis 3 for the explanation of much that is wrong with the world today. We call it “The Fall.” It was when the first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to reject God’s structure and choose their own way.
God had said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). But the serpent persuaded them with an enticing proposal, “When you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, able to make their own determination about what was good and what was evil. As my pastor pointed out in his sermon on this passage last Sunday, the irony is that Adam and Eve were already like God. They were created in his image. They were made to live forever in fellowship with him. They would have expressed God’s understanding of good and evil by virtue of their continued fellowship with him. But they instead wanted autonomy – to make their own moral framework. In doing so, they rejected God’s structure, the structure that he had placed within all of creation, both morally/spiritually and physically. As a result, the whole structure became warped and spoiled, leading to the experience of sin and evil we witness today.
The Consequences of the Fall
Because Adam and Eve rejected God’s structure, sin and evil permeated the world. No part of the world is untouched by it. No person is untainted by it. This is what we mean by “original sin.” As our Articles of Religion put it, “it is the corruption of the nature of every [person], … whereby [humanity] is very far gone from original righteousness, and of [one’s] own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (Article VII). We cannot reject the inherent moral/spiritual structure of the universe without consequence.
In the process, Adam and Eve are separated from God, cut off from the daily fellowship that they once enjoyed with him. This is spiritual death, and it is characteristic of all people today.
Adam and Eve were also banished from the Garden of Eden and no longer had access to the tree of life. So they began to physically die. As the generations rolled along, the lifespan of people grew shorter and shorter, until we arrive at the biblical “three score and ten” (Psalm 90:10).
All the sin, evil, death, and spiritual dis-ease we experience is traceable back to the human desire for autonomy from God. We reject the structure of things God has created and end up beating our heads against the brick wall trying establish our own structure in its place.
Among many examples, we see this tendency toward human autonomy manifested in our inclination to try to determine on our own when life can begin and when it should end. The U.S. is one of less than a dozen countries in the world that permits abortion up until the time of birth. We ignore the God-given structure that creates new life within a mother’s womb, and we choose to end that life that is made in God’s image.
The reason most abortions are “necessary” is that we have also rejected God’s structure for marriage and family. Waiting for sex within the context and security of marriage is considered ridiculously old-fashioned. Rather than following God’s structure of building a relationship that is finally expressed in marriage and culminated in sex, we opt for pleasure first, relationship and marriage later (if at all). Babies don’t conform to this human-made structure, so unwanted or unplanned pregnancies are terminated, compounding the first rejection of God’s structure by another rejection. This is not to diminish those tragic situations when abortion becomes a medical necessity to save the life of the mother. Even then, however, we are cognizant that we are ending a human life, not removing a blob of cells, and we rightly mourn the loss.
Our desire to be autonomous leads us to contemplate physician-assisted suicide. We want to determine the moment of our own death, especially if we feel we cannot endure living anymore. There are times when people are faced with horrible physical or emotional pain that seems to justify calling an end to the suffering through dying at a time and in a way of our own choosing. We have both a desire and an obligation to extend compassion and mercy to all in those situations. We are compelled to offer help, both medical and psychological, to ease the pain as much as possible. But the answer is not to draw an artificial ending to the gift of life God has given us, violating that life-affirming structure.
We see this tendency toward human autonomy manifested in the attempt to remake gender into a personal and social construct, rather than a God-given gift attached to the physical reality of our bodies. Again, we must be sensitive to the very real psychological distress that some experience in connection with their gender. The answer is not to remake our physical reality to align with our perception of ourselves. Rather, it is to reconnect with the structure of things that God has placed within each person, where body, mind, and spirit align together in a human unity.
Redemption through Christ
Fortunately, God has provided a way out of the morass of human autonomy seeking. He sent his Son Jesus to restore the structure inherent in creation and redeem those caught in the trap of rejecting that structure in favor of their own invention. Coming to Christ for salvation, we voluntarily surrender our own self-will to his lordship. The futile attempts to create our own moral universe and the resulting sin, pain, and harm are forgiven – wiped away in Jesus’ death on the cross. His resurrection reestablishes the deeper logic of the universe under God’s sovereignty. As disciples, our minds and hearts are transformed in keeping with God’s will, not our own (Romans 12:2). Although imperfect in our attempts, we strive to grow in holiness, which is conformity to God’s way. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are changed on the inside, leading to a change in our thinking and actions, demonstrating our allegiance to God’s kingdom.
This is what it means to be a Christian – not just a walk down the aisle to the alter, but a transformed life of discipleship. That is why it is so disheartening at times to see Christians adopting the world’s value structure, rather than God’s. Our modern society values individual autonomy in the extreme. As a result, each person becomes his/her own arbiter of truth. Rather than submitting ourselves to the revelation of God’s structure as found in Scripture and taught by the Church through the centuries, we deem ourselves competent to override the apostles and prophets of Scripture and honored teachers of the Church.
Yet, we do not rest easy as rulers of our own individual kingdoms and supposed masters of our own fate. We become unfocused and distracted in life, running after all the things our world values instead of the “one needful thing” that Mary discovered at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:41-42). In the words of professors Jenna Silber Storey and Benjamin Storey (First Things, May 2021, p. 15), “we suffer from something like the pixelated vision of the fly.” We are drawn in so many directions that our lives are sometimes dissipated in fruitless activity.
To be effective as Christian disciples, we find our focus in Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He is the guide to the purpose and meaning of our lives. In his structure, we find true freedom. We can learn the lesson of submission to something and Someone greater than ourselves, finding our place in the God-given structure of the universe. Finding that place – our place – is the fulfillment of God’s intention for us, bringing him glory and saturating us with joy.
What will the future of Methodism look like? This graphic illustrates just a few of the main differences and distinctives anticipated between The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church (in Formation). Links to the primary documents are found in the article below.
By Thomas Lambrecht
What will the proposed new Global Methodist Church look like? How will it operate? In what ways will it be different from what we have been accustomed to in The United Methodist Church?
These questions weigh on the minds of people who are thinking about the option of aligning with the GM Church after the UM Church’s 2022 General Conference adopts the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.
Change is difficult for us human beings! We tend to prefer sticking with what we are used to. Of course, the whole reason for forming the GMC is because we believe there are some crucial changes needed in how the UM Church currently operates.
Forming a new denomination essentially from scratch is a difficult and complex undertaking. Most United Methodists have never read the Book of Discipline, and they trust their pastor, district superintendent, and bishop to know how the church is supposed to run. Therefore, comparing provisions in the UM Church’s 800-page Book of Discipline with the GM Church’s much shorter Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline would be a tedious task for most United Methodists.
That is why we have undertaken to produce a comprehensive comparison chart that summarizes the main provisions of the UM Discipline ,the GM Transitional Doctrines and Discipline , and the proposals from the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline. The chart shows how most of the important provisions of church governance are handled in the UM Church compared with how they would be handled in the GM Church.
It is important to keep the three documents clear in our understanding. The Book of Discipline governs how United Methodist conferences and congregations function today. It was adopted by the 2016 General Conference (with a few revisions in 2019) and is the result of an evolutionary process extending back to the very first Discipline in 1808. We do not know what the UM Church’s Book of Discipline will look like after the realignment contemplated by the Protocol is accomplished, but we know that significant changes to the church’s moral teachings have been proposed.
The Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline will govern how the GM Church functions from its inception until its convening General Conference meets (an approximately one- to two-year period). It borrows some features from the UM Discipline and some ideas from the WCA’s draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline. It was drafted by a three-person writing team and then amended and approved by the Transitional Leadership Council, which is the governing body for the GM Church from now through the transition until the convening General Conference.
The Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline fleshes out in greater detail than the WCA draft book some of the critical elements necessary to have the denomination running. It elaborates transitional provisions that would help individuals, clergy, congregations, and conferences move into the GM Church. However, anything that was not necessary for the transitional period – such as the manner of selecting and appointing bishops – has been left for the convening General Conference to decide.
In order to minimize the amount of change that congregations would experience during the transitional period, the Transitional Leadership Council sought to maintain continuity with the current UM Discipline where it made sense – such as in the appointment process for clergy to churches (although enhanced consultation with congregations will be required). At the same time, some critically important reforms – such as shortening the timeline for candidacy to ordained ministry – were incorporated in the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline as essential elements of the new church and features that would set the direction of the denomination.
Ultimately, the GM Church’s convening General Conference, composed of delegates elected globally from among those who align with the new church, will have the authority to formally adopt a new, more permanent Book of Doctrines and Discipline. It will undoubtedly build as a starting point upon the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline. The WCA’s recommendations and other ideas laity and clergy wish to propose will be considered and potentially adopted by the General Conference. Notably, WCA recommendations not in the transitional book would not take effect unless adopted by the convening General Conference. However, they are an important indicator of the current thinking of denominational leaders.
The comparison chart is meant to be an easy way to compare how the GM Church will function during the transition and give an indication of some of the directions envisioned for its future. The chart may be reproduced and shared freely. Questions and feedback are welcome and can be sent to email@example.com.
Some highlights from the chart, specifically referring to the GM Church’s transitional period:
- Doctrine– The doctrinal standards will stay the same, with the addition of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and bishops and clergy will be expected to promote and defend the doctrines of the church.
- Social Issues– Church statements would require a 75 percent vote and would be binding on clergy and congregations (which implies there will be fewer and more general statements). Social witness in the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline is two pages, compared with over 930 pages in the UM Discipline and Book of Resolutions.
- Local Church Membership Categories– Similar to the UM Church.
- Local Church Organizational Structure – Flexible structures allowed to accomplish the necessary administrative tasks.
- Connectional Funding (Apportionments)– 1.5 percent of local church income for general church work, 5-10 percent for annual conference, including the bishop’s salary and expenses.
- Trust Clause– Local church owns its property (no trust clause). Local churches with pension liability would remain liable if the church disaffiliates.
- Local Church Disaffiliation– Would allow for involuntary disaffiliation if necessary for churches teaching doctrines or engaging in practices contrary to the GM Book of Doctrines and Discipline. Voluntary disaffiliation possible by majority vote of the congregation. No payments required, except pension liabilities where applicable, secured by a lien on the property.
- Certified Laity in Ministry – Combines all types into one category called certified lay ministers, who can specialize to serve in any of the previous areas (e.g., lay speakers, lay servants, deaconesses, etc.).
- Orders of Ministry – Order of deacon contains both permanent deacons and those going on to elder’s orders.
- Length of Candidacy for Ordained Ministry– Six months to three years.
- Educational Requirements for Deacons– Five or six prescribed courses before ordination and four or five courses thereafter.
- Educational Requirements for Elders – Six prescribed courses before ordination and four courses thereafter.
- Licensed Local Pastors (non-ordained)– Grandfathered in, but transitioned to ordained Deacon or Elder.
- Funding for Theological Education– Theological Education Fund to make loans to students that are forgivable (20 percent for each year of service to the church).
- Retirement for Bishops and Clergy– No mandatory retirement, clergy may choose senior status. Senior clergy not under appointment are annual conference members with voice and vote for seven years. Thereafter, members with voice only.
- Election and Assignment of Bishops– Election process to be determined. Term limits envisioned, perhaps twelve years. Current UM bishops who join the GM Church will continue to serve. Annual conferences without a bishop would have a president pro tempore assigned for the transitional period.
- Appointment Process– Same as UM Church, with enhanced consultation with clergy and local church. Bishops must give a written rationale for appointing a pastor against the wishes of the congregation. Current appointments maintained where possible during transition.
- Guaranteed Appointment– No guaranteed appointment. Bishop must give written rationale for not appointing a clergyperson.
- General Church Governance– Transitional Leadership Council serves as the governing body until the convening General Conference with globally elected delegates.
- General Church Agencies– None mandated. Five transitional commissions suggested (compared with 15 UM agencies).
- Jurisdictions or Central Conferences– Optional, may or may not be formed in a particular area.
- Adaptability of the Discipline– Provisions of the Book of Doctrines and Discipline would apply equally to all geographic areas of the church unless specified. This implies provisions will be more general and consider the global context before being adopted.
- Annual Conference Agencies– Six agencies required, with additional ones at the discretion of the annual conference (compared with 25+ in the UM Church).
- Clergy Accountability– Similar to the UM Church complaint process, with stricter timelines and less discretion in dismissing complaints. Laity would be voting members of committee on investigation.
- Bishops’ Accountability– Accountable to Transitional Leadership Committee, global committee on investigation, and global trial court if needed. Laity would be voting members of the committee on investigation.
- Many more details, as well as the WCA’s proposals following the transitional period, can be found in the chart linked above.
My wife is a marriage and family therapist. One of her favorite questions to provoke dialog is, “How are things changing and how are they remaining the same?” That question is a fitting one to ask, as we head into a key few years of decision-making ahead. Hopefully, this chart can help provide some of the answers.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.
By Thomas Lambrecht –
Labor Day is a holiday in honor of work. Too often, Christians have adopted a secular understanding of work. We view it either as drudgery or as an idol to which we devote all our time and energy. But work is a spiritual endeavor. We are to approach our work as we do everything else in life – under the lordship of Jesus Christ. How would Jesus have us view work? How would Jesus want us to function at work?
The first thing to understand is that work is part of God’s plan for us. When God created us, he gave us work to do. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Humanity is given the gift of cultivating the beautiful world in which we live, improving and developing it according to the creativity God bestowed on us. And we are to do so in a way that cares for and preserves the beauty of God’s world that he has entrusted to us.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). These “good works” are not just what we traditionally think of as works of mercy or kindness toward others, but includes all the work we do. Everything we do ought to be working for the good of others.
Even Jesus worked, both as a carpenter with his father, and then when he went about his heavenly father’s business. He said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working. … For the works that the Father has given me to finish – the very works that I am doing – testify that the Father has sent me” (John 5:17, 36).
Working is not a result of the Fall of Genesis 3, where humanity rebelled against God, but is an inherent part of being human, as God designed us.
Therefore, we ought to pursue our work, whether as a stay-a-home parent, an executive, a plumber, a teacher, or whatever we do, as a part of God’s calling on our life. The word “vocation” means “calling.” Our work is what God has called us to do with our lives, our vocation. It does not have to relate to church or religious work. Any work that we do can be an expression of God’s calling on our life and a demonstration of our faith.
Further, our work can be an expression of our gifts and personality. Our temperament, talents, and life experience suit us for certain kinds of work, and the way we do our work can also express who we are. This, too, is part of what it means to see work as a vocation.
John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, gives us some practical teaching on a theology of work in his sermon, The Use of Money. He fleshes out some implications of owning Jesus as Lord of our work life.
Governing What Work We Do
The first consideration is to choose work that honors God. Again, that does not limit our work to religious or charitable work. Any work that we do that makes life better for others is a work that honors God.
Wesley reminds us “we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country.” In Wesley’s day, that was engaging in smuggling and black market trading that was rampant as a way to avoid paying customs duties on imported goods. In our own day, there are any number of lines of work that are either unethical, illegal, or immoral, which are therefore prohibited to the Christian. As Wesley puts it, anything that we cannot do “without cheating or lying, or conformity to some custom which is not consistent with a good conscience” is off-limits to Christians.
Wesley further teaches that we ought not to engage in work at the expense of our life or our health. The gift of our life is too precious to forfeit for the sake of earning a living. He extends that caution to “any business which necessarily deprives us of proper seasons for food and sleep in such a proportion as our nature requires.” While there are some lines of work that are inherently unhealthy and dangerous to life – coal mining, for example – there are other lines of work that might only be unhealthy for a person with a weak constitution. I could never be a dock worker! So the decision on whether a particular job is too injurious to our health might be an individual decision.
This acknowledgement brings up the special case of people serving in the military or as police or fire fighters. These are dangerous and potentially unhealthy. But they are undertaken specifically to help others in a sacrificial way. Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, there are those who willingly risk life and limb to serve and protect the safety of others. This is a laudable exception to Wesley’s rule.
It should go without saying that any work that harms others is something we ought not pursue. Wesley was against the manufacture and sale of “spirituous liquor” – alcoholic beverages that were more potent than wine or beer. This aversion was because he saw the daily consequences of addiction to cheap gin played out on the streets and communities of England. Perhaps in our time this would refer to the tobacco industry and certainly to the illegal drug trade. A more subtle example for Wesley was doctors who prolonged the illnesses of their patients in order to collect more fees. Payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest today might fit into that category.
At any rate, it is important to assess our career or job choices in light of whether we can engage in them while being consistent with our Christian values. The One who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field will surely provide for us through a type of work that honors him and is beneficial to others.
Governing How We Work
Once having chosen our work and obtained a job, we are called to do our work in a way that glorifies God, as well. It helps if we can see our work as of eternal significance. How is your job beneficial to others? Maybe it is making a product that will make others’ lives better. Maybe it is creating a thing of beauty for others to enjoy. Maybe it is providing a service that helps others live a better life. Finding the transcendent goal in what we are doing, so that we are working for more than just a paycheck, enables us to carry out our work with a sense of purpose and meaning.
Finding that transcendent purpose in our particular work is linked to the idea that we work not for ourselves or for an earthly boss, but for our heavenly Father. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).
The Old Testament Teacher writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Our diligence and effort reflect well upon the fact that we are Christians and is part of our personal witness for our faith. Part of that diligence in work is self-improvement. Wesley says, “You should be continually learning from the experience of others or from your own experience, reading, and reflection, to do everything you have to do better today than you did yesterday.”
At the same time, we need to pursue work-life balance. Working seven days a week or being available to our employer 24 hours a day (except in case of emergency) is unhealthy and unsustainable. Our work should not harm our family life or get in the way of our relationships with our spouse or children.
Love and concern for others ought to guide how we treat customers and co-workers. Our contact with them makes them our neighbors, whom we are to love as we love ourselves. This means acting toward them with honesty and integrity, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and striving to be an encouragement rather than a negative influence on their day.
We cannot go wrong in applying the words of Paul, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. … It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Treating others with love in our work environment will not only reflect Christ, it will help change the world.
During college, I attended a church where one of the congregation’s leaders was the manager of the local bookstore. A friend who worked for him told me that, while the man might be a pious leader in the church, he treated his bookstore employees harshly and was stingy with pay. It left a bad taste in my friend’s mouth that a man who claimed to be not only a Christian, but a church leader, did not carry his faith over into his working environment.
Work is the one activity that accounts for the most of our time and effort in life. We have the chance to see our work as an extension of our faith, as a way to make the world a better place, and as a way to witness to others about the goodness of the Lord. This Labor Day, let’s take time to reevaluate if we are doing the right kind of work in the right way to make that vision a reality.
|Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
Noble Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is the survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt. Her image was on display in 2016 on the complex of parliament buildings of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. (Shutterstock).
By Thomas Lambrecht –
Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, many are concerned about the future for women and girls in that country.
The Taliban has a history of oppressing women and depriving them of human rights, as well as administering harsh punishments for various offenses against Islamic codes.
The U.S. made a big difference in improving the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, investing $780 billion in women’s equality projects. As a result, millions of girls were able to attend school. Enrollment at the University of Kabul is 53 percent women, and a similar percentage are participating in advanced degree programs there. Women are starting to work in a significant percentage of government positions.
Will women be able to continue going to school and work outside their homes? Will they be able to go out of the house without an accompanying chaperone? These basic freedoms that we take for granted are now in question there.
“Afghan girls and young women are once again where I have been — in despair over the thought that they might never be allowed to see a classroom or hold a book again,” writes Malala Yousafzai, a survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt, in the New York Times. She is the youngest-ever Noble Peace Prize laureate. “Some members of the Taliban say they will not deny women and girls education or the right to work. But given the Taliban’s history of violently suppressing women’s rights, Afghan women’s fears are real.”
Christians ought to be in the forefront of speaking up for the equality of women. In the first chapters of Genesis, God creates woman as an equal and complementary partner for man (Genesis 2:18-25). Women and men share equally in being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). One can go so far as to say that the image of God in humanity is incomplete if considered only as one gender.
That is why it is so disheartening to read the perceptions of some non-Christians who believe conservative Christians take the same oppressive attitude toward women that the Taliban do. A recent tweet on Twitter about the Afghan takeover reads, “A true cautionary tale for the U.S., which has our own far religious right dreaming of a theocracy that would impose a particular brand of Christianity, drive women from the workforce and solely into childbirth, and control all politics.”
As Dr. David Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary, replied, “I know exactly zero Christians who want to do this.” He is right on point. In all honesty, even those in other Christian denominations that do not permit women to serve in leadership roles in the church do not espouse the kind of “Handmaids Tale” hysteria propped up on Twitter.
Those of us within the Wesleyan/ Methodist tradition have a seriously different way of thinking and processing our spiritual life together than do some Christians who forbid women from teaching Sunday school or leading Bible studies that contain men. In some denominations, women cannot serve as pastors or priests. And in some denominations, women cannot even vote in a congregational meeting.
I am glad to be part of a tradition that honors the place of women as equal to men, both in the church and in the world. In the new Global Methodist Church, women will play an important role in leadership and ministry, for which I am grateful. While I am aware – and saddened – that there are still United Methodist congregations that refuse to accept the ministry of a female pastor, women’s equality will be a non-negotiable issue in the new denomination.
There are plenty of examples of strong women who served in leadership roles in the Bible. Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and others in the Old Testament. Lydia, Priscilla, Junias (an apostle), and others in the New Testament. Men and women are equally gifted and serving as prophets in the Bible.
In our own Wesleyan tradition, we begin with Susannah Wesley, who taught sons John and Charles (and the rest of her 17 children) in the home, especially regarding the Bible and spiritual matters. Throughout her life, Susannah was a confidant and advisor to John, not afraid to disagree with him and offer strongly worded advice! As the early Methodist movement grew, women served as class leaders and lay preachers. Women were ordained as clergy in some branches of Methodism as early as the 1800’s.
There have been some cultural circumstances where it did not make sense for women to serve in a particular role. For example, women were unsuited to serve as circuit riders in America from the perspective of their own safety, given the physical hardships circuit riders had to endure, as well as the propriety of a woman alone on the frontier. But one should not extrapolate from these particular situations that women are generally unsuited for leadership.
Some quote I Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Many scholars take this verse to refer to the specific situation Paul was addressing in Ephesus. Otherwise, it would not make sense for this same Paul to extol Priscilla as his coworker (regarding her as his equal), recognizing that she taught the preacher Apollos (Acts 18:24-26).
Of course, women may exercise leadership differently from men. It has been shown that women’s brains are wired differently than men’s, and that women general think in different ways than men. We should not expect that women ought to “lead like a man.” That would be a more subtle, but still insidious, form of discrimination against women.
As Christians, we need to welcome the gifts and perspectives of women on an equal basis with men. One’s gifts and perspectives may be different from the other’s, but that does not make one better than the other. The Body of Christ is not complete and able to function well if some of its members are not fully integrated as working members of the Body (I Corinthians 12). The Body is weaker to the extent that it does not use certain parts to their fullest potential. It would be like the proverbial saying of trying to “fight with one hand tied behind your back.”
As the father of three grown daughters and grandfather to two girls, I am conscious of their great potential as human beings. Seeing the basic equality and freedom of women questioned in other countries makes me appreciate the freedom we have here in the U.S.
The U.S. and its allies enabled a whole generation of Afghan women and girls to grow up receiving an education and able to contribute more fully to the functioning of their society. I hope that the nation’s new leaders will allow those women to continue playing an important role in building a strong and healthy Afghanistan. Failure to do so would be a travesty against those women and a tragedy for their nation.
The same is true of our church. Whether in the current United Methodist Church or in a proposed Global Methodist Church, we must be committed to welcoming and seeking out the gifts and contributions of women on an equal basis with men. There must be no room for a rejection of persons for leadership simply because of their gender. The cause of Christ needs “all hands on deck!” Every person is a valuable team member essential for carrying out Christ’s mission in a darkened and deceived world.