By Rob Renfroe –
Recently a progressive United Methodist pastor said to me, “I don’t understand why you can’t accept the local option. It lets pastors who want to marry gay couples do so. But it doesn’t compel people like you to perform such ceremonies. It allows annual conferences to ordain married homosexuals where that’s acceptable. But where the context is different – in the South, for example – you’re free not to. I don’t understand why you can’t live with that.”
I think that pastor got to the heart of the matter even though he didn’t realize it. And the heart of the matter is he doesn’t understand classical evangelicals. It has to be frustrating for progressives to come up with an approach they believe to be very reasonable and that allows everyone to do what they desire, only for us to find it unacceptable. After all, what could be more American than letting everyone “have it their way”?
What do progressives not get about us? For starters, we believe the Scriptures really are the word of God. When a pastor holds up a Bible in church and says, “The word of God for the people of God,” we don’t cross our fingers behind our backs, roll our eyes, or snicker when we respond, “Thanks be to God.” We honestly believe the Scriptures are “God-breathed” and, therefore, authoritative for our lives. We don’t think that we know more about salvation, sexuality, or the nature of God than the Bible does. We don’t believe we get to ignore or need to correct the parts of Scripture that a progressive culture finds hard to accept. Consequently, we cannot affirm any solution that allows pastors in the UM Church to teach or act contrary to what God has revealed in his written word. I know that progressive pastors who have been trained in liberal seminaries simply cannot comprehend that we would hold such a high view of Scripture. But that’s what we believe.
Progressives also do not comprehend how offensive it is for us to hear that all they want to do is provide a solution that “contextualizes” the Gospel. If all they meant by “contextualizing the Gospel” was thinking of creative ways to present Christ so that the Gospel spoke to people in different cultural settings, we’d be all for it. Missionaries attend months, if not years, of training to understand the culture they will be ministering in. How you present the Gospel to an atheistic philosophy professor in New England is much different from how you would share Christ with an uneducated, lower caste Hindu in India.
But when progressives talk about contextualizing the Gospel, they don’t mean presenting the same message in different ways. They mean changing the message to fit the values that culture holds dear. In the Bible Belt it’s still OK to teach traditional values because people there still accept marriage as one man and one woman. But in California, progressives tell us, to reach people you must have a liberalized sexual ethic, including the normalization of homosexual behavior and gay marriage. Why? Because people on the West Coast will turn you off if you tell them differently.
What progressives do not understand is that we traditionalists do not have a utilitarian view of truth. We don’t think the truth is whatever works or whatever sells. We don’t see the church as a soft drink company that is trying to offer something for everyone. Proclaiming the Gospel is not like trying to find a flavor that people will buy and decide that if it becomes popular enough, we’ll start selling it. Paul wrote, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2.17). Progressives, true progressives, believe that people are free to create their own truth and whatever works for a person is true for that person. It’s hard for liberals to understand, but it is hurtful for us to see the Gospel treated as something so cheap. It is offensive for us to hear pastors and bishops present the truth of God’s word as a lump of clay that we can fashion into our own image or into the likeness of a fallen and sinful culture. Our job as Paul tells us is not to make the Gospel palatable, but plain.
Progressives also don’t understand how we see the work of the Holy Spirit. A resolution that is coming before my annual conference this May calls upon the church to change our sexual ethic because “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing.” Evidently, they believe, the Holy Spirit is now revealing that same-gender sexual relations and same-sex marriage are acceptable in God’s sight. Of course, the sponsors of the resolution do not give a single reason to believe this is what the Spirit is doing. They simply state it as a fact.
What they don’t understand is that we will never be persuaded that “the new thing” the Spirit is doing is repealing the written word of God. The Spirit illumines our understanding of God and his will. The Spirit enables us to see in new ways the wonder of what God has done and what he has revealed – and even how these truths apply to our particular settings. But the Spirit never contradicts what the Scriptures teach because the Scriptures are God-breathed. Has God changed his mind, received more light along the way, or become more progressive as the ages have passed? If not, then how can the same God now be revealing a sexual ethic that contradicts what he has previously stated to be his will?
I get that progressives just don’t get us. We believe the Bible, all of it, is the inspired word of God. They don’t. We believe the truth is what it is, not what we make it into. They don’t. We believe that what the Spirit reveals will always be true to the Scriptures. They don’t. We are coming from such different places that I understand it’s difficult for liberals to comprehend how we think.
But what progressives and centrists need to get is this: we will not be able to stay in a church that denies the full inspiration, truth, and authority of the Scriptures. And that’s really what’s behind “the local option.”
That’s why traditional evangelicals continue to press for a faithful church with a sexual ethic that is true to Scripture. Either the UM Church remains committed to God’s word or the UM Church will split. Progressives don’t have to “get” that, but they do need to believe it.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He is the co-author with Walter Fenton of the new book titled Are We Really Better Together – An Evangelical Perspective on the Division within the UMC. This book describes just how deep the division is within the United Methodist Church, provides a critique of the various plans the bishops are considering, and gives answers to the most common reasons people give for liberalizing our sexual ethics.