Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Reminder for Rob Renfroe

Rob Renfroe's latest editorial is a mess. I don't have any other word for it. His overall point is made clear and well in his very last words. "We have traveled the same path for many years, really decades. It has led to acrimony, disobedience, dysfunction, and decline. It's time to choose a path that will make all the difference." True enough. The problem is the editorial is more than those final three sentences. So here's a reminder of some truths that matter.

The editorial is titled, "Who Will Prevail in Minneapolis?" Then the entire editorial pretends that traditionalist leadership has always wanted a peaceful, respectful solution where everyone wins. As the title itself suggests, that simply is not fair or true. Here's why:

1. The entire editorial puts the word "centrist" in quotes. You know that putting something in quotes is a literary way to discount it. It means; "They call themselves centrists but we know they really aren't." Let me make this personal. In one of my last two appointments, the knock on me before I arrived was that I was too conservative. In another appointment the knock was that I was too liberal. I think that qualifies as centrist. Rev. Renfroe has boiled all theology down to one question. Do you approve of same-sex marriage and ordination? My answer is yes. And I also can say the creeds of the church without crossing my fingers behind my back. And I know many pastors and laity who can say that exact same thing. Renfroe must make this about progressives and traditionalists. In the real world there are many variations in-between.

2. Renfroe claims he and other traditionalist leaders want "a solution that has no winners or losers." I don't believe him. In fact, as I and others have previously shared, in 2004 Good News published a document that explicitly says a disadvantage to traditionalists leaving the denomination intact is that " It also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact". I want to state that again.

Good News, which Renfroe claims wants no losers, published a strategy document that explicitly says progressives must lose. And, in fact, when you listen to traditionalist rhetoric it is easy to understand why. If those who favor full inclusion (progressives and many, many centrists) are truly distorting God's word and will then one can understand why they would want us to lose. We have previously been called false teachers by traditionalist leaders. Forgive me for finding it difficult to trust an organization that has called me and those who I agree with false teachers and our continuing existence as a denomination a disadvantage.

3. Renfroe asserts that centrists and progressives want "an abrasive and harmful fight they believe they can win." I can assure you that this is not the case. Most of us believed there were already appropriate ways for churches to withdraw from the denomination. Now it is clear that there must be a way for larger blocks of churches to form something new. No serious observer of our denomination will argue that there is a way forward where the entire denomination stays intact. It is not possible. The issue that remains is how we can best facilitate separation of those who must separate. The reason centrists and progressives believe that traditionalists are the ones who should separate is that they are the only group that has said they are willing to leave. This is why the centrist and progressive group UMC Next has a proposal that "provides a method for groups of churches to form new expression of Methodism." The door is open. We are willing to open it wider. And we will not call you false teacher or put your descriptors in quotes on the way out.

The Bottom Line

At the end of General Conference 2020 we will set the terms for the divorce. The traditionalist caucuses have consistently vilified centrists and progressives. We have consistently said that we really truly want to work together. They have refused. Because traditionalists have refused, the divorce must happen. A marriage cannot last if one party wants out. The remaining questions are 1) How many churches will choose to be United Methodist and how many will choose otherwise and 2) How will we divide the assets. UMC Next, the Indianapolis Plan, and other proposals all have different models to answer these questions. Don't let Renfroe or anyone else distract you from the reality.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Indianapolis in Africa

The WCA recently endorsed the Indianapolis Plan, alongside most other traditionalist groups in the United States. I will have more to say about the Indy Plan later, but first I want to focus on Africa. Some of my friends who live in and/or are from Africa have asked for this. The short answer: It's not good.

1. The Indy Plan continues the United Methodist Church in the "centrist" grouping and automatically puts all United Methodists outside of the U.S. in the "traditionalist" grouping. 2556.2 reads "The United Methodist Church shall continue as a convention or association of churches, as a successor, for the constituent units that realign by choice or default with the Centrist UMC." The traditionalist group may use United Methodist in its name but is not required to. My understanding is that the UM name is important for Africa. It could well be lost in this plan.

2. More significantly, all of the General Boards and Agencies will stay in the centrist group. That means all of Africa will immediately be separated from the boards and agencies that have been so helpful to them. The WCA has promised support for United Methodists outside of the U.S. with a "Central Conference Ministry Fund," but they have only reported once on the amount raised? Why? Because it was an embarrassingly small number.

3. One reason the number was so small is that traditionalists in the U.S. continue to leave the denomination and/or not pay their apportionments. For example, The Woodlands UMC, the flagship church of Good News, paid no apportionments to the General Church in 2018, including to Africa University. They give zero support to the denomination's ministries that directly benefit Africa.

4. The asset allocation plan proposed by U.S. traditionalists will make it even worse. Walter Fenton, associated with both Good News and the WCA, said in 2017, "For many U.S. conservatives, general church matters are not a high priority. They see little benefit in supporting several of the denomination's general boards and agencies..." Tom Lambrecht said the same thing earlier this year. "Many traditionalists believe the current structure of the UM Church, with its many boards and agencies, has become more of a liability than an asset to the ministry of the local church."  Perhaps this is why the asset allocation plan would largely de-fund the agencies. Agencies would keep their buildings and one year budget of cash. All other funds would be divided between the new denominations. Since some of the funds are reserved for specific purposes, it is possible that a general agency would have virtually no money to use for their mission beyond the week to week giving they receive. It is true that no matter the path forward we will need to make some hard decisions with the organization and funding of the general boards and agencies. It is also no secret that traditionalists in the U.S. have wanted to radically downsize or eliminate them for many years.

5. The new Book of Doctrines and Disciplines shows how a WCA denomination will be governed and has some worrying provisions. Perhaps the most worrying is the way clergy are deployed. The WCA envisions a denomination where every local church picks its own pastor. Technically they are appointed but the process is very clearly weighted for the local church to decide. There is a rule that churches must interview at least one woman and at least one person who is not of the predominant ethnicity. There is no rule that those people must receive an appointment. I don't know what this will mean in Africa. In the United States, I am especially concerned about what this will mean for Africans who have come here. Racism is still real. I want to be clear - I do not believe that the authors of this plan are racist or are trying to keep ethnic minorities or women out of ministry. I do believe that the result of the plan will be fewer opportunities for ministry.

6.  There is also another danger. I am speculating but I think it still should be named. The Indy Plan has a provision for another denomination to form with 50 or more churches. That means any group could choose to simply leave the denomination. I think some churches would do that. Just leave and don't pay any apportionments. I don't know why traditionalists would want to include this option unless some want to leave the rest of us, including Africa, entirely.


I encourage all of us to consider some alternatives to the current Indianapolis Plan.

1. Modify the plan so that every church including international churches are in the centrist UMC by default and can vote to be in a different group if they choose to. A church or conference should be allowed to leave but if the centrist group is officially the United Methodist Church then that is where every church and conference should be unless they vote otherwise.

2. Eliminate the option for 50 churches to leave.

3. Support regional self governance. Bishops from the Philippines have called for this already. It is the only practical step forward.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Standing on the Shoulders

I am not the first (or in the first million) to use the phrase. We are like people standing on the shoulders of giants, seeing further only because of those who have preceded us.

Last Sunday as we celebrated All Saints Day at Old Mission, our opening prayer included the phrase - "Be present with us...as we celebrate those whose shoulders we stand on..." We do see further, know more, and can improve our lives and the lives of others because of so many great people who have come before us. Science, theology, and the humanities all build upon their work. I will continue to use this phrase with this meaning.

At the same time, on Sunday morning I heard this phrase in a different way. There are others who we also stand on.

I think of some current and retired colleagues in ministry who are LGBT+. I am a better pastor because of them and stand on their shoulders. And I also risk just standing on top of them, preventing their voices from being heard because of the weight of mine.

Some of those colleagues are women and ethnic minorities. I stand on their shoulders, informed and being formed by their wisdom and grace. And I acknowledge that historically women and (at least in my denomination) ethnic minorities in ministry have been crushed. We have stood on them, I have stood on them, instead of lifting one another up to greater heights.

It is exaggeration, I think, to say that everything in our country that is good has come about because of slavery. It is not exaggeration to say that we in the dominant culture have, well, dominated. We crushed those in slavery and then stood on top of the descendants of slaves making their journey to prosperity more difficult. It's hard to stand up when somebody is on top of you.

The intent, I think, of the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" is to remind us that we should be grateful for those who came before us and to accept humility lest we think we have accomplished what we have done on our own. I still believe both of those ideas. I would simply add one more. We must be aware not only of those who have lifted us up, we must also be aware of those who we have simply stood on and (often unintentionally) pushed down in the process.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Two Traditionalist Arguments that Fall Flat

In the quest for historical support for their case against inclusion, traditionalist Methodists have broken new ground in Scripture and tradition. Emphasis on broken. Neither argument holds any water.

Broken Argument #1

First, from Scripture. Most of us are familiar with the "clobber" passages against "homosexuality" that have been argued over for decades. Recently a new one was "discovered. Proponents of same-sex marriage have correctly pointed out that Jesus was silent about it. In and of itself this proves nothing. There are many topics that Jesus was silent on but that we can reasonably interpret what he would say today. Nevertheless, traditionalists apparently became desperate to find some instance where Jesus spoke.

The best they could do is Matthew 19. This is eisegesis (reading into the text what we want it to say) at its finest. In  Matthew 19:3-12 Jesus is asked a question about the lawfulness of divorce. In his answer, Jesus references Genesis: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." So yes, technically Jesus mentions heterosexual marriage. And that reality is completely beside the point.

I'm reminded of a blog post years ago when I compared Pax Romana (an imposed peace in the Roman Empire) to the current United Methodist Church. One person's critique of the post was that I didn't do a comprehensive look at the Roman Empire. The critique missed the point entirely. The post wasn't about Rome - it was about our Church. The metaphor worked whether or not it was perfect. After all, every metaphor breaks down at some point. This interpretation would be like turning to Matthew 21:21-22 and saying that we should be able to literally throw mountains into the sea through faith. Jesus says it but for the purpose of making a point.

So what's Jesus point? His point is made in verse 6: "Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate" and further in verse 9 "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery." The point is that divorce is wrong. And yet at General Conference in St. Louis when a motion was made to include this understanding it was roundly criticized as political maneuvering by the same people who want to take this passage out of context to condemn same-sex marriage. You can't have it both ways.

Broken Argument #2

The Book of Discipline is not our Doctrine. In a brief online argument I had with Bishop Scott Jones, Bishop Jones stated that doctrine means teaching and therefore everything we teach is doctrine. That may be true if it is doctrine with a microscopic d and not Doctrine with a capital D. Flipping to a random page, I don't think that we want to claim that  having a Curriculum Resources Committee (paragraph 1121) is doctrinal.

Our real doctrine is in Part III, Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task which begins with paragraph 102. This is rich stuff which more United Methodists should read. Sections like Basic Christian Affirmations and Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases are great. Buried in paragraph 104 we note that in addition to what is printed in the Book of Discipline we also consider The Standard Sermons of Wesley, the Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and The General Rules of the Methodist Church are considered doctrine. Thus to teach something contrary to these sources would violate our doctrine.

In my 46 years of life and 20 years as a pastor I have never heard anybody quote Wesley's notes as doctrine until this last year. Because supporters of inclusion have rightly noted that our doctrine is silent on same-sex marriage, traditionalists became desperate to find some place where our doctrine actually does say something. They hit paydirt with Wesley's Notes. Chris Ritter is one of many who cites Wesley's Notes in this regard. In short, Wesley unsurprisingly read the clobber passages the same way that many people today read them and would not have approved of same-sex marriage.

This may all be true. But this is the most selective reading of Wesley that has ever been performed. Let me share simply one example. In his notes on Revelation 13 Wesley makes multiple references to the pope and/or the papacy as an antichrist. Not one, not a handful, but a multitude of references. Following the same logic that Wesley's Notes are doctrinal any of us who are unwilling to call Pope Francis an antichrist are not following our Methodist Doctrine. The truth is that for all of us Wesley's sermons and notes are at most a second tier source of doctrine. None of us truly treat them as primary doctrine that must be adhered to precisely.

What's It Mean?

I'm clear that the silence of both Jesus and our Doctrine do not necessarily mean that the inclusive position is the correct position. Those are not the primary reasons that I favor inclusion. Let's be honest, though, that they are indeed silent. Let's make our cases using legitimate arguments instead of resorting to desperation.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Twelve Tribes of Methodism Pt. 2

In part 1 I made the case for twelve groupings (tribes) within the Methodist denomination:

Inclusive, Small Tent, Progressive
Inclusive, Big Tent, Progressive
Exclusive, Big Tent, Progressive
Exclusive, Small Tent Progressive
Inclusive, Small Tent, Centrist
Inclusive, Big Tent, Centrist
Exclusive, Big Tent, Centrist
Exclusive, Small Tent, Centrist
Inclusive, Small Tent, Traditionalist
Inclusive, Big Tent, Traditionalist
Exclusive, Big Tent, Traditionalist
Exclusive, Small Tent, Traditionalist

In part 2 I'll start describing what each of these groups may be like. We'll walk down each of the columns. The columns roughly line up with Rev. Tom Berlin's categories of Progressive Incompatibilist, Progressive Compatibilist, Traditional Compatibilist, and Traditional Incompatibilist. I'll start with a one sentence description and then gives some thoughts.

1. Inclusive, Small Tent, Progressive - A liberal theology that believes the Gospel can tolerate nothing less than full inclusion. An organization like Love Prevails could be in this group. This tribe would have natural tensions with every other tribe except for those directly adjacent in the table above. I have to think this group is very small within the UMC. The small tent nature would make it likely that most have already left. At the same time, some of these members have been fighting for justice for 40+ years. If they haven't left now I would expect them to keep fighting.

2. Inclusive, Small Tent, Centrist - In theory, this person is someone who is theologically in line with the large majority of our UMC doctrine, is inclusive, and for whom issues of justice for the marginalized are first order issues. One of my critiques of the Traditional Plan is that it puts full participation of LGBT+ people ahead of even the deepest pieces of our faith like the divinity of Christ. That happens with this group, too. For example, this person might be willing to remove the Virgin Birth from our doctrinal standards but simealtaneously will not live in the same denomination with someone who excludes LGBT+ participation. These folks could conceivably work with either of the groups in this column or, reluctantly, the second column. Theological centrists have fewer essentials than either progressives or traditionalists (traditionalists increasingly approaching fundamentalism and progressives increasing approaching relativism that rejects any absolute) which is why both ends will sometimes call them wishywashy. They (we) are not. If you challenge a centrist's essentials there will be a reaction. The centrist simply has fewer essentials to begin with. Anecdotally, I think this group is probably very small. The people I can think of who may fit here are Big Tent centrists who are weary of the fight.

3. Inclusive, Small Tent, Traditionalist - This person holds to orthodox views including an exceptionally high authority of Scripture, but rather than a literalist hermeneutic this person uses a hermeneutic of love. If the starting point for interpreting Scripture is 1 John 4:8 - "God is love" and if exclusion represents not loving then inclusion is a necessity. I had a friend in seminary who may be in this category. I remember him saying, "I take the Bible so seriously that I have to be a Democrat." For the record, I disagree with his assessment that any Christian must be in one political party or the other. I share that example simply to help the reader understand this position. Like the Inclusive, Small Tent, Progressive, I have to think this person has a hard time working well with others. 

Some notes about these tribes:

- The second and third probably have vanishingly small numbers. A small tent and inclusive ideology don't naturally fit well together.
- The most versatile of these tribes still cannot work well with at least half of the other tribes. 
- Especially if you are a traditionalist, I encourage you to think about all of the examples you have heard of the radical nature of those who are inclusive. I'd wager almost all of them come from the upper left corner of the table. All four corners represent a kind of extremism. They are loud, but they are not representative of as large a number of people as you might think. 
- When those of us who supported the One Church Plan say it was a compromise, please understand that this column is one of the groups that would have had to compromise. Nobody in any of these three tribes liked the OCP. Without exception, the people in these groups that I know saw the Simple Plan as a compromise. 

Part 3 will look at the next column. This is the column where I find myself and where I think most OCP supporters were. The failure of the OCP came in not translating our message for column 3.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Twelve Tribes of Methodism Pt. 1

In 2016 Rev. Tom Berlin began using a model that has been very helpful in understanding four different groupings of people that now divide the United Methodist Church. The short version: One is either traditional or progressive in regard to LGBT+ inclusion and one can either function in a denomination with those who disagree (compatible) or cannot function in that denomination (incompatible). You can lay the groups out from left to right and cover the ecclesiological landscape.

Berlin's language really has been helpful because it is both clear and simple. As our journey in these times continues we need a different way of describing the perspectives.

Take a person like Steve Harper. I was pleased to preview his latest book, a very readable personal and biblical story of how he came to change his mind. Dr. Harper is theologically orthodox by almost any definition - except that of the WCA which insists that LGBT+ inclusion is wrong. Harper is not a theological progressive; he is a theological traditionalist, or maybe centrist, who happens to believe in inclusion.

This distinction is critically important. In 2018 some evangelicals enjoyed quoting Rev. Roger Wolsey, a United Methodist pastor and campus minister, denying a whole host of traditional Christian beliefs. Wolsey has clarified some of his beliefs since, but there is no doubting that he is truly a "Progressive Christian." And there is no doubt that Harper (and me, too, for that matter) disagree with Wolsey. It really doesn't work to put both Harper and Wolsey in the same progressive compatibilist camp.

 We need to add a third dimension - the broader theological spectrum. It may also help to rename the existing categories. Here's my proposal:

1st Dimension: Do you believe that LGBT+ Christians should be fully included in the life of the church, including ordained ministry and marriage? Those who support this could be labeled "Inclusive" and those who do not "Exclusive". Please note that I'm not using the word exclusive in a derogatory sense - it is simply a descriptor.

2nd Dimension: Can you remain in a denomination with those who disagree with your belief in the 1st Dimension? If you can, you believe in a Big Tent rather than a Small Tent. Rev. Jeff Greenway, President of the WCA, has publicly shared that a big tent church is a bad idea. The proclamation from the recent UM Forward event in Minneapolis suggests a different kind of small tent. This tent welcomes the outcast and rejects powerful. The One Church Plan envisioned a big tent that supporters felt was in keeping with a long Methodist tradition.

3rd Dimension: The new, third dimension relates to a more wholistic theology: Progressive (like Wolsey), Traditional (like Harper), or Centrist (like perhaps my friend Dr. Rebekah Miles).

When we put these three dimensions together we get a table like this:

Inclusive, Small Tent, Progressive
Inclusive, Big Tent, Progressive
Exclusive, Big Tent, Progressive
Exclusive, Small Tent Progressive
Inclusive, Small Tent, Centrist
Inclusive, Big Tent, Centrist
Exclusive, Big Tent, Centrist
Exclusive, Small Tent, Centrist
Inclusive, Small Tent, Traditionalist
Inclusive, Big Tent, Traditionalist
Exclusive, Big Tent, Traditionalist
Exclusive, Small Tent, Traditionalist

Reading the table, the right side is exclusive, the center columns are big tent, and the rows moving down are progressively traditional. Each grouping is unique, and each grouping will have a unique set of other groups that they can work with.

Some implications of this methodology:
- the WCA and Good News led wing of the church really is a wing - a right wing that is likely not representative of the church. But the leadership has done a fantastic job of messaging.
- The UMC Next gathering in Kansas City invited people from nine of the twelve groups. And I'm not sure all nine will ultimately be able to stay in the same denomination.
- This methodology forces us to acknowledge that we are a complicated bunch. This is part of why our current impasse is so tricky.
- Note: the twelve tribes listed are theoretical. Four of these groups are probably only theoretical and don't exist in any meaningful way in the real world.

In Part 2 I'll describe characteristics of each of these groups and begin to look at where there are some affinities and tensions between the groups.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Another Glimpse Behind the Curtain

I just received an email from Good News  that is a reply to Dr. Rebekah Miles' excellent article that you can find here. Dr. Miles is fully capable of defending her work from Good News. I want to point out only one item. But it is an item that really matters.

Good News' reply states that Miles critique of the Traditional Plan begins at the wrong point in history. They say that Miles acts as if the Traditional Plan came out of nowhere and that the most important moment in the story really happened with a series of progressive actions in 2011.

Good News as an organization tells an intentionally selective, misleading history.

The story really begins in 2004 with this document. Note that the original document has been removed from the web. This link is to a mirror. Good News has never argued against the authenticity of the document and I have a hard copy myself from a completely independent source.

I hope you read the whole document. If you don't, then just read this excerpt that explains the strategy Good News and its allies have been working on implementing.

"This option is a type of Forced Departure, which is based on the model of church discipline, wherein the majority party within the church would essentially expel the minority party in order to create unity. The expulsion can be done either indirectly or directly. It would be done indirectly through making the environment of the church so hostile to the minority party that they choose either to leave or to agree to amicable separation. It would be done directly by requiring some type of "loyalty oath" or other enforcement mechanism that would require individuals and congregations to choose to leave if they could not live with the current majority policy."

Forced Departure
loyalty oath

These are not words that opponents of tradiationalists are using in a derogatory fashion. These are words that the right wing fringe is using to describe their own tactics. Good News and its allies are attributing a kind of rigidity and hostility to progressives and centrists that they perfected themselves more than ten years ago. 

To my theologically traditional friends, and you are many, I share this: 

I agree with you on so many things. Those who know the breadth of my own personal theology will recognize me truly as a centrist. To dismiss another false claim, I can sign off on our doctrinal statements in the Book of Discipline without "crossing my fingers." I can even sign off on every statement on the WCA's "what we believe page" - with the exception of the one they care most about.

You have concern about a progressive slippery slope leading to a denomination that you would not feel welcome in. I get that. I don't think that is what will happen, but I understand that concern. But it is a hypothetical concern. We are actively watching a fundamentalist slippery slope that most of you don't believe in either. That slide is actually happening right now. The document proves it is a planned slide.

Don't let yourself be used by a hidden agenda that is not true to who you are.