Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Watch Out for the WCA Pt. 2

This is Part 2 of a short series on the new Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). In the first part we examined what the WCA's Statement of Moral Principles says and doesn't say about equality for LGBT individuals regardless of their "practice." This time we look closer at what they say about Scripture.

The Original Statement on Biblical Authority

Before I mention the current WCA statement on Scripture, it's important to note that it is not their first statement. On August 2 the WCA revised and expanded their Purpose, Goals, and Beliefs page. The fact that this needed to be done less than one month after going public calls into question how firm their beliefs really are. But what did they say initially? The statement on Scripture was very succinct.

The Bible itself is the sole and final source of all that we believe. It is the inspired and infallible Word of God that speaks with final authority concerning truth, morality, and the proper conduct of humanity.” 

As a bumper sticker, this is a great statement. As a theological position it is seriously lacking. Most importantly,
- Stating that the Bible is the sole and final source for all that we believe completely discounts every other source of human knowledge. It means that science, archaeology, etc. can shed no new additional light on our beliefs. It goes leaps and bounds further than the Bible itself does in the often misused 2 Timothy 3:16.
- The United Methodist, and Biblical, view is not that the Bible is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1). This is not a superficial difference. Scripture points to the Word of God, which is our true final authority.

The Revised Statement

To the authors' credit, the revised statement that now appears is far superior to the original statement. It now reads:

"Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church, we affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which "is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church's primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice."

We can affirm much that is contained here.
- I do not know a United Methodist who would question the Bible as "our authority and trustworthy guide" or that it reveals "the core of the Christian faith." Indeed, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the group of thirteen organizations working towards inclusiveness, finds their identity in Scripture and the often maligned MFSA states that their effort toward inclusion "is grounded in Scripture."
- As a centrist, I appreciate the phrasing of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture is illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience. They are not four equal but different kinds of authority. This is what I teach at the church I serve.

What is most interesting about the revised Statement on Biblical Authority is that it exists at all. Why is there a need to improve upon the statements on the Bible that are already part of our doctrinal standards? In particular, Article V of the Confession of Faith (page 71, 2012 Book of Discipline) is a beautiful statement:

"We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation, It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation."

This statement recognizes both the unique place and the limitation of Scripture. It recognizes that Scripture is God's word because it points to the Word of God. It reminds us that we rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment. It reminds us that we must remain humble in our views, stating that we are not to hold a belief as essential to salvation that is not articulated in Scripture. It reserves Scripture as speaking to faith and practice and not to history or science.

So why a new statement at all?

Reason for Concern

The stated reason for a paragraph on Scripture comes in the first clause of the first sentence: "Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church..." In other words, the WCA asserts that the place of the Bible in our faith is being challenged by folks like Love Prevails and MFSA. But, as shown above, there is no serious challenge to "the unique place of the Bible in the church!" Across the theological spectrum what we are finding today is not a question of whether Scripture is authoritative, but how Scripture is authoritative. One way it could be  authoritative is that we submit to every word precisely as written in today's translations. Another way it could be authoritative is that we interpret all of Scripture and our very lives through the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The often cited 2 Timothy 3:16 which is used to state that all Scripture is "God-breathed" can be understood to refer to what we know today as the Bible or, as undoubtedly it originally was intended, restricted to the Old Testament.

So let me say this another way. If the WCA believes the issue is simply that we need to believe that Scripture is authoritative they will not solve anything. First, we could all sign off on that statement. Second, a growing number of otherwise traditional evangelicals are changing their mind about this particular understanding of how Scripture is authoritative. N.T. Wright (who is a traditionalist on human sexuality) says in his fantastic book The Last Word,

"When we take the phrase 'the authority of scripture' out of its suitcase, then, we recognize that it can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture's authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses...The question then becomes: What might we mean by the authority of God, or of Jesus? What role does scripture have within that? Where does the Spirit come into the picture? And, not least, how does this 'authority' actually work? How does it relate, if at all, to the 'authority' of leaders or office-bearers within the church?"

Wright's questions are good ones. They are different questions than the simplistic "do you believe Scripture is authoritative?" Those on the theological left will not be of one mind on the answers to Wright's questions. Neither will those on the theological right. But they are the kinds of questions that we really ought to be asking.

The issue is clearly not whether Scripture is authoritative. The question is, perhaps, how Scripture is authoritative. The only reason for the WCA to give a new statement on the Bible is if, instead of wanting us to view Scripture as the our final authority, they want a particular interpretation of Scripture to be our final authority. In the next and final part you will see an example of how this may be lived out.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Watch Out for the WCA Pt. 1

Roughly two months ago a group of 55 United Methodists released a statement announcing the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), a group that "will give orthodox United Methodists hope for the future and serve as a source of encouragement as the church works through a critical period of discernment." It would be naive to think that this group is not also designed to prepare for a future after the United Methodist Church. I do not say that to be critical. Our future is uncertain. It makes sense for like-minded United Methodists to prepare contingencies for what comes next. The purpose of this series of posts is not to critique whether the WCA should work on contingencies, but rather IF there is a split in the UMC to think through what a WCA dominated faction would be like. I would contend that it is likely to be not as generous an orthodoxy as is implied. I anticipate doing this in four posts, though it could be 3-5 when completed.


If you have any history with the UMC (and if you're reading this you probably do!) you know that the 44 year debate over LGBT rights is the presenting issue that has brought us to this point. It goes without saying that a self-proclaimed orthodox group will continue to be opposed to same sex marriage and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" (which is absurd language that I'll tackle at another time.  In the section of WCA beliefs on Moral Principles there is statement on equality that reads as follows:

"We believe that all persons are of sacred worth. Therefore, we gladly welcome all who seek to grow in their relationship with God to attend worship services and participate in the church's ministries. No person shall be disqualified from becoming a member of a local congregation, holding a leadership position in the church, or becoming an ordained or licensed clergy based on race, color, nationality, national origin, marital status, or economic condition. The WCA specifically renounces all racial and ethnic discrimination and commits itself to work toward full racial and ethnic equality in the church and in society."

On the surface this seems perfectly in line with what we might expect and with the current official position of the UMC. But there's a critically important difference - it's missing any mention of sexual orientation. Our stance as a denomination has been clear - our language on LGBT individuals always includes "self avowed, practicing." The WCA chose to write a statement on equality that ignores LGBT people regardless of whether or not they are celibate.

This is very significant. In a landmark case in 2005 Rev. Ed Johnson of Virginia did not allow a gay man to join the church he served because the man was practicing and unrepentant. Rev. Johnson was suspended but the Judicial Council overturned the suspension. Please note - Rev. Johnson was very clearly that the issue was not the man's sexual orientation, but "...homosexual practice, which we think is an important distinction." The party line since 2005 has been consistent - the issue is not whether someone is gay. The issue is whether a person "practices."

This was most clearly stated by Rev. Rob Renfroe, the President of Good News and a co-founder of the WCA in 2013:

"A very effective pastor in our Annual Conference whom I respect immensely and consider a close friend is attracted to persons of the same sex. That pastor has chosen a celibate life. No evangelical United Methodist I know would think such a person should be denied ordination. But if you listen to progressives, you would think that people like you and me are so homophobic that we reject people because of who they are. I’m afraid it seems too much to ask that even if they disagree with us, they at least present our views fairly."

It is striking that at at a time when our denomination needs clarity above all else, the WCA has excluded from their statement on equality even the people that they say are most in need of recognition - LGBT individuals who have chosen to remain celibate. This is consistent with my experience at General Conference in May on the subcommittee that dealt with Paragraph 4 of the Book of Discipline. A resolution calling for inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected status failed even though it said nothing about practice. (To be fair, the resolution initially passed by one vote but the following day two more delegates somehow changed subcommittees and when we were finalizing our work on the resolution it failed by 1 vote. I'm still not sure how this was allowed.)

I trust that the writers of the WCA, which include some of the brightest minds in Methodism, said what they meant. If they did I suggest that you be very cautious before joining the cause.

Next: Many traditionalists say that all the issues around human sexuality are really questions of Biblical authority. We'll take a look at what the WCA has to say about that.