Thursday, September 13, 2018

I'm a Christian, Too

Tom Lambrecht from Good News believes I'm not a Christian. He may not think you are one, too.

But don't take my word for it. Read his commentary on unity and the United Methodist Church. That's right, in a commentary about unity he said I'm not a Christian.

You should read it, but if you don't here's a brief summary: Citing Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17, Lambrecht points out that true unity comes not primarily from our desires but from Jesus Christ. Further, he notes that sometimes organic union in a denomination is not possible because of differences in teaching. Those like me who advocate the One Church Plan compare it to the diversity of belief adopted in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) but Lambrecht rightly notes that in other cases believers are counseled to separate. He cites 2 John 9-10 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. Make note of this. We'll come back to them. Lambrecht then asks if our current situation is the former or the latter and ultimately asserts that we would best be a witness by dividing to avoid "pain and turmoil." He closes by asking, "If we must take the road of adversarial choices, can we not do it with love and grace toward one another, giving the world a witness of how we believe Christ followers should treat one another?"

It is a good question. But it is based on a false premise. What Lambrecht has actually done is set up an artful strawman. And, if I am wrong about that - if Lambrecht's characterization is correct - then he has no choice but to forcibly remove me and so many others from the denomination as worshippers of a false god. Further, the entire Traditionalist argument against the One Church Plan is built on this precise argument.


The Strawman

I've planned for a while to write a blog arguing that John 17 should be a basis for our denominational unity and the One Church Plan. That whole post can be summed up in two sentences: "Jesus says that our unity will be our witness to the world. What better witness could there be today for the transcendent power of God's love than the counter-cultural message that people with very different beliefs can still be united under the banner of Christ?"

But Lambrecht says we can't do that because "we have in the church two groups that believe the other group is bringing erroneous or false teaching into the church. " He argues that Traditionalists believe that progressive teaching on LGBT rights is wrong and progressives believe that traditionalists teaching is discrimination. This dichotomy is precisely what the One Church Plan rejects. I believe that there will be a time when the large majority of Christians look back and say "Wow. We were wrong to treat our gay sisters and brothers differently" the same way that many people who are white now think of our history with people of color. But this is not that time. Those who support The Simple Plan, the only plan that is truly a progressive plan, may believe that this is that time but, along with many other supporters of the One Church Plan, I disagree. Let me say it clearly:

Tom Lambrecht is NOT a false teacher. He is a brother in Christ who happens to be wrong, in my opinion, on a matter of great significance. 

The One Church Plan is based on the premise that we do not have to all be exactly alike in order to be in the same denomination. As a pastor of a reconciling congregation, there have been occasions when a church member or participant has shared that they are no longer comfortable worshiping here because of our stance. I always direct that person to another United Methodist Church, just like other pastors in the community have directed people to me. Why? Because while we disagree about this there is so much more that we agree on! We are not arguing about our doctrinal statements, sacraments, women's ordination, infant baptism, prevenient grace, predestination, the list goes on. We aren't arguing about any of the things that make all of us Methodists.

I profoundly disagree with Lambrecht on the proper role for LGBT people in the church. And also, he is a brother in Christ and not a false teacher. But that's not what he thinks about me. Because if he believes the strawman he created then the only faithful response is to refuse amicable separation.

False Teachings and the Teachers that Teach Them

Remember those two passages that Lambrecht cited when noting that the Bible tells us sometimes we need to separate? 2 John 9-10: "Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching..." and 2 Corinthians beginning at 6:14: "Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?" To this, let me add Lambrecht's own words in describing what people like me believe and teach: "Such teaching would be false and not true to the Gospel and therefore unacceptable in the church." And he says that I believe that traditionalists teach "false teaching that must be change and repudiated by the church." 

I trust that Lambrecht has chosen his words and as a firm Bible believer he has chosen his citations carefully. This means that while I call Lambrecht and those who believe like him brothers and sisters in Christ, he calls me a false teacher. And the passages that require a separation of him from me (or us from them) separate the true Church from the false Church. Do not pass over this lightly. This is very serious. This is as serious as anything that has been raised in this 40 plus year debate. This is beyond the 3-5% of the population that identifies as LGBTQ. This is beyond the claim that we reject Wesley's ideas. This is beyond the argument that we defy Christian tradition. Lambrecht is fundamentally saying that those who believe like me are not Christians. I'm not exaggerating - look at those scripture passages again if you think I am. He could have quoted the oft used story of Paul and Barnabas parting separating in order to share the Gospel in different ways. Or even Abraham and Lot staying family but leaving each other for different fields. But he chose to use relatively obscure passages to escalate our differences to the point of worshipping other gods. 

If I really am a false teacher, if the people of the church I serve are really not Christians, then why in the name of God would Lambrecht suggest that there should be amicable separation? Could there be any better example of giving to Caesar what belongs to God? If those of us who support the One Church Plan are really false teachers then there can be no compromise - no compromise on the language of the Book of Discipline and no compromise on keeping all the assets of the denomination. 

Different Opinions and the Reasonable People Who Disagree About Them

But I don't think that's what 90% of the people who call themselves "traditionalists" really believe. I think back to other churches I've served, including pretty traditional places in rural Kansas. If I was still serving those churches do you know what we would do? We would respectfully disagree. We would not call each other's salvation into question. We would not call each other names. And we would still stay in the same church. Because they would understand that I still believe Jesus Saves and I would understand that they still believe God Is Love. 

One of the reasons that I believe we need the One Church Plan is because as a united body we are able to guard one another against our worst impulses. None of us want a church that sounds like the comments on a Facebook post. We need each other to remind us that we are united more by God's love than by our rightness of doctrine AND to remind us that doctrine does matter. We need to be reminded that the tent must be a big tent with room for many, not a pup tent with room only for a few AND to remind us that every tent must still have stakes in the ground that help mark boundaries that can't be crossed.

Tom Lambrecht is my brother in Christ, regardless of what he believes about me and regardless of what happens at General Conference 2019. Because he is right about this - our unity is in Jesus Christ, whom both of us strive to serve. I believe that 90% of United Methodists agree on this and that we will pass a plan at General Conference that affirms our common faith.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and respectful description of where we are.

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  2. THANK YOU! We must believe Out of Many God Many God
    Makes Us One.

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  3. With all due respect, and while I do not presume to speak for Tom Lambrecht...your argument makes his point very clearly. Speaking as a simple layman I am sick and tired of ALL the "name calling." Unfortunately, I have witnessed too much on both sides of the issues and do not see that ever changing until one side or the other prevails. Sadly, the church is simply mimicking society's political polarization.

    I will not waste your time on theological arguments...you are as convinced in your interpretation of scripture as I am in mine.

    Many of us on the Traditionalist side believe the ONE CHURCH PLAN is nothing more than a "slippery slope" leading ultimately to full acceptance of the agenda promoted by Progressives with the aid of the majority of the Council of Bishops.

    No matter who gets the majority of delegates there will be a schism. The question then, before the Special General Conference in February will be: Will the divorce be amicable or will it be a nasty, hurtful divorce?

    Let's let the majority of delegates decide which path to follow. To quote Rob Renfro a leader of the Good News Caucus..."Let us stop fighting, wish each other well, and open the cage. That's not lack of love. That's the way of love."

    Grace and Peace...

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    1. Thank you for reading. I agree that in March 2019 the UMC will look different than it does today. For me, a significant distinction in the One Church Plan is that it does not invite others to leave. Nobody is being kicked out. Respectfully, if Rob Renfroe would like to quit fighting he could do that today. There is no other Wesleyan denomination that I as a centrist who leans progressive could join so I plan to continue to work toward improving the denomination that is my home.

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  4. David,
    I didn't take your word for it, and went and read Tom's article. I don't see where he said you were not a Christian. I really think you guys are saying the same thing, that as Christians you disagree on something that is of fundamental value to you. Like a married couple with an irreconcilable difference, one of you is arguing to stay together and keep fighting, and one of you is advocating to head in separate ways. For the sake of the kids, what's best? I'm struggling with that one.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Craig. There are, I think, two key differences between what I am saying and what I'm hearing Tom say. I invite you to read my reply to Tom below and I think you'll see those.

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  5. Thank you, David, for helping us to think through these issues. Of course, you are putting words in my mouth, as I never said nor implied that anyone whom I disagree with is not a Christian. I don't believe that and I would never say that a particular person is not a Christian--that is God's job to determine.

    Your piece is misleading, as well, in that I DID allude to the example of Paul and Barnabas, as well as the example of Abraham and Lot. (You imply that I did not cite those examples.)

    I cannot answer all your points in this short comment, but I want to be clear about your main critique.

    I do not believe that purveying false teaching automatically makes one an unbeliever. I can think of examples in the history of the church where leaders who taught what the church determined to be false doctrine (and some were even categorized as heretics), yet they appeared to have a vital relationship with the Lord and attempted to pursue a life of godly holiness. God knows their heart and can determine their stance in relationship to faith. Yet that didn't stop the church from declaring their teaching false.

    I think proponents of the One Church Plan are ignoring reality. The teachings of progressives and traditionalists are incompatible with each other. Acknowledging that we are brothers and sisters in Christ does not mean we have to be in the same denomination. There are other forms of unity beyond denominational structure.

    The central point of my piece (which you did not mention) was that our witness to the world is in how we treat one another in our disagreement--with love and respect. Whether or not we stay in one denomination is of lesser importance than how we engage with each other. My hope is that we can model for the world how to interact as Christians, different from the win-at-any-cost polarization of our current society.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Tom. I trust that you say what you mean. As someone who has a high regard for Scripture, I trust that you work hard at using scripture in precise ways. Therefore, when you write an article that advocates for separation and the scripture you quote calling for separation (2 John 9-10 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) explicitly say that the separation is between believers and unbelievers (2 Cor.) and believers and those who "do not have God" (2 John) I would contend that I am not putting words in your mouth. I am simply reading the Scripture that you invited us to read. When you reference Paul and Abraham later, the context clearly indicates that this approach did not work. Your leading scriptures reference the present while your Acts and Genesis citations reference the past.

      Further, I encourage you to read the comments on your own article. One person says, "The enemy is inside our church and attempting to transform it into little more than a pagan organization." and a reply says, "I believe the enemy has succeeded in his attempt." If I am a Christian, I hope that you will defend me from your readers who say I am not. I take no solace from your comment here that upgrades me from unbeliever to heretic. So I stand by what I have said.

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  6. Actually, the slippery slope began years ago when the anti-homosexual language was added to the Book of Discipline. What's the next step? St. Paul talks about women not speaking in church. Should be throw out all the women who want to so talk? And then Jesus himself has strong words about Divorce. So should be toss out all those who have been divorced? We can make the church so restrictive that only those we deem pure can get it. OR, we can find a compromise position such as the One Church Plan, live together peaceably even with our differences, and get back to doing the work the God wants His church to do.

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  7. At this rate of calling ourselves pure believers in the totality of the scriptures after homosexuality, we will focus on divorcees, those married to divorcees then woman who speak in church, then slaves who must go back to their masters, then all those who eat pork by the time we have ten general conferences our church will be so pure.

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