The Myth of Neutrality (#OneChurchPlanMyths #UMC)

The people called Methodists are feeling the pressure right now. We are just over a month away from a special session of General Conference called to settle our decades-long conflict over the matter of human sexuality. Folks familiar with this conflict likely already know that a proposal known as the “One Church Plan” is being promoted with vigor by a number of bishops and a group known as the “Uniting Methodists.” In fact, the so-called One Church Plan is said to have the support of a majority of bishops, which is unsurprising, though the exact number of that majority is unclear.

Among other things, this plan would remove the current restrictions on UMC clergy and churches from blessing same-sex unions. It would change the definition of marriage from the union of one man and one woman to the union of two persons. It also provides protections for clergy who choose not to solemnize same-sex unions. The plan is supposed to be a compromise because it removes restrictive language without adding an  explicit affirmation of same-sex unions. By neither condemning nor approving same-sex unions, this plan gives the appearance of neutrality and offers freedom to clergy to follow their convictions. In this post, I will argue that such neutrality is a myth. If the so-called One Church Plan passes, it would constitute a full-affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex practices.

Is Neutrality Possible?

The notion of neutrality in the so-called One Church Plan comes with the newly proposed definition of marriage. The imprecise “union of two persons” allegedly steers the narrow way between condemning same-sex unions and affirming them.  When inquisitive souls ask what the UMC stance on marriage is, proponents of the so-called One Church Plan want to be able to say that we’re not taking sides. You know, like Switzerland. The truth is that neutrality – like so much else –  is easier said than done.

Ecclesial Sleight of Hand

There is a simple reason United Methodist neutrality with regard to sexuality  will be impossible (despite the definitions in the so-called One Church Plan). The reason is that neutrality isn’t real. It’s a myth. There’s no such thing. “Why is that?” you ask. Because the proposed and allegedly neutral definition of marriage invites us to put all our attention on one question without considering another. Consider an analogy. The so-called One Church Plan is like a magician asking school children to look at his left hand while his right hand drops a rabbit in a hat. What I mean is this. While it is important, the key question is not how the UMC defines marriage (the magician’s left hand). The key question is what General Conference authorizes clergy to do (his right hand). What pastoral authority does General Conference authoritatively grant?

Remember that line you used to hear near the end of a wedding ceremony: “…by the power vested in me by the United Methodist Church…” It isn’t said as often anymore, but you’ll understand the point. When a United Methodist clergy person performs a wedding, she or he is acting as an instrument and on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Clergy do not have the inherent authority to solemnize a marriage covenant. That authority is delegated. The body that delegates that authority is responsible for defining how it is used. And if the General Conference authorizes United Methodist clergy to solemnize same-sex unions, the the General Conference is giving it’s blessing to those unions. And it is giving that blessing on behalf of the global United Methodist Church for which it speaks. To summarize the point, if General Conference authorizes clergy to perform same-sex unions, then General Conference is offering positive affirmation to those unions. There is no neutrality there.

Don’t Believe the Myth

Whether you like the so-called One Church Plan or not, you need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Don’t believe the myth. The plan is not neutral. Rather, it constitutes an affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex unions as good, holy, and right in the eyes of God and the Church. If you have difficulty understanding why traditional folks refuse to abide the so-called One Church Plan. This is why. We see through the myth of neutrality.

If you’d like to read more, consider Matt’s chapter “What Makes Sex Beautiful? Marriage, Aesthetics, and the Image of God in Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Sexuality (IVP Academic).

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

John Wesley on Voting (and American Politics)

To state the obvious, American politics are polarized. That polarization has cultivated a lack of civility. That incivility has resulted in both sides demonizing the other and, at times, engaging in acts of violence. When citizens begin engaging in violence against political opponents, their society is in danger. A republic cannot be maintained without debate marked by civility and charity.

How to Vote

The temptation to speak evil of those with whom we disagree politically is not new. John Wesley was concerned about it in the 18th century. And he had some wisdom for the people called Methodists as they considered the candidates for whom they would vote. As we head into the midterm elections next week, we would do well to follow his advice. Wesley had three points to keep in mind, which he recorded in his journal from October 6, 1774. He wrote: “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,

  1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
  2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And,
  3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

Don’t sell your vote. Don’t speak evil of your opponents. Keep a generous spirit toward those who disagree with you. Three essential elements of healthy and constructive political engagement.

Can the Church lead?

What is perhaps most tragic is that the demonization of political opponents has been perpetuated by many in the Church. And this is true on both sides of the aisle. Christians on the left and Christians on the right have both participated in less than charitable tactics and speech in the effort to advance their political views and agendas.  Rather than leading the way in robust political discourse, the Church has sadly participated in the degradation of healthy debate.

Love your (political) enemies

Wesley’s three points are only an application of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44). It is absolutely impossible to obey our Lord’s command to love your enemies and, at the same time, speak evil and sharpen your spirit against political opponents. That is not to suggest we avoid political debate. Rather, it is to avoid unhealthy shouting matches in order to make space for rigorous, yet charitable, political debate. Detest is not synonymous with debate. To the contrary, it’s actually quite difficult to debate people we detest. What we need is political discourse that is thoughtful, clear, and  charitable, all the while taking the points on which we diverge with the utmost seriousness.

My prayer is that we have not gone too far down the path of incivility. Perhaps we can repent and return to political debate that honors God and one another. Perhaps the people of God can even lead the way.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Book Notice: Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (@cenpastheo, @IVPAcademic)

When it comes to sex, evangelical Christians tend to be known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for. That’s why we need this new book and why I’m grateful to have had opportunity to contribute a chapter. The book is Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic), and it’s a collection of essays from the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference. Contributors consider the topic in light of scripture, history, theology, aesthetics, and culture. One recurring theme is the need for those who take a traditional view of marriage and sexuality to spend more time working on a positive theology of marriage. This book makes a significant contribution to that endeavor. You can read the contents at the IVP Academic site. Here are the endorsements:

“Pastors minister; theologians seek-and minister-understanding. Ministering understanding of how the Bible addresses real-world issues is the great privilege and responsibility of the pastor theologian. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson have put together a whole ministry team that ministers understanding worth its weight in gold on one of the most socially complicated, politically fraught, yet existentially unavoidable issues of our day or any: human sexuality. In an age where the male/female duality is in danger of becoming extinct, these essays serve as salient reminders of the beauty and mystery of God’s created order: ‘Male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27).

-Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL

For Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, the ideal of the pastor-scholar is not merely theoretical but intensely practical. The example they set through their Center for Pastor Theologians is an invitation to practice ecclesial theology. So is their new volume of thoughtful essays on God’s beautiful, well-ordered, and yet mysterious purposes for human sexuality-a book that demonstrates the value and relevance of having a community of wise scholars ‘do’ theology in the service of the church.

-Philip Ryken, President, Wheaton College

There’s a public conversation about human sexuality happening nearly everywhere today, but this book helpfully locates it right at the intersection of the pastoral and the theological. Beauty, Order, and Mystery provides a remarkably easy introduction to a vexed set of issues because the chapters are approachable and accessible even as they display deep reflection and up-to-date learning. In this particular multitude of counselors there is much wisdom.

-Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Community is messy, but lines are essential (#umc, @spiritchatter, @huffpost)

Official statements abound in the wake of last week’s Judicial Council ruling on the consecration as bishop of Karen Oliveto by the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church (#UMC). One that came across my desk this morning is from the Dean of Perkins School of Theology, Craig C. Hill. It came via the Huffington Post in a blog by Professor Jack Levison of Perkins. The post was intended to point readers to the Dean’s letter and contained a few brief affirmative comments regarding the letter’s substance and aim. One line from Levison’s post struck me, however, and prompted some further reflection. He writes, “Truth be told, authentic community doesn’t allow for sharp lines and clear distinctions.” I want to be careful because Levison didn’t offer much in the way of explanation in terms of what he meant. I don’t want to attribute views to him that he doesn’t express. Nevertheless, the comment prompts a number of questions and was offered in a public forum. So, public reflection on possible implications is fair play. Let’s have the conversation.
What sort of lines?
That’s the first question that comes to mind. I can only imagine that “sharp lines” here refers to community boundaries. The above quote follows on the heels of Levison’s stated commitment to holding the community together in the midst of discord, and Hill’s letter deals with questions of community boundary in relation to human sexuality. The context would suggest then that the “sharp lines” in question would be those that mark the boundaries of the United Methodist community and make a distinction between those practices that are acceptable and those that are not. 
A group with no boundaries?
But this raises the question of what it would look like to have a community without “sharp lines” at the boundaries. What sort of group would that be? How would we know who is in that group? How would we know who is outside of it? How would we distinguish a group with no lines at the boundary from other groups? 
If you were to ask someone who studies the formation and maintenance of social identities, they would tell you that distinction is the key category for defining a group. If you want to talk about a group in any meaningful sense, then you need to identify what it is that makes members of that group perceive themselves to be distinct from other groups. What values and commitments do they hold in common that distinguish them from members of groups that hold different values and commitments? Social identity theory recognizes that sharp lines at the boundaries is precisely the stuff of which groups are made. And if there are no lines at the boundaries, then there is no community to speak of. In reality, authentic community depends on sharp lines. Distinctions are the sine qua non of every group. 
Where do we draw the line?
If you want authentic community, the question isn’t whether there will be lines and distinctions. The question is where those lines will be drawn. The line is currently drawn in one place; Levison and Hill would like it drawn elsewhere. No matter where it’s drawn, there’s still a line. And that’s what makes community messy or, as Levison puts it, “sloppy” and “unkempt.” If we didn’t have any lines, we wouldn’t have to worry with being unkempt, because there wouldn’t be a we in which to disagree. We only run into differences that have to be sorted out because we want to draw the lines in different places. The question of boundaries are precisely what makes community challenging. We have to come to some agreement on how we will conduct ourselves. We have to have some shared values and commitments that we will not betray. Sorting those out is tough. But sorting those out is also how the lines get drawn. Sorting those out is how the community gets formed. Clarifying and maintaining those lines is how the community is perpetuated. When a subgroup of the larger group crosses the line and refuses to abide by the shared values, the group is endangered. And if the lines get moved, the community will change. You are likely to lose some of the people in the community. New communities may form. However that plays out, things get messy. The point is that things are only messy because there are sharp lines. Take away the lines and distinctions, and the mess goes away also. But then so does the authentic community. 
I noted above that a number of statements have been released. I decided to write about this one instead of the others because the commentary that accompanied it seems to me internally inconsistent. In the end, the argument for authentic community without sharp lines and distinctions regarding shared values and practices is self-defeating. There is no such thing as a community with no boundaries. Every group has lines drawn around it. That is unavoidable. The question for United Methodists going forward is where those lines will be drawn.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

No Celibacy in Singleness? Taking Responsibility in the #UMC

The United Methodist corner of the social media world is in a kerfuffle. “Why?” you ask. Good question. It’s because of a blog post published last week by the Methodist Federation for Social Action in which the author, an anonymous clergy woman, announced that she had chosen not to remain celibate even though she is single. Not only does she think this is okay, she also thinks it is “ridiculous in 2016 that this [anonymity] is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules.” I have resisted till now the the temptation to jump headlong into the fray, even though I find it to be the height of duplicity to publicly affirm “the rules” in one’s ordination vows while anonymously ridiculing them on the internet. But none of us should be surprised. After all, the General Board of Church and Society published an essay suggesting we do away with the celibacy-in-singleness-requirement nearly six years ago. So, I’m not so much interested to talk about what our nameless author has written. We are where we are, and we’ve been coming here for quite some time. And no abundance of tweets will change that. Instead, I’d like to consider how we got here, and take some responsibility. 
The path to the place where celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage is not only questioned but ridiculed has been complex. The sexual free-for-all that has become acceptable in some corners of the UMC and other denominations is the result of many factors that cannot be dealt with in a single blog post. I can, however, point to one of those factors, which is the reality that those of us who hold to the traditional Christian ethic of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage have been largely silent when it comes to articulating a robust theology of human sexuality. With a few exceptions, our theologians have not written on it, and our preachers have not preached on it. We tend to skip over those chapters of scripture when they come along. After all, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone. And there’s always the danger that a prudish church member will make life difficult for us if we preach on one of “those passages.” The result is that we have multiple generations of Christians with very little grounding in historic Christian sexual ethics and no ability to articulate and defend those ethics from scripture. 
At the risk of being anecdotal, I had the chance to sit down with some college students last summer and ask their perspective on the issue: what’s it like for you being a Christian on a college campus characterized by a variety of attitudes toward sex? They responded by saying that they generally held traditional Christian views. The problem was that the topic didn’t come up very often in church as they were coming along. So, there wasn’t much to draw on when it came time to explain their conviction. As I listened it became increasingly clear to me that we conservative types bear some fault here. We have not given our children – or their parents, for that matter – any sort of Christian sexual ethic. The result is that they are easily swayed by the spirit of the age. Thankfully, there are some exceptions to the rule. There are some pastors who have the courage to preach and teach on holy sexuality. But they are exceptions indeed, and that’s part of the problem.
Another facet of the problem is that when we do deal with the topic of human sexuality, we often only say what we are against, and we sometimes come across like angry children writing letters to the editor with crayons in our fists. We sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about, and it isn’t pretty. To be sure, we need people to deconstruct damaging and aberrant attitudes toward sex. But we also need to do the constructive task of setting forth a theologically and aesthetically robust account of Christian sexual ethics, which is essential for giving our people a solid foundation on which to stand. Our people need to know what we are for and why it matters. Unfortunately, those accounts are few and far between, and they are seldom accessible on a popular level. We can point fingers at the other side all we want, but to some degree we are complicit. It’s time to take responsibility. 
I’ll conclude by recommending two resources. The first is a very helpful book published last year by Beth Felker Jones, a United Methodist theologian at Wheaton College. It’s called Faithful: A Theology of Sex, and it’s the sort of book you could give to a layperson or use at a college Bible study. Second, some readers will know that I am part of the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and will be interested to know that the upcoming CPT Conference is on “Beauty, Order, And Mystery: The Christian Vision Of Sexuality.” Beth is one of the plenary speakers, and I’ll be speaking at one of the breakout sessions. It is my hope that this conference will contribute to a recovery of a holy and positive theology of sexuality in the North American Church. Perhaps you’ll want to join us. 

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I’m excited to share with readers that I’ve recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles’ Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son and our Lord. I’m grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I’m very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here’s the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

Turn Up the Heat: #PlannedParenthood is on the Ropes (#DefundPP #ProtestPP)

The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Planned Parenthood has decided to stop “taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue.” For those who need a translation of this “newspeak” into the language of everyday folk, they plan to stop selling baby parts. Here’s the report: 

Planned Parenthood Federation of America said it is immediately stopping taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue for medical research, an attempt to tamp down controversy that has led to Republican investigations in Congress and efforts to end federal funding.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a letter Tuesday to the National Institutes of Health that the organization’s affiliates will no longer accept any reimbursements for costs associated with procuring tissue from abortions. Fetal tissue has been provided by affiliates in California and Washington state, and the Washington clinics haven’t been taking any money for it, she said. The Oregon affiliate has been providing placental tissue for reimbursement. Planned Parenthood didn’t disclose the amount it will forgo with its new policy.

What this means, of course, is that Planned Parenthood is on the ropes. The investigative videos released by The Center for Medical Progress have hit the nation’s largest abortion provider. They’ve hit them hard. So hard that the abortion giant appears willing to give up a rather lucrative aspect of their business in order to survive. Planned Parenthood is doing this in an effort to satisfy critics and get the public and Congress off their backs. 
We must remember, however, that selling baby bodies is not Planned Parenthood’s greatest sin. Their greatest sin is killing babies. Their unjust business model is a murderous one, and it involves the murder of the most vulnerable people in our society at that. The fact that they intend to stop taking money from selling the pieces of their victims does not mean that they are off the hook. They are still treacherous. We must continue to stand against their slaughter of the innocents
This is a good time to remember the principle of pursuit. In battle, when your opponent retreats, you don’t give them time to regroup, replenish, and gather new strength. Instead, you give chase. Pursue. Go after them. Strike harder and with increasing intensity. Finish the job. Win the battle. Planned Parenthood is trying to put out the fire, which means it’s time to turn up the heat.