New SermonCast: "First Things First" #UMC

Every organization that wants to be around and be effective for the long haul must, at some point, ask the question: What is the most important thing? They must decide what matters most, and then they must resolve to keep that most important thing always before their eyes, always in front of them. They must pursue it relentlessly. They must keep first things first.

The Church of Jesus Christ is no different. Like any other organization, we must decide our priorities and keep first things first. Check out this week’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to find out what the Church’s “first thing” is and why we must keep it always in front.

#WesleyCast Interview w/ @DrewBMcIntyre, Review by @TalbotDavis #UMC

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Lake Junaluska last week. I’ve been United Methodist for over 20 years, yet this was my first visit to this Wesleyan hallowed ground. The lake was beautiful, adn the grounds were amazing. I was not disappointed. I was there to speak at the breakfast meeting of the Western North Carolina Conference Evangelical Movement (WNCCEM). The turnout was great, which impressed me, because it was a 7:30 am breakfast meeting. Now Junaluska is, of course, in the Eastern Time Zone, and I live in the Central Time Zone. So it felt like 6:30 am. I’m almost certain this was the first time I’ve delivered a speech that early in the morning. And I would do it again in a heartbeat! It was great fun. For a very kind review and reflection on the talk, head over to Talbot Davis’ blog, I’m grateful to Talbot for creating this opportunity and for his very gracious comments.

While at Junaluska, I was also interviewed for the Wesley Cast, a podcast devoted to theological dialogue in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. The podcast is hosted by Drew McIntyre, Steven Fife, and Evan Rohrs-Dodge who together operate the Via Media Methodists blog. Drew did the interview in which we discussed my then upcoming talk at the WNCCEM, the “A Way Forward” proposal, and the prospect of unity or schism in the United Methodist Church. It was a lot of fun and I’m grateful to Drew for the opportunity to discuss these important issues. Click through to listen to the interview (Released: 6/23/14), and be sure to subscribe to Wesley Cast so you can catch future episodes.

It was a whirlwind trip. I wasn’t even on site for 24 hours. But I did get the chance to attend one worship service at the meeting of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference and enjoyed hearing Bishop Jonathan Holston preach. I also made a quick visit to the World Methodist Museum where I saw John Wesley’s portable pulpit and one of four copies of his death mask. It was a remarkable experience to look at the exact contours of the face of a man who lived centuries ago and who has shaped my life in profound ways. It was great to visit the beautiful Lake Junaluska, make some new friends, and get a small sample of North Carolina Methodism. Next time I’ll have to stay a little longer.

Allowance Isn’t Affirmation, Except When It Is (@DrewBMcIntyre #UMC)

My recent post aimed at evaluating the “Way Forward” plan set forth by Adam Hamilton and others has garnered a fair bit of response, some positive and some less so. This is to be expected on any matter related to how the United Methodist Church (UMC) will proceed when it comes to our denominational stance on same sex practices. One of the more extended critiques of my view comes from Drew McIntyre. His tone is charitable and his evaluation is thoughtful. I’m grateful to Drew for taking the time to dig into what I’ve written and give some conversational pushback. Careful interaction is certainly essential if any of us really want to move forward. This post aims likewise to proceed with charity and gratefulness for this opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue
The Critique
Drew argues that I have failed to account for the critical distinction between allowing some event or action, on the one hand, and affirming that event or action, on the other. To make the point, he draws an analogy which suggests the possibility that the UMC might allow but not affirm the blessing of same sex unions by our clergy and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals by our Annual Conferences is similar to what happens when God allows but does not cause evil actions or events. God is not the author of evil, but he does permit evil because he has created us with a certain amount of free will. Based on this analogy Drew claims, “allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church ‘affirming’ those choices.” The argument he makes is that I have missed the essential distinction between allowance and affirmation.
Flawed Logic
Drew certainly raises some good points, and I agree that there is a difference between allowance and affirmation in some cases. However, I find his view unpersuasive in this case because the logic by which he argues is flawed. In my view, Drew has committed the logical fallacy of false analogy. Drew’s argument depends on a perceived similarity between the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices and God allowing evil events to occur. Drew concludes that if God can allow evil without causing it, then the UMC can allow the blessing of same sex practices by clergy and Conferences without affirming those practices. This argument assumes that divine causation and UMC allowance are sufficiently similar to form a reliable analogy. But are we justified in likening the mysterious manner in which God governs his creation to the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices? I am not persuaded that we are.
Theologians have long struggled to find the best language to describe the manner in which God governs his creation without becoming culpable for evil. Our attempts at this are called theodicy. We wrestle with terms like sovereignty and providence seeking definitions that account for the evidence in scripture and experience. As Drew observes, Calvinists tend to see it one way while Arminians see it differently. But it’s not immediately clear that either side has given a fully satisfactory account of why God is not morally responsible for the presence of evil in his creation. Honest folks on various sides of the debate readily acknowledge aspects of their view that make them uncomfortable. We all articulate ways of thinking that help us along, but theodicy is hardly a settled matter. If it remains unclear how God can allow evil to occur without being morally culpable for it, then it is not clear that there is enough similarity between the proposal for the UMC and divine allowance of evil. The analogy from theodicy depends on a perceived similarity that is neither established nor warranted. Drew has committed the fallacy of false analogy. His manner of reasoning is flawed and his argument unpersuasive.
Discerning the Difference
Drew was not the only one to suggest that the allowance proposed in the “A Way Forward” plan does not amount to a UMC affirmation of same sex practices. Others made this claim as well. It is thus worth our time to think more carefully on the question of why, in this case, allowance is indeed affirmation.
When a couple approaches a member of the clergy seeking to be joined in marriage, they are asking the clergy person to declare God’s blessing and the Church’s blessing on their union. Remember that the minister declares and blesses the union with authority vested in him or her by the Church. The minister performing a marriage rite is an authorized representative of the Church who declares the blessing of the Church on that union. When a person seeks ordination in the UMC, he or she is asking the Annual Conference to act in accord with the authorization of General Conference to affirm and bless the call of God on their lives for a set aside ministry in the Church. For General Conference to say that the denomination allows individual clergy and Conferences to offer the Church’s blessing in such circumstances, even though the UMC itself does not offer its affirmation, is a contradiction. It’s nonsense. If the Church says it’s permissible for clergy to bless same sex unions and for Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals, then the Church is authorizing clergy and Conferences to extend the Church’s blessing to such practices. In this case, the Church is affirming the compatibility of these practices with Christian teaching. We are not simply “allowing pastors and churches more flexibility,” we are authorizing them to pronounce the blessing of God and the Church on practices that God neither condones nor blesses. In this case, allowance most certainly amounts to affirmation.
It is true that allowance does not always amount to affirmation, but sometimes it does. What matters is being able to discern the difference, and conversations like this one help us along in the discernment process. Sometimes simply allowing an action or event to take place makes us culpable for that action or event. Pilate washed his hands of Jesus’ blood, but does anyone really think him not guilty of crucifying the Lord of glory?

Why "A Way Forward" Isn’t (#umc #umcschism)

These are difficult days in the United Methodist Church. The divide in our denomination between those who differ on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching is deeper than ever. Both sides are frustrated. Both sides are hurting. Both sides want a solution, though different people on each side have different ideas on what constitutes a solution. Many hope that conservatives and progressives will work out a compromise and remain together in a  united United Methodist Church. One recent proposal aimed at such unity comes from Adam Hamilton and has been endorsed by a number of others in the denomination. The proposal has already been analyzed by some and evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses, and more analysis will undoubtedly be forthcoming. This is good. Proposals like this have potential for a massive impact on the UMC, and they come with a variety of intended and unintended consequences. Shared dialogue is very important, especially since our future as United Methodists is at stake. 

Before I get to the proposal itself, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Adam Hamilton. I’ve read his books, participated in his mentoring groups, used his materials, and implemented some of his strategies. Like many, I have benefited greatly from the resources that Adam has made available to the Church. I appreciate and have attempted to imitate his practice of looking for the helpful contributions and strengths of perspectives other than his own. So, the following evaluation comes in the context of years of appreciation. 

A Double Proposal
The heart of the proposal in “A Way Forward” is twofold:
  1. Local churches would have the authority to determine the nature and extent of their ministry with gay and lesbian people, including whether they will or will not allow same gender unions.
  2. Each Annual Conference would have the authority to determine whether or not it will allow self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
The goal of moving these decisions to local and regional levels is “to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference.” Those who have signed off on this document believe that it “would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities.”

Compromise? 
The “A Way Forward” proposal is set forth as a compromise that would keep progressives and conservatives together in a single United Methodist Church. The idea is that if local groups get to make their own decisions, then everyone will be happy, or at least able to live together. But is this proposal really a compromise? I fear that it is not. If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions. Implementing this proposal would necessitate the removal of the “incompatible” language from the Discipline and it would necessitate the removal of the language that forbids same sex unions in local United Methodist churches. This is not a compromise. This is a reversal of the denominational position. Allowing those who so desire to abstain from participation does not change the reality that this would be a win for progressives and a capitulation for conservatives. 

Forward or Apart?
Others will certainly have a different take on this plan, and I welcome some healthy and charitable dialogue on the matter. But as I see it, given that this proposal amounts to an affirmation by the General Church on homosexual practice, it is unacceptable for those who affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church with regard to homosexuality. If implemented, many conservatives would find themselves unable to remain in the United Methodist Church and would feel forced to leave the denomination. As a result, the implementation of this plan would not help us avoid a split. Instead, it would lead us ever further down the path toward schism. I suspect that we would experience something similar to what has happened in The Episcopal Church. Conservatives churches (and perhaps whole Annual Conferences) would pull out of the denomination to go it alone, affiliate with another denomination, or form new associations. This plan is not a way forward; it would push us further apart. 

Andrew T. Lincoln Interview on the Virgin Birth (@eerdmansbooks)

Eerdman’s has recently posted this interview with Andrew T. Lincoln on his new book Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology. Here’s the video:
Here’s the description from the publisher’s website: 

This engaging book enables ordinary Christians to understand and give honest expression to the problems surrounding the virgin birth — a concept that many Christians are not sure how to handle.

Andrew Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin? begins by discussing why the virgin birth is such a difficult and divisive topic. The book then deals with a whole range of issues — literary, historical, and hermeneutical — from a critical yet positive perspective that takes seriously creedal confessions and theological concerns.

As part of his exegetical investigation of the New Testament texts, Lincoln considers the literary genre and distinctive characteristics of the birth narratives as ancient biography. Further, he delineates how changes in our views of history and biography decisively affect any traditional understanding of the significance of an actual virgin birth. He also explores what that means for the authority of Scripture and creed, along with implications for Christology and for preaching and teaching from the birth narratives.

Whether or not you agree with the arguments and conclusions, it’s important to remember that Lincoln is not simply running the old line that “miracles don’t really happen; so we can’t believe in a virgin birth.” The book does not grow out of anti-supernatural presuppositions but is an effort to hear the New Testament on its own terms. I find particularly interesting the argument that “seed of David” language refers specifically to patrilineal descent and indicates that the writer thought Jesus to have been conceived in the normal means. Also, the question of whether Jesus can be said to stand in solidarity with human beings if he doesn’t have a human father is intriguing. I’ll be curious to see how scholarly reviewers handle these issues and others. 

Is #UMC Conversation Still Possible?

Prominent United Methodist polity expert Dr. Thomas E. Frank has called upon the Council of Bishops to put a stop to church trials for clergy who disobey The Book of Discipline by blessing same-sex unions. Frank would prefer to see the Bishops lead the Church in “open conversation” with the aim of preserving the unity of the Church, which he believes is in peril if the trials continue to be prosecuted. I offered a response to Dr. Frank yesterday, and since then I’ve been thinking more about the call for conversation and the deep divide over human sexuality in the UMC. Here are a couple of reasons for why I wonder whether further fruitful conversation is a real possibility. 
We’ve already done it
The call for open conversation about human sexuality seems to imply that this is a new route aimed at solving our problem. However, we’ve been having this conversation for over forty years. The conversation has taken place in our local churches, on the floors of our Annual Conferences, in our seminaries, in social media, blogs, and denominational publications. At the last General Conference, Adam Hamilton, Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, and others stood and engaged in open conversation. Like previous General Conferences, the variety of perspectives were put on the table. Suggestions for compromise were made. And, in the end, the authoritative body made a decision. The decision is not satisfying to all, but it is, nevertheless, a decision. And it is a decision not made without conversation. Frankly, it’s been a very, very long conversation. Given our history, do we really think that further “open conversation” is going to produce something that four decades of dialogue has not already produced? 
Conversation is for non-essentials
One of the things we’ve learned in our extended dialogue over human sexuality is that both sides take their own view to be essential to their identity as followers of Christ. Advocates of changing the UMC incompatibility language are convinced their view is the faithful view; proponents of keeping the language think their view is the faithful view. Regardless of where we stand on the issue of human sexuality, surely we can agree that the both sides think their conviction is not only right but essential. In light of that we need to understand and agree that conversation is for secondary and peripheral matters, not essentials. If both sides think their view is essential to faithful ministry, further attempts to engage in dialogue are likely to lead only to more frustration, hurt, and damage to the people and the mission of the United Methodist Church. We need to be discerning and mature enough to recognize and admit when we come to an impasse. 
Not an end in itself
Finally, we need to recognize that conversation serves the purpose of finding direction and making decisions. Once we have listened to the other side and articulated our own view, it’s time to decide how to move forward. Conversation is not an end in itself. It is a tool, an instrument, a means to the end of discerning what to do next. We’ve had the conversation. Our authoritative body has made decision after decision. Some are persuaded that those decisions are wrong and unjust. So, what do we do next? Do we expect further conversation to bring real results that will satisfy all the concerned parties? Or will further conversation be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on the deep, deep wound of division in the UMC?
Let me conclude by saying that I’m all for fruitful conversation. If we can find a way to engage one another and authentically preserve the unity of the United Methodist Church, then, by all means, let’s do that. The problem is that I find it difficult to imagine both sides coming to the table and working out a mutually satisfying arrangement, because preserving authentic unity means that one side will have to yield what they take to be essential. 
What do you think? Is there a way for forward for the United Methodist Church? Can we have a fruitful dialogue at this point? 

If Trials Stop, Likelihood of Schism Grows (#UMC, @UMReporter)

The United Methodist Reporter has published an open letter from United Methodist polity expert Thomas E. Frank asking the Council of Bishops to halt further church trials for clergy who officiate same-sex unions. Several such trials are pending, and Frank believes the the Bishops have the authority to put a stop to these trials by opting not to refer complaints to the counsel for the Church. Frank’s appeal rests on his conviction that the trials put the unity of the UMC in peril. The Bishops, he argues, have the pastoral responsibility and authority to preserve the unity of the Church, even if it means acting in opposition to the will of the General Conference. As an alternative to church trials, Frank calls for open conversation and serious engagement with each other’s views. The letter comes at a crucial time as the Council of Bishops are meeting at Lake Junaluska this week. 
I appreciate Dr. Frank’s concern for the unity of the Church. It is a concern that I share, which is why I find his argument somewhat shortsighted. Two observations are in order that will hopefully shed light on why his proposal will neither solve our problem nor preserve our unity.
First, if the Bishops heed Frank’s call to halt the trials going forward, it is likely to lead to schism, which is what Frank wants to avoid. Those who hold a traditional view of human sexuality are likely to perceive such a move as the Council’s intentional leading of our Church down the path taken by other mainline denominations who have adopted attitudes toward human sexuality contrary to that of historic Christian orthodoxy. Such a move could be perceived as a functional, if not an official, change in our denominational stance that would easily result in increased calls for schism. Ironically, following Frank’s advice is likely to lead to the very thing he is desperately trying to avoid.  
Second, Frank calls for open conversation as an alternative to church trials, but it is difficult to imagine how this is possible. Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert recently refused to abide by the requests of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and entered her episcopal area to conduct a ceremony of blessing for a same-sex union. Bishop Wallace-Padgett insisted that such action would not only be an act of disobedience to The Book of Discipline but would also undermine the ministry that she superintends in the North Alabama Annual Conference. It seems unlikely that the Council of Bishops will be able to model and oversee the sort of conversation that Frank would like to see when one Bishop forego conversation and undermine the ministry of another Bishop. It’s hard to see how Frank’s suggested alternative would result in healthy resolution of our rather critical situation. 
In the end, the Council of Bishops is in an exceedingly difficult place as our pastors and as the leaders of our Church. Let’s not underestimate the weight of the burden of their responsibility, and let’s cover them with much prayer. Frank is probably right. Continuing to bring clergy up on charges is likely to dissolve any semblance of unity we may still have. But the alternative of stopping the trials makes schism seem almost inevitable. It is sobering to consider that we may have come to the place in which we discover just how deeply divided the United Methodist Church really is.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this post Good News has published a response to Dr. Frank that substantiates the first observation above by saying, Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage.” Read the rest of their statement here.