Thursday, May 10, 2018

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Briefing

May 10, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, May 10, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Once the outlier in mainline protestantism’s leftward shift, United Methodist bishops propose plan opening door to LGBTQ inclusion

If you were to go back to the midpoint of the 20th century, American religion would have been dominated by what were then called the mainstream or mainline Protestant denominations. Those were the historic, main denominations recognizable in American life, but every one of those denominations have begun to move in explicitly liberal directions during the first part of the 20th century. By the time you come to the high-water mark of those denominations and their influence in the second half of the 20th century, each is moving in increasingly more liberal directions each at its own pace, some quicker, some slower, all in the same direction.

Then by the time you get to the sexual and moral revolution, it is clear that almost all of those denominations moving more liberal in their theology and considerably smaller in their membership, each one of them was coming to terms with the LGBTQ revolution. You start out with denominations such as the United Church of Christ that have been historic congregationalism, but it moved in very liberal directions very quickly. Then you look at the Episcopal Church, which decades ago elected an openly gay bishop, and then you look at denominations such as the mainstream Lutherans, the ELCA, the mainline Presbyterians, the PC (USA). Denomination after denomination they join the sexual revolution coming to terms with normalizing homosexual behavior, ordaining openly gay clergy and bishops and performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

But the outlier in this picture has been the United Methodist Church. Like those other denominations, The United Methodist had been moving for decades in more liberal directions. But when it comes to the sexual and moral revolution, that liberal, progressive trajectory had seen to meet an obstacle and that obstacle had been the fact that The United Methodist Church, unlike those other denominations, had begun to include as voting members of the General Conference held every four years representatives of Methodist churches outside the United States. That included growing Methodist churches in places such as Africa.

The thing to note is this. Even though The United Methodist in the United States, and in particular, the leadership of that denomination wanted to move ahead in more liberal directions on the LGBTQ issues, they were restrained by the fact that the growth in the denomination was amongst conservatives. The United Methodist Church has been the only of the mainline historic denominations that has not yet joined the sexual and moral revolution all the way through the LGBTQ series.

The church meets in this General Conference every four years. There are annual conferences that are more localized, but it is the General Conference that determines the official doctrine and practices of the church worldwide, and at the General Conferences of late, there has been an effort in every single one of them to liberalize the Book of Discipline and to allow for the ordination of openly gay clergy. You could go through the list of the demands of the sexual revolutionaries.

But what has become increasingly clear is that the liberals are not going to win at the level of the General Conference. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up. The liberals in the church who’ve been trying to redefine the church’s position on sexual morality, specifically to remove from the Book of Discipline language that would prohibit joining the sexual revolution, they have come to the conclusion that they can’t wait until 2020 and the next General Conference before the numbers are more to their disfavor, especially with growth among conservative churches. They believe they have to take some action to try to rescue as much of The United Methodist Church in North America as possible for the sexual revolution.

The bishops of the church, at least the majority of them, got behind an effort to call a special General Conference which will be held in the year 2019. It’s approaching fast and the bishops of the church were to bring a recommendation of a way to go forward. This is why the news that has broken amongst United Methodists in recent days demands our very close attention.

Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service reports the story this way, “The bishops of the United Methodist Church have endorsed a plan that would allow individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy.” She goes on to say, “The Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan,” that is last Friday, “after nearly a week of meetings in Chicago.”

Bishop Ken Carter who’s the president of The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops said, “The Council’s prayerful deliberation reflected the diversity of the global denomination on the matter of homosexuality and many other matters.” He went on to say, “The Council affirms the strength of this diversity and our commitment to maintain the unity of the church.”

But as we’re seeking to employ a theological analysis, a Christian worldview analysis of this news, let’s look at that final sentence from the bishop again, “The Council affirms the strength of this diversity and our commitment to maintain the unity of the church.” Now in that sentence are two words which are very difficult to put together: diversity and unity. Now, this is not to argue that there can be no diversity within unity or unity within diversity. It is to say that theologically and biblically there are severe limits to the amount of diversity that can end up being truly described in any way as unity.

It was Jesus Christ himself who said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. When you look at church, a denomination, you look at a body such as The United Methodist Church, the big question is whether or not one church, one denomination can hold together two positions that are, in terms of polarity, absolutely opposing.

How can you have a church that in one place, on the one hand, says that homosexual behavior is absolutely normal, that ordaining openly gay clergy is absolutely right and performing same-sex ceremonies is absolutely lawful and then have other churches or other conferences in the same denomination say in another place at the same time that this is an absolute contradiction of scripture, that homosexual behavior is prohibited by the clear teachings of scripture, and thus, the clergy are not to be ordained who are involved in such a lifestyle or who identify in such a way, and that there should be no blessing of same-sex marriages or same-sex relationships because they are contrary to scripture? How you can maintain that kind of diversity and plausibly call it unity is beyond our imagination, and the reality is it’s beyond any workable organizational relationship as well.

The current language of The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline says that, and I quote, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” And the language also says “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are not to be ordained as ministers nor are they to be appointed to serve or to be married in the church.

The challenge, the immediate urgency comes from the fact that over the last several years there had been clergy and there had been bishops who have acted in open defiance of the Book of Discipline. Now that might be something less unexpected in some other denominations but here we need to remind ourselves that we’re talking about a denomination that includes the word “Methodist.” This movement that was started by Charles Wesley is a movement that was based in a certain understanding of holiness that came by the employment of a certain kind of devotional method that would lead to a certain kind of of ecclesial reality. Thus, the Book of Discipline in The United Methodist Church here in the United States has been the visible and operational symbol of the unity of what it means to be one church sharing one method together, thus, the name Methodist.

The bishop said last week that they would present to the specially called conference, not just their preferred option, but two other options. The three put together include what’s known as a Traditionalist Plan that would mean maintaining the current language of the Book of Discipline and making it apply everywhere at all times. The second option is this One Church Plan and you can tell by the way it’s labeled that this is exactly where the bishops want the church to go and the third is known as the Connectional Conference Plan, and this would be somewhat akin to what we see in some places among Episcopalians or Anglicans where a local congregation can come under the oversight of a bishop in another place. But according to some Methodist experts, that would require no less than 20 or 30 different kind of bylaw or constitutional amendments, something that is extremely unlikely.

Conservatives within The United Methodist Church were not surprised by this report from the bishops because they had come to the conclusion long ago that the bishops as a collective were overwhelmingly liberal, but they are also not despairing, that is the conservative Evangelicals in The United Methodist Church because they believe that the votes are on their side. Even its efforts to try to join the sexual revolution have failed in previous General Conferences. They are at least partly confident that a similar kind of method will fail now. But the thing to note is that this is coming with an unusual level of authority in a church that has prized its honoring of bishops. You’re talking about the largest number of bishops coming to say that their preferred option is this effective local option.

We also see here that the great theological and biblical chasm that now separates conservatives and liberals within The United Methodist Church is not likely to be resolvable at all. Regardless of which way the church goes, one side is likely to leave. If the liberals win, it’s the conservatives who are likely to leave. If the conservatives win, it’s the liberals who are likely to leave.

What we learn from that is that on the liberal side, there is now so much commitment to the sexual revolution that they will effectively abandon their own church if it does not join the revolution as well. Some who observe The United Methodist Church have pointed out that at least a part of what happened here is that the liberals waited too long to spring their plan of action. Had they acted earlier, there might have been fewer conservatives who had joined the church, especially from non-North American context. But as it is, they did not move as quickly as the Episcopalians or the Presbyterian Church USA and now they find themselves wondering if their church is ever going to join the sexual revolution that all of their denominational friends have already joined.

Part II

In debate over LGBT issues, United Methodist Church redefines holiness

As we’re trying to apply a theological analysis here, there is enormous help that comes in an article that was published by Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. The article is entitled The United Methodist Choices. But what’s most important in this article is that Tooley points us to comments recently made by Ryan Danker. He is assistant professor of the History of Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. In addressing these issues, Prof. Danker said and I quote, “The debate that has roiled the United Methodist Church is a conflict not only about truth telling and covenant, which would entail the topic of conscience, but something fundamental to Methodism, something that constitutes its DNA.” He continued, “We have within The United Methodist Church competing and contradictory visions of holiness of heart and life. Yet,” he says, “holiness is the fundamental organizing principle, the trajectory, and the goal of Methodism, even in its modern forms. John Wesley founded a movement,” he reminds, “to spread scriptural holiness across the land.”

“And,” the professor went on to say, “that same drive was retained by both the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church.” Those are the two bodies who came together to form The United Methodist Church. He concludes, “Holiness is at the heart of Methodism. It is our DNA. In fact, it’s the reason we exist at all.”

Now, we’re down to one of the most important issues of theological analysis we could consider. What does it mean to be holy? How is holiness defined? What you have right now in The United Methodist Church, as this professor points out, are two absolutely contradictory ideas of what it means to be holy. On the one hand, you have those who claim that holiness requires the affirmation of all persons regardless of their sexual behavior, the blessing of same-sex unions, for example, even of same-sex marriages. On the other side, you have those who define holiness in terms of keeping to the commands of scripture and following even the admonitions of Christ concerning the definition of marriage. What you see here is a professor in one of the Methodist seminaries, in this case Wesley Theological Seminary, saying that the reality must be faced. These are two different contradictory and irreconcilable understandings, one he says is at the heart of Methodism. This is where we have to understand it’s actually at the heart of Christianity, holiness.

Prof. Danker goes on to say it’s not just holiness that is being redefined by one side in the debate, he says also other Wesleyan understandings of basic biblical terms are now being revised, “Such as love, welcome, sin, conversion and salvation.”

Now, there’s another very important theological principle we need to recognize. You cannot separate holiness from any other aspect of the Christian life or of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When you’re talking about holiness, but as you define holiness, you are simultaneously defining how you understand scripture. You’re defining what you understand sin to be and you are redefining and making clear what you believe salvation to be. But then after already offering that much of clarity, the professor went on to say and I quote, “Redefining shared core terms, however, is the end of unity.” That is so fundamentally important, redefining core terms. Well, continuing to use those terms is actually the end of unity. Agreeing to have two fundamentally different definitions of the Bible, two fundamentally different definitions of the gospel, two fundamentally different understandings of sin, two fundamentally different understandings of holiness, that turns out to be not only implausible but impossible. It is, as he says, the very end of unity. What this means is that the majority of The United Methodist Church have suggested that the church take two positions and operate by two convictions at the same time.

Prof. Danker points to an older biblical understanding of holiness and what he calls a newer concept of holiness, and he warns the church cannot hold both at the same time. But he also makes very clear that it is this new updated model of holiness consistent with the sexual revolution that is the outlier, that is in contradiction to scripture and alien from the history of Methodism. With grief but with clarity, he says, “Some have turned away from their ordination vows. They are tired of the battle. I get it. So am I. But they have undermined the truth-telling ability of the Church, torn our common covenant, and brought into question their own ability to tell the truth.”

If Methodists everywhere at all times operated on even a percentage of that kind of clarity, the denomination will not be facing this crisis. But in looking at this development in The United Methodist Church, the big warning here is not merely for Methodists but for any church, any congregation, any denomination, any institution serving the cause of Christ that believes it can stand in two places at once.

Part III

Lessons from the Episcopal diocese of Washington D.C.: When you abandon the faith, people will abandon the church

Next, we turn to the Episcopal Church already mentioned. We turned to Washington, D.C. in the episcopal diocese there. The Episcopal Church USA has been one of those churches that has marched most quickly to join the sexual revolution and to deny the clear teachings of scripture. But as the diocese in the nation’s capital city that has taken some of the most radical action, we are told that back in January the diocese adopted three different resolutions all offered by the same pastor, that is the Rev. Kimberly Lucas, director of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington. The resolutions called for open borders, basically for the diocese to become a sanctuary diocese. But the second was the inclusion of transgender people in the church. Again, that is already basically the policy of the church, but this is now reflected in a resolution that speaks of eagerness in celebration.

But it’s the third resolution that’s the most important of the three because in the third resolution, the diocese voted that where possible, including in uses of the Book of Common Prayer, where possible, the church should avoid the use of gendered language for God, rejecting that language and instead trying to find gender inclusive, or even better, gender-free language for God. Resolution number three was entitled On the Gendered Language for God and it stated amongst other things that the church should “Eliminate when possible all gendered references to God and replace them with gender neutral language. And if necessary, to alternate gendered titles when referring to God.”

Now, we should just step back for a moment and recognize that it is a clear biblical teaching that God does not have a body, that he is spirit, but it is also a clear biblical teaching repeated more times than we could possibly recount that God reveals himself as Father. He names himself as Father. He does not merely describe himself as Father. The most important central doctrine of Christianity, which the doctrine of the trinity is centered in the understanding that God has revealed himself explicitly, repeatedly, consistently as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not as Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit. Furthermore, God not only as the sovereign has the right to name himself, this means that Christianity as a faith is predicated entirely upon knowing who God is, and the God who has revealed himself in scripture has explicitly revealed himself in the words that have been central to the worship and understanding of Christians from the very beginning. Of course the very beginning is not just in Christianity, but God names himself so clearly as Father throughout the Old Testament.

Jeffrey Walton of the IRD goes on to report that there were two major figures involved, not only the Rev. Kimberly Lucas who’s director of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, but also the Rev. Alex Dyer who’s director of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Parish also in Washington, D.C. What the IRD tells us is that those two churches have been in a free fall in terms of their attendance. Remember that the logic of theological liberalism is that in order to save the church, you’ve got to revise the entire Christian faith. That’s the very project of liberal theology. But it turns out not only is that an abandonment of scripture and is also pragmatically a recipe for disaster.

According to the statistics applied here in this report, the attendance over the last five years at St. Thomas’ Church is down from an attendance of 150 down to 75 which is a loss of half. During the same time period, St. Margaret’s has also experienced the decline from about 240 attendees to 130. That’s a loss of 46%, almost half. The argument is that you save the church by abandoning the faith but the evidence is clear that when you abandon the faith, people in return abandon the church. It should not go without our understanding that if you look historically at the influence of religious denominations in the United States Congress, the Episcopalians have been amongst numerous and influential, at the very top of the Protestant elite. They were often amongst those who were most central to leadership in this country. But what we also have to note the effect of local context. It’s certainly not an accident that these particular resolutions were passed by the Episcopal Diocese in the city of Washington, D.C.

The fact that these resolutions made sense and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C. reminds us of just what has happened to a denomination that once provided the central political leadership of the United States of America. But it also tells us that the context of Washington, D.C. is important. The story tells us not only about Episcopalians, it tells us also about Washington, D.C.

Part IV

In New Zealand, yet another example of theological compromise on the definition of marriage

But as we’re thinking about the same kind of issue, word came yesterday that the synod of the Anglican Church, which includes New Zealand and Polynesia, had adopted a resolution which would allow the churches in New Zealand to bless same-sex relationships. The report that comes from Anglican News tells us that the measure was called Motion 29. Reading from the report, “The resolution explicitly states that there should be no change to the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage which is to affirm marriage as between a man and a woman.” But it says that individual bishops should be free to use provisions already within the provinces canons for a non-formulary service to allow for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

Now, according to the report, the resolution also calls for changes to the church’s law so that no member of the clergy can face disciplinary action either for performing a same-sex ceremony or for refusing to do so. Once again, a basic double-mindedness.

What you see here finally in New Zealand is another example of theological compromise that comes in the form of saying we don’t have the nerve actually to change the definition of marriage. We’ll just allow individual bishops to create something like marriage. We just don’t want to call it marriage. We’ll allow marriage to be redefined and subverted. We just won’t use the word “marriage.” But as we’ve seen in Europe and in the United States, that’s a halfway house that doesn’t last very long. Once you begin to redefine marriage, it won’t be long before the vocabulary itself will insist on coming into alignment with your new morality.

There was one surprise in this report concerning what has taken place in the Anglican Church there in New Zealand. We are told that this was the result of an earnest debate for 50 years. It’s hard honestly to believe that that’s true. But if it is, it tells us a great deal once again, not only about this Anglican synod, but about New Zealand.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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