Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, February 27, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
United Methodist Church defies mainline Protestant history by saying no to the sexual revolution
The span of Christian history is very long, about 2,000 years, two millennia of church experience of Christian history. That's a humbling span of time but it is also important for us to recognize that even as church history is now a very long story, in our days we are writing church history. There are historical occurrences happening around us. Just recently, one of the most important of those historical occurrences, a hinge upon which church history will rest at least for one major denomination, it took place in a series of days in St. Louis, Missouri, days that came to an end yesterday.
The event was a special general conference of the United Methodist Church. The United Methodists are the last mainline Protestant denomination, generally more liberal denominations in recent history that had not surrendered to the LGBTQ revolution, but at the very same time the church was and is, as we shall see, deeply split over this issue. For years now, conservatives and liberals, Protestant liberals and evangelicals within the United Methodist Church have fought over the issues now summarized by LGBTQ. The two factions in the church have been in a standoff ever since at least the 1970s, with liberals pushing for the full acceptance and normalization of homosexuality, the entire spectrum again, LGBTQ, and affirming same sex marriage, ordaining openly gay clergy, even electing openly gay bishops, and generally moving the United Methodist Church where it has belonged for so many years on other issues amongst the mainline Protestant denominations that have been marked by and committed theological liberalism.
Why was history made? It was made yesterday because the United Methodist Church, the only one of those mainline churches not to normalize homosexuality voted to uphold biblical standards of sexual morality, the historic teachings of the United Methodist Church consistent with 2,000 years of church history defining marriage exclusively as the union of a man and a woman. We'll look more closely at those teachings, but understand what happened. Yesterday in St. Louis, Missouri, a major mainline Protestant denomination in the United States said no to the sexual revolution. It has never happened before, it happened yesterday. We had better pay close attention.
Methodism goes all the way back to the early 18th century and by the middle of that century, it was an organized movement. It's associated with leaders, such as John and Charles Wesley. It began as a holiness movement, a movement of serious methodical devotion within the Church of England or Anglicanism. That methodical devotion in what was originally called The Holy Club within the Church of England, it became known as Methodism because of its methodical spirituality. Furthermore, Methodism became a separate denomination, originally a reformed movement within the Church of England, like so many other movements, it eventually became a separate church.
Methodism is a part of the founding story in the United States of America from the colonial and revolutionary era forward. Especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, Methodism grew on the American frontier. Unlike many of the more established churches, Methodism grew in frontier American precisely because it was committed to evangelizing and congregationalizing the new nation and it did so famously in the form of circuit writing preachers whereas many of the other denominations had to have a seminary trained and officially recognized pastor in order even to begin the preaching ministry and the origins of the local church.
It was this very energy that explains why Methodists and Baptists became the most energetic denominations in early America, continuing until very recent times. The United Methodist Church, the name by which the denomination is now known, is traceable back to the union of what was known as the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. Thus, the United Methodist Church has been known as the United Methodist Church for just over a half century and when that church was formed, it was generally identified with liberal Protestantism. However, as you look at the denomination, it had always included a very large representation of classical Methodists committed to traditional Christianity and rightly described as evangelical.
Ever since the church was moving in an even form liberal direction, evangelicals and those who were committed to what was called the renewal of the church, they had banded together in movements, the most important of which was known as The Good News Movement, a movement that has been active within the United Methodist Church for decades trying to call the church back to its conservative roots and to oppose the abdication of biblical morality and to the acceptance of theological liberalism.
The other mainline Protestant denominations began openly to embrace the sexual revolution as early as the 1960s. Why did the United Methodists hold out and how do we explain the vote that took place in St. Louis yesterday? It comes down to this, there were committed conservatives within that church who did not leave and their hopes were bolstered by the fact that the church had opened its membership to international churches, and those international Methodists, they were very committed to upholding a traditional biblical sexuality.
Over the last several decades, the majority of growth within the United Methodist Church has been in those churches, Methodist churches in Africa predominantly, but also in Asia, countries such as the Philippines and they have held to then and they hold now to a very traditional sexual ethic rooted in the Bible. For that reason, the growth in the denomination meant that every four years, when the denomination held what is called its General Conference, there was a greater representation of international United Methodists and that has also meant more conservative United Methodists.
By the time the special General Conference was held over the last several days in St. Louis, of the 12.5 million United Methodists, about 7 million were counted within the United States, about 4.4 to 4.5 million outside the United States. All the growth basically has been outside the United States and thus, conservatives have gained every four years in those General Conferences and that's why the liberals fighting for the United Methodist Church to accept same sex marriage, to normalize homosexuality, to join the sexual revolution, understood that with every passing year they were losing percentages within the voting numbers of the church. The liberal leaders within the United Methodist Church recognized that if they were going to force a vote on these issues, they had to do so quickly and thus, this special General Conference was called for 2019.
But we also have to go back and recognize that even as the church was established in 1968, by 1972 the LGBTQ issues were already discussed within the denomination and at every General Conference since 1972, there has been an effort to liberalize the official teaching of the church, known as its Book of Discipline on these questions. Well, the historic discipline of the United Methodist Church states that, "self avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained as ministers, even as it is to be recognized that all persons are individuals of sacred worth created in the image of God."
Furthermore, the church stipulates that laws in civil society should define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and the law of the church does as well. Furthermore, the Discipline states, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." That language is very clear but it has been clear for decades that the liberal faction within the church would not be satisfied with obeying that language. There have been dissident pastors, there have been churches that have identified as openly affirming of LGBTQ individuals and practices and relationships. There have been Methodist pastors that have conducted same sex marriages. There has even been one conference that has elected an openly gay United Methodist bishop.
All of this points to strains within one denomination that are untenable and unbearable they could not last. The church was at a crossroads, it would have to go one way or the other and the factions are so large within the United Methodist Church that the vote yesterday almost assuredly will lead to a division in the church, and it would have been exactly the same if the other side had won. If the liberals had won, the conservatives would have left. Now that the conservatives have won, well it is expected that not only will many ministers, members, and congregations leave, but it is quite possible that entire conferences of the church, that means entire regions, could leave the United Methodist Church because they are determined to join the sexual revolution.
Jacob Lupfer writing for Religion News Service points to the fact that much of this conflict was embedded in the United Methodist Church from the beginning. He wrote, "Baked into the UMC from its inception was a theological divide between liberals who controlled the denomination's institutions and conservatives who filled most pews and many pulpits. This mismatch," he says, "showed up in disagreements over the United Methodist Church's social witness on issues, including the war in Vietnam, military ethics, intervention more broadly, abortion, environmentalism, feminism, and finally, questions related to homosexuality."
When those who are voting members of the General Conference gathered in St. Louis, they were faced with three different options. One of them was a liberal option, one of them was a traditional option upholding the church's traditional biblical teaching, and the middle option was known as the one church plan. It had the overwhelming support of the bishops of the church. It would have allowed for what amounts to a local option, congregations and conferences. Regional gatherings of the United Methodist Church and their connectional system could have decided to go one way while other churches and conferences went the other way.
That was in its very basis untenable. It was also unprincipled unless the principle is, as at least some bishops articulated it, staying together connected to one another at whatever cost, even at the cost of any kind of clarity of moral conviction or of theological doctrine. The lead up to the special General Conference could hardly have been more dramatic, liberals and conservatives marshaled their forces, there were articles written, sermons preached, 93 United Methodists historically related college and university presidents voted unanimously to ask the church emphatically to join the sexual revolution. They included universities, such as Duke, Boston University, Emory, and American University in Washington D.C.
That was 93 votes. The unanimous vote of these educators in historically Methodist institutions, but the vote that took place in St. Louis was not the vote they had called for, instead it was an affirmation of the church's traditional understanding and historic teaching. The final vote, however, was relatively close, 438 to 384. That was 53% for the so-called traditional plan and 47% against. If you look at those numbers, 53% to 47%, you understand the deeply divided nature of this denomination, but as reporters had also indicated, there was an understanding on the part of liberals that if they did not win now, they would never win.
For example, the next time the church holds one of its regular General Conferences, that will be 2020 in Minneapolis, there will be an additional 18 delegates voting from the continent of Africa, the traditionalists. The conservatives are growing. The liberals are not.
Where does the United Methodist Church go after historic vote upholding biblical sexuality?
It is very interesting to look at the major media coverage. Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article, 'United Methodist Tightened Ban on Same Sex Marriage and Gay Clergy'. The Washington Post headline, 'United Methodist Delegates Reject Recognizing Gay Marriage'. Christianity Today, 'United Methodist Vote to Keep Traditional Marriage Stance'.
You look at those two major secular newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, they both in their lead sentences reporting on the General Conference indicated a likely major split in the church. David Crary and Jim Salter, reporting for the Washington Post, "The United Methodist Church, America's second largest Protestant denomination, faces a likely surge in defections and acts of defiance after delegates at a crucial conference voted to strengthen the fate's bans on same sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy."
Timothy Williams and Elizabeth Dias reporting for the New York Times, "The United Methodist Church on Tuesday voted to strengthen its ban on gay and lesbian clergy and same sex marriages, a decision that could split the nation's second largest Protestant church." The New York Times went on to say that given the choice the church, "doubled down on current church policy, which states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The Times went on to say, "The vote served as a rejection of a push by progressive members and leaders to open the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people." The Times continued, "Now a divide of the United Methodist Church appears imminent, some pastors and bishops in the United States are already talking about leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay friendly churches."
To go back where we began, yesterday turns out to be a significant day in church history. Where the United Methodist Church goes from here is not yet fully clear. Liberals will try to appeal the decisions made by this General Conference in the church's courts, but at the same time it is very clear that the numbers are not on the side of the liberals and that America's first mainline Protestant denomination to reject the sexual revolution spoke and spoke rather clearly on Tuesday in St. Louis.
Perhaps the most important action undertaken by this General Conference was not to shut down the liberal option but to shut down the moderating option, the compromised option in the middle. It took enormous conviction and fortitude for the delegates to this special General Conference not to go with the advice the admonition, the urging of the bishops of the church, to accept that compromise, that local option. The fact that it was so soundly defeated indicates the fact that United Methodists, at least speaking to the General Conference, have said they are not going to join the sexual revolution. Not now, not ever.
The United Methodist Church is still a generally liberal denomination when you look at at least what it allows in its theological seminaries and within its clergy, but that is likely to change because what we are seeing here is what is inevitable. Eventually a church, a denomination, has to decide where it stands and once it makes that decision, there will be those who are very happy and those who are very angry. The happy and the angry are unlikely, under current conditions, to stay together for long.
Going back to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, there was a similar dynamic within the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Conservatives won during those decades and the more liberal factions, churches, and even associations of churches eventually severed their relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. We are likely to see something very similar now in the United Methodist Church, but it's easier for churches to leave a Baptist Convention because we believe in local church autonomy. Local churches, they define their own ministry, they own their own property.
In the connectionalism of the United Methodist Church, the congregation does not even own its own property. Provisions were made in the option that was approved by the General Conference to allow for the exit of congregations that intend now to leave the church on the left but it's not at all clear how that's going to be worked out, and in any event, it is going to be extremely messy.
It's also true that conservatives within the United Methodist Church still face daunting challenges, but we shouldn't miss that what happened at the General Conference really is of importance in the history of the Christian church. The very fact that one last mainline Protestant denomination of the historically liberal Protestant churches in the United States said no to the sexual revolution, after every other of the major Protestant mainline denominations has said yes.
The Southern Baptist Convention for example, was never numbered among those mainline Protestant denominations, but the United Methodist Church was. The question is for how long now will that be true? That liberal Protestant world is enthusiastically devoted to the sexual revolution in its fullness. The United Methodist Church, by the vote that took place yesterday, is not going in that direction. Thus, it is unlikely that the denomination as a whole will continue to be a part of mainline Protestantism. The church is certainly likely to split with liberals identifying with mainline Protestantism and with conservatives increasingly identifying with historic Christian orthodoxy.
Placed in historic terms what took place yesterday in the United Methodist Church was not only surprising, it was stunning. It contradicts the wisdom of the wise. It should give hope to all biblically minded Christians and it should remind all of us of what we must always clearly see and that is that there is no way for any church or congregation to move ahead in two contradictory directions at once. Eventually the choice comes down to faithfulness to the scriptures or the abandonment of the scriptures. A historic denomination that had been known over decades for trying to find a middle way found the middle way disappearing in its midst as the church met in St. Louis. When it comes to the clear teachings of scripture, there really is no middle ground and that's not just true for the Methodists.
Why Christians understand that equality of males and females does not necessitate women entering military draft
Next, considering where we stand as a country, an important story headlined at USA Today, "All males military draft ruled illegal." Gregory Korte reporting for USA Today tells us a federal judge in Texas has declared that an all male military draft is unconstitutional ruling that, "the time has passed for debate on whether women belong in the military." As USA Today tells us, the decision deals the biggest legal blow to the selective service system since the Supreme Court upheld the draft registration process in 1981. In that case, the court ruled that a male only draft was fully justified because women were ineligible for combat roles.
Now here's where we have to note, that is simply no longer the case. Activism on the part of women and those who have sought to transform the United States military has led to the fact that during the Obama Administration, it was declared that women would be eligible for all roles within the United States military, including combat. As we discussed early on The Briefing at the time, what was billed as a great gain for the equality of women was actually a great blow to human dignity in seeking to erase any distinction between men and women, even to the point of putting women into combat, as if that is natural and it is good, and it is also the case that as we look at this decision handed down by a federal judge, it follows the very logic that we have seen coming together for some time.
The logic is this, limiting the draft or registration for the draft to young men would be justified if only young men could be placed into combat. If indeed women are now eligible, that's an interesting word for it, to be in combat, then it is unconstitutional, unfair, and illogical for young men only to be registered for selective service and not young women. But here's where we need to note another very pervasive and pernicious logic. We had the language of equality used in order to argue for the inclusion and eligibility of women in all kinds of combat units and thus, in combat itself, but we made very clear at the time what anyone knowledgeable about the situation would have to know and eventually concede.
If women legally and constitutionally are understood to be eligible for combat, then they are just as likely, on the same legal grounds, to be put into combat against their will as young men. To put the matter just as simply as possible, young men in so many cases and virtually every single American military action have often been placed into harms way, into combat, not by their will but by conscription. Now that hasn't been true for the last several decades since America has been served by an all volunteer military, but throughout most of America's history, whenever there came a major war, the conscription of men was necessary. It was legally mandated and to the exclusion of women.
The argument was that only young men can be conscripted and forced into combat but once you make the argument that women must be, on the basis of equality, included in the fact that they can volunteer, then legally there is no limitation on the fact that eventually if they can volunteer for combat, they will be conscripted into combat. After all, the logic of simple equality is the logic of equality.
The Christian worldview understands that this is one of the reasons why equality is not always the right moral standard, certainly not the right legal standard to use. All human beings, male and female, are equally made in the image of God, yes, but equal does not mean same, and when it comes to male and female, it also means different. That is why a biblical understanding of the relationship between men and women and the proper roles of men and women is described as complementarianism, complimentary roles when you look at men and at women, not sameness. If equality means sameness, then we will have the absolute meltdown of all moral meaning.
As I stated just a few weeks ago in discussing women in combat on The Briefing, if indeed we are told that sameness is the new rule, then how might it be possible morally to justify when a ship is sinking that women and children should be put first into the life boats. In the decision that made the front page of USA Today, Judge Gray H. Miller of the Federal District Court in the Southern District of Texas went on to say in a declaratory judgment, "While historical restrictions on women in the military may have been justified in the past, women are now similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft."
The judge's words are absolutely clear. If women can be in combat then they will be in combat on the same basis as men if indeed there is a renewal of the draft. It is also interesting to note that there is currently operational, what is known as the National Commission on Military National and Public Service, which is studying the draft system and as the New York Times reports, "is considering whether it should continue and whether women should be included."
Joe Heck, the Chairman of the Commission, told USA Today back in January, "Personally, I don't think we will remain with the status quo, but where we end up on the spectrum is yet to be determined." But in any event, in fairly short order, we are about to determine whether the American people are ready, not only for their sons to be registered for the draft, but for their daughters to be equally registered, and if equally registered, then equally ready to be called up for involuntary combat duty.
Today at the United States Supreme Court there will be oral arguments in an extremely important case having to do with religious liberty. Tomorrow we will look at the course of those oral arguments and the issues that are at stake.
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