Tuesday, March 5, 2019
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, March 5, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
In the wake of last week’s vote to affirm biblical sexuality, theologically-liberal United Methodists are deciding their next move: stay or go?
Last week, we looked at good news out of the United Methodist Church a special general conference called to deal conclusively with the issues of LGBTQ challenge to the Methodist Church and frankly to all churches. The background to that is the fact that the United Methodist Church founded as the United Methodist Church in 1968 has been rightly classified generally as a liberal protestant denomination. That's what made the decision last week in St. Louis at the special general conference so important, by a very decisive, though thin majority. The United Methodist Church through its delegates to the General Convention upheld the church's historic teaching that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. It upheld its law a discipline of the church that says that openly gay ministers may not be ordained and may not serve and that the church does not recognize marriage as any other relationship than the union of a man and a woman.
Now, all of that is absolutely shocking. If you had mentioned to most observers just a couple of years ago that the United Methodist Church would take a stand for historic Christian Biblical teaching on sexuality it would hardly have been believable, it requires an explanation. And I explained last week the historical developments that led to this moment, it includes most of all the fact that the United Methodist Church opened itself to international churches becoming a part of the denomination and almost all of the growth in the denomination has been in the so-called Global South particularly in Africa and in selected Asian nations such as the Philippines.
And to put the matter just as bluntly as possible those churches are whole heartedly opposed to the sexual revolution. They are not going along with the redefinition of morality or the redefinition of marriage. And because those are the churches that have been growing they have also been growing in influence. But the reason we're coming back to this story today is not just to rehearse what happened in St. Louis but to put it in a larger context of the challenges faced by American churches and American denominations.
And one of the things we need to note is that the liberals who styled themselves the progressive in these churches or denominations they're not going away, that was made abundantly clear in major news coverage over the weekend. For example an article in The New York Times by Elizabeth Dias includes these words, "Across the country progressive United Methodist are reeling from Tuesday night's vote as their conservative brethren celebrate churches like foundry that's Foundry United Methodist Church located in Washington D.C. famously a very liberal congregation."
Those churches says, "The New York Times are faced with difficult decisions." Well and even more blunt assessment came over the weekend from the Wall Street Journal, the reporter in this case as Ian Lovett. He reported, "While some progressive congregations say they are considering leaving the United Methodist Church, others are preparing something of a rebellion." Indeed, given the parlance of modern movements and moral direction a resistance has now been formed within the United Methodist Church, but the background to this is also important, that church is so divided at the level of its leadership, that if the conservatives won as they did, the liberals are likely to lead or to resist and had the liberals won, the conservatives almost certainly would have left.
Now, you'll notice I made a distinction there. The liberals because the conservatives won are now going to have to decide if they are going to leave or if they are going to resist. The conservatives made very clear going into the general convention that if they lost, if a liberal position prevailed they would leave one way or another no threat to resist, they were going to leave."
But there's a story behind that too. Going back to 1968, conservatives especially in the United States more evangelical Christians within the United Methodist Church have been in the minority at least when you look at the bureaucracy of the church and they have also been on the defensive.
But this is where the story gets really interesting, a recent survey taken by the United Methodist Church of its membership its lay membership revealed that 44% identify as traditional conservative, 28% as moderate centrist, only 20% as progressive liberal. What's the lesson there? Well, there's a distinction in so many of these churches mainline Protestant denominations between the membership and the elite that bureaucratically run the denomination. And that's something you find throughout the larger society as well. As you look at much of higher education the leading edge of liberalism is generally found amongst the faculty and not only amongst the faculty, amongst the most elite of the faculty.
Now when you start looking at how social change happens, you'll understand that many of these liberal nominations became liberal, not at all because of pressure from the grassroots membership but because of progressive as they would style themselves liberal leadership at the level of the denomination's bureaucracy.
By the way, a symbolic action along those lines took place within hours of the general conference went on the sign outside the United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., a pro LGBTQI inclusion statement all of a sudden arrived. That was an act of defiance by a bureaucracy against its own church.
The articles by Ian Lovett and Elizabeth Dias indicate that across the country liberal churches within the United Methodist Church are making clear their own resistance. They're making plans, article after article, coming from places like Washington state but even North Carolina another more Southern states indicating that though this problem is certainly concentrated in more liberal areas such as the West Coast and the Northeast it is not limited.
There are many United Methodist congregations and major cities and near campuses that likewise reflect to that kind of liberalism. But another important issue for us to keep in mind is that this denomination that became the United Methodist Church by merger in 1968, it has always been marked by a theological disequilibrium.
There has always been an awkward melding together of liberals and conservatives and it begs the question as to how united the United Methodist Church has ever been. But that raises larger questions about church unity, some of the arguments that were made you may remember that at the General Conference there were three major options. One of them was the traditional option, that's the option that eventually won. One was a quite liberal option and then there was a middle option known as the one church plan.
The most important issue here is that, that one church plan would have kept the United Methodist Church united according to the plan but would have allowed local conferences and congregations to take whatever position they chose on this issue. Now, that's actually incompatible with any kind of theological doctrinal or moral unity but nonetheless it would have perpetuated a certain kind of organizational unity and that was what the bishops sought overwhelmingly as their own preferred option but the bishops got voted down.
But here's where the story is also extremely interesting in considering observations that were made about the United Methodist Church going years back. For example, if you go back to the 1980s, a couple of professors at the Duke Divinity School came out with an argument that the United Methodist Church even then was not one Church a United Methodism but with seven different churches. They argued that the differences even the theological differences in the church were largely geographical.
They identified the seven churches as the Yankee Church in the Northeast, the industrial Northeast church the Western church the Frontier church and the Midwest church. The two final the church south and the Southwest church. It has been in the south, first of all the American south but then the global south that the membership losses have not been experienced as in other regions of the United Methodist Church, and instead whatever membership gains have been experienced, that's where they were found.
But as you look at that study about the seven churches and I'm indebted to Terry Mattingly of Get Religion for references to that study, it's most important for recognizing that the theological tensions that were evident at the General Conference in St. Louis have been there traceable even back to the 1980s and some would argue back to 1968.
But the most important divide has been between liberals and conservatives Lyle Schaller, the late scholar of United Methodism pointed out back in the 1990s, "One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. He went on to say it's hard to find a safe happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis."
Now, let's be clear it's the conservative evangelicals who have been arguing that the church has cancer it's the liberals who've been arguing not only against the diagnosis of cancer but rejecting all calls for surgery Schaller's genius was in recognizing, "It's hard to find a safe happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis." And there would have to be some diagnosis of what brought the United Methodist Church to that general conference last week. It takes another kind of skill to predict where the church is going.
In anticipation of that special general conference, two United Methodists, Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton, wrote a book asking whether or not United Methodist are really united. The title of their book, "Are We Really Better?" They answered the question, "It is our contention we are not and not simply because we have different views regarding sexuality and marriage. Our differences go deeper to some of the foundational questions of what it means to be the church, is Jesus Christ the only way to God? Is his death on the cross the only means for salvation? Are the Scriptures fully inspired and authoritative for revealing God's will and binding on how we should live? We believe the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, while others in the church would answer differently. The painful truth is that we cannot agree. They wrote on these central matters of our faith."
Now here is a fundamental issue that intelligent Christians need to note, it is disagreement on these fundamental issues that commands our attention. A church that is confused and facing a crisis over sexual morality can only get there by avoiding or losing previous battles that should have been fought over these fundamental doctrines. If a church is confused about whether or not Jesus is the only savior, you can count on the fact that in a secular age they are going to be confused about sexual morality.
But we need to notice which comes first as the fundamental confusion that produces the sexual morality confusion, it doesn't work the other way around. Before the general conference 93 presidents have historically related United Methodist institutions, they included universities such as Duke University, Emory University, Boston University, the American University in Washington D.C. along with a constellation of smaller historic United Methodist schools.
The presidents unanimously called upon the general conference to adopt the liberal position, no real surprise there. But it is really interesting that we look back to a figure such as David Steinmetz, the late Professor Steinmetz was a professor of historical theology at the Duke University Divinity School, one of those very schools. But David Steinmetz was an honest historian and back in the year 2005, he made a very important observation.
He wrote, "In the end it is not just about sex, it is about the moral and religious framework within which sexual issues can be decided. For liberals and conservatives alike," he wrote, "sex is the concrete and visible sign of a series of theoretical and less obvious disagreements over central matters of faith." That's the very same point made by those other authors. Steinmetz continued, "When Christian tradition repeats the biblical prohibition of gay sex, it confirms for conservatives their conviction that the issue is not in doubt. This band belongs to what is timeless and unchangeable in Christian sexual ethics rather than to what is time bound and mutable."
Later he wrote for liberals the consecration of an openly gay bishop is the prophetic act of a church accepting the full implications of its gospel. Importantly, he concluded conservatives and liberals differ in their strategies for reading the Bible. Their conception of religious authority, their grasp of the central tenets of the Christian gospel and their image of the essential nature of the church.
Religious disagreements among Christians he wrote, "Don't get more serious than this." But he made another observation, "Moderates would like to find a safe middle ground between these two competing positions." Unfortunately he wrote, "There isn't one." There wasn't such a position in 2005. There's not a position now. There never has been. There never will be. Not on an issue to which the Scripture speaks so clearly which the Christian church has understood unanimously for over 2000 years and which fits within the larger context of biblical theology.
We are looking at an issue on which the Scripture is clear and thus the issue is clear, it comes down to obedience or disobedience. It comes down to whether or not we're going to obey or disobey the Bible. And that means we need to look at figures such as Adam Hamilton, he's the pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the United States is located in Kansas. He has suggested he's not a conservative that all of the texts of the Bible including the text about human sexuality they need to be divided he says, "Into three different buckets." The first bucket would be made up of texts that were never, he says, "The expression of God's will."
The second bucket would be made up of texts from the Bible that were at one time expressive of God's will but not now. And third he said, "There are some that are true expressions of God's will and always will be." Now, notice the biggest problem there. Well the most fundamental problem is that it is a denial of the full authority the inerrancy and inspiration of the word of God.
The audacity even of saying that there are some texts in the Bible that never were true expressions of God's will, that is beyond audacious but it's also audacious to look at the framework of the reasoning that is required here. If indeed there are these three different buckets, then someone's going to have to decide which text belongs in which bucket. That's a huge problem. That means that you are going to be dependent upon some kind of intellectual elite to decide which text, which Bible verse belongs in which bucket. You can count on this.
The people who are making the decisions are going to put the text they don't like in the bucket, that means that these texts once expressed God's will but not anymore or never did. They're not going to put the text they don't like in the bucket that says, "This is God's will and always will be." This kind of hermeneutic or approach to Scripture is the worst kind of a bucket list but it is a sign of disaster for a church.
A church that decides to treat Scripture that way is a church that is absolutely determined to enter into the kind of confusion we see reflected in the United Methodist Church but this takes us back to something else. And in this sense taking a step further back from United Methodism and looking at Methodism as a movement, it raises a very fundamental issue of theological method and the method has a name. Methodism has been very proud of what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral arguably going back to John Wesley himself.
It also has roots in the Anglicanism from which Methodism emerged. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral argues that if you think of a square that quadrilateral, the four sides represent the four different authorities in doing theology, and making doctrinal decisions in the church. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral says that the four sides are Scripture reason experience and tradition.
Now, let's just step back for a moment. All four of those do have influence in our lives and in our thinking. Scripture, reason, experience and tradition. What's the problem? The problem is that from a biblical orthodox evangelical position you're not looking at a quadrilateral. This is where Luther helps us, Martin Luther the great Protestant reformer of the 16th century he referred to Scripture as you're going to love this Latin, norma normans non normata. What was Luther saying?
He says the Scripture is the norm of norms that can't be normed. In other words, it doesn't belong on a list with other authorities. It is the norm of norms because it is the word of God, it trumps every other authority. If you're going to start out with a theological method that says that you have four roughly symmetrical religious authorities, then Scripture just becomes a part of the quadrilateral.
Scripture can be trumped by other influences and authorities. That's a fatal problem from the very beginning, and thus as we are observing what is taking place within the United Methodist Church we understand that it's not just a matter of history, it is also a matter of theological method. A reminder to all Christians that if indeed we are a Scriptural people then the Bible trumps every other authority. I'll go back to Luther because I love the way he put it: norma normans non normata, the norm of norms that can't be normed. If the Bible is the norm you can't get into the quandary of asking whether or not the Scripture applies to the church in all places at all times forever.
Parties for the dead? What new alternatives to the Christian funeral reveal about our increasingly secular society
But next, we shift to another very interesting indication of where we are in a secularizing age. The Wall Street Journal ran a major story yesterday entitled The Free-Form Funeral. The subhead in the article Led by baby boomers, families are turning to personalized and symbolic memorials to bid farewell to loved ones. Clare Ansberry is the reporter in the story and she tells us that baby boomers are leading an effort to take a different approach than their parents and grandparents when it comes to funerals or memorial services or some kind of related ceremony.
She writes, "They are instead choosing individualized and symbolic memorials. The party with a punk rock band for a tattoo artist or a gathering at an airport hangar for the devoted mechanic." Jimmy Olsen spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association said, "It's more about a life lived than a ritual of religion."
Now, we have been looking over and over again on the briefing to this pattern as we've seen it over the last several years in a secularizing society it's interesting. One of the first changes comes in the rituals for the dead. Now, to put the matter as clearly as we can think here, if you are in a Christian society, a Christian funeral and the traditions of a Christian funeral are the norm.
The very article that appears here in the Wall Street Journal indicates that norm is no longer the norm. Now, you have an entire growth industry in innovative ways of sending off the dead or memorializing them. But the important issue here is that even Jimmy Olsen of the National Funeral Directors Association recognize that this is really a part of the secularization of the culture. He didn't put it that way. He just said this, "It's more about a life lived than a ritual of religion."
Just a couple of years ago looking at the incredible secularization that is taking place in the United Kingdom, an Anglican priest said, "We used to see members of the community at least at funerals but now they are not even holding funerals." And that's an indication of the displacement of Christianity in a society that if known for anything, was known for its traditions of funerals according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. But in a secular society you don't need a funeral, all you need is some kind of sendoff and instead of following the structures of for instance Christianity, instead you just come up with something individual.
It's also the answer of a consumer society to a new marketing opportunity creating an entire new growth industry of do it yourself, creative, clever kinds of death rituals. As the article continues Ansberry tells us, "These non-traditional events have given rise to funeral celebrants who custom designed memorials from anywhere from $250 to $1000."
Pam Vetter a Certified Funeral Celebrant in Los Angeles says she decided to go into the field after her sister died of cancer and the pastor of their church refused to show a farewell video. Ms. Vetter we are told has a podium speaker system and CD player that she brings in to hold memorials and gardens homes and onboard yachts.
The pull between the old and the new we are told leaves some unsettled. Repeatedly on the briefing I've also gone to the fact that hand-in-hand with secularization is the increasing popularity of cremation. Interestingly in this article cremation also appears, "Even his rules are shed some constants remain." William Hoy, a grief counselor and Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University urges people not to delay memorials too long which can happen when someone is cremated.
He remembers one daughter who wanted a spring memorial for her mother who had died before Christmas. The older woman's friends were unsettled, "The problem is you put everyone's grief on hold." Now again that's just interesting, pointing out that cremation by its very destruction of the body it changes the entire context of a funeral, there is now no longer the need to schedule the funeral soon after the death. You can just put the urn on the shelf and decide you're going to hold the memorial at some indefinite point in the future.
Again, that is a minor change in the culture you might say but it reflects a massive change in the theological worldview. One final thought before leaving this story, as you look at the history of funerals in the Christian faith, it's really interesting that throughout most of Christian history the eulogy as we call it now would have been absent, most Christian funerals throughout the 20 plus centuries now of Christian experience would have been centered on a very specific set of actions and texts read in worship, certain prayers and other structures.
But in the modern invention has been the eulogy, but that's one thing. When we're looking at this story we're being told that the structure of the funeral and the entire theological worldview is now being left entirely behind and also for that matter is the eulogy. Now, it's a matter of a party held in a hanger on board a yacht, or another demonstration of some kind of self-expression in this case at least orchestrated, something that was believed to be the self-expression of the now deceased. But the big point here is that when a change like this happens, it points once again to something more fundamental.
Former VP Joe Biden learns that in an age of heightened political division even describing a political opponent as ‘decent’ is now unacceptable
But finally even as former Vice President Joe Biden is expected soon to announce that he will be a candidate for the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination he's been in trouble. Now, the former vice president has been in trouble for things he has said many times in the past.
But in this case, he is in trouble for speaking about another vice president. In this case, the current vice president of the United States Mike Pence in describing the current vice president as "a decent guy". When former Vice President Biden described current Vice President Mike Pence as a decent guy, it led to a massive controversy and within hours it led to the former vice president to apologize for ever having been so insensitive as to have called Mike Pence the vice president a decent guy. The Washington Post Eugene Scott tells us, "Former Vice President Joe Biden prides himself on his bipartisan relationships. But last week Biden's mild praise of one Trump administration official became a political liability."
Chad Griffin President of the Human Rights Campaign and LGBTQ Activist Organization said, "Mike Pence has made a career out of attacking the rights and equal dignity of LGBTQ people women and other marginalized communities." Similar statements came from other LGBTQ activists including Cynthia Nixon who is an actor and a Democrat openly gay. She ran for New York's governor in 2018. She tweeted, "Joe Biden you've just called America's most anti-LGBT elected leader a decent guy? Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community."
Biden almost immediately went into full retreat stating, "You're right, Cynthia. I was making a point in a foreign policy context then under normal circumstances a vice president wouldn't be given a silent reaction on the world stage. But there's nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights," and that includes the vice president. Now folks that's what a classic immediate retreat under political fire looks like when done by a classic politician, and that's what Joe Biden is.
He's been around for a very long time, he's been around going back to the backslapping days in which major politicians encouraged one another to say about each other that they weren't decent guys. But all that is gone in the current maelstrom of today's politics, in which no one is a decent guy unless he's your decent guy.
But the point for intelligent Christians is to understand how this kind of social pressure amounting to social coercion builds now almost immediately in the social media age. This kind of retreat used to at least require some passage of days and weeks before. Now, it is just minutes and seconds. Anyone who wants the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination had better be careful to follow that Twitter feed, just in case there is someone calling for an immediate retraction of something that is now politically unacceptable.
The other interesting thing about Joe Biden is that for most of his career he's been pretty much on the establishment left of the Democratic Party. But if he indeed joins the 2020 race for the Democratic Presidential Nomination almost everyone in the race already is announcing that they are considerably to the former vice president's left. This is the pace of moral change in modern America. If you need a direct testimony just ask Joe Biden.