briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, April 29, 2019

It’s Monday, April 29, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

United Methodist court upholds the majority of the traditional plan that affirms biblical sexuality: Will the liberal churches now exit the denomination gracefully?

The United Methodist Church made big news back in February and it did again last Friday. In February, in a special conference of the church, the United Methodists became the first major mainline Protestant denomination to confirm and hold fast a biblical understanding of marriage, sex, gender identity, and the definition of marriage. This came something as a shock, although it was the answer to prayers on the part of so many Christians, most importantly inside the United Methodist Church. It indicated something that had been building for years and that is, that even though in the United States the denomination had shifted in a more liberal position over the last several decades, it had also expanded its membership worldwide and most of the growth in the denomination is coming from Africa and Asia, for example, in the Philippines.

It was conservative representatives from those very churches who offered the decisive margin that was necessary to join with evangelicals and more conservative United Methodists in the United States, to uphold the churches decades-old policies concerning the definition of marriage. The requirements of clergy when it comes to sexuality and marriage. This was simply a massively important vote and United Methodists became the very first mainline Protestant denomination that refers to the historically more liberal denominations of establishment Protestantism to withstand the demand to normalize LGTBQ relationships, to recognize and ceremonialize same-sex marriage, to change the definition of the moral requirements for ministry and furthermore, to transform at the most fundamental level, the church’s understanding of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships and behaviors.

But that was the big headline news from February. What was the headline news from Friday? It comes down to this. The entire decision, the vote undertaken, the policy approved by the special general conference was up for review by the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. That amounts to something like what takes place in the United States, where a law that has been passed by congress and signed into effect by a president of the United States, is later reviewed by the Supreme Court upon some kind of question or appeal. The Supreme Court can strike down the law in full or it can strike down the law in part. That’s exactly what happened on Friday. But make no mistake, it was another huge victory for conservatives within the United Methodist Church.

Jeremy Steele, reporting for Christianity Today, tells the story this way, “Millions of United Methodists have been waiting and wondering where their denomination will ultimately land in a decades-long dispute over gay marriage and clergy, and if a major split over the issue is imminent or if the debate will continue at its general conference, once again, next year. The next senate, though the United Methodist Church voted in February to keep its traditional marriage stance barring congregations or conferences from performing same-sex ceremonies or ordaining gay clergy, whether that policy took effect in 2020 in the US depended on approval from the church’s Judicial Council, which released its decision Friday afternoon. And the decision from the nine member council was to strike down seven of the seventeen policy items adopted by the general conference but to affirm ten.”

That’s the massively important news here, because the appeal that had been made to the Judicial Council was to strike down the entire decision of the general conference, known as the affirmation of the Traditional Plan. And to do so by means of a declaratory decision. That would be something like a preliminary injunction striking down the law before it could ever take effect. In this case, striking down the traditional plan in whole, not just in respective parts. But the Judicial Council did strike down seven of the points. The 10 that remain, however, are the most important in defining the churches biblical understanding on human sexuality, the expectations of clergy, and of course the definition of marriage. The specifics of what were upheld is really, really important. The traditional plan that was voted in by the general conference defines a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a person who is, “Living in a same sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual.”

As Emily McFarlan Miller reported for Religion News Service, “The plan bars bishops from consecrating, ordaining, or commissioning self-avowed practicing homosexuals, even if they have been elected or approved by the appropriate church body. It prohibits those bodies from approving or recommending them as candidates as well.” Furthermore, the traditional plan as approved and as sustained by the Judicial Council also affirms and amplifies the current procedures and penalties found in the United Methodist Churches basic book of doctrine and discipline. It’s known as the Book of Discipline. And thus, a member of the clergy who performs the same-sex marriage will face a suspension without pay for the first defense and a loss of clergy credentials for the second. That might appear to be rather tepid when compared to more evangelical denominations. But let’s just note this is a very important move counter to the general direction of mainline liberal Protestantism. This is the very first victory that conservatives have ever gained in one of those denominations, when a denomination have gone so far as to have openly gay bishops, clergy define the Book of Discipline of the church by marrying same-sex couples and furthermore, transgender clergy and clergy themselves. Ministers of the United Methodist Church who were themselves entering into same-sex unions.

The official doctrine of the United Methodist Church for decades has defined homosexual behavior as contrary to biblical teaching and tradition. It has made very clear the condemnation of same-sex behaviors. And of course, when it comes down to it, the formalization of those same-sex behaviors in relationships, including same-sex marriage or civil unions. But you have seen United Methodist on the left defy that Book of Discipline of the church, defy the standing doctrine of the Church, and seek to push the church by their own activism to the left following the example of the other mainline liberal Protestant denominations. And furthermore, they had been doing so in direct contradiction to and disobedience to the Book of Discipline and their own ministerial vows. And they had been getting away with it for decades, especially intensely over the last 10 years.

But now you’re looking at a seismic effect, you’re looking at an earthquake within the United Methodist Church. And unsurprisingly, those who are rejecting the vote and they are rejecting the decision of the Judicial Council, they are announcing that they are going to continue to defy the teaching of their church and dare the United Methodist Church to act against them. Of course, they’re styling themselves as the resistance. And that follows a similar pattern we see elsewhere in the culture. But the big news here is that the resistance is having to resist a conservative affirmation rather than the opposite. That’s unprecedented in modern American mainline Protestant history.

But there was even more to the news that came out of the meeting of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church on Friday, there were actually two actions and they were separate. One was to uphold in the main the traditional plan that was approved by the general conference, and the second action was to approve a measure known as the “Gracious Exit.” That’s also extremely important. The fundamental reality is that the United Methodist Church is not going to be able to hold together. It is not going to be a United Methodist Church. The polarities within the denomination are simply too great.

Looking back to 1968, when the denomination was forged out of previous denominations coming together, the strings were already there. Conservative and liberal trajectories were already clear within the denomination, but they were at least able to hold themselves together by a form of institutional loyalty for decades. It’s clear that that’s over. It’s not going to continue. Had the liberals won, the conservatives would have left. The conservatives won, and now the liberals are likely to leave. But we need to note a couple of other issues. But first, let’s just look at the “Gracious Exit.” This means that the United Methodist Church, and here it is broken up into conferences that are the regional representations of the denomination. The denomination owns the church buildings of individual congregation. The congregations build the church buildings, but due to reversionary clauses, they actually belong to the denomination itself.

This means that for years in the mainline Protestant denominations, conservative churches that built their own conservative facilities, some of them absolutely grand, have been trapped within the denomination, and if they did for the sake of biblical orthodoxy leave those denominations, they often had to leave the properties that they had bought and built themselves behind. The United Methodist Church is adopting what’s known as a “Gracious Exit” plan. Is going to allow churches to leave the denomination and to take their properties and buildings with them. That isn’t the gracious, it’s a graciousness absent from the liberal denominations like the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church USA, along with some other denominations who simply either kicked conservative congregations out or their property or made them buy the property back at exorbitant prices. Effectively, a form of ransom.

But one of the big lessons we’re going to have to see here and one of the issues we’re going to have to watch very closely is whether or not, the liberal faction tries to come back in the 2020 General Conference. It’s held every four years in the United Methodist Church, and to require another vote to retake what they had lost. To try to reverse the decision of this special general conference that after all, was called back years ago in order to resolve the issue within the United Methodist Church. The big lesson here, liberals never give up. They simply never do. Especially on the LGBTQ issues, but also in the general doctrinal issues. You can see this in denomination after denomination.

You saw this very clearly in the early 20th century, when Protestant liberalism began to make its presence in virtually all of those mainstream denominations. One by one, they fell. When the liberals were defeated, they simply went back to their seminaries and divinity schools and then came back again. They’re going to do the same thing in the United Methodist Church and this is not reading their minds, this is just reading their words. They have said that is exactly what they want to do.

But there’s another final issue on the United Methodist front I want us to observe in the Nashville, Tennessee. Just a few days before the action of the Judicial Council, a woman by the name of Whitney Buchanan wrote a guest column for the paper. And in it she basically demands that the United Methodist Church take a re-vote on the same sex marriage ban and all the related issues in the traditional plan that was adopted. She says, “As a member of the United Methodist Church for 15 years still laying claim to the host and conference.” She says more specifically, “A small church in East Tennessee with a pastor who fully supports the LGBTQ+ community. I was deeply saddened and ashamed to hear the church’s decision to turn their backs on some of the most marginalized members of our global society.” She goes on to demand that there be a re-vote, and then she says, “If the church refuses to do so, I along with many other members will willingly leave, as I do not want to belong to a religious entity that aims to indirectly or possibly directly harm the lives of the people I love.” She then goes on to define exactly what that means, but you’ve already figured that out.

Later in her article she says, “I refuse to belong to a church that does not support same-sex marriage and fully support LGBTQ+ clergy members.” She says that she refuses to belong to such a church, and yet she’s told us that she has belonged to such a church for 15 years. The United Methodist Church did not adopt back in February a new doctrine. It affirmed its existing doctrine. Here’s the kind of argument that the moral and doctrinal revolutionaries use over and over again. I refuse to be a member of a church that believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. I refuse to be a member of a church that believes in the substitutionary atonement. I refuse to be a member of a church that believes in the necessity of confessing the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I refuse to be a member of a church that refuses to sanction and celebrate same sex marriage. You go on and on. Look how often those statements are made by people who are and have been members of such denominations for a very long time. That was true in denomination after denomination. It’s sadly but revealingly evident and the response to that special UMC General Conference in February.

You have people declaring that they simply refuse to be a member of a church that believes what the United Methodist Church has believed, virtually from the very beginning. And on a policy that declares homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching, is simply affirming what the church has believed for decade after decade. The decades in which most of those people took their own ministerial vows that went to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, which they now say they evidently never intended to do.

I will end looking at the United Methodist Good News on Friday, by observing that that second policy is known as the “Gracious Exit.” The denomination’s Judicial Council was now affirmed the policy of a “Gracious Exit.” Now it’s going to be very interesting to see if the liberals in the church indeed exit gracefully.

Part II

The culture of death gains ground in Kansas as the state’s Supreme Court blocks law that would have limited abortions: The danger of an unrestrained government

Next, we’re going to shift to Kansas, another absolutely massive headline that came last Friday, Sabrina Tavernise and Campbell Robertson reporting to the New York Times tell the story this way, “The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday, blocked a law that would have banned the most commonly used procedure for second trimester abortions, arguing that the state constitution protected the right of women to ‘decide whether to continue a pregnancy.” It wasn’t a close decision, it was a 6-1 majority. The massive impact of this case, its importance comes down to the fact that the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday handed down a decision based upon the Kansas constitution. Not the Constitution of the United States, no reference here to the Roe v. Wade decision. Instead, the Kansas Supreme Court said that according to the Kansas constitution, a woman in Kansas has a right to an abortion indeed, to the procedure known as D&E or dilation and evacuation.

As the reporter for The Times tells us, “At the heart of the Kansas decision is a 2015 law, that would ban so called dilation and evacuation procedures, a common method of abortion in the second trimester, in which a physician uses surgical instruments and other equipment such as suction devices to take the fetus out of the woman’s uterus.” What’s missing from that description is the fact that the physician is using those instruments in order to dismember the unborn baby, in order then, and only then, to suction the remains of the baby in its various parts out of the woman’s womb. That’s not the way the paper says it, but that’s exactly what’s going on here. And it would be immoral not to describe, at least in those specific terms, the kind of procedure that was here upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court.

To call this decision breathtaking would not be an exaggeration. It caught both sides of the abortion argument in Kansas over recent decades, absolutely by surprise. Even the pro-abortion side had not even dreamed of a victory like this. It is such a sweeping victory for abortion, that it puts at risk an entire raft of laws that had helped to affirm the dignity and sanctity of unborn life in Kansas. Kansas has been on the forefront of so many abortion debates in the United States. Darkly, it had been home for a number of years to one of the few third trimester late abortion, abortion clinics in the United States based in Wichita. It has also been a state that has had an organized pro-life movement for a matter of decades and beginning in the 1970s shortly after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement began to gain ground.

And for that movement in Kansas, this is a devastating decision. But I want to turn to the coverage from National Public Radio, Dan Margolis is the reporter in this case. And even as NPR reported on the news Friday, there was a very important section of that report that demands our attention. The Supreme Court in Kansas considered and then determine the issue after it had been passed to them from lower courts, including most immediately, a Kansas Court of Appeal. In that case, there were 14 judges, the 14 judges heard the case and the court split seven, seven. But on the side of the seven, who were going to strike down the law, and thus affirm abortion. One of them was Judge Steve A. Leben. And in his opinion, in that case, he said that, “The rights of Kansas women in 2016,” that’s when that court acted, “Are not limited to those specifically intended by the men who drafted our state’s constitution in 1859.” That’s a stunning statement. It demands our close attention.

Here you have a judge saying that even though the Kansas constitution adopted in 1859, most assuredly did not intend to grant to any woman the right to an abortion, that’s a right that the court is going to find in that very constitution now. It’s a brazen acknowledgement of the fact that it was not intended and is not mentioned in the Kansas constitution. And again, that constitution goes back to 1859. And in 1859, abortion was… Yes, you guessed it illegal in the state of Kansas. But importantly, what we see here is a parallel to what we discussed on The Briefing just days ago, when we looked at the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States has now decided to take out three different cases having to do with whether or not, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to be understood now as including in the word sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, again, the entire spectrum of LGBTQ issues.

Of course, the reality is that in 1964, no one had those issues in mind, even the most ardent advocates for the LGBTQ movement, understand and acknowledge that that was not intended at the time. But they’re arguing that nonetheless, we should read into the word sex what the legislators in 1964 did not imagine. But we are told should be expected, demanded, and invented by judges now. We’re looking at invented law by courts, and we’re looking at invented rights by courts. It’s not a new pattern, but it is a pattern deadly to any form of representative democracy and constitutional government. If words don’t mean what they mean, and what they were intended to mean by those who adopted the text and they passed the law or they frame the Constitution, then the constitution, the statute, or the law means whatever anyone with sufficient power and influence can demand it means now. If we are not restrained by the meaning of words and sentences and texts, then we are fundamentally unrestrained. And that means our government is unrestrained, and there are few more deadly dangers than a government unrestrained.

Part III

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution publishes a number of opinion pieces on Georgia’s proposed abortion law: Analyzing the far-fetched arguments of pro-abortion advocates

Yesterday I was preaching in Atlanta, Georgia, and on the front page of yesterday’s edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution is this headline, “Georgia Abortion Law May Test Roe v. Wade.” Bill Rankin is the reporter for the AJC. The heartbeat bill is at stake here. It’s another one of the bills adopted by a state legislature that bans abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. And as Rankin says there are many people on both sides who believe that the law is in direct conflict with Roe v. Wade. And that’s what we’re really looking at here. It is the fact that state legislators are putting up a direct challenge to the US Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade. That’s the great pro-life hoping it has been, going back to when the Court handed down that heinous decision in 1973.

But what is most noteworthy and yesterday’s edition of the paper or the arguments that are made in a continuation of use exchanged inside the newspaper. One of the opinion columns was written by Andrea Young identified as executive director of the ACLU. That’s the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. Just listen to the language here, “If governor Brian Kemp signs the abortion ban bill,” and let’s be clear, that’s what it is. “My daughter and granddaughter would experience a Georgia that is very different from the Georgia I have known. They would experience a Georgia without reproductive freedom, a Georgia without the right to choose when and whether to start a family. This would take Georgia backwards nearly 50 years to a dangerous time.”

Notice the sleight of hand there. Notice the moral evasion there. Notice that this writer identified as the ACLU executive director doesn’t say that her daughter would know a Georgia with more restrictive abortion laws. She instead says, “It’s a Georgia without reproductive freedom.” There’s that term used again. And furthermore, a Georgia without the right to choose when and whether to start a family, as if that’s a morally effective substitute language for what really amounts to a woman demanding to kill an unborn baby that is inside of her.

But here’s where we need to recognize something. You might look at this argument and say it’s deliberately dishonest and innovative language it is. But we also have to recognize that perhaps the scariest aspect of this is that this writer really isn’t applying to us. She really doesn’t believe, at least you can see that in this article, that there is any moral significance to the unborn baby at all. The unborn baby is simply a nothing. It has no moral significance, therefore, it can be ignored. Simply euphemized, disappeared right out of the vocabulary, right out of the argument, as if the baby doesn’t exist, which is the whole point of abortion. To make certain that the baby doesn’t exist. But that’s the problem. You only need an abortion because the baby does exist.

Andrea Young also points out that George has earned a progressive reputation on so many issues including LGBTQ pride. But then she writes, “Today’s young women can only thrive in a state that protects their most basic rights, the right to choose when and whether to start a family.” Georgia, she says can’t afford to go backwards on women’s health and rights. Again, you see the moral evasion. You have abortion redefined as health. You have the entire question of abortion reduced to the ridiculous notion that it amounts to a decision as to whether or not a woman wants to start a family. Then, this is where Christians have to acknowledge just very candidly and very carefully that whatever choices might have existed prior to the conception of the baby, those choices are not morally relevant after the baby is conceived and a woman though she’s pregnant. In only the most morally confused and corrupted of societies, can choice be irrelevant category at that point.

That leads to one of the puzzling issues of the pro-abortion movement over the last generation seeking to brand themselves in a more positive direction. They insisted that they wanted to be identified not as pro-abortion but as pro-choice, as if that’s really better. But when you understand what they’re saying when they say pro-choice, it turns out to be just as dark but all the darker for evasion as the term pro-abortion.

In a third article, two authors identified as leaders with the National Organization for Women in Georgia and nationally, quoted a state legislator who spoke on CNN Jen Jordan, a Democrat of Atlanta saying, “Let me be clear, women are going to die because of this law, because they cannot get appropriate healthcare from OB-GYNs in this state.” Now what in the world will that mean? Did this law somehow make illegal OB-GYNs in Georgia? Well, of course, that’s patently absurd. It’s absolutely irrational. But it’s the kind of language that is used by those who are absolutely desperate to insist that a woman’s so called right to kill an unborn baby inside of her takes precedence over everything else. In this case, this legislature argued that doctors won’t want to practice in a state that upholds the sanctity of human life. That we might point out is also an absolute requirement of the historic Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians. It’s not the physicians who will not perform abortions who are standing outside the mainstream ethics of their profession over time. It is the doctors who do. And no matter what they try, they are not going to get over the moral stigma of being known and rightfully known as an abortion doctor.

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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