By Dr. Riley Case
(Notice: This is the corrected version from the Confessing Movement.)
Another General Conference coming up for United Methodists and another showdown over the Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the practice of homosexuality. United Methodists will discuss some important matters in Tampa in April-restructuring, the budget, and the global nature of the church-but for the secular, as well as the religious press, the big news will be the decisions made around the practice of homosexuality. The pro-homosexual lobby knows that the United Methodist Church is the last of the mainline churches to hold to the Biblical view on marriage and the practice of homosexuality, and that it would greatly advance the homosexual agenda if United Methodism would compromise that stand. To that end several hundreds of thousands of dollars-much of it from outsiders not connected with the UM Church-have been poured into the lobbying effort to overturn United Methodism’s present stance.
The United Methodist position on matters related to the practice of homosexuality is clear: all persons are individuals of sacred worth; marriage is between a man and a woman; the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching. The Bible, as well as the tradition of the Church universal, is so clear about such things, that many persons are embarrassed as to why, if the UM Church is in the mainstream of world Christianity, these discussions are even taking place.
The discussions are taking place because an increasingly secular society, influenced by the weakening moral standards of the day, is moving toward the acceptance of homosexual practice and, tied to it, homosexual marriage. Secular society thinks it rigid and intolerant that there are still groups that believe that persons should be informed by religion about such things and that cultural enlightenment declares the church outdated and behind the times. Ultimately, approval of homosexual practice in society is inevitable.
What is discouraging to many of us is that there is a vocal group in the church-those who call themselves progressives-that agrees with the secular world. As one person said: “Society around us is leading the way about accepting of homosexual practice and the church is lagging behind.” This group includes some who by title and position are considered leaders: bishops, seminary professors, and board and agency staff. The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), basically an independent agency dominated by progressives, has continually sought to undermine the church’s stance in regard to the importance of the traditional family and the practice of homosexuality. The board claims that its job is to support and advance the Social Principles, but it is a selective support. One looks in vain for evidence that the board has upheld and defended the Social Principles and the Discipline in regard to matters related to the traditional family and homosexuality. At every General Conference since 1972 GBCS has submitted legislation that seeks to align the church’s stance with secular ideology.
So we come to General Conference 2012. While there are many petitions that seek to change the church’s historical stance in regard to human sexuality, three groups of petitions bear special watching.
1) Petitions that would have the church redefine marriage so that it is no longer a covenant between a man and a woman but between two persons. There is no Biblical argument nor is there any argument from tradition for this kind of redefinition. The main religious argument is an inclusion-exclusion argument: we should not deny two same-sex persons who love each other the privilege of marriage because to do so is judgmental and restrictive and for progressives being judgmental and restrictive are practically the only personal sins left to condemn. There is no nuance or compromise suggested in these petitions. They represent a power challenge. Progressives wish to command enough votes to require the church to deny its basic teaching on human sexuality and strike out in a new direction.
2) Petitions from several annual conferences would place some disclaimers in the Preamble to the Social Principles. The petitions want the preamble to state that unanimity of belief, opinion, and practice has never been characteristic of the Church. Therefore when there are significant differences of opinion in the church (such as around the practice of homosexuality), these differences should not be covered over with false claims of consensus, but embraced with courage as the people of God continue to discern God’s will. The important thing is celebrate our differences and stay together.
The logical question to ask in response to these petitions is: Why then even bother? Why have any statements of faith? Why have any Social Principles? Why appeal to any Biblical teaching? When all the chaff is blown away these petitions want us to say there are no standards. There is no right or wrong. There is no truth. Whatever is said in doctrinal standards or social principles is only a matter of opinion and therefore not authoritative and not to be forced on others.
This sort of disclaimer is the exact kind of disclaimer used by supporters of slavery in the church debates before the Civil War. As then so now. There are different opinions about slavery. The church has a statement condemning slavery but there are differences of opinion about it. The differences should not be covered over with false claims of consensus but embraced with courage as the people of God continue to discern God’s will. All are people of good faith so we will not condemn one another but mutually respect each other’s opinions.
3) The main petition from an official agency in the church, The General Board of Church and Society, would revise the entire section on human sexuality in the Social Principles. The petition says (among other things) that we remain divided about homosexual expressions of human sexuality but we seek a faithful witness together. The petition then directs the church and the world to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices “until the Spirit leads us into new insight.”
“Until the Spirit leads us into new insight’? This is an incredible petition! And this from a general agency of the church. No wonder a large portion of the church is alienated and offended by general agencies that seem so far removed from local churches. The assumption behind the statement is that whatever Scripture says, whatever church tradition holds, whatever the truth claims made by Christian groups of all times and in all places, these teachings are not adequate to serve as the basis for our moral standards. GBCS says we are waiting in these modern, secular times for the “new insights” the Spirit offers us. Evidently the last word from the secular world trumps everything claimed to this point.
How will we know when the new truth has arrived? The progressives will be glad to tell us; probably when their cause garners 51% of the vote.
Petitions like this often make reference to unity and all being people of good will and working together. This is to heap one insult upon another. When Christian faith with its appeal to Scripture is attacked and replaced with ideology based on personal preferences and subjective experience we have long departed from unity and good will and working together. We are talking about two different religions. Were the GBCS petition to pass at General Conference then a number of people would have some difficult decisions to make.
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