All Denominations have regular gatherings, meetings, of all recognized representatives in the denomination in order to discuss, discern and decide about the ministry and ministries of the denomination.
This year the United Methodist Church (UMC) gathers for their General Conference, their every-fourth-year meeting, from May 10-20 at the Oregon Convention Center. To understand how they made decisions, the “General Conference is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church which meets once every four years. The conference can revise church law, as well as adopt resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for church-wide programs.”
The UMC, like many other denominations, is addressing the important doctrinal matter of human sexuality. Much discussion and debate has already occurred over this issue, especially during the years since their last General Conference in 2012. At that meeting, the General Conference upheld the belief and practice in the book of Discipline, which states homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.”
What is The Book of Discipline and how is it used for those in the UMC?
The Discipline is the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves remains constant. Each General Conference amends, perfects, clarifies, and adds its own contribution to the Discipline. We do not see the Discipline as sacrosanct or infallible, but we do consider it a document suitable to our heritage. It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together. It reflects our understanding of the Church and articulates the mission of The United Methodist Church: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Discipline defines what is expected of its laity and clergy as they seek to be effective witnesses in the world as a part of the whole body of Christ.
This book of covenant sets forth the theological grounding of The United Methodist Church in biblical faith, and affirms that we go forward as “loyal heirs to all that [is] best in the Christian past.”
Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and ordained in the UMC, writes about this year’s General Conference: United Methodist General Conference and the Unity of the Church In particular he addresses one of the main issues to be brought before them this year, the issue of human sexuality. Tennent writes,
One of the proposals which will come before General Conference is to keep the current Discipline language which states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.” According to the proposal, this language is retained and remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. Then, in a strange legislative vision, it goes on to create a second level of legislation which would allow Methodist churches to legally disobey the Discipline and, with the support of their pastor and a 66% vote, formalize same-sex marriages. Likewise, annual conferences could vote and choose to ordain and appoint gay and lesbian pastors.
So, legislatively, the UMC would be put in the unenviable position of having to write legislation whereby, on the one hand, a law was established, only to be followed by another law which would allow people to disobey the earlier law. We end up with two completely different “orthodoxies”—one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One part of the church would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other part would teach that it is a sacrament. One part would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other part, a sign of wholeness. One would be referring to homosexual practice along with all other sins when we say in the Creed, “we believe in the forgiveness of sins” the other would be teaching that homosexual marriage is a “means of grace.”
This is fundamentally a matter of biblical authority and it not an issue upon which there is any via media of understanding and living out the truths of the Scriptures. There is no middle way that allows both views without compromising the authority of the Bible. Tennent observes there has been
precious little haggling over the meaning of actual texts in this struggle. The loss of energy for the real serious exegetical work has demonstrated the new meaninglessness of such an endeavor in a post-modern world where everything is possible and nothing is certain. Truth as truth (revelation) has been deposed. We are left with seemingly endless shades of personal opinion and personal preferences, all equally legitimate, with no way to adjudicate anything. So the only thing left to do is to legislate endless accommodations.
At the end of the day, Tennent, in his post The Deeper Issue Facing the United Methodist General Conference, recognizes the UMC has become “increasingly disconnected from the global Christian movement and the historic faith of the church through time.” It is the argument of the “wrong side of history,” and the notion of the necessity to be “progressive” in order to discern (update) revelation and to be relevant. The bottom line for this denomination is not votes or decisions about what to do with the Discipline. Hierarchical structure and ecclesiastical connections mean nothing, notes Tennent, “unless they are rooted in our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We seem to be losing our capacity to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ and the historic confessions of the church with clarity.” (Tenent’s views are represented by the Renewal and Reform Coalition.)
For another voice in the UMC, there was A Love Letter to Our Church from Your LGBTQI Religious Leaders written by those who are “coming out” as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex (LGBTQI) religious leaders–local pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry.” This voice reflects the other side of the debate regarding the discussion, debate and decision by the General Conference regarding the Discipline. (The views of the writers of A Love Letter are represented by the Reconciling Ministries Network.)
At these times, it is vital to remember Jesus’ promise: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). This does not mean that every local church or denomination will continue to exist. But the demise of any one local church or a denomination does not thwart Jesus’ plan, purpose and promise to build his church. “Many of the proposals before General Conference,” writes Tennent, “will focus on keeping the structural unity of the church at all cost, without any proper consideration of the real basis for unity which is the gospel itself. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. . . . If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.”
I conclude with four thoughts.
First, pray for the General Conference of the UMC. In the past many years, denominations that once affirmed and embraced biblical truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ have fallen like dominoes when addressing the issue of human sexuality and morality.
Second, remember to pray for the dear saints in the UMC who have been and remain committed to the authority of the Word of God and who desire to live faithfully in obedience to it. These moves away from the authority of the Word of God are grievous and egregious, and this is especially felt and experienced by those faithful members within the UMC. Although experiencing this drift within a different denomination, another one of those felled dominoes to have occurred earlier, this was the experience of my dear mother. And for many of those who live in smaller communities, they do not have many options regarding true gospel-created, gospel-affirming, and gospel-proclaiming churches.
Third, thank the Lord that, by God’s grace, the EFCA has remained grounded in the gospel and tethered to the text of Scripture. The Bible remains the ultimate and absolute authority in all matters related to faith and practice, history and science. And pray that as we affirm this truth with our lips and confession, we would live this truth in our lives. This is not a boast as if the EFCA is better than any other denomination. Rather, it is a recognition of how weak and dependent we are, and how great God is and how powerful the gospel is. As God says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2b).
Finally, thank the Lord that he builds his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. This is not only the Lord’s promise, it is our sure and confident hope.