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Cool Church Or Faithful Church?

The United Methodist Church is meeting next week to figure out what to do about the issue of homosexuality within the institution. Despite those wanting to keep the denomination together via a “One Church” plan, Dale M. Coulter says schism seems like the least bad option. [1] Excerpts:

This is a war for the soul of the UMC. People on both sides feel strongly about their positions, and I don’t see how they can live together any longer. Progressive and traditionalist churches are pledging to leave if the outcome does not go the way they want. This includes significant churches like Mt. Horeb UMC in Lexington, South Carolina [2], the largest church in the state conference. The One Church Plan feels like a shotgun wedding when what is really needed is for both sides to walk away. The recent history of the TEC, ELCA, and the PCUSA on this same question suggests that the best way to avoid either a scorched-earth campaign or a slow death with a steady stream of churches departing is to agree to separate amicably.

As Billy Abraham points out in his call for a “Mexit,” [3] the divisions run much deeper than gay marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. There are divisions over the interpretation and authority of Scripture, the status of the Book of Discipline and the authority of the General Conference, and the mission of the church. When you cannot even agree on these fundamentals, it’s time to part ways. How could the General Conference continue to define doctrine for a church that no longer agrees on core theological principles? How can you maintain connectionalism when some believe the General Conference’s pronouncements need no longer be considered binding? How could there be a consistent theology of marriage and sexuality one way or the other?

Read the whole thing.  [1]

I also encourage you to read Methodist theologian Billy Abraham’s “Mexit” essay. [3] Excerpt:

First, the issue of human sexuality has become the most pressing issue for the church of our generation. This is not to say that it can be divorced from other crucial issues, say, of mission, ecclesial identity, ministerial orders, executive authority, epistemology, and the like. Nor it is to say that everyone would agree that it is the most important issue facing the church. We can all provide our own list of items on this score; for me, it would not be at or even near the top of my concerns. However, the crowbar of civil and church history in the West has sidelined ecclesial debates about ancillary matters. Human sexuality has become the issue of our time and anyone who cares about the future of the church cannot ignore it.

This is certainly true. Enough with the worn-out cliches about “is this what Jesus died for”? That’s a dodge, and no serious person is persuaded by it. Abraham makes a lengthy case for the United Methodist Church to split. The schism exists de facto, he argues; there’s no point in pretending that this division can be healed or tolerated. Read the whole thing. [3]

Of course I agree with him. If what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is true, then there can be no compromise within the church over it. If progressives are right, and the teaching needs to change, then from their point of view, I don’t understand why they should tolerate being in a formal communion with people who hold same-sex romantic love and the commitments that emerge from that as sinful. The progressives say the orthodox/conservative belief is unjust … and if I believed what they believe about sex and sexuality, I would have to agree with them.

The point is, whether or not you are liberal or conservative, how the church reacts to homosexuality is a really big deal. By now, as Abraham and Coulter recognize, church people have had enough time to try to talk about how to hold things together. The progressive Methodists, as Abraham acidly notes, have made it clear that they are going to do what they want to do with no regard to what the greater body of Methodism thinks. Why pretend any longer that there is unity?

Along these lines, the Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler has a good piece talking about the issue of homosexuality and the church [4], as seen through the social media argument the lesbian actress Ellen Page started with the actor Chris Pratt. She called him out for attending a Hillsong church, which she condemned as anti-LGBT. Mohler writes:

Pratt responded to Page, stating, “It has recently been suggested that I belonged to a church which hates a certain group of people and is infamously anti LGBTQ. Nothing could be further from the truth. I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone. Despite what the Bible says about my divorce, my church community was there for me every step of the way, never judging, just gracefully accompanying me on my walk. They helped me tremendously offering their love and support. It is what I have seen them do for others on countless occasions, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender. My faith is important to me, but no church defines me or my life, and I’m not a spokesman for any church or any group of people. My values define who I am. We need less hate in this world, not more. I am a man who believes that everyone is entitled to love who they want free from the judgment of their fellow man.”

That last line encapsulates the modern secular orthodoxy – “everyone is entitled to love who they want free from the judgment of their fellow man.”

Pratt’s “defense” of his church also represents the thinnest ecclesiology—a conception of the church severed from the Scriptures. He claims that “no church defines me or my life.” According to the Bible, the church does define us. Whereas Pratt denies that his church defines him, the Scriptures teach that the church founded by Christ is the family of the living God, bought by the blood of Christ, in covenant together for the cause of the Gospel. That is the vision of a biblical church. Such a church, bound together in obedience to Christ, absolutely defines a member’s life.

Mohler points out that when pro-LGBT folks called out Hillsong in the past on this issue, its leaders waffled embarrassingly. They simply don’t want to take a stand one way or the other. I have more respect for the out-front pro-gay churches. Mohler continues:

Something far more important underlines the controversy between Ellen Page, Christ Pratt, and Hillsong church. This issue isn’t about Page, Pratt, or Hillsong—it’s about you, me, and our churches. Every church will soon stand trial in the high courts of modernity. The secular storm will leave no place to hide. Hillsong gave its answer: it would rather be cool than convictional. The nod towards cultural relevance leads to theological confusion—a deliberately marketed confusion.

The controversy coming out of Los Angeles is yet another rather rude awakening for those who want a church that is simultaneously cool and Christian. That possibility evaporated long ago, when the culture decided that biblical Christianity is decidedly uncool. So, which will it be? That is the question.

Read it all.  [4]

You all know my position on Christianity and sexuality — but if not, please read this short essay I wrote in 2013, titled “Sex After Christianity”. [5] Excerpts:

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.

More:

Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.

There is no question that the Church has lost this battle in the culture. The only question now is whether or not it will lose it inside itself. If a church flips on the gay question (and on sexual morality more broadly), then it surrenders more than it can afford to. For same-sex relationships to be rightly ordered in the eyes of the God of the Bible, too many things about Christianity have to be untrue. It’s not at all merely a matter of sexual ethics, or of Scriptural authority (as important as that is). This issue is at the level of anthropology — that is, of what a human being, as a bearer of the divine image, is.

I’m not going to get into restating these arguments in the comments section. I only want to make it clear that both church progressives and church conservatives are right: homosexuality is an issue that can no longer be evaded or elided. Those who choose fidelity to Biblical truth are going to have to suffer for it. The sooner they understand this, the better.

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73 Comments To "Cool Church Or Faithful Church?"

#1 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On February 19, 2019 @ 2:22 pm

“Mohler points out that when pro-LGBT folks called out Hillsong in the past on this issue, its leaders waffled embarrassingly. They simply don’t want to take a stand one way or the other.”

These evangelical “leaders” are like the authors of the secular textbook C.S. Lewis criticized in *The Abolition of Man*–men without chests, in Lewis’s phrase.

I’m guessing these guys have never read C.S. Lewis’s non-fiction writings. Doing so at a spiritually formative age would have given them intellectual self-confidence and moral fortitude.

#2 Comment By JohnInCA On February 19, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

@Good Reason

Try The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That Church will never depart from its teaching the homosexual behavior is a sin. That Church will never sanction gay marriage.

I’m sure folks had very similar thoughts about the moral acceptability of black clergy in the 60s too.

Which isn’t to say it’ll happen, but Latter-Day Saints are unique among modern churches in that they do claim God “changes his mind” on issues, and then directly informs them of this change. And coincidentally, this has happened at least twice when it benefited the church politically. Makes it easy to be a skeptic.

#3 Comment By redbrick On February 19, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

I was under the impression that the game was almost up in the UMC.

With the Bishops and dying liberal northeastern/Pacific coast congregations on one side and the conservative stable/slightly growing Southern congregations and Exploding African congregations on the other.

I guess the Bishops and liberals of the UMC see the writing on the wall and are looking to bring things to a decisive moment now while they still have the legacy money and some of the votes.

#4 Comment By Rusty On February 19, 2019 @ 5:17 pm

Anyway, to say that marriage “is no longer a means to unite father, mother, & children in love for their protection & care” is just completely false to most if not all marriages I’ve observed. Would you really say that you and/or your own friends and relatives are not in marriages for love, protection and care, but “solely for financial & legal purposes”? And if that’s not generally true of marriages you actually know of, then what are you talking about? This is just meaningless rhetoric.

Not exactly meaningless, you just have to read between the lines:

Now that gays have access to civil marriage, it’s literally garbage.

#5 Comment By polistra On February 19, 2019 @ 6:30 pm

Back to basics.

Aristocrats and peasants are innately different. Aristocrats have always served Satan and peasants have always served God.

When the two are placed together in one organization, the aristocrats will rule because they have the money and the government connections. The only way to have a church that serves God is to separate it from the aristocrats, and ruthlessly keep the aristocrats out.

#6 Comment By Another James On February 19, 2019 @ 8:44 pm

Markus says:
February 19, 2019 at 9:52 am

I wish those people who insist that gay Christians are being directed by God toward a lifetime of involuntary celibacy would simply acknowledge how much harder that calling is than the calling of straight Christians.

Name someone who insists that gay Christians must practice “involuntary celibacy”, and then we can discuss it.

[NFR: I assume that by “involuntary celibacy,” he means “celibacy even if they don’t want to be celibate.” Which is what orthodox Christianity requires of all non-married people (and same-sex marriage is not considered to be marriage in orthodox Christianity). — RD]

#7 Comment By JonF On February 20, 2019 @ 7:10 am

Re: I’m sure folks had very similar thoughts about the moral acceptability of black clergy in the 60s too.

The LDS would have to change a lot more than just its position on homosexuality to accept homosexuality as morally equal to heterosexuality let alone to start performing SSM rites. Procreation is fundamental to the Mormon view of the religious duties of men in a way that no other religion I know of embraces. The racialist stuff was an add-on to Mormonism courtesy of Brigham Young and was not grounded in the basics of Mormon theology the way procreative relations are.

#8 Comment By Maggie Noffke On February 20, 2019 @ 8:32 am

The title “faithful” belongs to those in the church who love, support, and accept LGBTQ as they would any other. “Cold” belongs to those who continue to practice homophobia and mislabel it “faith.” Shame on them.

#9 Comment By Scott Smith On February 20, 2019 @ 8:40 am

“But remember too that Jesus had a heckuva lot more to say about rich men than he did about the gays.”

Which is not to say that he had nothing to say about them: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:20-23)

What would Jesus’ listeners have understood sexual immorality to include? Their frame of reference would have been Leviticus 18. Like Paul later, he didn’t take the opportunity to exclude anything from it.

#10 Comment By JonF On February 20, 2019 @ 9:49 am

Re: What would Jesus’ listeners have understood sexual immorality to include?

What ancient Jews thought of Jesus’ teaching is not definitive since most of them failed to accept him as the promised Messiah. Christianity is not just its ancient parent with a Risen Lord tacked onto it. It really did become (Like Paul) “all things to all men” that some might be saved.

#11 Comment By JohnInCA On February 20, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

@JonF
The bit you’re ignoring is that insisting that on this issue, the church (whichever church) absolutely cannot bend… is something folks have been sincerely and honestly claiming. For millenia.

So while I don’t doubt yours, or anyone else’s, sincerity and conviction, said sincerity and conviction isn’t unique either.

Which again, isn’t to say things will change. But writing it off as impossible is insanity.

#12 Comment By aaron On February 20, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

The deepest fault lines in our society are cultural and political: Red vs. Blue, not theological or doctrinal. It makes sense that religious institutions find themselves adjusting to this reality (as many of them once did when the fault lines were free vs. slave / North vs. South).

#13 Comment By B Henry On February 20, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

Mohler:
“This issue isn’t about Page, Pratt, or Hillsong—it’s about you, me, and our churches. Every church will soon stand trial in the high courts of modernity. The secular storm will leave no place to hide.”

It would be very beneficial for faithful Christians to read and reread the scene of the trial in Vanity Fair from Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s wonderful for clearing your vision and steeling your soul in the face of such challenges.

#14 Comment By JonF On February 20, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

Re: Which is what orthodox Christianity requires of all non-married people

Rod, this betrays deep confusion of the meaning of “celibacy” despite the fact that multiple people have explained this on multiple posts over time. If the Church required single people to be celibate, then no one would ever be able marry! Celibacy is a life-long commitment to not marry. The word you want here is of course “chaste” which is indeed a virtue for everyone. Celibacy is a heroic ascesis, like voluntary poverty or a vow of non-violence: praiseworthy, certainly (despite what the modern world think of it), but something to be freely chosen, not imposed.

#15 Comment By JonF On February 20, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

Re: So while I don’t doubt yours, or anyone else’s, sincerity and conviction, said sincerity and conviction isn’t unique either.

FYI, I am not a Mormon, though I have Mormon kin.
My point was not that the LDS can no way, no how become gay-accepting (a different proposition by the way than gay tolerant). Only that it was a much bigger leap than you seem to appreciate (and much bugger than the racial changes you cite) and as such much less likely.

#16 Comment By JohnInCA On February 20, 2019 @ 4:13 pm

@JonF
This is obviously a dead-end conversation. So instead of leaving some parting-shot, I just bid you adieu. I am unconvinced, but then, so are you.

#17 Comment By unhelpfully late On February 20, 2019 @ 5:20 pm

Turmarion said:

“For Catholics and Orthodox, being “un-Biblical” is, in a sense, not a bug, but a feature. ”

“Maybe it’s better to say that the Bible is not coterminous with Tradition.”

and

” I was noting 1. that from an Orthodox perspective, Rod ought not to say things like “What the Bible teaches”…”

This is not the Orthodox understanding. Please don’t drag Orthodoxy into this in such a manner.

For the Orthodox, Scripture is the highest part of Holy Tradition. They are inseparable and one. Holy Tradition is the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which obviously includes the Bible.

It’s fine to say “this is what the Bible teaches” if there is a proper understanding. The common example is the concept of the Trinity. Never mentioned in the Bible itself yet does anyone (other than Unitarians) think the Scriptures don’t teach it?

I say this because you’re generally a thoughtful poster and I don’t necessarily disagree with some of your points but did want to clarify these.

#18 Comment By J On February 20, 2019 @ 5:31 pm

Good Reason,
Jesus and Paul were celibate. How many wives did Joseph Smith have? How old was the youngest? How many were married to other men who he sent off to a mission? Are Mormons still polygamous? If your leaders see advantage in changing doctrine they have shown they will do it.

#19 Comment By Durin On February 20, 2019 @ 8:36 pm

Eliza B says:
February 19, 2019 at 8:07 am

‘ “The progressives in the UMC want to be in control of the denomination, force conservatives to leave unless they are willing to just shut up and keep writing checks.“

In all fairness, that’s precisely what you just suggested the conservatives want too. Let’s not pretend either side doesn’t want the other to shut up and play along. ‘

Treating these as equivalent is a bit like treating indigenous peoples and colonists as equivalent – both want to control what goes on in the territory.

#20 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 20, 2019 @ 9:52 pm

The Biblically traditionalist Methodists can merge with the AME, AME Zion or CME churches, leaving a woke white rump UMC.

The common example is the concept of the Trinity. Never mentioned in the Bible itself yet does anyone (other than Unitarians) think the Scriptures don’t teach it?

Well? If its never mentioned, how do you maintain that Scriptures DO teach it? (Aside from “the Tradition tells us that it does, so it must somehow be true.”) Perhaps the Unitarians are the most faithfully sola scriptura of all?

The title “faithful” belongs to those in the church who love, support, and accept LGBTQ as they would any other. “Cold” belongs to those who continue to practice homophobia and mislabel it “faith.”

Axiomatic pontification, assuming facts not in evidence. So, you know this… how?

I’m sure folks had very similar thoughts about the moral acceptability of black clergy in the 60s too.

You’re wrong. Try studying history before telling us what “I’m sure” happened in the past. There have been black clergy throughout most of this history of Christianity in North America, AT LEAST since the 1740s. Whether a “white” congregation would accept one is a somewhat different question, and not based on “moral acceptability” of clergy being black. But in fact, I recall a black Caribbean Anglican priest serving in Yukon in 1969. Darned conservative for my tastes too.

#21 Comment By JohnInCA On February 21, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

@Siarlys Jenkins
We were specifically talking about Latter-Day Saints, not Christians in general.

#22 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 21, 2019 @ 9:08 pm

Well, JohninCA, you and JonF apparently were talking about LDS… but in case you hadn’t noticed, there are many other conversations running through here. I’m not aware I was responding to either of you.

#23 Comment By Turmarion On February 22, 2019 @ 9:58 am

unhelpfully late (my emphasis): For the Orthodox, Scripture is the highest part of Holy Tradition. They are inseparable and one. Holy Tradition is the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which obviously includes the Bible.

Well, this is not substantially different from what I said. Scripture is a part–not all–of Tradition. Tradition includes–but is not limited to–the Bible. There are things in both Orthodoxy and Catholicism that simply are not in the Bible, period. That’s a problem if one takes a sola scriptura view; but for Orthodox and Catholics, that’s not a problem at all.

I should note that I’m not “dragging” Orthodoxy into the discussion in a negative manner; anything I say about the Orthodox Church in this context applies equally to my own, the Catholic Church, and I’m not criticizing either, not by a long shot. I think because we (Catholics and Orthodox) are a minority in heavily Protestant country–and a heavily Biblicist form of Protestantism, to boot–that we often tend to try do do apologetics from a Protestant perspective. We try to root our practices and beliefs in the Bible, however tenuously, and downplay the extra-Biblical elements. IMO, that’s a losing strategy.

In his excellent book The American Religion, Harold Bloom notes that the Catholic Church (he doesn’t mention Orthodoxy, but what he says would equally apply) and Judaism are not actually religions of a book, since both have mechanisms (Tradition, the Oral Torah) for expanding on and sometimes even abrogating Scripture. American Protestantism, on the other hand, according to Bloom, really is a religion of a book, since it is strictly Biblical. You really have two very different models of how religion even works.

Thus, IMO, better just to right out admit that we (Catholics and Orthodox) are not Biblical in the sense that most Protestants mean, and that a completely Biblical faith, without Tradition, isn’t even the same religion. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 makes it crystal clear that the Apostles had the authority given by the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture and even to abrogate certain aspects of it (in this case, kosher requirements and circumcision). As Catholics and Orthodox, we believe this authority continued through the bishops and Councils. Scripture is always respected and never set aside (Matthew 5:18); but it’s only partial.

Shorter me: Instead of trying to prove to Protestants that our faith really, reeeeally is Biblical, better for us to explain to them why their model of the purpose and interpretation of Scripture is the wrong one. Does that make sense?

unhelpfully late: The common example is the concept of the Trinity. Never mentioned in the Bible itself yet does anyone (other than Unitarians) think the Scriptures don’t teach it?

Siarlys: Well? If its never mentioned, how do you maintain that Scriptures DO teach it? (Aside from “the Tradition tells us that it does, so it must somehow be true.”) Perhaps the Unitarians are the most faithfully sola scriptura of all?

For once, I have to agree with you completely, Siarlys. If the doctrine of the Trinity had been as clear as all that based solely on Scripture, there wouldn’t have had to be four hundred years of debate and Church Councils on the specifics of the matter. I don’t even think Tradition tells us that the Bible teaches the Trinity–I’d say that Tradition teaches the Trinity, full stop. The Bible, by contrast, has a lot of puzzling and contradictory things in it that may–or may nothint at it, but no more. In fact, based on my own [6], I’d flat out deny that the Bible itself teaches a Trinitarian doctrine. I’m a Trinitarian, but not because of what the Bible says.

As I’ve often said before, we all bring interpretive frameworks to the party when we read the Bible. As a Catholic, I’m upfront that I read it in light of Catholic Tradition. I wouldn’t expect a Presbyterian or a Jew or Muslim to read it the same way, since they have different frameworks. Even someone who reads the Bible on his own is going to have prejudices, opinions, other things he’s read, and so on, that will influence his understanding. Now a given individual might argue as to why his or her framework is better than other frameworks; but that’s a totally separate argument.

Shorter me again: Arguing for Catholic or Orthodox beliefs ought to be done not on the basis of what the Bible says, but on the basis of showing why the Catholic (or Orthodox) understanding of Tradition is right and sola scriptura is wrong. That’s not quite as emotionally satisfying as “The Bible sez!” but it’s much more effective.