Results tagged “denominationalism” from Reformation21 Blog

The Rhetoric of An Affirming Non-Ministry


Last week in St. Louis, representatives of the United Methodist Church from around the world gathered together for a special session of their General Conference. The delegates to the meeting collectively represented over 12 million church members, worldwide.

Called for the purpose of considering a Commission on a Way Forward report, which evaluates the church's official stance on human sexuality (and, by implication, its qualifications for ministry), the General Conference voted to uphold its current standards. Not only does this move maintain the denomination's stand upon God's Word, declaring that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," but it also represents a setback for the progressive agenda to normalize homosexual practice across the denomination.

This development in a denomination the size of the UMC is remarkable. The General Conference's decision to adopt the so-called Traditional Plan goes against recent trends in Mainline Protestantism (and Evangelicalism). The surprising result of the meeting will go down in history as a moment when the church in the "global South" chose biblical teaching over Western progressivism. Many observers anticipate a fragmentation to occur in coming months/years. As Mark Tooley (President, Institute on Religion and Democracy) wrote this weekend, traditionalists in the church wondered, "How long would their traditional beliefs be tolerated by United Methodists who view support for historical Christian sexual standards as morally equivalent to white supremacy?" Even mainstream news sources like the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and network news stations are dedicating attention to the General Conference and its outcome.

Though each of the items in the last paragraph is worthy of deeper exploration on its own, the piece of the 2019 UMC General Conference puzzle that has attracted my attention is the progressive party's use of language (hinted at by Tooley), especially by ordained ministers in the church.

What these men and women have given to us are examples of what I am calling "the rhetoric of an affirming non-ministry." In so doing, I want to intentionally hearken back to eighteenth-century American Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennant, who blasted his non-revivalistic contemporaries in an infamous sermon entitled The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry.  

Consider some of the progressive UMC delegates' statements regarding the vote to uphold the church's condemnation of homosexual acts:

  • Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe (General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society) described the decision as "punitive," inflicting "unbearable pain" upon the church. She lamented, "The wound may one day be healed by the grace of God... but the scar left behind will be visible forever." Elsewhere, she is cited as saying, "The United Methodist Church's special General Conference failed Tuesday to love LGBTQIA people, recognize their gifts in the church, maintain our unity in the midst of diversity, and to live out our Gospel mandate to seek justice and pursue peace."
  • A pro-inclusion delegate from Oklahoma fumed, "I am a 32-year-old, and I am one of the youngest delegates here. For a denomination who claims so desperately to want young people in our churches, maybe we need to reevaluate.... This body is not where the disciple making happens. Thank the good Lord, am I right?"
  • One response on Twitter bemoaned the decision, "This is devastating. Above all, the United Methodist Church is supposed to be a place of grace and service, not this bigotry and hate. My heart is broken into a thousand pieces."
  • Rev. Will Green (Associate Pastor, Foundry UMC in Washington) reflected on the decision, "The church had the opportunity to affirm the blessing of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ people. Delegates could have rid the language that forced me from my home and charted a path for all queer people to fully experience God's grace as United Methodists. But they didn't. The United Methodist Church is today a more exclusionary, judgmental and queer-phobic denomination than it was when I preached Sunday from one of its pulpits. Not only has it not flung open its doors to queer people and those who love them. It also has closed and locked a door that was until this conference just barely cracked."

Consider what it is that has evoked such laments and deprecations. The denomination merely - if surprisingly - upheld its traditional stance on homosexual activity, and voted to strengthen its enforcement of standards that were already on the books. The denomination did not introduce a more conservative and fully biblical stance, such as a condemnation of same-sex attraction as inherently sinful.

It is safe to say that the responses listed above are examples of the rhetoric of an unconverted ministry. Voices in other ecclesiastical circles (both Evangelical and Roman Catholic) make similar statements in opposition to biblical standards of sexual ethics. Here are just a few instances:

  • Author and popular blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote over a decade ago An Evangelical's Apologyto the LGBTQ community, which included the statements, "I'm sorry that we have used the Bible as a weapon. I'm sorry that we have used religion to shame. I'm sorry that we have assumed we speak for God. Most of all, I am sorry that we haven't been Jesus to you."
  • After the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA, in which a motion to apologize to the LGBTQ community was rejected in favor of a "statement of regret" (which passed), one commentator and delegate to the Assembly wrote, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry we hurt you. I'm sorry we allowed people to say dehumanizing things about you on the floor of so many past assemblies. I'm sorry we refused to acknowledge your God-given gifts, and I'm sorry we refused to ordain you to ordered ministries. I'm sorry we forced you to leave communities you loved. I'm sorry we demanded that you choose between Jesus and your authentic self. I'm sorry that we used Scripture - the same Scripture that you held dear - as a weapon against you. I'm sorry we turned the beautiful gifts of human sexuality and gender identity into something shameful. I'm sorry we put you up for debate. I'm sorry you were referred to as an "issue". I'm so, so sorry."
  • Matthew Vines, author and Founding Executive Director of The Reformation Project, which promotes the normalization of homosexual relationships in the church, was quoted last year as saying, "We're on the front lines of a shift. I want to live in a world where no one experiences any pain or terror upon realizing that they're gay, bisexual, trans, or pansexual. That requires us to reach even those little churches in rural Texas. I do think it's possible to reach all those churches, eventually."
  • To consider a more traditionally conservative group beyond Evangelical Christianity, even Pope Francis said in 2016, "I believe that the church not only must say it's sorry ... to this person that is gay that it has offended. But it must say it's sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work. When I say the church: Christians. The church is holy. We are the sinners."
  • An Eastern Orthodox Twitter user describing himself/herself a "a celibate, partnered, gay Christian" aired frustrations after the 2018 Revoice Conference, including, "Many well-meaning conservatives frame my sexuality in terms of "struggle". My biggest "struggle" to this day is people who fail to listen to what I'm actually saying. I struggle with a Church which fails to love LGBT+ people well."

There is a reason that we do not frequently hear echoes of the rhetoric of Gilbert Tennant when those who profess Christ as Lord fall into error. We especially  are right to hesitate to judge too strongly the spiritual condition of those who are lawfully ordained to gospel ministry. However, the rhetoric of an unconverted ministry is more of a danger to the church today than the rhetoric of Gilbert Tennant ever was.

We must maintain as much (if not more) vigilance against the outrageous emotional appeals coming from progressive voices in the church as we do against the socially impolite voices of those who see themselves as defenders of "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).  Is there any place for the language of "injury, offense, and pain inflicted upon LGBTQ friends and neighbors" in conservative Evangelicalism?

Where this language emerges in conservative Evangelical churches, the accusation is that the church is failing the LGBTQ community. For the United Methodists, the failure is in the church's refusal to bless homosexual activity within the ranks of the church. For conservative Evangelicals, the failure is the church's insistence upon understanding same-sex attraction to be sinful in and of itself (apart from any "acting upon" the attraction).

In both cases, the Scriptural witness is clear, and has been adequately developed elsewhere.1 However, the claim being made by both against the clear biblical witness is that harm is being done by the maintenance of a biblical standard on the respective issues.

If we are rightly to uphold biblical standards to the glory of God, and for the good of His people (some of whom have yet to enter into the sheepfold), it is crucially important that we do not fall into the trap of adopting the world's rhetoric. Nobody will be won for Christ, granted peace of conscience, or experience joy in the Holy Spirit as a result of the church's capitulation to the demands of the culture in its agenda or its rhetoric. Rather, the great task set before Christ's church is to proclaim His Word (Law and Gospel) without apology, expecting it to "cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37) and direct needy sinners to Christ.

Surely we can encourage our congregations to take seriously the call to sober-mindedness and solemnity in conversations about sex and sexuality, avoiding adolescent humor and expressions of cold-hearted ridicule. But we can do that while continuing to call out sin for what it is, proclaiming deliverance in Christ at every step of the way. Let us pursue greater faithfulness to our mandate, recognizing that such pursuit is not marked by compromise with and apology to the culture for perceived injuries, but by humble acknowledgment of the supremacy of Christ speaking in and through His Word.

1. Two good places to start are Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says About Sexual Orientation and Change by Denny Burk and Heath Lambert (P&R Publishing, 2015) and Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God's Grand Story by Christopher Yuan (Multnomah, 2018).

Is the PCA Becoming More Unified?


Some years ago, our friend Terry Johnson (senior pastor of Savannah's Independent Presbyterian Church) wrote an article suggesting an opportunity for constructive dialogue in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Terry classified the two main PCA camps in positive terms, seeing some brothers as more evangelistic (ME's) and others as more Reformed (MR's). Not that neither camp was evangelistic or Reformed; these labels could be given to both sides. Rather, the two camps could be distinguished as being more of one than the other. Terry argued that if we learn to trust one another, the ME's could be restrained from unbiblical innovations by the MR's and the MR's could be stimulated towards a Reformed piety that more greatly emphasized gospel outreach by the ME's.

At no time since Terry's article have I thought such a positive scenario to be more plausible than after this year's 2018 PCA general assembly. Recent history has conditioned us to expect combat between the two main camps, widely understood as progressives1 and confessionalists (or conservatives). Going into this year's assembly, however, the absence of highly contentious overtures was noticeable. Moreover, the most likely candidates for assembly warfare proved to be sources of cooperation and widely-held agreement. First was our unanimous affirmation of the Racial Reconciliation Study Committee report. Next came substantial agreement that the Bible's teaching of male-only eldership effectively bars women from serving as voting members of GA committees. Perhaps most notable was the nearly unanimous vote to grant full constitutional authority to the Book of Church Order language limiting marriage to only the union of a man and woman. Moreover, both in committee meeting rooms and the hotel lobbies, would-be progressives and confessionalists were seen conversing as friends and even forging agreements that would produce a greater consensus.

All of this is to ask, "What is happening to our beloved PCA?" Hopefully, I would suggest, something very good. Might this year's GA signal that we are moving close(r) to a new and functioning unity? As one who has often departed from the PCA general assembly in near despair, I must confess that I returned this year with hope that, Yes, perhaps we are closer to unity that I earlier had thought.

Even as I write these words, the groaning from supposed enemies and (even more so) from loyal friends rings loud in my ears. So let me be clear that I have not yielded to sentimental fantasies. I know quite well the significant number of matters on which unity does not exist in the PCA. Why, even the GA worship services are usually divisive (especially to oft-horrified confessionalists like me), replete with ruthless virtue signalling and finger-pointing sermonic warfare. Meanwhile, the fringes of both main camps regularly speak and act in such a way as to prompt spontaneous combustion on the other side. Yet it still seems that the PCA middle is growing larger in number and clearer in its commitments, and with more participation from partisan players (like myself). Therefore, in the spirit of Ephesians 4:3, which urges us to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," let me explore two key avenues for the PCA to move forward in a new functional and spiritual unity.

First, unity in the PCA will require a clear doctrinal consensus on contested matters. It speaks to our times that PCA members are divided not so much on matters of confessional theology but on contested cultural hot spots. I would identify three main topics in which a future unity in the PCA will require a strong consensus: women's ministry, creation v. evolution, and homosexuality. So what would a ME-MR constructive unity look like when it comes to these subjects? Let me offer the following, not in terms of demands from one side or the other but simply my own view of what unity would require:

  • Women's Ministry. In order for the PCA to have unity, it will be necessary for ME's to accept our denomination's historical commitment to the Bible's teaching of male-only elders and deacons, involving not only ordination but also the functions of those offices. Meanwhile, MR's will need to show a broad embrace, within the above bounds, of women exercising their gifts and partnering with men in the work of the gospel. Given the clear stance of the 2017 Women's Ministry Study Committee report in agreement with both of these sides - against ordination to elder and deacon and for wide-ranging ministry - there is reason to be optimistic. This year's denial of the overture to admit women as voting members of general assembly committees is even more encouraging to those concerned about a liberal drift. Still, the coming years will tell the tale, and if progressives become resolved to achieve women's ordination then all hopes of unity in the PCA will be dashed.
  • Creation v. Evolution. PCA unity on this topic requires MR's to accept that not all of our brothers are going to hold a strict 24-7 view of Genesis 1. But it will also require ME's clearly to accept that evolution has no place in our denomination, including end-run theories like old earth progressive creationism. If we can continue to agree on the biblical portrait of a historical Adam, clearly exclude evolution, and accept diversity within those bounds, the PCA can maintain our functional unity. Conversely, attempts to foster acceptance of evolution or to impose a 24-7 creation view on the denomination will lead to further division.
  • Homosexuality. At the heart of our division on this subject is whether or not to define same-sex attraction (SSA) as a morally neutral status that does not require repentance. PCA progressives seem to have asserted such a sub-category beneath sinful desire (essentially adopting the pre-Reformation concept of concupiscence).  PCA conservatives hold with the Reformers against concupiscence, urging that the Bible does not meaningfully distinguish between "orientation" and "desire" (see James 1:13-14). Can we come to an ME-MR agreement on this topic? I was encouraged in this regard by comments made during the general assembly by Mark Dalbey, president of Covenant Theological Seminary. While conservatives may quarrel with details of Dalbey's configuration, his statement that "attraction to the same sex must be mortified by the means of grace and the support of the people of God,"2 is at least close to the conservative view regarding same sex attraction. Moreover, MR's are convinced that expressions such as "gay Christian" are incompatible with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as a wholesome description of a believer. For their part, ME's are concerned for believers struggling with homosexual desire to be granted their full human dignity and embraced with loving gospel ministry in the church. Can we reach an agreement that brings both sides together? This remains to be seen, although I was encouraged in this hope by the experience of general assembly.

As I have indicated, I left this year's PCA general assembly with a strengthened hope that we may achieve a constructive doctrinal consensus on cultural hot topics. But, second, unity in the PCA will also require a renewal of trust between the long-contested parties. Can we move from progressive-confessional conflict to a constructive ME-MR dialogue? The answer will require us to think better of one another than our fears might counsel. It will mean seeking to understand as well as to be understood. Unity will require us to face the question as to where our actual aspirations lie: against one another or together in renewed unity? I do not deny that I, for one, have often despaired that the two sides of the PCA have enough agreement to ever really walk together again (Amos 3:3). Undoubtedly, the upcoming general assemblies will tell this tale. But 2018 suggests that maybe we do want to walk together and maybe we can. Perhaps the real question asks if we are willing to agree? To be sure, it will be through a shared commitment to truth that we will recover our trust. But the dynamic works both ways: if we are willing to trust one another, this will greatly aid our shared pursuit of truth.

The stakes are high. What a blessing it would be if our energies were no longer directed to inner-denominational conflict but together in a shared (or at least compatible) vision of Christ's reign through the gospel in our sin-scarred world. Truth first, then unity. But, for both, let this year's PCA general assembly prompt a renewal of trust, or at least in the hope of trust. For we are, both ME and MR, "his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (Ps. 100:3), and we both love and serve the same Good Shepherd whose "steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations" (Ps. 100:5).

1. So named by Bryan Chapell, "The State of the PCA," By Faith, 5/12/2015.

2. See the video recording of the Thursday PM session, starting at 2:09:05.