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).