August 13, 2013

13 Years of Methodist Lobby’s Greatest Hits, Part Two: The Core of the Problem

We leave it up to readers to make an educated guess as to whether this depicts the work of the biblical prophet in Jeremiah 38 or the work of the self-declared “prophets” of the GBCS.  (Photo credit: pcbc.org/jeffsblog/ ) 

I recently listed some of the most controversial social stances, promoted by the United Methodist Church’s D.C. lobby office, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), under the thirteen years of leadership of its now-outgoing chief executive, Jim Winkler.

But the problems the GBCS creates for theologically orthodox United Methodists are not only limited to a list of particular approaches to particular social issues.

The way in which the GBCS has operated is unsustainably flawed at a very fundamental level. Such problems are unpleasant but can only be resolved, for the cause of Christ and His church, if they are forthrightly addressed.

Here are some of the key questionable choices the GBCS (and its energetically uncritical supporters) have made over the years, which reflect the foundational perspective out of which its embarrassing outbursts on specific social issues flow.

Promoting Jim Winkler. In 2000, the GBCS board promoted longtime staffer Jim Winkler to be its new chief executive. He was already known as an outspoken opponent of our denomination’s biblical teaching on sexual morality, a strong critic of the theologically United Methodist wing of our denomination, and had been involved in the lefty caucus group, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), continuing his involvement during his term as GBCS chief. In contrast, the UMC’s governing Discipline (¶715.8) requires that those chosen to fill such positions “shall be … committed to the oneness of the body of Christ” and “loyal to the ethical standards of The United Methodist Church as set forth in the Social Principles” (which deem homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching”).

Before his election, Winkler claimed that if elected he would work “to the best of [his] ability” to “seek the implementation of the Social Principles and other policy statements of the General Conference on Christian social concerns,” and that he would even hope to find ways to cooperate with IRD’s UMAction program. Even shortly after his election he expressed his hope to work together with the church’s evangelical renewal movement.

I will let the record speak for itself on how well Mr. Winkler has kept his word.

 

Refusing to dialogue with IRD/UMAction.  In 1998, the liberal-dominated GBCS board unanimously passed a resolution instructing the GBCS staff to seek constructive dialogue with their longtime critic, UMAction. Such minimal conciliation even had the support of the notoriously belligerent Bishop Mel Talbert. Yet over the last 15 years (13 of them under Winkler’s leadership), the GBCS staff has simply refused to implement this resolution. Instead, the GBCS staff have preferred to engage with their fellow United Methodists in IRD/UMAction through such ways as digressing from multiple public speeches to attack the character of IRD staffers in the audience and appearing in a false-witness-bearing video to talk about how we are “a snake” with “fangs.”

 

Demoting core doctrine.  At least once, I have heard Winkler respond to a question about the relative weight of the official UMC statements in our Social Principles, the rest of the Book of Discipline, and the Book of Resolutions Nobody Reads by claiming that everything is of equal weight.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our core doctrine (¶104) is protected by the UMC Constitution to be effectively unchangeable, and every ordained United Methodist is asked if they will “preach and maintain” this doctrine (¶336.10). After that, the UMC Constitution is the foundational standard by which all other policies are judged in church law. An exceptionally high, but not impossible, bar is set for amending our denominational Constitution. Everything else can be changed with just a simple-majority General Conference vote. The rest of the Discipline (other than the Social Principles) is binding church law. After that, the Social Principles occupy a less certain space, with their own preface stating that they “are not to be considered church law” but other sections of the Discipline explicitly referencing the Social Principles as binding standards. Last of all, the separately printed resolutions are the least legally binding, and unlike any part of the Discipline, automatically expire after eight years, unless re-adopted by a later General Conference action.

The sort of leveling falsely presented by Winkler would conveniently make many GBCS partisans rejecting our core doctrine’s teaching that Jesus Christ died for our sins or physically rose from the dead no more significant than other United Methodists disagreeing with a couple (non-binding) sentences from a lefty political pronouncement in the Book of Resolutions Nobody Reads.

 

Misrepresenting John Wesley’s phrase “no holiness, but social holiness.”  This misuse of Wesley’s phrase as a mandate for the GBCS’s worst excesses has been promoted by Winkler and so widely repeated by liberal United Methodists that many church members have been misled into thinking that the founder of Methodism made a big deal of talking about “social holiness” and that he meant something very much like the GBCS’s work. I do not know if Winkler and likeminded leaders are being inexcusably ignorant or intentionally dishonest in this misrepresentation. In any case, here is the fuller quote of perhaps the one and only time Wesley ever used the phrase “social holiness,” in the 1739 preface to his Hymns and Sacred Poems:

“Directly opposite to [solitary religion] is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

In other words, by “social holiness” Wesley was pointing to the intense, loving, supportive, humble, holiness-promoting, holding-each-other-accountable-for-sin small groups of the Methodist classes and bands. Which could hardly be more different than the GBCS’s “social holiness” of one narrow faction of the church harshly pushing away other church members, getting the church excessively entangled with secular, partisan political groups, misusing the name and the resources of the whole church, launching ad hominem attacks against other church members, refusing to relate in a loving, Golden-Rule manner to church members who disagree with them, defending behaviors which Scripture clearly teaches are sinful, serving as an extremely and needlessly divisive influence among fellow church members, and being proud of it. To read more from a couple professors of Wesleyan studies on what Wesley actually meant by “social holiness,” begin here.

 

Consistently operating from a secularized and partisan rather than churchly and biblical foundation. In taking positions on about every major political issue before the U.S. Congress, the board is yawningly predictable as a consistent, unimaginative echo of one wing of one of the two major U.S. political parties. Whenever there is conflict between such secular, partisan loyalties of the GBCS staff and historic, biblical Christian teaching (such as on matters related to sexual morality), the former trumps the latter. And rather than sticking to promoting general principles, honoring the General Conference’s call for a more humble social witness, or restraining the impulse to take one-sided positions on divisive political issues on which Christians of good faith disagree, the GBCS mimics secular, partisan political lobbies in rushing to take detailed positions on complex specific legislative matters, even when the agency manifestly lacks the expertise to do so.

The positions taken by the GBCS appear to be shaped entirely by the preconceived secular partisan political commitments of the ideologically monolithic GBCS senior staff. In all my years of observing the GBCS, I have yet to see sincere, sustained interest on GBCS’s part of truly listening to balanced presentations of those tackling common problems from different political orientations. The GBCS position-taking process has certainly not involved extensive prior consultation with the local congregations of our diverse, global denomination. And in place of deep engagement with relevant parts of Scripture and church tradition, the GBCS offers shallow proof-texting.

 

Circular-logic self-defense. In response to such concerns as those raised in these “greatest hits” articles, the GBCS and its see-no-evil supporters often, in various ways, suggest that the GBCS is simply following its mandate of promoting the UMC’s official positions. But this line of defense is dishonest on several counts. It ignores how the GBCS, through writing petitions and lobbying delegates, is largely responsible for the content of official UMC social statements. It ignores how the GBCS staff is highly selective in which parts of official UMC positions it promotes. It ignores how the GBCS staff sometimes directly opposes some of the official UMC positions they are paid to promote.  Such rhetorical sleights of hand seem intended to shut down needed conversations about the GBCS’s responsibility for its own questionable choices.

 

Claiming the mantle of biblical prophets. A favorite line of Winkler’s is that “there has never been a conservative prophet,” since prophets, like the lefty GBCS staff, seek for bold new ways for their society to live into a more progressive future. With little humility, GBCS leaders like to imagine that their presumed identity as modern-day “prophets” excuses their worst excesses of partisan politicking and divisive rhetoric. But such self-justifying rhetoric cannot explain away the stark contrasts between the well-paid, comfortable GBCS staffers – who sometimes promote fundamentally anti-Christian values of the surrounding culture against clear teachings of Scripture and church tradition – and the true, biblical prophets, who zealously called Israel back to the teachings of the Torah, decried God’s chosen people following their pagan neighbor’s false religions and immoral practices (including sexual immorality and killing their own children, FWIW), often endured extreme, ongoing personal hardship, and never took money from the people to misrepresent their views.

 

In any way suggesting to outsiders that the GBCS’s advocacy represents ALL American United Methodists. In 2007, Linda Bales admitted that although she and her fellow GBCS staffers realized that “not all [United Methodists] agree with every position we take,” nevertheless “[w]e play the United Methodist card whenever we can, reminding politicians that there are 8 million United Methodists in the U.S.”  She also claimed “[w]e’re not lobbyists” even though the GBCS routinely lobbies political leaders to support or oppose specific pieces of legislation.


5 Responses to 13 Years of Methodist Lobby’s Greatest Hits, Part Two: The Core of the Problem

  1. Tim Vernon says:

    I would sooner discuss social and political issues with the greeters at my local Walmart than with UM clergy, including the people of GBCS. The greeters would at least be humble enough to say they’re not well-informed about some issues, and you’d never get that kind of humility from a GBCS staffer. The UM seminaries are so politicized that, unfortunately, their graduates all believe they have been certified as Experts in World Affairs, so they have nothing but contempt for the laity who might not share their ideology. Your typical UM seminary alumnus’ views on any issue are unlikely to differ in the slightest from the views of a college professor who describes himself as atheist or agnostic.

  2. Adrian Croft says:

    People on the religious left can’t hear the word “social” without adding an “-ism” to it. It’s like a reflex. Wesley spoke of “social religion,” and look at how they spun that.

  3. John S says:

    I sometimes think the only answer is a financial collapse of UMC. This would necessitate a complete defunding of everything outside the local church. Perhaps then, when there is no spotlight, no hobnobbing with the “powerful”, so acclaim from whichever end of the political spectrum, UMC can get back to essentials.

  4. Phil Griffin says:

    I’ve grown tired of GBCS representing me, or claiming to, when I disagree on most political positions. This also applies to the Western Jurisdictional Conference and the Desert Southwest Conference. I’ve been a Methodist 40+ years, but alas, we have finally parted ways. I don’t understand how the UMC can claim to embrace diversity and yet speak in resolutions and public places as if representing 7 million UMC members. Now when that happens, at least I know I am not in the population they claim to represent.

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