The following is an excerpt from the text for a speech delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis on Thursday, November 21 at historic Boehm’s Chapel. The gathering near Lancaster, Pennsylvania was hosted by the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection. That evening included lively discussion with the audience. For the convenience of online readers, the speech is divided into nine sections here.
Part 6 of 9: Why United Methodist Liberals are Now Focusing on “Biblical Disobedience”
I want to give a factual overview so that we can have some common reference points for our discussion. I’ll give a big-picture overview of the current controversies and then talk about the specific cases.
Our denomination has long had a way of mirroring the society around us. We were born as a separate church right around the same time the U.S.A. gained its independence. There was all this talk in the air about representative democracy, and having separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and that’s the kind of government our church has. In the 19th century, we largely went along with the respective regional cultures around us on the hot-button issue of slavery. And then when the sexual revolution hit American culture with a vengeance, that quickly began spilling into our churches.
Now the big presenting issue is whether or not we believe that homosexual practice is inherently sinful. But as people on both sides will quickly admit, this flashpoint reflects far more fundamental disagreements over such questions as should we submit to all of Scripture – even the parts that are challenging or counter-cultural? Is it reasonable to believe that the Holy Spirit would give special new revelation to a select group of Christians – but not to others – which directly contradicts the clear teachings of Scripture? Should we fundamentally form our identity and values around what the secular American culture teaches at one particular point in time or around what the church of Jesus Christ has always taught? Does compassion mean affirming things as they are in our fallen world or helping people find the new life and holiness God wants for them? And who exactly is Jesus Christ?
One prominent advocate for the liberal cause on homosexual practice is retired Chicago United Methodist Bishop Joe Sprague, who has publicly encouraged people to believe that Jesus was not virginally conceived, was not born the Christ, did not physically rise from the dead, and is not the only way to salvation. Yet despite being an avowed opponent of much of the very core of the historic Christian faith, this man remains widely respected in liberal UMC circles.
But even on sexual morality, the divide is not solely about homosexual practice. If you look closely at what the liberal side is saying, you would be hard-pressed for them drawing a strong line against any kind of sexual sin, as long as it is consensual. Looking carefully at the replacement human sexuality statement our liberal friends tried to get our church to adopt at the last two General Conferences, I don’t see any clear moral lines like keeping sex within marriage, other than somewhat vague condemnation of exploitation. I am aware of several instances over the years of the Reconciling Ministries Network, the main caucus promoting the gay rights cause in our denomination, speaking positively of “polyamory,” concurrent multiple sexual partners. I even have an RMN-co-published article from some years back celebrating the promiscuous lifestyle of a bisexual couple being some sort of good gift from God.
And I am also convinced that, particularly among my generation and younger, many people’s being “straight allies” is related to their being compromised by their own premarital sexual sin. For them to start supporting biblical sexual boundaries for same-sex attracted individuals would soon crash against the hypocrisy of their own lack of Christian sexual self-control.
To be clear, we at IRD/UMAction are absolutely committed to wanting to see our churches be more loving and compassionate to ALL people, including folk who find themselves same-sex attracted or who self-identify as members of the LGBTQ community. We are all sinners in need of the grace of God. But the grace of God is not some empty, shallow, “I’m okay, you’re okay” sloppy agape. As sinners, we deserve God’s wrath and have no hope apart from the unearned forgiveness offered through the blood of Jesus. If we are truly adopted as children of God, we must allow ourselves to be completely transformed as we submit to Christ as Lord of EVERY aspect of our lives – our time, our finances, our relationships, and yes, our sexuality. In His love, God has revealed to us in Scripture us some very clear things that He expects of us.
For over 40 years, liberal activists from inside and outside the UMC have poured untold amounts of time, energy, and money into trying to get our denomination to liberalize our official moral teaching and related policies on sexual morality. That effort has been one big failure.
Some of our liberal friends have this hubris about historical inevitability and still run around saying, “Hold on! We keep getting closer and closer, and the NEXT time we’ll succeed in liberalizing the church’s stand!”
But this flies in the face of the facts. You can talk about this vote or that vote. But if you want a careful apples-to-apples comparison, the thing to look at is when the 2008 General Conference by a vote of less than 55 percent adopted more strongly conservative language on human sexuality for our Social Principles than what we had had before and rejected the liberal committee report (Petition #80449), and then look again at when the 2012 General Conference voted by nearly 61 percent to keep the good language it adopted in 2008 and again reject the same liberal language that was shot down four years earlier (Petition #21032). That’s a really significant shift in a more orthodox direction.
And remember, if you were a general for the Reconciling Ministries Network, you could hardly have asked for more going into the last General Conference. They raised massive amounts of money, including many dollars from non-church political groups, while caucus groups defending the church’s conservative position on sexual morality apparently had only a fraction of the liberal caucuses’ financial war chest. They had an ambitious, nationwide grassroots-organizing effort to train 1,500 activists around the country in lobbying General Conference delegates. They launched unprecedented efforts to reach out to overseas delegates. They had an army of energetic, colorfully clad volunteers on site for the duration of the conference. They even had a prominent gay United Methodist activist strategically placed as the chair of the commission responsible for organizing the General Conference, and the decisions of his commission were rather demonstrably favorable for the liberal side. All delegates were required to participate in an hour of questionably structured “holy conversations” whose purpose seemed to be to give those seeking to liberalize our denomination on sexual morality extra opportunity to make their case. The plenary debate schedule was re-arranged to make sure that liberals had generous time for the lengthy debate they wanted on changing the denomination’s teaching on sexual morality. Going in, the rhetoric from liberal caucus activists was that they really expected that this could be THE General Conference in which the United Methodist Church went the way of the Episcopalians or the Unitarians, or at least that they would score some partial victories.
And yet they not only failed to gain any legislative ground, but they actually LOST a huge amount of ground from the last General Conference.
At the next General Conference, over 50% of the delegates will be from the Southeast and Africa.
A slightly different tactic has been a more recent push for some sort of “agree to disagree” language. But the rhetoric behind this push is simply dishonest on several levels. While framed as a sort of compromise “third way,” advocates cannot clearly articulate how these proposals ultimately differ from earlier liberalizing proposals. It’s just the same trashy book with a different cover.
And even when such so-called “third-way” proposals stop short of removing all of the orthodox language and policies related to sexual morality, such policies seem deliberately designed to be unstable. If they cannot completely liberalize the UMC one year, these proposals are transparently offered as incremental stepping stones to put liberal caucuses in a stronger position to more thoroughly liberalize the denomination down the road. That’s what has happened in other denominations.
Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter can talk all they want about “seeing gray,” but when it comes to homosexual practice, the liberal agenda of these formerly evangelical pastors is about as black-and-white as can be. Adam made this clear when he wrote his Washington Post op-ed rather uncharitably likening opponents of homosexual practice today to slavery supporters of yesteryear. Mike made this clear when he was videotaped joining the sexually liberal protesters who illegally occupied the 2012 General Conference floor and stopped business from continuing.
And notice how when theologically liberal United Methodists give a lot of high-sounding rhetoric “oh, why can’t we just honestly admit our disagreement and have more dialogue together” – these same people never, to my knowledge, support replacing liberal pronouncements in the Book of Resolutions Nobody Reads on political issues like gun control, progressive taxation, government-run health care, or foreign policy with statements like “we are not of one mind on this issue.” The Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) is even, rather hypocritically, on record as opposing replacing a basically liberal sentence on abortion in the UMC Social Principles with very similar “agree to disagree” language. Liberal United Methodists have a rather sorry track record of actively working to shut down dialogues and discussions around UMC policies where they already have their way and conservative United Methodists are the unhappy ones. Liberal caucus activists demonstrate time and again that they have no interest in Golden-Rule treatment of less liberal United Methodists.
But in any case, if not even Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, with all their high-profile celebrity status, could not convince enough delegates to adopt a misleading “third way” nose under the camel’s tent, then no one can.
Then another tactic. At the 2008 General Conference, you had all this excitement around what became nicknamed “the Global Segregation Plan” to allow the U.S. to set many of its own policies. But when people had time to study this more carefully, it was rejected overwhelmingly at the annual conference level, thanks to evangelical Americans who understood it was being pushed to allow for theological and sexual liberalization in the US wing of the church, and by Africans who realized its primary practical effect would be to dramatically limit and silence their voice in denominational affairs.
Apparently thinking there was still some momentum for this, MFSA tried to resurrect a version of this at the last General Conference. It died with a grand total of five supportive votes in a committee of dozens of people.
So if theologically progressive United Methodists are actually losing ground at General Conference, cannot get a “third way” proposal, and cannot silence largely orthodox overseas United Methodists on key issues, what options are left for them?
Since the last General Conference, there has been an unprecedented talk about liberal United Methodists being discouraged and even giving up on our denomination. Liberal United Methodists are rather openly talking about how they are now “not optimistic” of prevailing at General Conference for the foreseeable future. Soon after the last General Conference, the leaders of both the Reconciling Ministries Network and MFSA resigned somewhat abruptly. Earlier this year, the Reconciling Ministries Network reported that a survey of its own supporters found them split between those who want to continue staying and fighting the United Methodist Church versus those who say it’s time for liberal UM’s to redirect their energies towards separation. There are even annual-conference supported study committees in New York and California-Nevada exploring structural alternatives for liberal United Methodists, including possibly a new, liberal Methodist denomination.
And the new rhetoric of Amy DeLong and her supporters about divesting their money, presence, and even prayers away from some official structures of the church does not suggest a lot of faith in the system on their part.
But for many liberal United Methodists the cost of leaving the UMC seems much higher than the cost of staying.
Thus, all the energy being poured into the so-called “biblical [dis]obedience” movement.
Part 6: Why United Methodist Liberals are Now Focusing on “Biblical Disobedience”