Last week, the directors of the United Methodist Church’s controversial DC lobby office, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), convened in suburban Maryland for their semi-annual meeting.
While I was an observer at the meeting, which concluded Saturday, I am still waiting to receive from the staff copies of important public documents from the meeting. So my fuller report on the meeting will have to come later. In the meantime, it is worth highlighting how one particular moment in the GBCS gathering encapsulated a fundamental problem for efforts of “Christian social witness.”
Agencies like the GBCS are in rather thorny territory as agencies of institutional churches devoted to political activism and lobbying. As an official, offering-plate-funded arm of a denomination, the GBCS stands in a very different category from politically engaged Christian individuals or non-church-based organizations devoted to various political agendas.
IRD board member Ken Collins of Asbury Seminary has eloquently articulated why it is not categorically wrong for Christian individuals to be politically active, have partisan affiliations, and favor certain debatable public policies over others, IF we are careful to wear our political commitments lightly.
But regardless of the fine-print qualifiers, whenever any official organ of a church publicly promotes a stance on a particular issue, political or otherwise, this will inevitably be widely seen as reflecting what the church is dogmatically certain to be the definitive truth of God, what the members of the church believe, and what the church thinks is an important boundary line to establish between its own communal identity and many of its neighbors.
The highlight of this four-day meeting was the installation service for the GBCS’s new General Secretary, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe. The meeting as a whole, particularly that service, was a prime moment for hints of the sort of tone and approach to expect from the Henry-Crowe administration, likely to last a dozen years, and if it may differ in any substantial way from the Jim Winkler years.
So when the installation service’s closest thing to a sermon, a super-short “reflection” by the Rev. Dr. William B. McClain of Wesley Theological Seminary, was used to make a brief partisan cheap shot, it sent a signal.
McClain is apparently deeply committed to left-of-center politics, and used the church service to denounce the Tea Party movement, and by implication, convey a general sense of disdain for one of the two major U.S. political parties. The United Methodist seminary professor apparently felt that a GBCS gathering was the sort of ideologically myopic left-wing echo chamber in which he had no need to make an argument for his political biases but rather could just assume that they were widely shared in the sanctuary. To be fair, that has generally been a largely safe assumption with the GBCS (although the oppressive culture of presumed consensus has a way of marginalizing and silencing dissenters). To McClain, the Tea Party movement and its adherents were apparently unworthy of any respectful engagement or rebuttal beyond dismissing their (unspecified) “bad ideas.”
To be clear, my interest here is not defending the Tea Party (in which I have never been personally involved), but rather the spiritual integrity of the church.
The primary risk of the church being too institutionally outspoken on too many political issues and divides is the risk of blasphemy. None of us can be certain that every political opinion we have ever personally held in no way deviates from God’s perfect wisdom. But whenever an official church body offers any kind of official teaching on any subject, due to its very nature the church is claiming to speak for God in the matter at hand. Thus, the more often a church, as an institution, through any of its official arms, declares and promotes strong positions on political matters, particularly the more it goes beyond general moral principles into endorsing certain very specific, debatable details of public policy over others, the more it increases its risks of using God’s name in vain, breaking the Third Commandment.
Secondly, there is our mission field of the neighbors we are called to love.
In any given U.S. Presidential election, each of our two major parties is all but guaranteed to get the support of well over 40 percent of American voters. When the social witness of the church is heard by over 40 percent of Americans as saying, “We not only disagree with you on social matters that are important to you, but we are willing to be as bad as any purely secular political activist group in offering up the same sorts of cheap shots, character attacks, truth-stretching, and partisan-driven lack of moral consistency against people who value what you value” – the sort of thing we have seen and documented far too often from the GBCS – we should not be surprised that people are not rushing into our church doors, but in fact are rushing out.
The knee-jerk Democratic partisanship of the GBCS (to be more precise, the GBCS’s knee-jerk alignment with the left wing of the Democratic Party) is all the more of a missional liability given how, according to a study done by the United Methodist Church’s own General Board of Global Ministries several years ago, the overwhelming super-majority of United Methodist congregations in the United States are in “red” counties which voted for George W. Bush. In 2010, after one of the most polarizing figures in American politics caused a stir by publicly cheering the GBCS’s lobbying for a highly controversial federal law, a pastor of one of the UMC’s largest, most dynamic congregations memorably quipped that this offered many Americans “another reason not to be Methodist,” adding, “It saddens me that the United Methodist Church is often known primarily for its political positions that have nothing to do with making disciples of Christ.”
The concern should obviously be applied to both sides of the political aisle. I cannot imagine any of the thriving evangelical churches I have seen in deep-blue cities like Boston or Chicago being nearly as missionally effective if they touted a mirror image of the GBCS’s politically partisan exclusivity. It was simply heart-breaking to hear of how a friend was excited that his non-Christian mother agreed to attend a Christmas program of the church of a prominent “Religious Right” figure, but there she was only turned off by this service being used for partisan cheap shots at President Clinton.
Nor is this concern limited to the United States. As noted earlier, GBCS staffer Neal Christie reported at the GBCS’s September board meeting that two neighboring United Methodist congregations in Zimbabwe had respectively become so fiercely devoted to rival political factions in their country that, rather than display the love for one another by which Christ said the world would know His disciples (John 13:34-35), members actually committed physical violence against one another.
The Christian faith clearly has important social implications, even if the specific applications are not always as clear as some have claimed.
But are we so certain of the divine infallibility of our personal political opinions that we would want to co-opt the church’s name and missional resources to pursue every debatable, controversial pet political cause we personally like? Even if this causes very avoidable division with other faithful members of our church who do not believe this is an appropriate use of their offering-plate money? Even to the point of treating our political opponents in unloving, disrespectful ways, as if they are unworthy of basic listening or consideration? Even if this means needlessly alienating half of our mission field, and thus actually hurting the church’s primary mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ?
Again and again, the answer to such questions from the GBCS and similar entities within the rapidly shrinking mainline Protestant world has been “Yes!”
IRD/UMAction is committed to working towards the day when that changes.Google+