Some may regard the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) as the least interesting but most important denominational agency of the United Methodist Church. Least interesting, because it is more the domain of accountants and lawyers than of theologians or activists, and thus tends to avoid the sorts of political fireworks sometimes seen with other agencies. But most important, because it controls so much of the flow of the money to other parts of the global denomination.
But on October 21, the 21-member GCFA board of directors (which includes only one token African member) had a private conference call in which a majority of them decided to redefine the word “spouse” for the comprehensive spousal-benefits packages given to employees of UMC denominational agencies to now include, in the words of the GCFA’s press release, “[o]pposite-sex and same-sex spouses, recognized by a state as being legally married to the employee” as well as “[c]ivil partners, either through a civil union or a comprehensive domestic partnership, recognized by a state as being the legal partner of an employee.”
In terms of the second category, in several legal jurisdictions, including ones in which some UMC general agencies are headquartered, opposite-sex cohabitating unmarried couples can register for legally recognized, non-marital civil unions or domestic partnerships. So I asked the GCFA if such perfectly heterosexual, non-marital partnerships are now also eligible for the General Agencies Welfare Benefits Program. The answer I received over e-mail: “the policy adopted by GCFA’s Board of Directors treats all legally recognized marriages, civil unions, and comprehensive domestic partnerships the same” (in other words: yes). This decision was made in time for an open-enrollment period which began on October 28.
Thus, thanks to the GCFA, apportionment dollars skimmed from UMC offering plates around the country are now being used to pay for employer subsidies of premium costs to extend comprehensive benefits to the unmarried live-in romantic partners of church agency employees. Whether they are in a traditional marriage, a same-sex partnership, or just a man and woman shacking up outside of marriage does not matter to the GCFA. As long as the union has some legal recognition, the GCFA is equally devoted to devoting church resources to support the relationship.
GCFA leaders have downplayed the significance of this policy shift, suggesting that this is just a purely administrative and legal matter which the UMC lawyers and accountants “had to” take care of, and that is somehow not about the church’s theological and moral teaching. GCFA reports that it does not keep an active, public record of the number of individual employees who have actually taken advantage of this newly expanded definition of “spouse.” In response to an inquiry from leaders of other agencies, the GCFA’s CEO, Moses Kumar, sent a missive warning general agency employees who are also ordained United Methodist clergy that if they choose to take advantage of this option, “such an action may subject you to discipline under church law, including a possible loss of clergy credentials.” The UMC’s official teaching remains that sex is only for man-woman marriage, and church law forbids our ministers being sexually active outside of that covenant. As for lay employees, the GCFA’s press release portrayed this new policy as a necessary legal adjustment to conform with the recent changes to some state and federal laws redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. One GCFA leader publicly offered the reason that not to offer such benefits “would put our denomination at risk for lawsuits alleging discrimination.”
However, among the on-the-record questions I asked the GCFA about this over email were if they could point me to any specific provision of federal and state law compelling even religious organizations whose moral teachings do not regard same-sex unions as legitimate marriages to nevertheless to pay for benefits to support such relationships (let alone pay to support non-marital cohabitation). GCFA was apparently unable to cite any such specific legal provisions. Do those who rushed this policy through really expect us to believe that other evangelical churches who join the UMC in officially affirming biblical standards for sexual self-control would as readily make such a secularizing surrender?
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul indeed famously commands Christians to submit to governing authorities. This is clearly binding for laws which may be a pain (like scrupulous honesty in filing our taxes) or which we would prefer to be different (like traffic regulations) but that are not clearly contradictory to our faith.
But what happens when there is a conflict between the demands of Christian faithfulness and the demands of human authorities?
Peter and the other apostles faced exactly this situation when they were arrested for defying the orders of their rulers to stop preaching the Gospel. Their memorable comeback in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
It is worth noting that over the course of church history, there have been many recognized as martyrs whose murders were occasioned not by their refusal to deny Christ as their Lord with their words, but rather by their refusal to engage in inherently unchristian actions, including sexual immorality.
GCFA’s press release acknowledged that the UMC’s governing Book of Discipline prohibits the expenditure of denomination-wide apportionment funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (Para. 806.9). But the GCFA wanted to offer these immorality-enabling benefits anyway, and so formally asked the Judicial Council, our denomination’s “supreme court,” to tell them that it was okay for them to do so. In late April, the Judicial Council announced its ruling, which basically amounted to saying that it was entirely up to the GCFA to determine whether or not this use of funds would “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
I have not seen any evidence that the GCFA made any serious effort to address the “question” of whether or not specifically devoting some expenditures of church funds for the sole purpose of enabling, supporting, and encouraging homosexual relationships of lay employees of church agencies would be among the sorts of things that would promote the acceptance of homosexuality. In any case, the GCFA’s secularizing redefinition of marriage (at least for effective, lay personnel purposes) was cheered by liberal UMC caucuses who readily understood that such a leveling treatment of traditional marriages and same-sex partnerships obviously does “promote acceptance of” the latter.
It was especially disappointing to see that the GCFA’s formal request for a Judicial Council declaratory decision, dated December 9, only asked for decisions about “[t]he use of general agency funds to subsidize the premium costs for employees and their same-gendered spouses” enrolled in the benefits plan. But in my aforementioned email correspondence, the GCFA indicated that it is now also offering benefits to support non-marital, opposite-sex cohabitating relationships of agency staffers. Thus, it appears that the GCFA received the blessing it sought from the Judicial Council only after it chose to narrowly frame the question in a way that excluded from consideration other important conflicts with our church’s faith and policies.
It is sad but hardly surprising that, as indicated by the GCFA itself, we cannot trust that UMC agency employees involved in sexual immorality (heterosexual as well as homosexual) would not try to selfishly bite the hand that feeds them by having the gall to selfishly sue our church., in blatant violation of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. (Apparently disregarding the subsequent parts of that chapter leads to disregarding the rest.)
This unfortunate development gives all the more reason for the next General Conference to reform church law to require lay employees of denominational agencies to abide by the same biblical standards of sexual self-control we demand of our clergy. Does anyone really argue that a prominent denominational leadership position would suddenly have less moral and spiritual significance if the person hired for it is a layperson rather than an ordained minister? And do we really want to lift up people openly engaged in ongoing sexual immorality (heterosexual or homosexual)—and who put our church at risk with their apparent willingness to break all sorts of biblical conflict-resolutions principles to sue our church in secular courts—to be influential leaders and examples in our denomination?
I have already noted my reasons for skepticism about exaggerations of the alleged legal “need” for this new policy.
Furthermore, basing a major pastoral, theological, and moral decision solely upon some (vaguely mentioned) risk of being sued is an odd precedent. Would the GCFA follow this logic consistently and tell United Methodist pastors, just to be on the safe side, to never preach about certain parts of our historic doctrine if there was actually some remote possibility this may offend a visitor who may then harass the church with a frivolous lawsuit?
I am neither an accountant nor a lawyer. While the GCFA has not met its burden of proof to publicly demonstrate this, I do not rule out the possibility of there being some potential ways in which current U.S. public policies threaten our church’s right to live consistently in accord with our values. This is difficult to grasp for us American Christians, so long coddled by our nation’s somewhat unusual degree of religious liberty.
But should the UMC’s identity be as a boldly biblical, global church courageously teaching and practicing a received faith whose truths transcends times and cultures, or should we instead act like another secularized non-profit network whose operative values automatically conform to whichever way the winds of U.S. culture outside of the church are blowing at the moment?
More fundamentally, this raises the question of whether or not we are willing to stand with the apostles in declaring that Jesus is our Lord and King, and that his Lordship trumps that of all other human authorities.
When Christians, whether as individuals or as Christian organizations, face a burdensome new demand from other people, what should our first concern be?
Should it simply be to protect ourselves from as much cost (financial or otherwise) as possible?
Or should we rather be willing to take up our crosses with a first-and-foremost commitment to keep our actions within the boundaries of faithfulness, no matter the cost?
Of course, it is also important to join with brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations, as well as non-Christian allies of conscience, in using the legal means at our disposal to protest and seek to stop any bullying attempt by secular governmental authorities to try to tell churches what our internal moral policies should be. After all, Paul was not above appealing to his rights as a Roman citizen. Are UMC leaders really doing all that God wants them to do if they choose the easy road of prematurely surrendering and leaving the burden of defending churches’ right to set their own standards entirely on the backs of other brothers and sisters in Christ, without lifting a finger to help them?
It is also important to challenge, as IRD/UMAction has done, the GCFA’s decision to basically secularize its operative sexual ethics, to dramatically strain the trust of those whose offering-plate-money they steward, and to refuse to defend the church’s faith. This decision by a rather small group of people hardly represents all United Methodists.
But the specter of government coercion or harassment via frivolous lawsuits raises a question with which all U.S. Christians, United Methodists and others, must wrestle: are we truly ready and willing to obey God over any other human authority when the latter suddenly tells us to do something that violates our obligations to the Former? Even if this would be costly for us personally and/or for any church or Christian organization of which we are a part?
Sadly, on such questions, I cannot commend the GCFA for setting a good example.