October 26, 2014

What is the Foundation for United Methodist Political Lobbying?

The differences between IRD/UMAction and groups like the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) or the unofficial Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) are well documented.

But some key parts of last month’s semi-annual GBCS board of directors meeting pointed to very foundational theological differences that are more important than our differences on any specific social or moral issue.

These elements should be troubling to any Christian seeking to be biblically faithful, including those who appreciate some of the GBCS’s consistently Lock-step Liberal advocacy on economic and foreign policy matters. When it comes to how theology and Scripture are treated, faithful United Methodists of any political persuasion should expect much better from our denominational agencies.

In my observation over the years (stretching well before the new GBCS CEO took the helm this year), the GBCS’s use of Scripture gives every appearance of the sort of shallow, afterthought proof-texting that seeks to sound more “churchy” by hastily slapping on a reference to a few vaguely relevant-sounding verses in defending an already-decided political agenda. Passages of Scripture that would at all contradict or challenge the GBCS’s pre-conceived political values are simply overlooked. When this happens, it is simply not intellectually honest to claim that such advocacy is actually based or founded on Scripture. We United Methodists need to confront the fact that much of how people can get away with such biblical sloppiness is enabled by the sad reality of widespread biblical illiteracy within United Methodism, especially (though not exclusively) among the denomination’s progressive wing in which the GBCS’s support has long been limited.

The most glaringly obvious example is, of course, the GBCS’s long-standing opposition to as-explicit-as-can-be biblical teaching against homosexual practice, and even, at least in the Winkler years, defending premarital sex.

But such a selective, utilitarian approach to Scripture is seen in throughout GBCS’s being more foundationally shaped by its effective commitments to (1) advocate on every political issue under the sun, and (2) never do so in a way that contradicts the left wing of the Democratic Party.

For example, a display table at this last meeting had a GBCS-published hand-out on the death penalty, with a section on “What does the Bible say?” It lists several verses – Exodus 20:13; Ezekiel 33:11; Leviticus 19:18; John 8:3-11; Matthew 5:38-39; Matthew 5:43-44 – which, if taken in context-less isolation may seem to validate the GBCS’s lobbying for abolition of the death penalty in the United States. But as is so characteristic for the GBCS, the GBCS just completely ignores any part of Scripture that would challenge or complicate its pre-conceived political agenda. In purporting to inform its audience of “What does the Bible say” that is relevant to the death penalty, the GBCS chooses to avoid any acknowledgement of God’s explicitly prescribing the death penalty in the Noahic covenant as well as in the theocratic nation-state of Old Testament Israel, or Paul’s affirmation of the government’s God-given right to use violent force when necessary, not to mention how John Wesley, in the UMC’s own doctrinal standards, interprets the latter passage as divine authorization “of capital punishment.”

It is worth asking how truly Christian the political advocacy of any Christian organization or individual is when the positions supported on any issue is based on simply acting as if significant parts of biblical teaching do not exist.

For the record, IRD has no official pro- or anti-death-penalty position, and staff members have a range of individual opinions. I am personally sympathetic to arguments that states have the right to impose the death penalty when necessary to protect public safety, but do not need to exercise this right in contexts, like the United States or Japan, that are stable enough for us to reasonably trust that imprisoned mass murderers can be reliably prevented from posing further threats to society. But you don’t find such nuance from the GBCS.

A couple notable actions at this meeting were GBCS directors adopting one resolution which included the declaration that “Christians proclaim that all people are God’s children…” and another making a similar statement, without any plenary debate or discussion on this major theological claim.

Certainly every human being is tenderly created in God’s image and of precious value in His sight. But “child of God” is a technical theological phrase which, aside from passages talking about Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God, is used in the New Testament only for that sub-set of humanity who were not originally children of God but who became so through adoption. 1 John 3 explicitly contrasts those who are children of God with the rest of humanity, who are “children of the Devil.” Both Jesus (John 8:44) and, at a point when he was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” Paul (Acts 13:10) even singled out specific individuals as children of the Devil. The GBCS’s habit on these resolutions and elsewhere of speaking as if all people were already children of God betrays the evangelism-killing universalist theology underlying much of the GBCS’s progressivism.

The meeting’s closing worship featured bilingual recitation of “The Immigrant’s Creed,” which not only affirms God’s love for immigrants (hardly controversial) but essentially mimics the Trinitarian structure of the classic Christian creeds to seem to oddly encourage immigrants to re-imagine God in their own image, making their own non-universal personal experiences the defining characteristics of the God of the universe:

We believe in God the great immigrant

That moves over the waters of creation, and continues moving

We believe in God that knows of our struggles and defend us [sic]

We believe in Jesus Christ that migrated

And is among us

That eliminates barriers and frontiers

Although exclusion and isolation exist, we are all connected by Christ

We believe in the Holy Spirit that accompanies the foreigner that we all are

And sustain us in our vulnerability

We believe in the church that receives, walk besides, and learns from the immigrant

We believe in the Kingdom of God

Where all are citizens of a new Nation, sacred and free

We will work until it becomes a reality in the entire planet

Amen

The second line is reminiscent of a speaker at a GBCS immigration conference a few years ago, who made the bizarre “aha!” claim that God’s spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:2 was “a migratory action.” That same GBCS speaker also questioned if belief in the Trinity was necessary for being a Christian.

Furthermore, as noted earlier, at one point in this meeting, the GBCS appeared to adopt a radically “pro-choice” ethos that in principle would appear to stretch even beyond bioethical issues, reflexively refusing to “judge” certain personal life choices as wrong. Such an accountability-free ethos could hardly be further removed from the culture of the earlier church, which firmly insisted on moral standards for lay members, or Methodism, which was a movement built on intense small-group accountability.

One day, a fundamentally reformed United Methodist social witness will take greater care to begin and be grounded upon a solid biblical and theological foundation. Because if we do not get the foundation right, we have little reason to trust in the soundness of anything we build upon it.


2 Responses to What is the Foundation for United Methodist Political Lobbying?

  1. Namyriah says:

    Speaking as a former employee of the UM Publishing House (and former UM, I might add), I got a swift education in the religious left’s attitude toward the Bible: it’s simply a tool to be used in promoting liberalism, nothing more. I was surrounded by staff members who had graduate schooling, mostly MDivs, whose 3 years of seminary education convinced them that the Bible was just an old document, no different from the Iliad or Oedipus Rex – interesting, but not inspired. Of course, as a pastor you can’t say that plainly from the pulpit, you have to go on pretending you’re a Christian and that the Bible is somehow special (you might even use the word “inspired,” with a sly wink). The religious left does not believe in sin, salvation, or the afterlife, meaning that if they were honest, they would simply shut down their churches and admit they are not Christians, but they don’t because they want to hold on to the “brand” to prevent orthodox Christians from taking full possession of it. The typical left-wing “Christian” has no more regard for the Bible than an atheist does, but with this difference: an atheist won’t quote Galatians 3:28 as a prooftext for feminism, but a left-wing “Christian” will.

  2. John S. says:

    One must have hope to labor in a cause but I’ve doubts that this:

    “One day, a fundamentally reformed United Methodist social witness will take greater care to begin and be grounded upon a solid biblical and theological foundation. ”

    will ever happen in the UMC. As a minimum I think it would take a drastic winnowing of leadership and laity.

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