I reported earlier on the recently released results of the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church, on which all of the denomination’s geographic annual conferences were to have voted last year.
Among other notable results was the failure of Amendment #1, which would have added a new paragraph to our Constitution affirming women’s equality. But this also included a single controversial sentence declaring, in a rather broad and unnuanced way, that it was incorrect to ever refer to God as male or female. As I wrote earlier:
“Were it not for that one sentence, I expect Amendment #1 would have passed overwhelmingly, with no significant opposition. I strongly affirm every other sentence, without hesitation. And I earlier noted how there is some truth to this one contested sentence. But given how some radical United Methodists have undermined belief in Jesus Christ being fully God while He also remains (in both the past and present) a human male, or refused to say ‘Father God’ in worship, I raised questions last year about how this new sentence may be used to advance such agendas, if it were made part of our denomination’s foundational constitution.”
But within days of the announcement of the results of the amendment voting, someone found out that actually that this one theologically problematic sentence had actually been REMOVED before Amendment #1 was adopted by the 2016 General Conference. But then for regional votes to ratify this proposed amendment (a required step for any constitutional amendment), Gere Reist, the liberal outgoing Secretary of the General Conference, sent every United Methodist annual conference a version of this amendment that put that sentence back in. He was effectively appointed to that role by the Council of Bishops, and has recently apologized for this “human error.”
So when every United Methodist annual conference around the world last year voted on what we were told was Amendment #1, we were actually voting on language that was never adopted by General Conference.
From what I have heard, expressed opposition in various annual conferences mainly centered on this single sentence, which should have never been put before annual conferences in the first place.
All that printing, arguing, and balloting turned out to have just been a simulation all along.
Such a colossal “error,” on such a routine matter, will hardly ease the way many United Methodists had already been questioning the trustworthiness of our denominational hierarchy. And it did not help when official reports from the denominational establishment about this error spread further inaccuracies, such as reporting that this one problematic sentence was removed by a 746-56 vote in plenary session (pages 2106 and 2438 of the Daily Christian Advocate show that it was actually removed in committee) or that Amendment #2, which was also defeated, concerned non-discrimination standards for only for church membership (that proposal explicitly concerned all levels of UMC “governance”).
To be fair, I as one of the 864 General Conference delegates could have also double-checked this inaccurate reporting about Amendment #1. So I am sorry for my part in not catching this. When I made my earlier judgments about the proposed constitutional amendments, I relied on the official version that the United Methodist News Service linked to in an article. I assume that UMNS was in turn using the language that Reist had sent on before retiring as General Conference Secretary.
We may never know how Reist made this “error” and whether or not it was truly unintentional. But we do know a few clear facts: The official press release reports that it was Gere Reist who sent this incorrect version of the amendment. Reist has a track record of showing himself to be perfectly willing to use his position to promote his liberal biases, even to the point of crossing basic lines of honesty. Once you cross such lines, you cannot expect the same level of trust. Before being passed at General Conference, this petition had the one problematic sentence removed, and was also amended in another place. The version Reist passed on reflected the second amendment, so he cannot claim that he did not know that that the petition was amended from its original version. Finally, in my encounters with Gere Reist over the years, I have never known him to be incompetent, particularly not on this level.
Again, while there is some truth to the one controversial sentence (“The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine”), it also had several problems. And whenever any Christians – from preachers in pulpits to those voting on theological statements to add to the UMC Discipline – are in a position of teaching others about the very nature of God, we have an inescapable, sacred duty to take great care with our word choices, lest we even inadvertently encourage confusion about God among our audience.
This sentence was not carefully worded, and would have worsened some of the theological confusion that exists in some parts of the UMC, even beyond what I have noted above.
One New England pastor accurately quoted an earlier version of an article of mine, and defended this controversial sentence from the amendment on the basis of this gentleman’s belief that “while the historical Jesus was a male human being, that is not a proper description of the cosmic Christ, the risen one who is present to us now.” I am not sure what exactly he means by describing Jesus Christ as only being a human male in the past tense, but this seems rather consistent with modernist views denying Christ’s physical resurrection, and rather inconsistent with any orthodox, biblical understanding of Jesus being both fully God and fully man.
As of this writing, I have seen reports of a liberal-leaning annual conference actually editing the Apostles’ Creed at its recently completed 2018 session, by replacing both references to God “the Father” with “the Creator,” thus presenting a distorted understanding of the Trinity and echoing the ancient heresy of modalism.
Clearly, our denomination does not need any additional confusion about such core Christian truths as the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or the Trinity.
So for me, when we were told that Amendment #1 would include this questionable sentence, voting “NO” and offering to come back next time to support a less-tainted affirmation of gender equality was a basic matter of the very Wesleyan ethical principle of “First, do no harm.”
And what about those we elevate to the most prominent positions of leadership and teaching? Well, our bishops could have civilly acknowledged these concerns. Or they could have stuck to reporting the results of the voting on the constitutional amendments, in a fair, objective, and accurate way, while respecting the process. Or they could have acknowledged the extreme manipulations of some American bishops to suppress democratic processes and artificially inflate the votes for the first two (failed) proposed amendments, and promised to prevent such abuses from happening again.
But our bishops have chosen to do none of these things.
I was not present when the UMC Council of Bishops had its closed-door discussions of the voting results. But every public reaction I have seen our bishops individually or collectively make fits the pattern of a trick that cynical self-serving leaders throughout human history have tried when the legitimacy of their leadership was questioned: they manufactured a crisis.
The Council of Bishops chose to impose a months-long, perhaps unprecedented silence on the voting results, and then ensure that no one would learn the final results until they were released framed in hysterical, factually misleading statements about “dismay” and “weeping” and how the UMC had allegedly taken a great step back and somehow harmed women and girls. The way our bishops irresponsibly chose to frame and release the results then caused all kinds of pain as women around the UMC were suddenly greeted with dishonest headlines and claims about the UMC “voting against women’s equality.” Our bishops provoked a storm of loveless rancor on social media. Some crossed basic ethical lines of honesty. I have seen none admit how defeated proposed Amendment #2 would have greatly expanded these virtue-signaling bishops’ own power by abolishing requirements that they retire by a certain point. And by painting such a grossly misleading picture of what these votes really meant, the Council of Bishops hurt its own long-term credibility.
But apparently, a great many (thankfully not all!) of our bishops felt that all of this was a price worth paying for getting a moment to portray themselves as the uniquely righteous champions of women’s equality, against a bad United Methodist Church that had allegedly failed women.
All of that being said, we still have the corrected Proposed Amendment #1 to vote on:
“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten women’s and girl’s equality and well-being.”
Now that that one problematic sentence is removed, I enthusiastically plan to vote “YES,” and I encourage other conservative, evangelical United Methodists to join me in doing likewise.
Contrary to a concern I have heard expressed, I do NOT see this amendment saying anything about quotas or forcing any sort of system in which qualified men get shut out of UMC leadership positions just because of their sex.
Here is what I DO see it saying:
I see it affirming of the clear biblical teaching that the two genders, male and female, are both equally created in the image of God.
Throughout world history, women and girls have been systematically treated as inferior, denied access to education, and shut out of jobs and positions despite being very qualified. We should remember that we are a global church, and I have family in a part of the world where overt employment discrimination against women is rampant. The #MeToo movement has recently highlighted the continued pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexual violence here in the United States. I would never advocate ignoring the men and boys who are also victimized, but we also cannot ignore how the victims are disproportionately female. This list is NOT comprehensive. But acknowledging such discrimination against women and girls is a basic matter of intellectual honesty.
Joining others in opposing such mistreatment of our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and yes, pastors, and seeking to improve the lives of all of those who have been historically mistreated, is a basic moral commitment that I affirm because of my conservative, evangelical faith, not in spite of it.
It is beyond the scope of this article to address the biblical arguments in defense of women’s ordination and the sincere concerns that many faithful, perfectly non-misogynistic Christians have. But for those who are interested, I recommend these short videos and articles produced from the inerrantist, evangelical bastion of Asbury Theological Seminary briefly outlining some of the key arguments for why ordaining women is consistent with a high view of biblical authority.
I understand that some have been trying for years, unsuccessfully, to get a statement affirming the equality of women embedded into the UMC Constitution, as the foundational document of our church law. With the above language, I hope that we have finally found something that United Methodists across our various theologies and divisions can agree on.