By Lee Cary and Philip McLarty
Rev. Dr. Lee D. Cary served 25 years as a United Methodist pastor in Northern Illinois and North Texas. He holds a Masters in Theology (’74) and a Doctor of Sacred Theology (’79) from the UMC’s Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
Rev. Dr. Philip W. McLarty has served 24 years as a UMC pastor, and 22 years as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He holds a Masters in Theology (’74) and a Doctor of Ministry (’81) from the UMC’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. Today, as a retired Presbyterian minister, he pastors two United Methodist congregations in rural Arkansas.
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The LGBTQ agenda driving the United Methodist Church (UMC) debate concerning human sexuality is based on political religion and stems from identity politics. Human sexuality is not a theological debate.
The Church reacts to political pressure, just like other venues of American culture. When a politically-driven ideology defines Church doctrine, the result can assume the patina of a state religion. And, if that happens next February at a special UMC meeting in St. Louis, it could implode the denomination.
The history of Protestant denominations is full of theological debates that led to schisms. One such debate, that came to a head in the early 20th Century, led to the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936), and, later, the Bible Presbyterian Church (1938). Here’s a brief review of that saga.
Early 20th Century Debate of Modernism vs. Confessional Calvinism
Writing as a Modernist, Shailer Mathews, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote this in his 1924 book entitled The Faith of Modernism:
“The issue between Modernism and Confessionalism is not one of mere theology. It is rather a struggle between two types of mind, two attitudes toward culture, and, in consequence, two conceptions as to how Christianity can help us live…[T]he use of scientific, historical, social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons is Modernism.” (pp. 18-19)
Who were the Modernists? In his book of over a thousand pages chronicling the decline of the Presbyterian Church, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, Gary North wrote:
“The reason why the term ‘modernist’ has been applied by historians to religious figures as well as to contemporary political activists and cultural innovators is that theological modernists shared Progressivism’s faith…It was faith in Darwinian evolution, historical relativism, progress through science, the benevolent State, and the benefits of getting one’s hands on other people’s money–through political force, deception, or both.” (Preface, xxxv)
Writing for the Presbyterian Confessional Traditionalists, Princeton Seminary’s New Testament Professor J. Gresham Machen referred to Modernism as theological “Liberalism” in his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism:
“There is a profound difference, then, in the attitude assumed by modern liberalism and by Christianity toward Jesus the Lord. Liberalism regards Him as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior: liberalism makes Him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith…If Jesus was only what the liberal historians suppose that He was, then trust in Him would be out of place…liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards Him as a supernatural Person.” (p. 82)
The debate from 1900-1936 pitted an established orthodoxy, based on the authority of the Scripture, against the Modernist understanding of mankind’s evolving word as authority. It was a well-documented and clearly-articulated theological debate.
The Early 21st Century Human Sexuality Debate in Today’s UMC
The LBGTQ movement’s push to change the UMC’s position on homosexuality and same sex marriage escalated at recent General Conferences. Feeling that they were at an impasse, a narrow majority of delegates approved formation of a 32-member, church-wide Commission on the Way Forward tasked to find a solution to the disagreement. (In the mid-1920’s, the Presbyterians appointed “The Commission of Fifteen” to address their own internal unrest.)
This led to the showdown scheduled for February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Advocates of the One Church Plan are labeled “Progressives.” Those opposing the Progressives are “Traditionalists.” Those favoring The Connectional Church Plan are unlabeled.
When questioned by email as to what it means to be “Progressive” in the context of this debate, a spokesperson for United Methodist Communications wrote:
“[W]ithin American Protestantism…the term ‘progressive’ or ‘progressives’ describe those who work for change to improve the lives of persons who have been oppressed or excluded within church structures and in the wider world—often joining with others who share similar political, economic, or social views, even when religious views may vary dramatically. Progressives within various religious groups have ‘kept up the fight’ for women’s rights, for civil rights for all people, for the environment, for the rights of indigenous peoples, and for LGBTQIA+ rights.”
This explanation takes a page out of the LGBTQ Playbook, and suggests that the official communication outlet of the UMC has assigned the moral high ground to the One Church Plan and its advocates. That position mirrors the stated opinion of a majority of the Council of Bishops.
In 2013, the LGBTQ agenda influenced the Boy Scouts of America to lift its restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation. The organization subsequently permitted gay adults to be Scout leaders.
In 2015, the LGBTQ agenda influenced the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges by redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.
Since the late 19th Century, the American Progressive Movement has captured, or made significant inroads into, the academy, media, civil government, entertainment, advertising, professional sports, and organized religion. The current crisis in the UMC is among several, recent, Progressive inroads into the Church.
In June 2015, the Presbyterian Church (USA) amended its Book of Order to open the door to same-sex marriages, stating:
“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.”
(Note the shift away from normatively teaching that marriage IS between a man and a woman.)
As of 2018, the Episcopal Church stripped its bishops of the authority to prohibit any priest in their respective dioceses from conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies. In response, the Rt. Rev. Bishop William Love of the Albany Diocese, wrote a long Pastoral Letter explaining why he refused to abide by the new provision. In “To the People of God in the Diocese of Albany and throughout the World” he wrote this:
“The Episcopal Church and Western Society have been hijacked by the ‘Gay Rights Agenda’ which is very well organized, very strategic, very well financed, and very powerful.”
The question is: Will the United Methodist Church be next?