In an open letter to the faculty, administrators, students, and alumni at Asbury Theological Seminary, a group of 70 current and former students attacked the seminary for its support of the United Methodist Church’s Traditional Plan at General Conference 2019.
Asbury is an independent evangelical seminary outside Lexington, Kentucky with 1800 current students that teaches Wesleyan beliefs. It graduates more United Methodist clergy than does any official United Methodist seminary and is one of America’s largest seminaries.
Among the letter signers, and possibly its organizer, is Bill Mefford, who left the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society after controversially mocking the March for Life, where he appeared in 2015 with a sign declaring: “I March for Sandwiches.”
Letter authors decry the restrictions and penalties enacted by the plan in support of traditional marriage as unjust discrimination. They also compare the mandatory penalties of the Traditional Plan to federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Such laws are criticized by detractors as racist due to disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities.
The liberal Asbury activist students and alumni point to the application of the federal laws to excessively incarcerate minorities and draw a parallel to the use of the Traditional Plan to force self-avowed, practicing LGBT clergy out of the UMC. This is a spurious claim because race and ethnicity have no inherent moral dimensions, while sexual behavior does. Christ said to go and make disciples of all nations and all peoples, but he did not ignore the sinful lifestyles in which many people lived (Matthew 28:19, John 4:17-18, John 8:11).
The authors of the letter inform readers that by either directly assisting the passage of the Traditional Plan or by sitting quietly on the sidelines they have sinned grievously. The authors then go on to, “…confess our culpability in not making space for LGBTQ+ people in our lives, churches, and ministries.”
According to the letter, not sufficiently affirming one’s sexual proclivities, and indeed disagreeing with these choices and proclivities, is sin. The specific argument that the authors make is, “…to persecute someone for who they are – for who God has created them to be – is a denial of the Imago Dei within each person.”
This is preposterous. Firstly, it can be agreed that all people have inclinations to sin, and that these inclinations vary from person-to-person. Telling someone that they should not engage in homosexual behavior is no more a denial of the Image of God within that person than telling someone that they should not abuse alcohol or any other habitual sin. Secondly, God created all human beings to be like Him through sanctification in Christ. We were not created to sin, and the implication that homosexuality is part of proper Christian living and the process of sanctification is equally wrong.
Finally, the letter encourages the Asbury community to “repent of this sin and to join us in standing in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ.” Progressive activists emphasize the harm done to marginalized persons by the church while minimizing clear doctrinal teachings. This gives them a skewed view of what constitutes sin and what is permissible for Christians to support. The letter ends with a call to justice and love for those in the margins of society, even though in society homosexuality is celebrated in the public square.
United Methodist theologian Maxie Dunnam, a supporter of the Traditional Plan, wrote an open letter in response. Dunnam is a former president of Asbury Theological Seminary and is among groups to which the initial letter was addressed.
In his response, Dunnam emphasizes his lifetime of service to others. His first appointment after completing seminary was to Trinity Methodist Church in Mississippi in the early 1960s, and he was a participant in the civil rights movement. However, as Dunnam puts it, “Because of my involvement [in the Civil Rights Movement], and the larger church’s failure to be involved, or support those who were there, I was compelled to leave Mississippi.” Dunnam moved to San Clemente, California, to plant a congregation. At San Clemente, he continued his history of service ministering amongst immigrants in Tijuana, Mexico, 60 miles away. Dunnam’s letter emphasizes his history of compassion and service to the disadvantaged and marginalized.
Dunnam’s lifetime of service is informed by the same theology that informed his support of the Traditional Plan. This rebuts the argument that traditionalists are uncaring or unsympathetic. Rather, Dunnam makes the case that he is sympathetic and has a record to back it up. The same theology that drives him to help those in need also informs his support of the Traditionalist Plan.
Dunnam concludes in agreement with the Asbury activists that repentance is important and to be practiced regularly. But he also says, “I will continually seek to be faithful to Scripture and to the doctrine and discipline of our church.” It is more important adhere to and to be conformed to Scripture and God’s revealed word than it is to chase an ideal of inclusiveness or solidarity. This is what Dunnam understands, and this is what the Asbury activists reject.