Wesleyan Heritage Recovery Project
by James Gibson
In an emotional address the Sunday following the conclusion of General Conference, the pastor of a large United Methodist congregation lamented the division that exists within the denomination over the issue of same sex behavior. Division, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The upholding of biblical standards passed the General Conference by a whopping 65-35 margin (and the votes were even more lopsided on related questions). Pre-conference threats by the militant same sex movement turned out, for the most part, to be hollow (although there were a few staged arrests). The immediate post-conference analysis by most leading evangelicals was one of hope and a new beginning for a denomination so long mired in a needless debate.
But then came the emotional "spin" from the guilt-ridden "Methodist Middle."
Emotions are dangerous things, especially for persons called of God to tend increasingly diverse flocks. Dr. Steve Seamands of Asbury Theological Seminary warns his students that the excesses of the Wesleyan "warmed heart" tradition can easily lead to a "soft head." The result is "sloppy agape," a careless misapplication of unconditional love which, at best, ignores the ravaging effects of sin in a person's life and, at worst, blesses and affirms the sin as a gift from God.
Methodist pastors should take care to maintain, as did John Wesley, a proper balance between knowledge and vital piety. Otherwise, they become easy prey for the emotion-manipulating advocates of same sex behavior and help prolong an already overextended debate with such statements as, "Sixty five percent is a significant majority but you've got to deal with the thirty five percent."
We will overlook, for the time being, the likelihood that the opinion of "thirty five percent" of the General Conference delegates is actually the opinion of a considerably smaller percentage of the denominational membership. It will suffice to refer to "the thirty five percent" as a representative sample of that element within United Methodism that is bent on overturning 2,000 years of Christian tradition rooted in the objective principles of Scripture in favor of an agenda of moral relativism manifested in the subjective whims of misguided emotionalism. We will not overlook, however, the numerous myths about this element which have led many in the Middle to believe that "dealing with the thirty five percent" is a complicated proposition for which there is presently no clear solution.
Myth #1: Same sex advocates recognize the authority of the Bible but simply interpret it differently.
If this were true, the same sex advocates would not denigrate the authority of Scripture every time they make an argument for their position. They are constantly repeating the mantra that the Bible is a book written by "men" who lived in a society where "patriarchal oppression" was the accepted norm. Laws prohibiting certain forms of sexual behavior are not seen as being ordained by God but as instituted by humans in order to maintain the "male dominated" culture.
It is certainly true that same sex advocates interpret the Bible differently, but that is a secondary concern. The real issue is their rejection of Scripture's authority in matters of faith and practice. That rejection of authority has led to absurd and irresponsible exegesis. Same sex advocates have re-imagined the Scriptures so as to find homosexual relationships between Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Mary and Martha, Jesus and John, Paul and Timothy. The Bible, for them, is not the Word of God to whose authority all believers must submit. It is, instead, a cheap sex toy to be twisted, manipulated and abused according to their own lustful passions.
It should also be pointed out that members of the Middle join with same sex advocates in denigrating the Scriptures when making their emotional pleas for "compassion" and "understanding." If the Bible were "strictly adhered to" or "interpreted literally," they say, then numerous practices which are considered commonplace--women in the ministry, wearing jewelry, braiding your hair, etc.--would have to be outlawed. This attitude directly contradicts the favorite caveat of the Middle, "Context is everything." Yanking a few passages out of context in an attempt to prove the Bible is not altogether trustworthy makes the Middle, in one respect, worse than the same sex advocates. Same sex advocates interpret Scripture poorly. Those in the Middle interpret it not at all.
Myth #2: Same sex advocates are godly people who simply have an honest difference of opinion.
Prior to General Conference last spring, numerous same sex groups threatened to disrupt the gathering through acts of "non-violent" civil disobedience. During the conference, they tried to make good on their threats, but with limited success. After the final gavel, however, at least one such group immediately issued a statement threatening to traverse the country picketing churches and disrupting worship services for the next four years until the denomination changed its "discriminatory" position on same sex behavior.
Picture in your mind, for a moment, militant same sex advocates bolting into churches on Sunday morning, disrupting worship services and desecrating sanctuaries. It is not an image fostered by "godly" people with "an honest difference of opinion." It is an affirmation of the biblical description of such persons as "filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. . . full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. . . gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful. . . invent[ing] ways of doing evil; disobey[ing] their parents. . . senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (Romans 1:29-31, emphasis added).
Having their names on church rolls, attending Disciple Bible studies and involving themselves in various church activities does not make such godless persons godly in the least bit. The Middle again demonstrates its lack of respect for biblical authority by perpetuating this myth.
Myth #3: Same sex advocates offer a unique testimony which the Church desperately needs to hear.
The testimonies the Church desperately needs to hear are those of persons genuinely transformed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. It is of no benefit to the Church to hear the emotional sob stories of persons trapped in bondage to a deadly lifestyle whose hearts are numb to the fact that Jesus Christ offers them freedom.
By painting themselves as "victims," same sex advocates eliminate the negative spiritual implications of their behavior and manipulate the emotions of the Middle so as to cast aspersions upon the firm convictions of those who will not abandon Scriptural authority. Thus, by perpetuating this myth, the Middle avoids the uncomfortable truth that the Church must use discernment and exercise discipline with regard to acceptable moral conduct.
Myth #4: Same sex advocates have been deeply hurt because they have been "excluded" from full participation in the life of the Church.
In creating this myth, same sex advocates once again play the "victim" card in order to manipulate the emotions of the Middle. This was illustrated during General Conference with the display of clerical stoles which belonged to pastors who had been defrocked because they "happened to be gay." For those lacking discernment, this was a powerful image, especially when accompanied by a pastor weeping in the pew next to his stole. However, a little discernment would enable a person to see beyond this staged play on the emotions and ask a simple, common sense question: Who is to blame for this man losing his credentials--the Church, for failing to accommodate his immoral lifestyle; or the man himself, for failing to repent of his sin and submit to the authority of God's Word and the Church's discipline?
The Church has a responsibility to hold accountable those set apart for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. God calls whom he chooses, but the Church is entrusted with the task of supporting, overseeing and, when necessary, disciplining God's servants in order that they maintain and exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct in their lives and ministries. The Middle seeks to circumvent this responsibility by passionately claiming, "God is calling us to listen!"
But to whom is God calling us to listen? Is he calling us to listen to the voices of those who ask the Church to sanctify their sin? Is he calling us to listen to the voices of those who ask the Church to keep asking questions? Or. . . Is he calling us to listen to his voice through his Word, which provides his answer to all our questions?
That answer should be obvious.
Complicating the Simple and Simplifying the Complicated
By succumbing to the emotional manipulations of the militant same sex movement, the "Methodist Middle" has made itself a not altogether unwilling accomplice of the Devil in his relentless effort to complicate the simple and simplify the complicated. For it must be stated, and stated unequivocally, that the source of all these myths is none other than the Father of Lies himself, "the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan" (Revelation 20:2), whose destiny, along with those who join with him in his nefarious schemes, is death and destruction.
The solution to the Church's problem with the militant same sex movement is quite simple. However, implementing such a solution is a complicated and often painful endeavor. The Middle would rather the Church be spared the pain. Thus it perpetuates the myths which make the problem itself sound complicated.
The Quadrennial Charade
The most telling example of the confusion brought on by the perpetuation of these myths is the business of the General Conference itself. Every four years, delegates gather to consider thousands of petitions and resolutions. Most prominent among them are requests by same sex advocates to change the Discipline with regard to their ungodly behavior. Reports are presented, impassioned debate ensues and demonstrations take place both inside and outside the convention hall before the delegates vote overwhelmingly to maintain the Church's historical position.
A careful reading of The Book of Discipline will reveal this quadrennial exercise is a charade. The General Conference does not have the authority to alter the Church's position on biblical sexual morality. The first Restrictive Rule (Para. 16, Article I, 1996 page 26) states, "The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine."
Among the Articles of Religion which the General Conference "shall not revoke, alter or change" is Article VI, "Of the Old Testament" (Para. 62, Article VI, 1996 page 58), which states, in part, "Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral."
The present position of the Church on same sex behavior, that it is "incompatible with Christian teaching" (Para. 65G, 1996 page 89), is consistent with the standard and rule of doctrine established in Article VI. However, if the General Conference were to amend the Church's position so as to make same sex behavior "compatible with Christian teaching," it would violate the first Restrictive Rule in that it would be establishing "new standards and rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine." In other words, a significant portion of the business of every General Conference over the last quarter of a century has been staged merely to placate "the thirty five percent" who care nothing for Scripture or the Discipline. While not willing to change its position on paper, the Church is, in practice, all too willing to give same sex advocates a forum for the dissemination of contrary doctrines.
The words "disciple" and "discipline" spring from the same root and no one can be a true disciple who does not, from time to time, endure discipline. "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). It is ironic that United Methodism today must contend not only with a militant minority seeking to overturn its biblical and doctrinal standards, but also with a milquetoast Middle which can neither understand the concept nor appreciate the benefits of church discipline. No one understood and appreciated it more than Methodism's founder, John Wesley. If those who claim to be his heirs today think it complicated to find a way to "deal with the thirty five percent," it is because they have not followed his instructions, which are preserved and protected to this day in The Book of Discipline.
The fifth Restrictive Rule (Para. 19, Article V, 1996 page 27) states, "The General Conference shall not revoke or change the General Rules of Our United Societies." These General Rules originated with Wesley himself and are included in paragraph 62 of the Discipline (1996, pages 69-72). While several of the expectations may seem antiquated, it is hardly unrealistic to expect the people called Methodists to continue to walk in grace toward the ideal of holiness which these Rules make plain.
The United Societies out of which these Rules emerged, the very foundation of the Methodist movement, were not debate clubs or discussion groups. "Such a society is no other than 'a company of men [sic] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation'" (Para. 62, 1996 page 70, emphasis original). Members were expected to adhere to the Rules themselves and also hold one another accountable in doing the same. Failure was not an option.
These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our souls. (Para. 62, 1996 page 72)
The term "accountability" has lately taken on some very negative connotations. This is due to the fact that it is often spoken of in the context of punishing church leaders who have run afoul of the Discipline. Historically, however, the purpose of accountability has been redemptive, not punitive. Accountability among members of the United Societies was a means of grace which was mutually edifying. The present association of accountability with punishment is a reflection of the Church's failure over the past several decades to exercise proper discipline. Punitive action (". . . he hath no more place among us") is supposed to be a last resort, implemented only after all other avenues have been exhausted. Even then, the ultimate goal is repentance and restoration.
Unfortunately, the people called Methodists have been negligent in pursuing all other avenues. Instead of admonishing same sex advocates of the error of their ways, we have timidly refrained from any word or deed which might be interpreted as "intolerant." Instead of bearing with them for a season, we have given them a national stage upon which to act out their sinful passions. It is no wonder, then, that any suggestion that these persons have "no more place among us" is viewed as "unloving" and "harshly judgmental."
The tragic irony of these misguided attempts to be "understanding" and "compassionate" toward same sex advocates is that by so "loving" them, we sentence them to death. True compassion must be viewed from the perspective of eternity. Is it more compassionate to discipline such persons now, and save them from eternity in hell? Or ought we simply "accept" them now without admonition, and condemn them to an eternity without God?
Finding a way to "deal with the thirty five percent" simply requires of us a little recovery of our Wesleyan heritage. The more difficult part is overcoming our aversion to exercising the very discipline mandated by our founder. This requires of us the courage to truly be the people called Methodists.†
James Gibson is Pastor of Marshallville United Methodist Church and Director of the Wesleyan Heritage Recovery Project.