Friday, June 23, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: The United Method

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

A few weeks back, the United Methodist Church voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy.

Tom: Now I’m not big on tradition for tradition’s sake, but I think this decision is probably worth remarking on just because it is so unusual for a large denomination these days. The progressives in every sizable group of Christians are always hard at work moving the window of acceptable discourse, faith and practice to the left, and have experienced great success over the last century or so. By way of contrast, “conservative” Christians have reliably failed to conserve very much at all. You’ve seen it, Immanuel Can, and I’ve seen it too.

Did you notice what made the difference this time?

Developing World to the Rescue

Immanuel Can: Yes. The African churches. A similar pattern has happened in Anglicanism and some other “mainline” denominations (as they call them) as well: when they try to confer on the large scale, then developing-world evangelicals outmatch the ideological modernist Westerners.

Tom: Christianity Today notes that “The decision leaves a sizable, vocal opposition, ensuring the exit of many progressive pastors and churches from the largest mainline Protestant body in America.” That speedy exit can only be a good thing for the United Methodists, I would argue. But the vote was a close call, 53% to 47%. It may be that next time around, the “progressives” win.

The great difficulty for progressives in this situation is that they are desperate to be perceived as racially woke, and that ties their hands. They can’t resort to their usual verbal nastiness when dealing with Christians from the developing world. I mean, what do you say when the delegate from Mozambique remarks that the decision “keeps the church in the way of God”? Are you going to call him a Nazi, or a redneck, or hidebound, or hateful, or even a theological throwback? I don’t think so. You don’t dare. They must be grinding their teeth. The best they can do is moan about how the decision “hurts people” and how gays will feel “attacked, unwanted and excluded”.

IC: I thought it was interesting that the progressives “chanted”. Chanting is not ordinarily a means of rational persuasion.

Tom: But it is a very common practice among secular progressives.

The Moral Position

IC: And when they did try to reason, it was by way of emotion: “Stop the hurt”, not “The word of God says”. I also thought it was interesting that the unity faction believes God hasn’t spoken definitively against homosexuality, and that he can lead his people to completely contradictory conclusions about that. The progressives are clearly not responding to scripture.

Tom: No, they definitely are not.

IC: But are the conservatives? Or do they have their position morally right only by default? After all, their home societies tend to be more conservative. They’ve seen the national ravages of AIDS, and have a natural and historical dislike of homosexuality. Is it only because of their own cultural background that the conservatives have ended up in the biblical position, or do they really have biblical conviction about that?

Tom: It’s a very good question. We get no credit with God for standing on the shoulders of giants while forgetting all the reasons they were giants in the first place. I’m certain it’s true of some, simply because the word “tradition” was used ten times in the article, both as a progressive label for the conservatives and by the conservatives themselves, whose plan was actually called the “Traditional Plan”.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with having traditions, but the problem with traditions is that they are not authoritative. So I see a danger there, in that it’s very evident the progs want to argue with traditionalism, not scripture. It’s safer for them, and more likely a winning argument. Worse, there’s a danger the conservative element will accept that frame and argue their own position from tradition, abandoning their best weapon, the word of God. The only traditions that matter in the long run are the traditions that are not just scripturally defensible but scripturally based.

Scripturally Defensible vs. Scripturally Based

IC: Tease that last statement out for me a bit, if you would, Tom.

Tom: Sure. You can have traditions that are scripturally defensible but not scripturally based. Take the 11:00 a.m. Family Bible Hour on Sunday, for instance. It exists because when evangelicals began doing it, the time slot made the most sense for the most people. It’s scripturally defensible because it’s a way of coming together to hear the word of God. Coming together is biblical. Hearing the word of God is biblical. All good.

But it’s not scripturally based in the sense that there is nothing in the Bible that requires God’s people to meet on Sunday mornings. It’s not a rule. God has not commanded it. If a group of believers wants to meet at 3:00 in the afternoon because that makes more sense for their current schedules, that should in theory be perfectly fine. And yet you will still get traditionalists complaining about those sorts of schedule changes.

Now, one may argue that not marrying two men is also an evangelical tradition, but it’s a tradition soundly based on the word of God: “From the beginning it was not so.” That’s where you want to argue the point from, not that “It’s our tradition.”

IC: Yes, that’s right. I like your distinction there: it’s helpful.

So I guess we’re saying that if the conservatives are grounding their own position in what scripture says, then we can be happy they won: they were scripturally, factually and morally right. But even though the biblical position won, we shouldn’t be quick to celebrate if they only won because they were (so to speak) accidentally right: because merely loving tradition is not a sound reason for being right.

Maintaining Faux-Unity

Tom: Correct. There’s another element to consider here, and that is this: What exactly is the value of maintaining a faux-unity between the 47% and the 53%? I’m curious about that. There was talk on both sides of leaving if they didn’t get the arrangement they were looking for, and it’s clear that passing this plan by a narrow margin doesn’t do anything to make either side reconsider their position.

IC: No, nor does it reassure either side that anything has really been decided, at least on the global scale. Both sides seem to feel that they have some kind of divine sponsorship on their positions: and yet, those positions being opposite, that is quite impossible, unless God actually doesn’t care which position one adopts. But then, why all the “spiritual” rhetoric? If the Lord doesn’t care, then one wouldn’t need any authority either way.

Tom: I see all kinds of quotes about “praying” from both delegations. I see precisely none about examining the word of God together. I find that alarming, because it means both sides either (i) don’t care what the word of God says about this subject, or (ii) believe they already know what it says. Based on the pro-LGBTQ arguments I’ve seen online, I can tell you their defenders are not generally sound students of scripture. They are great slingers of rhetoric, but their scholarship is fast, loose and dependent on novel interpretations that don’t stand up to scrutiny. I can’t speak for the United Methodist traditionalists. As you say, they may be traditional for good reasons or bad ones.

But the story of Balaam reminds us that it’s a fool’s errand to pray without paying attention to the answer the Lord has already given. He got a clear answer from God to his first prayer, and then went back for a second try because he didn’t like the first response. Many bad things followed.

The Meaning of Factions

IC: Tom, I’ve heard people be critical of Christianity for having too many factions, and praise autocratic religions for being unified. But two things I have discovered about that: firstly, that a large-scale “unity” of the kind they praise is usually created by force and shallow in extent, glossing over even deep hatreds. (For example, the Muslims claim to be one ummah but Sunnis hate and even kill Shia, and Shia hate Ahmadiyyas, and Wahhabis hate everybody … and so on.) Secondly, that “unity” can be bought by selling out a key principle, as when a group decides some issue is perhaps interesting, but just not worth fragmenting over. And that being so, the proliferation of factions can indicate not a disease within a religion, but rather a sign of health, indicating that they prioritize of the right of free conscience. The more that people are allowed and encouraged to believe fervently, the more likely it is that conscience will incline them to fragment into groups of common conviction.

If all that’s fair, then would you say this present division, and the way it’s been resolved, is a sign of disease or health for the United Methodists?

Tom: Oh, I think it’s quite unhealthy overall, except perhaps with respect to the United Methodist African contingent. They got what they wanted, didn’t compromise, and went home heads held high, perhaps not completely understanding what is going on with their North American counterparts, but at least having done their bit … for whatever reason they did it.

Now, if they were just posing; if they showed up and did their bit for the sake of tradition … well, it doesn’t mean much on the scales of eternity.

But if they did it for the sake of Christ, it means everything.

1 comment :

  1. I usually don't frequent these types of sites but got interested in finding out why the third secret of Fatima (the one contained in envelope 2, envelope 1 was published) was never made public. Astonishingly (it was somehow gotten a hold of and publicised) it describes the current situation in the Catholic Church and terrifying consequences for the earth with the Earth's axis thrown out of alignment by an angel of God and all the attendant absolutely major natural disasters including WW 3).

    Here are additional revelations given to Veronica Lueken at Bayside, NY concerning the Fatima revelations. (Bayside has raised some eyebrows but there slowly seems to be a trend shaping up nowadays). The interesting thing is that the revelations seem very much to the point and are addressing the points you are making here.

    "My children, those who in vocation have dedicated themselves to the priesthood, I ask you as your God to cast away your pride. Admit there has been error. Listen to your Vicar who stated that the smoke of satan had entered My Church. Did he have pride when he brought this knowledge to you? No! He asked for help. And what did you do? You turned away and widened the door for satan to enter! 
         "You are blinded, My hierarchy. You seek to bring all into My Church, but this must be by conversion. You are allowing all manner of heretics and the antichrist forces to enter among you. You are being deceived. Awaken from your slumber.
         "A great battle is taking place now within My Church and in all corners of the earth and countries. If the evil accelerates farther, it will be necessary for divine intervention. Is this what you want, My children?” - Jesus, September 28, 1978 "