Donate to Support

Support the church that supports this blog. Donate at - www.LoveLivesAtPGUMC.org Click the donate button in the upper righthand corner.
Showing posts with label General Conference. Show all posts
Showing posts with label General Conference. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Fighting for the Soul of the UMC, Part 2


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:8

"Give me 100 men who hate nothing but sin and love God with all their hearts and I will shake the world for Christ!"
John Wesley

In my first article, I shared why it is critical for pastors and members serving in local United Methodist congregations to focus on renewing the United Methodist Church at the denominational level.  You can read that article here.

Now I want to share some strategies to build a more vibrant and effective United Methodist denomination that better reflects the orthodox views firmly founded upon a right understanding of Scripture.  These ideas are meant to provide direction and hopefully inspire creative leaders to work out the details that could make them a reality.  I welcome your contributions to this vision of a renewed, effective UMC.

Do Not Leave the UMC
First and foremost, conservative evangelicals who wish the UMC to hold to orthodox Christian teaching firmly founded upon Scripture must not leave.  Every orthodox leader and church that pulls out of the denomination only leaves the UMC weaker and more skewed toward the progressive side of the spectrum.  Traditionalists currently hold a modest majority within the denomination.  Voting at the 2019 general conference confirmed this.  Furthermore, this orthodox majority will only increase in coming years as the population of progressive United Methodists in the US decreases while traditional United Methodist in Africa and Asia are growing quickly.  Delegates to the 2020 general conference will likely be even more in favor of traditional Christian values.  This traditional majority will increase even more for general conferences in 2024 and beyond.  2019 was probably progressives’ last best hope for gaining the votes they needed to flip the UMC’s stance on homosexuality.  But this only holds true if conservatives refuse to walk away!  We are winning the struggle to maintain a faithful denomination; now is not the time to leave!  Please, do not abandon your brothers and sisters to fight for the soul of the UMC alone.

Furthermore, we need to be firm but gracious to progressives.  If they refuse to uphold, defend, and teach the orthodox Christian doctrine our denomination has ratified, we must insist they exit the denomination.  It is the same thing we would do if a disruptive individual interrupted one of our worship services in a local church.  We would insist they leave and escort them out as gently and politely as we could.  We must be gracious and loving as we invite those disrupting our denomination to leave.  Every time conservatives resort to angry name calling or unfair treatment, we betray Christ and it deeply damages our witness.  Jesus said in John 13:35, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us the kind of love the Church should practice.  It’s not a weak love that allows unrighteousness or false teaching to remain in the church.  However, we can be firm without being unloving or rude; and we must.

In some places where conservatives are  outnumbered, we should take a page from LGBT activists’ playbook.  Conservatives should peacefully resist and protest.  This must not degenerate into the hateful signs and verbal attacks on perceived enemies.  Rather, let us be the noble ones and force progressives to embarrass themselves in the public eye as they persecute orthodox Christians simply because we are being faithful to what we believe God says in the Bible.  How can we support conservatives in overwhelmingly progressive areas as they seek peaceful changes in their districts, conferences, and jurisdictions?  Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

Focus on Leading the Denomination
Secondly, local church leaders must focus more on the denomination.  I believe one of the reasons the UMC has drifted over the years is our most faithful, orthodox United Methodists have been busy leading local churches.  To address this, we must turn some of our attention back to the denomination.  We must be diligent in watching, studying, and actively participating in our districts, annual conferences, and general conference.  We must pay close attention to how money is allocated, who is selected for leadership, and how our districts and conferences are run.  We must pay close attention to who is elected delegates for annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences.  We must understand the issues presented (not just issues like homosexuality that garner attention).  We can no longer leave these things to the people pulling the strings behind the curtains at conference while we simply offer a “rubber stamp”. 

Furthermore, we must openly band together with colleagues who share our values.  You can be sure progressives are doing the same.  In many places, progressives have already worked together very effectively to entrench people in leadership who will guard their ideas.  It will take hard work to change the current landscape of leadership in the United Methodist Church so that it better represents the values in local congregations, but it can be done.  The very first thing we can do is elect delegates to the 2020 general and jurisdictional conferences who represent orthodox Christian values.  If you have a vote at your annual conference this year, use it well!  Clergy, encourage your lay delegates to vote for orthodoxy.  Laity, encourage your pastors to do the same.  We must continue these efforts even beyond the 2020 general conference to make sure orthodox Christianity remains the strongest voice in our denomination.  Each UM church is allocated a certain number of delegates to annual conference.  Often, those delegates don't even attend.  Orthodox delegates must not only attend, they must be ready to understand the issues that will be addressed at conferences so they can make their votes count.

Conservatives must also become more united in what we believe.  So far, much of our passion has been about what we don’t believe (we don’t believe homosexuality is God’s will and we don’t want to ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, etc.).  Unfortunately, we are less united on issues about what we want for the UMC.  We often disagree on other issues like abortion, the drinking of alcohol, women in ministry, politics, styles of worship, etc.  We need to be more gracious with each other on non-essentials and work hard to build a solid platform on the essentials.

Clearly Understand and Teach Orthodox United Methodist Beliefs
Part of the reason orthodox teaching is under attack in the UMC is orthodox Christians have not been clear about exactly what we believe.  Even though conservatives have spent a lot of time arguing with progressives about homosexuality, we have not done well at sharing our thoughts openly with our congregations.  It is not a subject most pastors want to preach or teach about for a number of reasons.  Meanwhile though, the wider culture around us has been hard at work sharing their narrative in every available format—TV, movies, music, politics, the courtroom, through doctors and psychologists, and education.  It is no wonder we are losing the hearts and minds of our congregations and the denomination as a whole in the US.  Our silence is a forfeit.

But the problem of unclear teaching goes beyond homosexuality.  Conservatives often aren’t clear on other doctrines such as divorce and why we follow some Old Testament laws and not others.  For example, many conservatives struggle to answer progressives’ challenges about why we oppose homosexuality on biblical grounds but still allow divorce.  To be sure, there are biblical grounds for allowing divorce, but few orthodox pastors (let alone the average layperson) can articulate sound theological reasons.  It’s no wonder our positions often seem weak and inconsistent.  Every faithful conservative ought to be informed about our doctrines and be able to offer a coherent answer from Scripture to these kinds of challenges. 


Therefore, conservative evangelical United Methodists need to become very clear on exactly what we believe.  We need to understand which doctrines are really essential to Wesleyan Christianity and which are more open to different interpretations.  We need to be united in our teaching on the essentials and gracious in non-essentials.  We need to be able to clearly articulate how we believe the Bible addresses issues such as divorce, sex outside of marriage, the need for ordained women in ministry, and which Old Testament laws apply to Christians and why.  Furthermore, orthodox United Methodists need to work hard to be united in our agreement on these doctrines.

Better Education and Training for Pastors
Part of the UMC’s anemia on doctrinal issues is the weak theological training many pastors receive.  John Wesley was an educated man and he expected Methodist pastors to be also.  Unfortunately, United Methodist seminaries in the United States often do not prepare pastors to be effective pastoral leaders.  Seminary education is too broadly focused while immersing students in an environment that celebrates progressive ideology and scoffs at traditional orthodoxy.  A three-year master of divinity degree should be the ultimate preparation for pastors answering God’s call to lead a local church.  Instead, pastors often leave seminary confused about what they are supposed to believe and lost when they try to lead a church.  We must do better. 

Theological training in United Methodist seminaries should focus primarily on a Wesleyan theology that is firmly grounded in Scripture.  Orthodox Christianity should be the norm that is held in high esteem by all.  Professors who seek to train future pastors should be deeply and passionately in love with Jesus Christ.  Students should spend their time falling deeper in love with Christ and learning how to live out that love in word and deed.  Upon completion of seminary, pastors should be expected to clearly articulate sound biblical doctrine to their boards of ordained ministry.  Some of the things they should be able to clearly explain from a Biblical perspective are:
  • Why women are welcomed in ordained ministry
  • Why we expect lifelong monogamous marriage but allow for divorce in certain circumstances
  • A clear Wesleyan view of how Old Testament laws apply for Christians today
  • What are the essentials of United Methodist doctrine—those doctrines which are non-negotiable and why?

But seminary education should not be confined to theology.  Pastors need much better training in the practical matters of day to day leadership of a local congregation.  How do you write and preach an effective sermon and offer an invitation that wins people to Christ?  How do you go out into the community and invite people to church?  How do you manage the complicated business aspects of a church?  How do you navigate the politics of a local congregation?  What are the practical steps to offer effective pastoral care to real people in a real church?

I have great respect for local/lay pastors.  Their passion for Jesus Christ and their commitment to serve inspires me.  Many of these pastors work a full-time job in the secular world and then also do the difficult job of leading a church.  I don’t want to leave them out of this discourse.  I’m sure there are reforms needed in their training as well.  I have not spoken of their situation only because I do not know enough to speak to it.  One thing I do know, I believe these local and lay pastors should have more voice in our conferences.  They should not be excluded from voting for delegates to general and jurisdictional conferences.  These faithful ministers of Christ have great practical wisdom to share and their faith is firm.  We need their voice.

Honor and Advance What is Already Great About the UMC
We must also honor what is already great about the United Methodist denomination.  If you are reading this, you are probably already a United Methodist or you wouldn’t spend time reading such UMC-centered material.  Therefore, I assume there are (or were) many great things about this denomination that drew you to the UMC.  So, even as we consider how things in the UMC must change, there are many things in this denomination we must also keep (and even advance).  

The UMC is a grace-filled denomination that has historically maintained a delicate balance between grace and truth.  Contrary to the accusations of many progressives, conservatives are not a bunch of Pharisees who care about rules more than people.  We are an open, welcoming people.  We realize everyone struggles with sin.  Divorce, sexual sin, substance abuse, and many other sins are part of the human condition and all who struggle with these and other sins are tenderly welcomed at the table of Jesus Christ who gave His life to redeem us.  The UMC has lost its delicate balance over the last few years, not because we turn away people who struggle with sins like homosexuality, but because progressives wish to claim sex between two people of the same gender is not sin (even though Scripture consistently says it is). So, we must always be a denomination that welcomes and loves all people, despite their sin, and offers God’s grace and forgiveness that leads to a transformed life.  We must become even more gracious and welcoming.  Let us conservatives who adamantly defend the Truth of God’s Word about homosexuality (and all sin) be just as adamant that God’s grace is freely given to all people.  Let us be forever clear that it is the practice of homosexuality that is sinful, not same-sex attraction itself.  Only those who engage in homosexual behavior or are romantically involved with others of the same sex are acting contrary to God’s will on this matter.

Diversity and inclusiveness are buzzwords that have been drilled into United Methodists ad-nauseam.  Even so, at their root, these are good concepts that we’ve embraced because they truly reflect God’s will and also strengthen the Church.  United Methodism must remain a big tent that always includes people of many diverse backgrounds.  Evangelicals, charismatics, male and female, high-church and low-church people, advocates for traditional worship and innovators of new worship styles must all be welcomed and treated equally for their valuable contributions to God’s Kingdom.  We must always be a United Methodism that seeks racial and ethnic diversity.  Let us defend the rights of minorities and always ensure equal treatment. We must unequivocally affirm the long-standing effective ministry of women.  We must advocate for the equal treatment of women, the ordination of women as pastors, and the full acceptance of female leadership in every area of the UMC.   Let us be rid forever of all petty designations of “Jew and Gentile” that separate us and have nothing at all to do with the essentials of the faith according to the orthodox Wesleyan tradition.

Diversity and inclusiveness in an orthodox UMC must be more than a buzzword or report given at annual conference about the number of women and minorities represented.  We must open up all our pulpits and churches to cross-cultural appointments.  All churches should be available to be served by black, white, Asian, Latino, or female clergy.  These designations should not even be considered as reasons why a particular pastor cannot be appointed to a church.  We are all one in Jesus Christ.  We must "desegregate" the local church as well as the pulpit.

The UMC is a global denomination and the Church in Asia and Africa are our fastest growing segments—both in numbers and in spiritual depth.  Roughly 45% of United Methodists currently live outside the United States.  They will be a majority in a few years.  It’s time we start acting like a global denomination.  We must finally realize America is not the center of the Christian universe or the UMC.  Our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness must expand to the place where these brothers and sisters across the globe are treated as true equals.  We must do more than pay lip service to this ideal.  We must live into it in practical ways.  General conferences should be held in global locations.  Why do we still ask delegates from Africa, Asia, and Europe to travel halfway around the world to an American general conference?  Sometimes, we should travel to them.  We might learn some important things along the way.

We also need to learn from our faithful sisters and brothers across the globe.  We need to learn their theology and doctrine, their practice of ministry, and how they live as faithful disciples of Jesus.  The UMC is flooded with books and curriculums written by people in the US, many of which are weak and watered down or just wrapping the same old US ideas in new packaging.  Perhaps we should make it a priority to let others from around the world teach the US how to teach and preach.  The Holy Spirit is setting the UMC on fire around the globe.  Let Methodist churches, Sunday schools, and small groups in the US be set ablaze by the ideas and practices of those United Methodist Christians that are growing their churches exponentially in Africa and Asia. 

Summary
While many are frustrated and/or are pessimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church, I have great optimism.  The special called general conference this year proved that the majority of our denomination is still in favor of orthodox Christian doctrine founded upon Scripture.  Furthermore, the tide is changing in the UMC.  The orthodox voice calling for Scriptural holiness is now growing stronger.  Progressives who would redefine Christianity will not have the power to force their views upon conservative, so long as conservative remain true and do not abandon the UMC. 

To be sure, there are many more aspects of the UMC that need reform.  The fight over human sexuality was only one issue, which was really a symptom of deeper issues.  Much work is yet to be done to bring renewal.  However, I am confident we can focus more and more resources toward renewing our denomination and the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ now that we are beginning to move past the draining fight over homosexuality. 

In conclusion then, let me leave you with a simple list to summarize the strategies to make the UMC.  I admit these are not fully formed.  They need fleshing out.  I welcome your contributions to a better more effective United Methodist Church.
  • Do Not Leave the UMC
  • Focus More on Leading the Denomination
  • Clearly Understand and Teach Orthodox United Methodist Beliefs
  • Better Education and Training for Pastors
  • Honor and Advance What is Already Great About the UMC


Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fighting for the Soul of the UMC, Part 1


"I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd."
John 10:16

“…I believe in the holy catholic church…”
The Apostles’ Creed

The United Methodist Church is struggling.  Here’s why I think it is critical that pastors and leaders in local churches work hard to revitalize the UMC at the denominational level.  I will offer a second installment with some strategies that may help lead our denomination to be more effective for the Kingdom of God. Read it here.

I have a deep passion for helping people grow closer to God.  It is the passion that drove me to leave a promising career as an engineer and become an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church.  I’ve never regretted my decision.  I’ve been truly blessed.  There’s nothing more important or rewarding for me than serving as a pastor in a local church.

I’ve served as an appointed pastor in the UMC for 18 years.  My ministry has focused mainly on the local congregation because it’s where the bulk of hands on, frontline ministry takes place.  Though I have been faithful to the United Methodist connection and worked some at the district and conference level, my heart has always belonged to the local churches I’ve served. 

I suspect this is the attitude of most UM pastors and congregational leaders who serve in a local church.  We tend to let people in the district and conference offices focus on the denomination.  We stick to ministering to the families in our neighborhoods and communities.  There is more than enough work to keep us busy.  The tremendous pace and scope of our duties in the community is astounding.  We have precious little time to divert to denominational concerns.  We’ve entrusted those matters to others who are more passionate about the institution so we can focus on our local ministry setting.

The problem right now is many denominational leaders in the UMC are pushing ideas that are fundamentally at odds with the biblical values of most pastors and members in the local church.  Even though our special called general conference voted for a traditional plan that reaffirms an orthodox, biblical teaching about human sexuality, many bishops and other denominational leaders have vowed to disregard, disobey, and obstruct the decision.  So even though the elected voice of our denomination has spoken, it seems most of our denominational leaders in the US are vowing not to abide by the decision.  It’s very frustrating.

I have spoken with pastors and church members who are fed up.  Some are ready to throw their hands up and walk away from the denomination.  They say things like, “Who cares about the denomination anyway?  Who needs them?  Let them have the declining mainline institution and we’ll just go do church in our congregation the way we’ve always done it.” 

It would be a big mistake to abandon the denomination to progressive leaders bent on forcing the United Methodist brand to promote unchristian doctrine.  There is way more at stake than you may think—especially if your primary focus has been (like mine) the local ministry setting.  We all need to prayerfully consider why orthodox Christians should stay and work hard to renew the United Methodist Church.

Connectional vs. Congregational
United Methodists are connectional because we believe strongly the Church Jesus Christ established is more than just one congregation.  It includes all faithful Christians in all places throughout all time.  We believe we can be more effective at fulfilling our mission to make disciples of all the nations when we work together. 

United Methodists follow the example of the earliest Christians in the New Testament who were also connectional.  Local congregations worked together for the good of the worldwide Church.  The Apostle Paul collected funds to help the persecuted church in Jerusalem.  Early Christians conferred with each other to determine orthodox Christian doctrine and speak together as one voice throughout the whole world.  At the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, Church leaders had their own “General Conference” and decided Christians throughout the whole world didn't have to be circumciced but should “…abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.” 

Congregationalism is a different option that some Christians choose (like Baptists).  They believe a congregational governing model is the best way to be faithful Christians.  Each congregation makes their own rules; they are not beholden to any other local church; there are no Baptist general conferences to tell local congregations how to believe or act or what to teach.

However, United Methodist pastors and congregations who consider pulling out of the United Methodist connection aren’t choosing congregationalism for theological reasons. The core value behind their decision is often: “I don’t really care what the Church Universal does as long as I can do things the way I like in my own church.”  So if you are thinking of pulling out of the UMC, ask yourself a very honest question:  “Am I leaving so I can truly further God’s Kingdom or is it really so I can just maintain my own little kingdom in my congregation?” 

Saving the Lost
Even if you plan to leave the UMC for a different connection, the stakes are still very, very high.  Millions of souls hang in the balance.  The UMC is a global denomination with some 12 million members.  That’s not an abstract number.  It represents 12 million living people that God loves so much He sent His only begotten son to die for them.  The United Methodist denomination has tremendous influence over the 12 million souls in our care.  If the denomination as a whole abandons orthodox Christian teaching, it will mislead millions of people in this generation alone.  And that doesn’t even account for the damage it will do to future generations across the globe who will be influenced by a corrupted UMC.

If evangelicals are serious about saving souls according to Christ’s command, we need to do all we can to save the denomination.  I understand the passion for the local churches that leads pastors and members to think the local congregation is the only thing we need to worry about.  However, we need to check our attitude whenever we are tempted to turn our backs on 12 million people just because we are more interested in the hundred or so members of our local congregation.  God’s Kingdom transcends our little flock.  It includes millions across the globe who rely on the United Methodist Church to be a trustworthy, biblical witness for Jesus Christ.

Weariness is No Excuse
Many people are tired of fighting.  I’m tired of fighting too.  However, I find new strength whenever I consider what I’m fighting for.  Jesus never said the Christian journey would be easy.  However, He did say in Matthew 10:22, “And all nations will hate you because you are my followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved.” 

Few find it hard to fight for something they really care about.  If an intruder was trying to break into my house and harm my family, I would fight to my last breath to defend the people I love.  Well, the Church is our family and the denomination is our house.  In fact, UM elders and deacons are members of an annual conference, not a local congregation.  If we are to be faithful to the Church, we must be faithful to the denomination, not just the local church. 

Conservatives are often frustrated when progressives don’t uphold the Book of Discipline.  However, conservative elders are also guilty of breaking their vows when they leave the UMC.  At ordination, elders promise to “…be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting and upholding its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,” and “defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word…”  Conservative members of local United Methodist congregations promise to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church” when they join the church.  It would be one thing if the denomination fundamentally changed our doctrines to be contrary to God’s Word.  Then, perhaps, we might be justified to leave.  However, General Conference has affirmed our long standing orthodox Christian teaching about human sexuality.  We have no justification to leave.  

But people say they are tired.  What have we endured that is so wearisome?  Perhaps Americans have grown too soft.  Christians in the past were tortured and burned at the stake for their faithfulness to Christ.  Hebrews 11:36-37 says, “Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword…”  Faithful United Methodists outside the US face similar persecution today.  And yet, it was our brothers and sisters from Africa and Asia who fought so hard to make sure the UMC passed the Traditional Plan.  Has our faith grown so weak in America that we can’t even endure a little scorn from a fallen world?

Our brothers and sisters around the globe helped US conservatives win the 2019 tug-o-war at General Conference.  Are conservatives in America now going to be cowards who walk away leaving those same faithful Africans and Asians holding the rope by themselves to be dragged away by US progressives in 2020 and beyond?  God forbid.

Conservative evangelicals in American need to pray hard that God would help us “run and not grow weary”.   There are still many miles ahead and many battles left to fight.  Jesus never promised it would be easy, but the struggle is worth it.  For the sake of God’s Kingdom, we need to “press on” and “fight the good fight of faith”.

A Vision for the Future
We also need a clear strategy to renew our denomination.  While pastors and congregations have been focused on the local church, others have been working to reshape our denomination into something that doesn’t represent what we believe.  It’s time to wake up.  It’s time to work hard at the denominational level to ensure the UMC offers sound biblical teaching and godly leadership.  It will be an uphill battle, but the reward will be a denomination that truly reflects God’s Kingdom values and supports local congregations on the front lines of the Christian faith.

Imagine a denomination truly united in our beliefs and doctrines that has a clear vision about what it means to make disciples of Jesus Christ and how to do it.  Imagine a denomination full of variety and diversity, but truly united about foundational doctrines that are non-negotiable.  Imagine a denomination where you don’t have to secretly wonder if your colleagues in ministry really have a heart like yours as you take their hand for the shared work of God’s Kingdom.  This dream can become a reality if we are willing to work for it.  

It’s time for a gut check.  Are you willing to be faithful to the vows you made?  Do you have the courage to work openly to renew our denomination so we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Are you willing to work for the glory of God where He called you, in the United Methodist Church? 

I am.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Living Christian in a Gay World, part 2 - What the Bible Says

Part 2 – What the Bible Says
2 Timothy 3:15-17

Introduction
            Views about homosexuality have shifted tremendously in our society to the point that the Supreme Court has even ruled that all 50 states must recognize same sex marriages and cannot prevent homosexual couples from getting marriage licenses.  This message is the second in a series that seeks to understand how to live as Christians in a world that has changed the way it sees homosexuality. 
            Last week, I implored you to make love your highest aim as we consider this issue.  Love is the key and our time today will be productive only if you have an attitude of genuine love—regardless of what you believe about homosexuality.  Please listen today with an open mind and a humble heart. 
            Regardless of your opinions on the issue of homosexuality, it is vital that everyone understand that Christian teaching about homosexuality is not arbitrary.  How Christians live and what we teach is based upon the Bible.  Let’s begin this message with a passage that reveals the role of Scripture in our lives. 

2 Timothy 3:15-17
15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. 

The Bible is the Foundation for What We Believe
            The Bible is an irreplaceable treasure that tells us everything we need to know to receive salvation through Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the inspired Word of God that speak to us, challenge us, inspire us, and guide us.  As verse 16 said, “…Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives…”
God speaks to us in a number of ways—through the traditions of the church, through our reason and understanding, and through our personal and communal experiences.  All of these are important and help guide us.  However, we always rely on the Bible as the firm, unchanging foundation of our faith because sometimes our traditions are flawed, our reason is limited, and our experience is too subjective to be reliable.  Scripture is the timeless and authoritative foundation that teaches us how to live Christian in a gay world.  

 
Jesus and Scripture
            Jesus is a perfect example of the authoritative role of Scripture to guide us.  Jesus founded his teaching and worldview on the Scriptures of the Old Testament (at the time, the New Testament had yet to be written).  Jesus directly referenced Scripture no less than 53 times in the four Gospels[i] saying such things as:
·       Matthew 9:13 – Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture…
·       Matthew 12:3 – Haven’t you read the Scriptures…
·       Matthew 21:13 – The Scriptures declare…
·       Mark 12:24 – Your mistake is you don’t know the Scriptures…
·       Luke 20:17 – Then what does this Scripture mean?
·       Luke 24:7 – Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
·       John 10:35 – And you know that the Scriptures cannot be altered… 

Clearly, Jesus had a high view of Scripture and offered it to His followers as an authority to know and follow.  If the Son of God understood the authority of Scripture to guide the faithful, shouldn’t we also rely upon the timeless, unchanging Word of God to guide the way we think and live?  The teaching of the Christian Church for 2,000 years has been an emphatic yes.  And the view of the Methodist movement from the beginning has been:  [the Bible] “…is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”[ii]
If we want to understand the will of God concerning homosexuality (or anything else), we must understand what the Bible says about it. 

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality
Therefore, I want to share what the Bible says about homosexuality.  There are five primary passages in the Bible that deal directly with homosexuality.  The fact that there are only five reveals two important clues about homosexuality:
1.     The status of homosexuality was not debated as often in societies during biblical times as it has been in our times.  If it were a topic people debated regularly, there would be more references to homosexuality in the Bible—whether it be stories about homosexual persons, rulings about it or prophecies from God on the issue, commandments concerning homosexuality, etc.  This doesn’t necessarily mean homosexuality was not as present in the past as it is now, but it may mean that the acceptability homosexuality was not in question as much in biblical times as it has been over the past few decades in the western world.  It would seem the matter was general settled for almost everyone in biblical times.

2.     Secondly, the small number of references to homosexuality in the Bible also reveals that although homosexuality has become a very big issue for our society over the past 50 years, it was not considered nearly as important a topic in biblical times.  The Bible devotes far more time to teaching about love, helping the needy, seeking God, etc. than it does to homosexuality.  Furthermore, Scripture spends much more time speaking against sinful behaviors like dishonesty, lack of compassion, and idolatry than it does speaking against homosexuality.  This would lead me to believe these were (and are) more important issues than homosexuality.  The way I see it, homosexuality has become disproportionally important for us in the 21st century.  It was not as important historically.  Furthermore, I don’t think it is as big of a deal to God as people today have made it out to be. 

Even so, people want and need to know what the Bible says about homosexuality.  So, let me briefly outline the five passages that deal directly with homosexuality. 

Genesis 19 – Sodom and Gomorrah
            The first direct reference to homosexuality is found in a fascinating and also disturbing story in Genesis chapter 19.  The story says God sent two angels to investigate two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, to determine if they were so wicked they must be destroyed.  While the angels are staying in Sodom with a man named Lot, Genesis 19:4-5 says, “…all the men of Sodom, young and old, came from all over the city and surrounded the house. They shouted to Lot, “Where are the men who came to spend the night with you? Bring them out to us so we can have sex with them!”  God determines the cities are so wicked He must destroy them.  Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed just because the men practiced homosexuality; however, their attempt to rape the angels visiting Lot (who they thought were men) revealed the depths of Sodom and Gomorrah’s depravity.  Every last person in the cities was wicked to the core and deserved only judgment and destruction.  So, although the passage is about general wickedness and judgment (and not specifically about homosexuality), the story does reveal a very negative view of homosexuality.   

Leviticus 18 and 20
            The next references we find concerning homosexuality are in the 18th and 20th chapters of Leviticus.  Leviticus is a book of law that reveals how God expected His holy people to live in Old Testament times.  Leviticus 18 lists forbidden sexual practices.  Among the sexual practices forbidden are: adultery, sex with close relatives, and sex with animals.  Leviticus 18:22 specifically deals with homosexuality.  It says, “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.”  Leviticus 20:13 repeats the prohibition adding in the punishment for homosexuality at that time.  It says, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.” 
            We should reject the idea of capital punishment for the practice of homosexuality.  Any form of violence, intimidation, persecution, or bullying of homosexual persons is abhorrent to God and to rightly-guided Christians.  However, these verses from Leviticus specifically show that homosexuality was considered a very serious sin in Old Testament times.  People often observe that religion in the Old Testament was much harsher than the religion Jesus revealed in the New Testament.  So, let’s look at the next three scriptural references about homosexuality that are all found in the New Testament. 

Romans 1:18-32
            The next reference is from Romans 1:18-32.  In this passage, the Apostle Paul argues how sinful the world is and how our sin blinds us to truths about God that should be obvious.  As an example, he points to homosexuality, which Paul says is obviously contrary to nature.  Since people have turned their back on God, Paul argues God has let people reap the shameful rewards of their sins.  Romans 1:26-27 says:

26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.

            So here in the New Testament as in the Old, we again see homosexuality regarded as sin contrary to God’s plan for humanity. 

1 Corinthians 6:9-10
            The next passage is from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 which list the types of sinful behavior that could keep a person from inheriting the Kingdom of God.  It reads:
Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God.” 
            It is important to note here that homosexuality is listed alongside some other sinful behaviors that don’t seem as big a deal to people today as homosexuality—for homosexuality is listed right alongside greed and drunkenness and cheating.  So while we might make a big deal about a gay person and how we should treat them in the church, why don’t we make as big a fuss about these other sins that are far more prevalent and just as important to God?  Is this not a double standard we should recognize and expel from our way of thinking? 

1 Timothy 1:8-10
            The last direct reference to homosexuality is 1 Timothy 1:10.  This passage also lumps homosexuality in with a list of sins the writer assumes everyone in his audience knows are sinful.

"The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching…"

            Here again, we see homosexuality (something many people today consider a serious sin) listed with other sins people don’t seem to mind as much like lying or breaking promises.  None-the-less, homosexuality is clearly considered unacceptable behavior that is contrary to God’s plan for humanity in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. 

Jesus
            Jesus did not say anything directly about the issue of homosexuality in Scripture.  Some people point this out as a justification for the acceptance of homosexuality among Christians.  However, that’s not really a reasonable position if one sincerely considers the life of Christ. 
Jesus was very accepting of people traditionally considered outcasts and sinners of society.  His detractors maligned him for eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes.  However, Jesus never condoned sinful behavior and always looked to forgive and lift people out of their sinful lives.  Furthermore, we have already seen how Jesus stood upon the teachings of the Old Testament—referring to Scripture over 53 times in the Gospels to support his teachings.  Since we see what the Old Testament teaches regarding homosexuality, it doesn’t make much sense to assume Jesus disagreed simply because he didn’t explicitly restate the Old Testament’s teaching on the issue.  Jesus’ audience would have already assumed homosexuality was a sin.  There is no record or reason to believe this was even a question Jesus needed to address.  His silence on the issue supports the idea that Jesus saw homosexuality as a sin as did most people of his time.
In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus said, “21 For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”  Given Jesus grounding in the Old Testament understanding of sin and righteousness, Jesus must have understood "sexual immorality" to be defined by Leviticus 18–which includes all the things we’ve already mentioned including homosexuality.
There is a more obvious reason to believe Jesus saw homosexuality as contrary to God plan because of what he did say about human sexuality.  Jesus explicitly states God’s plan for human sexuality to be within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage in Matthew 19:4-6.  4“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
So we see that Jesus taught the traditional view of heterosexual marriage handed down from the beginning in Genesis and that never changed all throughout Scripture.  The only alternative to heterosexual marriage Jesus offers comes a few verses later in Matthew 20:12 when he says, “…some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” In other words, you can enjoy God’s gift of sexual union within heterosexual marriage or you can remain unmarried and refrain from sexual relations.  These are the only two valid options offered in the Bible or by Jesus. 

Conclusion
            I know this post was longer than usual.  We had a lot of material to cover, but I felt it was important for everyone to actually see what Scripture says about homosexuality to show why the Church teaches that homosexuality is a sin outside of God’s will for humanity.  It’s because the Bible teaches it—and not just in one place or in one era.  The Bible is clear about homosexuality from the beginning to the end.  And as 1 Timothy 3:16 say, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives."
Some congregations have changed their opinion about homosexuality, just as have many in our society.  Many in the United Methodist Church wish to change our official stance (and this will be debated at our next General Conference this May).  However, such a drastic change departs from our Scriptural foundation.
The truth is, society’s opinions on various topics change as easily as our taste in clothing—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  (Do you remember jelly shoes?) The beauty of the Bible (and the challenge also) is that is does not change.  It is an anchor that holds us to the Truth while the changing tides of public opinions swirl around us.  Scripture connects us to the timeless principles of God.
I understand that it is very difficult to maintain a biblical view of homosexuality given the unpopularity of that opinion in our times.  It is even more difficult because we all have friends, family, or loved ones who struggle with homosexuality.  You may personally struggle with homosexuality.  It can be very tempting to just set the scriptural witness aside and say, “There’s nothing wrong with homosexuality.”  And this is what some people have done.
I would encourage everyone—whether the issue is homosexuality or something else—to allow the Word of God to change you instead of trying to change the Word of God.  It is not an easy path to follow, but it is the best path and one that Love calls us to pursue.  Therefore, I urge you to pray fervently that God would give you courage to stand up for the Truth and a love that never gives up.    Jesus said, if anyone wants to follow me he must die to himself, take up his cross and follow me…




[i] 17 times in Matthew, 10 times in Mark, 14 times in Luke, 12 times in John
[ii] Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, Article IV – http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/confession-of-faith

Monday, January 11, 2016

Living Christian in a Gay World, part 1 - Love is the Key

Part 1 – Love is the Key
1 Corinthians 13:4-10

Introduction
            Love wins.  It was the slogan that rang out on social media, in news clips, and on banners all over our nation when the Supreme Court of the United States released their ruling on the legality of gay marriage on Friday, June 26, 2015.  The verdict, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that States cannot keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions.  The decision polarized people in our country more than ever before.  People advocating for gay rights were jubilant while those against the ruling were angry, afraid, saddened, and deeply concerned for our nation.  One thing the ruling points out is just how far public opinion on the issue of homosexuality has shifted over the years.
            The United Methodist Church has prayed about, studied, and debated the issue of homosexuality since at least 1968.  The best minds and hearts of our communion have spoken consistently about homosexuality in a way I believe speaks the truth with love.  Our denomination’s official stance from the 2012 Book of Discipline states:
“Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage…  We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”  [For the full statement and other statements in the United Methodist Book of Disciplines related to homosexuality, click here]

            That being said, there is disagreement among people within our denomination about homosexuality.  Some hold to the view presented in our discipline.  Others believe the denomination needs to change its stance and discard the idea that the practice of homosexuality is a sin.  Opinions of United Methodists in the Bible belt of the southeast tend to be more conservative—holding to the traditional view—while opinions in the northeast and western jurisdictions advocate for the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals as ministers in the UMC.  The opinions of most United Methodist in areas outside of the US—places such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America where the church is growing exponentially—conform to the traditional view that the practice of homosexuality is a sin and should not be condoned by the church.
            Our next General Conference—which meets every four years and is the only legislative body that can speak for the United Methodist Church as a whole—will meet this May and most certainly will discuss the subject of homosexuality and how our denomination should respond to the changing tide of public opinion on this issue.  I invite you—regardless of your opinion on the issue—to be in prayer for our leaders at General Conference that God would give them great wisdom to lead our denomination regarding homosexuality.
            I have been praying for several months about whether or not to preach on this subject and, if so, how.  Although this is a difficult subject and one that often stirs up strong reactions, I believe it is imperative for us to seek understanding from God.  Thus, I want to ask you to commit to be present for (or read) each of the messages in this series.  Over the next few weeks, we will consider what God would say about homosexuality and how Jesus wants us to live in a world that that has changed its attitudes about those who are gay. 

Love is the Key
The time we spend here considering how to live as Christians in a gay world will only be productive if we love one another.  Love is the key.  So let us first consider how the Bible teaches us to love as we read in 1 Corinthians 13:4-10. 

1 Corinthians 13:4-10 [Slides]
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! 10 But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless. 

Now, let’s examine some of these aspects of love more closely. 

Love is patient and kind.
We may be tempted to dehumanize people with whom we disagree about hot topics like homosexuality.  “How can anyone believe that!” we think.  “They must be stupid or mean or evil!”  But love requires us to be patient with people you think just don’t get it and gentle with folks whose religion or faith seems weaker than yours.  You see, love is patient and kind, not fed up and mean. 

Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.
Don’t be jealous when other people or groups seem to win and you lose.  It was really hard for me to see gay rights activist marching in parades celebrating their victory with the Supreme Court.  The slogan "Love Wins" seemed like a slap in the face, as if I don't love because of my position.  All this at a time when many felt like their country was falling apart.  It was hard not to be “jealous” in a sense.  It was hard not to lash out in anger, but love isn't "jealous".  On the other hand, love isn’t boastful and does not swell with pride over perceived victories—rubbing your victory in the noses of those you’ve defeated.  It is very difficult not to be rude in the midst of such critical fights as come up over serious issues like homosexuality, but love is not rude. 

Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.
Love doesn’t demand people to see things or do things our way.  We should make our case—reasoning with people—hoping they will come around to our way of thinking, but it’s their decision.  And love means that we let people follow their own path and not become irritated when they don’t follow ours.  Furthermore, we don’t hold a grudge against people we love when their beliefs clash with our own or when we feel mistreated.  It’s not easy, but love is worth it. 

Love does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 
Ultimately, what we really want is for injustice to vanish and for truth to win.  Yet sometimes pride disrupts this aspect of love.  We want to be right; we want to win.  And sometimes, the harder we fight to be right (and the more people we can get to agree with us that we are right) the more our selfish pride can blind us to the fact that we might just be wrong.  And it might just be sometimes that our desire or desperate need to be right starts to overshadow our love.  True love—in the biblical sense—rejoices when the truth wins out even if we have to admit we were wrong.
In regards to the issue of homosexuality, I find myself praying fervently about the fact that I might be wrong.  I don’t think I’m wrong.  I’ve taken great care to study, and meditate, and pray about, and research, and listen, and learn as much as I can about this issue so that I can be as confident as possible in my understanding.  Yet I never want to feel like the case is closed and so shut my mind or my heart to what someone else has to say.  Although I know what I believe, I always want to listen in case God shows me something I’ve missed.  You see, this is a serious issue that affects scores of people at a very deep level.  It has broken families apart, driven some to suicide and others to brutality or murder.  Yet my role as a Christian (and especially a Christian leader) requires me to have an opinion, to lead our church according to God’s will, and to take a stand the best I know how.  The love of Christ compels me.  And yet, I also understand all too well the disturbing reality that I could be wrong
If one day find that I was wrong, I hope that those with whom I disagreed will have mercy and forgive me because I was only trying to do what I thought was right.  In turn, I want to be merciful with those I disagree with now--treating them the way I would want them to treat me if the shoe was on the other foot.
I pray your most earnest desire as we go through this study is—not to be right and not to win, but—to rejoice whenever the Truth wins out even if it means you’ve been wrong. 

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
Living as a Christian in our world requires faith, courage, and perseverance.  It requires us—with God’s help—to live out the principles Christ gave us the best we know how.  It requires us to have the courage to uphold the truth even if everyone else disagrees (or to be willing to change if we discover we were wrong).  Our faith requires us to persevere through it all—regardless of the difficulties—because we trust Jesus. 

Love will last forever.
All our understanding is limited.  Even what we know for sure will one day become irrelevant.  The same is true of our power, our influence, our traditions, our ways of life…  The only thing that will be left is love.  Therefore, we must make love our highest aim.  For if we are right, but without love, we have nothing.  And even if we are mistaken, but full of love, we are better off; because, one day our mistakes will be washed away, but love will remain forever. 

Summary
            Love is the key.  So in closing, I want to summarize the loving attitudes that will serve you best over the next few weeks as we consider how to live Christian in a gay world.  Really, these attitudes will serve you well in many areas of your life.  So, I encourage you to:
1.     Keep an open mind and a humble heart.
2.     Even if you don’t agree, try to at least understand someone else’s point of view.  I find that I learn more from people with whom I disagree than from those with whom I agree.  It doesn't mean I accept what they say, but sometimes understanding the position of those with whom I disagree clarifies why I believe what I believe.  Perhaps it will for you too.
3.     Remember, this is a safe place.
o   It is a place where you can come open your heart to God and listen for His guidance,
o   where you can agree or disagree, knowing God loves you either way,
o   where you can let God change your mind and heart or find He confirms what you already knew. 

Invitation
            I invite you to come to Pleasant Grove UMC for each of the messages in this series—with an open mind and a humble heart (or read each message here on this blog over the next few weeks).  I invite you to seek to be more loving, as spelled out in 1 Corinthians 13.  Most importantly, I invite you to ask Jesus to take control of your life and to commit to follow Him.   Christ is the embodiment of love--proven when he gave his life for us on the cross.