The Best Proposed Solution to the UMC’s Stalemate

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An update: our Annual Conference narrowly voted against the two petitions I discuss below. This was heavily influenced by speeches about “the UMC my grandparents grew up in” and pleas for us to work it out rather than giving people a way out. In my humble opinion, these arguments were naive to our current realities, found safety in the status quo (see my final paragraph below), and lead us toward a scorched-earth litigation battle.

Debates about homosexuality threaten to break apart the UMC. Though these debates are nothing new, they’ve taken on a new urgency.

At the heart of these debates is this line in our bylaws:

The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as [ministry] candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

United Methodist delegates have upheld that position for forty years, and everything indicates they will continue to uphold it.

But a large minority disagrees. They’ve grown more vocal and more active in their disagreement. “Why don’t they just leave the UMC?” some may ask. Largely (though not entirely) because the church doesn’t get to take its property with it, and the pastor may fear losing his/her pension. A retired Bishop, Will Willimon, explains it this way, “I’m thinking a major division is not going to happen, mostly for financial [and] property reasons. Any group exiting would face having to leave behind lots of resources.”

Leaders have suggested various solutions to help the UMC get beyond its impasse. The most discussed of these is a “local option,” which would allow each local UMC church to amend that line in the bylaws (quoted above). With a supermajority vote, a church could rewrite that line however they choose. This would also allow each Conference to set their own standards for ordaining clergy.

For all the attention that “local option” has received, it creates as many problems as it solves. It instantly has each congregation voting on whether to alter the statement on homosexuality, and if so, how. Our congregations are far from uniform in their beliefs on this issue. We would likely see a number of 60-40 votes, the kind of votes that can tear a church apart. And even after the dust settles on these votes, we’ll have established a bifurcated denomination. Appoint “conservative” pastors only to the churches that preserved the standard line. Appoint “progressive” pastors only to those that amended it.

The Best Option Out There

My conference will be voting this Thursday on two petitions (attached as PDF) that represent the best option I’ve seen. These were both submitted by Bill Arnold. I interviewed Dr. Arnold and reviewed his book on the same subject last year.

Dr. Arnold’s petitions graciously acknowledge the problem with our current situation: (1) We have irreconcilable differences within the denomination. The kind of differences that can’t and shouldn’t be fixed by creating a bifurcated system of “pro-” and “anti-” churches. (2) We have pastors and congregations whose consciences will not allow them to abide by the UMC’s standards. But (3) those pastors and congregations stay, in large part, because of the resources––property and pensions––they would have to leave behind.

Arnold’s petitions allow clergy to keep their pension benefits if they withdraw from the denomination. They also allow a local church to disaffiliate from the UMC and retain full rights to its property, with the votes of 2/3 of its members.

This is not a perfect plan. It could still lead to a number of 60-40 votes. Those would be devastating votes—especially when the majority of a congregation has voted to disaffiliate from the UMC but then must stay because they didn’t achieve a 2/3 majority. I fear the day we begin taking these kinds of votes. I suspect they’ll infuse into local churches the same turmoil and hostility we’ve seen at a denominational level. Sadly, I see no way we can avoid those votes forever.

What the plan does provide is consistency and clarity for those within the UMC and a gracious way out for those with irreconcilable differences. Unlike the “local option,” it doesn’t create a bifurcated denomination. Unlike so many other battles, this plan avoids a scorched earth, winner-takes-all litigation approach.

There is no perfect plan. Each will come with a number of downfalls and dangers. But it has become clear that the UMC can’t continue on the same path—with a clear majority setting the rules while a large minority despises or flouts them. We need a path that will honor both of these groups. The most viable path I’ve seen is in these petitions.

We run the risk of doing what the UMC so often does: we see the problems that a new plan presents and find it easier to do nothing. This is my greatest fear––that for all the talk about new plans and solutions in the UMC, we’ll identify the problems with each new option and opt to maintain our current course—with growing dysfunction and dissatisfaction. It’s time to recognize a path that provides more hope than status quo. I hope Kentucky will lead the way later this week by passing these petitions. Stay tuned.

“I wish I could give more” – On Generosity

from https://schoolbox.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/money_jars.jpg

What goes in each jar? (from https://schoolbox.files.wordpress.com)

 

I was talking to a friend about generosity a few years ago, when I said, “Yeah, I wish I could give more than I do.”

Maybe you’ve said or thought something similar. That statement tends to mean, “If only I had more, I would give more.”

My friend didn’t let me off quite that easily. He asked, “What do you spend on other things by comparison? How about what you spend eating out?”

It’s nice to have people around who’ll ask the uncomfortable questions.

Our talk progressed to all of those different life luxuries––

  • eating out
  • coffee shops
  • home improvement & decoration
  • electronics
  • clothes
  • travel
  • entertainment in all its forms (Netflix subscriptions, music, movies, concerts, sports events).

Once it was added up, it wasn’t just a significant amount, it was more than what I had given away.

That was a humbling and convicting moment for me.

Now I’m not opposed to every luxury in life. I don’t join the ascetics who say that if I spent a dollar on luxury, it was a dollar I should have given to charity. But when my spending on life’s luxuries outpaces my giving, it’s disingenuous to say, “I wish I could give more than I do.”

We’re so often deceived by the same lie: “If only I had _____, then I’d be really generous.” Because whatever we have is almost enough to satisfy our needs. But when our means grow, our appetites tend to grow in equal proportion.

The Bible’s teaching on money consistently points toward simplicity and generosity. I’m convinced of that. But giving definition to simplicity and generosity is difficult. What exactly does it look like to live simply and give generously?

I don’t have any firm definitions. I’m not sure they exist, or would prove helpful. For me, at least a starting point was to acknowledge that if I’m spending more on my luxuries than I’m giving away, I can’t claim to be living simply and giving generously.

That was the beginning of a change in how I give. It was birthed out of conviction, not love. I don’t know that I could have been called a “cheerful giver.” But something interesting happened in that process…

As I changed some of those patterns, other things changed, too. I became more patient, less cynical, more willing to listen, less demanding of my own way.

Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”1 It’s interesting that he says it that way. We so often assume that we follow our hearts––”let your heart decide,” “go where your heart leads,” “give where your heart leads…” But Jesus suggests that our hearts don’t always lead the way. When I began to change where my treasure went, it began to change my heart.

————-

  1. Matt 6:21

How does an everywhere, all-knowing, almighty God respond to evil and tragedy?

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How does God use his power? [pt. I]

The book of Job contains as much about God’s majesty as any book in the Bible. It’s full of lines like, “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea,”1 and “His eyes are on the ways of mortals; he sees their every step.”2

The most dramatic lines come from God himself—

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? //
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? //
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
3

Yet all these declarations about God’s greatness come against a backdrop of tragedy. If you’ve asked theological questions about the problem of evil before, you’ve likely heard someone mention the book of Job.

The book’s introduction presents Job as a “blameless and upright man” who fears God and shuns evil.4 He has everything a man of his time would ask for—a large family, enormous flocks and herds, many servants—and he’s called “the greatest man among all the people of the East.”5

But then the narrative cuts to a short conversation between God and Satan.6 God talks about Job like a proud father. Satan is unimpressed: “Of course he’s loyal to you. You’ve kept a hedge around him. You’ve blessed him in every way. Take away all the blessing and he’ll curse you to your face.”

So God agrees. “Very well, then, I’ll remove the hedge.”7

Then we see Job lose everything in an instant—all of the flocks and herds, every one of his children, and every servant except for the few messengers who escape to tell Job about his losses. When he still doesn’t give up his faith, he loses his health, too.

We usually look to the book of Job to ask why God would allow tragic evil, and most people conclude that it doesn’t give any final answers. The most we can take away is that God’s ways are beyond our understanding. Perhaps the best we can do in the face of tragedy is to respond as Job does, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.8 

But we often miss an important revelation in Job. At the beginning of the story, why has Job prospered so much? Satan himself says that God has put a hedge around Job and his household and everything he has. And what happens when God removes the hedge? Job loses it all in an instant.

The book of Job shows us that God must have a great hedge around us. If you have anything good in your life—any loved ones, any possessions, any health—there must be some hedge. If the hedge were removed, it would all be destroyed.

We usually look at it the other way. We ask why God would ever remove any hedge of protection. But let’s first recognize what a great hedge God has around us. We don’t see a God who intervenes in every situation the way we’ve asked. We don’t see a God who keeps a perfect hedge around all people and all things. I admit I don’t understand why God performs miracles in some situations and allows others to continue in tragedy. I don’t understand why God keeps his hedge up sometimes and removes it in others. But I’m left with Job, praising a God who gives and provides and protects and works miracles, and praising God still when the hedge of protection comes down and the miracle doesn’t come.

This is the second most compelling way that God uses his power in our world. But it pales in comparison to the most compelling—and shocking—way that God has used his power…

How does God use his power? [pt. 2]

The Gospel of John begins with a shining statement about Jesus’ glory and presence and power.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.9

He has existed forever. All created things were created through him. He was with God in the beginning, and he is God. But then look at what John says about how we have seen his glory:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.10

How have we seen the glory of Jesus—the one who is God himself? He took on flesh and made his dwelling among us. Not only did he take on flesh, he took on the very nature of a servant and humbled himself. He became obedient to death—even death on a cross!11

In Jesus, we see a God who doesn’t just intervene from on high. Instead, we see a God who was made low. He came, and rather than ending all suffering immediately, he participated in our sufferings. Rather than triumphing over the powers of evil in our world as an almighty conqueror, he triumphed over them by the cross.12

How can an everywhere, all-knowing, almighty God allow evil and suffering to persist? The answer we long for is a simple one—that God would use his power to vanquish these things, that there would be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. We long for an answer that says all the tragedies cease––no more cancer, no more earthquakes, no more car accidents, no more school shootings. There’s no more reason to mourn or cry or hurt.

A day is coming when that will be God’s response, when Christ declares, “I am making everything new!”13 With that, we have a great hope: Death doesn’t have the final word. Tragedy doesn’t have the final word. All the tears now don’t have the final word. Christ has the final word, and he is making everything new.

As we wait for that day, though, how does an everywhere, all-knowing, almighty God respond to evil and tragedy? In Jesus, we see that the God who is everywhere comes down to be present with us. The God who knows all things knows our heartbreak and grieves with us. The God who is almighty has suffered grief and shame and pain alongside us. And in these things, as much as in the stretching out of the heavens and treading on the waves of the sea, we see God’s majesty.

———

  1. Job 9:8
  2. Job 34:21
  3.  Job 38:4, 35; 39:1. If you can, take the time to read all of Job 38-39. It’s a spectacular speech.
  4. Job 1:1
  5. Job 1:3
  6.  Some people take the book of Job as a type of epic, others view it as actual history. Regardless of how you see it, the purpose of the book seems to revolve around our questions about the presence of evil in the world.
  7. My paraphrase of Job 1:8-12
  8. Job 1:21
  9. John 1:1-3
  10. John 1:14
  11. All of this from Philippians 2:6-8
  12. See Colossians 2:15
  13. See Revelation 21:4-5