The emperor has no clothes, or The illusion of authority in the UMC

umc emperorEvery four years, elected delegates from across the world meet at a General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Among the most discussed and debated topics for decades have been issues like the United Methodist Church’s stance on the practice of homosexuality, or its decisions and position regarding abortion.

We invest a lot in those conversations. After all, only the General Conference has the power to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church.

Now that’s a bizarre statement, isn’t it? The only person/group with the power to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church is a group that meets for two weeks every four years.

And it’s not working out so well for us, either.

You see, I would expect an organization that invests so much time and energy into its official standards to then enforce those standards. That would include expecting its most visible leaders to support those standards – or at least not to publicly contradict them.

But over the past several years, we’ve seen an increasing disregard for the official positions of the UMC by some of its most prominent agencies and leaders.

So for instance, a recent press release by leaders in the United Methodist Women and our General Board of Church and Society ignored or darn near contradicted the majority of the UMC’s stance on abortion. See my response to that here.

And now, the most prominent of UM pastors, Adam Hamilton, comes out with a statement on homosexual behavior that flat out contradicts our official position. A fellow pastor commented to me that Hamilton’s “entrepreneurial skills are very impressive. As a UM leader, I think he means well, but Scripture is not his primary rule of life and ministry.” You should take a look at Tim Tennent’s well-reasoned response to Hamilton: “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.”

Unfortunately, the UMC has all too gladly given Hamilton its biggest platform due to his entrepreneurial skills. (We reward nothing more than worldly success, do we?) He’s using that platform to rather plainly reject our hard-fought statements of belief.

And I get it. These people don’t like our stated positions. So they’re speaking out against them. Is that okay, though? For which positions? And what does it mean that they took a vow to “preach and maintain” our doctrines and “support and maintain” our discipline and polity? Surely it doesn’t mean it’s okay to publicly reject them with no consequence.

These are two examples among dozens (hundreds?) of recent public contradictions and refutations of the UMC position – both in word and deed.

The emperor has no clothes

These people seem to know what our institution has failed to recognize, or wants to pretend isn’t so: the emperor has no clothes.

If only the General Conference speaks on behalf of the UMC, we’ll be waiting 3-1/2 years for an official response to these recent acts of defiance. And do any of us expect them to do anything about it? Do we expect anyone else of note to do anything before then? Do we expect the Council of Bishops to come out and say that the UMW and GBCS press release was a gross distortion of our actual values? Do we expect Adam Hamilton to receive any censure for such a brazen mockery of the UMC’s theological positions?

Or perhaps we should ask it another way: what does one have to do to actually face consequences in this institution? And without any form of accountability, what do any of our “official positions” mean in the first place? They seem a comfortable piece of clothing. A very costly piece of fabric at that — years of preparation and petition-writing and delegate elections, with an expensive two-week conference at its climax.

But surely soon we’ll go ahead and name what we’re all seeing here: these clothes aren’t real. And it’s getting pretty embarrassing to stand around here naked.

Can anyone do anything about this, or have we legislated ourselves into these make-believe clothes?

Another reason we’re seeing such silence from our leaders: they got where they are by not making too many controversial waves. See “The Catch-22 of Change and Bureaucracy”

More UMC Posts here

24 thoughts on “The emperor has no clothes, or The illusion of authority in the UMC

  1. I thought Hamilton was just expressing his own opinion. His views have changed quite a bit over the years. (I didn’t particularly care for the article either, but I didn’t take it that he was intending to speak for the whole UMC.)

    1. Hi Craig,

      I think the question is whether it’s appropriate for such a prominent United Methodist pastor to make such a public statement in contradiction of the actual UMC position. I can’t think of any other organization where this would be acceptable. Would it be okay for Hamilton to write a major piece about how infant baptism is invalid? Or arguing against the divinity of Christ? When the UMC has been at pains to clearly and carefully state its beliefs, it seems that there should be a problem when its leaders openly defy and refute those beliefs.

  2. Hi, Teddy. Your post strikes at another one of the countless anomalies of the evangelical church. Christian Smith lists them in his book “How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps” 🙂 A few listed below…your blog continues to pull many of these to the table.

    1. Begin to feel rootless
    2. Start to notice fragmentation and disunity
    3. Notice Bible’s inability to settle matters in dispute
    4. Start to grow weary of meaningless worship services
    5. Get annoyed and stay annoyed at embarrassing evangelical spokespeople
    6. Get tired of church shopping and wonder if churches should be shopped for
    7. Start wondering what the mystery of faith and life are
    8. Hear about someone you respect becoming Catholic
    9. Begin wondering if being relevant is irrelevant
    10. Notice American evangelicalism’s cultural accomodations

    Just food for thought…keep up the good work.

  3. Judy, thenCouncil,of Bishops is accountable to no one. And they don’t want to upset anyone by calling into question a pastormof a very large and prominent church.

    1. Ed, Maybe my view point is to simple. Nobody seems to be accountable to anybody till you get into the local churches. That is not right. They agreed to uphold the BOD and the Bible when they took their views of ordination. They are breaking their vows and there needs to be a form of punishment that is more than a tap on the wrist. In my church everybody knows how I feel about paying apportionments. I feel like all they are really interested in is my money.

  4. I get Hamilton’s weekly e-mails to his congregation. Here is what he wrote about the piece:

    “This week the Washington Post published an article I wrote on homosexuality and the Bible (the Post gave it the title, “On Homosexuality, Many Christians Get the Bible Wrong” – not a title I would have chosen as I think it would have been better to say, “On homosexuality many faithful Christians don’t see eye to eye”.) The piece drew on the sermon I preached last fall in the Wrestling with the Bible series. Here’s the link to the article in the Post.

    Articles like this one are typically limited to around 700 words. That’s enough space to introduce an idea, but not to fully flesh it out. There’s far more that can and should be said on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible. Some of that “more” I’ve addressed in the chapter on homosexuality in my book When Christians Get it Wrong. That chapter can be downloaded for free by clicking on this link. Much of what I believe about the issue of homosexuality and the Bible I shared with you last fall in the sermon on sexuality from the series, “Wrestling with the Bible.” You can watch the sermon on sexuality from that series by clicking on this link.

    We don’t all see eye to eye on this issue here at Resurrection. I’ve attempted to offer my best thinking on this issue – particularly on why the handful of scriptures related to homosexuality might not capture God’s will concerning gay and lesbian people. As always, it is okay to disagree with me.”

    1. This is really helpful, John. If Hamilton’s full comments were a bit more qualified than what the Washington Post presented, it would help me feel much better about them. I’d still want to know whether he gave permission for the Washington Post to run this article as they did, since I don’t see it as appropriate on its own.

      Your links didn’t come through. I’ll search to see if I can find these items on my own. But if you have the links and can post them, that would be great.

      1. If you watch the sermon, his statements about the inspiration of the Bible are at 9 minutes or so. What I find interesting is that he takes the “human and divine” way of talking about the Bible, but instead of saying the divine worked through the human, he sets up a contrast. Some of the Bible contains the word of God. Some of it contains the words of men.

      2. I’ve read everything Hamilton has written on the issue, and the WaPo piece accurately summarizes Hamilton’s views on the issue. It’s extremely unfortunate that such a high profule UM pastor choses to be schismatic on this issue. Hamilton will fit in perfectly when he decides he wants to be a bishop.

      3. Thanks John. I watched a good chunk of that sermon. Hamilton’s characterization of Scripture as word of man and word of God is interesting. It’s not far from how I’ve heard Rob Bell characterize Scripture in the past. I think Hamilton sets up too much of a straw man dichotomy between “God’s timeless word” (as he calls it at least once or twice) and particular passages of Scripture. Rather than treating passages regarding slaves and women as God’s word coming into a particular culture, he seems to generally dismiss them as a human word that didn’t reflect God’s will.

        Though I became uncomfortable with Rob Bell’s treatment at certain points, I think he generally did a better job of noting that the passages we see on slavery and women, though we would find them terribly oppressive, demonstrate in their context a movement toward more value and more freedom. Is it possible that even Scripture passages discussing when slave owners should and shouldn’t be punished for beating their slaves are a word from God? And as we read them as a word from God coming into that culture, we surely don’t read in them a rationale for slavery, but a movement toward freedom.

        I know I’m always at risk of reading into these what I want to read rather than what’s there. But I think there’s also a greater risk in simply dismissing them as a word of man that was never of God in the first place. When we begin doing that, where do we stop?

      4. Teddy-

        Keep in mind when you’re writing for something like the Washington Post, you don’t get a lot of room for negotiation. Titles can be changed and articles can be edited with or without your permission. This happens when you write for one of the “big dogs” in the newspaper business.

        As John said, lets keep in mind Adam had only about 700 words to convey his point. I appreciate him expressing the complexity of this issue. The truth is we can oversimplify it too often — even by making a so-called doctrinal standard.

  5. Our problem is that the infighting over passages in the Discipline and Social Principles ignores the real question: What has the Church of Jesus Christ always and everywhere believed, taught, and confessed based upon the word of God about whether “same sex intimacy” is sin?

    The answer to that question begins with an orthodox understanding of the nature of the human person–a biblical anthropology.

    Here is Bp Timothy Whittaker’s treatment of the issue:

  6. The United Methodist doctrine on Scripture is that it contains all things necessary for salvation and is final authority on all matters of faith and practice. I’m not sure you need to come up with a theology of revelation or inspiration to accept this, but, of course, it probably helps.

    My problem with the way Hamilton makes the argument is that it still ends up running rough shod over all kinds of complexity and nuance. And it takes no account of questions about where a new line is supposed to be drawn. What now falls outside acceptable Christian practice, and why? Is there any principled argument against polygamy or brothers and sisters getting married that does not fall before exactly the same argument that Hamilton raises?

    I am basically conflict-averse, so I would love to be presented with a convincing, coherent, and biblical argument that takes this debate off the table for me. I really would. But I find none.

    1. John,

      I think you’d really enjoy “Theological Transition in American Methodism” by Robert Chiles. He shows how the erosion of a Wesleyan doctrine of revelation paved the way for an erosion of the doctrine of sin, which paved the way for an erosion of the doctrine of salvation. A fascinating, though upsetting, little book. It takes you only up to 1939.

  7. What Hamilton and others are doing is following in the footsteps of MLK and Gandhi and fighting against injustice through civil disobedience. And, make no mistake, excluding an entire group of people from full connection because of the misinterpretation of scripture is a grave injustice. When the UMC realizes that, it will have taken the first step to stop it’s decline and slide into irrelevance.

    1. That’s a take I’ve heard a time or two, Joel. And though I can’t agree with it, I know a number of people sincerely feel that way. However, I think your pragmatic appeal lacks support. When we look to other denominations that have become fully accepting of homosexual behavior, we don’t generally see the decline stopping. Actually, it looks like the decline has only worsened for most of them. It doesn’t seem that people were waiting on the Episcopal Church to change its position so they could rush in the doors.

      1. I didn’t say it was the only step, but that it was the first step. If the church wants to stop the irrelevancy that is bearing down on it like a Mack truck, it will have to make significant changes. Full inclusion of the LGBT community is only one of them.

  8. For all of the struggles and failures of the church through the ages, it remains that the pursuit of relevance (on the world’s terms) is completely irrelevant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies . . . must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” The church does not need to become relevant to our whims, we need to become convicted of truth and learn how, by Christ’s example and the power of the Holy Spirit, to share that truth in love.

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