The challenge of polygamy

The United Methodist Church’s official web site shares a commentary by the Rev. Lloyd Nyarota about the differences between American and African United Methodism, especially the different challenges facing the African church. Among the many interesting concerns he raises is the following:

Polygamy is one of the big issues facing Africa, and it’s often confusing to pastors in the local churches. Children from polygamous marriages sometimes cannot be baptized. Women from polygamous marriages are sometimes denied acceptance into women’s fellowships (organizations equivalent to United Methodist Women) because of the stigma associated with polygamy within the church.

Polygamy is a long time cultural phenomenon and missionaries created a legacy of stigma around this issue that is difficult for The United Methodist Church in Africa, especially since some African churches promote polygamy. This is an issue that we will be discussing for generations to come.

The challenge the church in Africa faces with the cultural acceptance of polygamy is both pastoral and theological. The full depth of the matter is beyond my understanding or experience. However, I am familiar with the fact that the church is always and constantly in a position in which its teaching and its call to holiness is at odds with aspects of the non-Christian culture in which the church exists. The church always finds itself at odds with the culture around it. The church is constantly being pressed by those outside it and within it to reformulate its vision of holiness to accommodate God to human desire. The great temptation of the church — one it has often failed to meet — is to confuse the sinfulness of human hearts for the holiness of God. The church is always in need for reformation and confession in this regard.

I do not expect the church will find any resources in this struggle from the secular or non-Christian cultures of Africa and America. What it will find is what it has always found from its earliest days. Those who do not acknowledge the lordship of Christ will provide the church with many reasons to abandon its understanding of holiness because holiness is always an affront to sinful desire.

I pray that our church can and does provide Christians in Africa with the support and resources they need to provide a strong witness to Christ in the face of the particular cultural challenges that work against the gospel. I pray the same for the church in America.

The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.

Rumblings from the Rockies

A couple days before Christmas, the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church issued an appeal for financial help. The statement announcing the appeal is somewhat vague about the need and purpose of the funding. It is equally vague about the size and scope of the need.

The appeal is linked to the election, consecration, and appointment of Karen Oliveto as bishop over the two conferences. The election of a non-celibate lesbian bishop has caused a lot of turmoil in the wider UMC and, apparently, in the two conferences she serves. The fund-raising appeal, issued Dec. 22, includes the following:

[T]here has been stress in some of our most theologically diverse congregations. Some have lost members. Others have had members withdraw their financial support. We believe theological diversity is critical for the vitality of The United Methodist Church. We seek to help our churches as we live into this new future. All our churches throughout the Mountain Sky Area play a vital role in witnessing to the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their communities. We remain committed to all churches in our area.

That is why the Mountain Sky Area is creating a Mountain Sky Vital Congregations Sustentation Fund to provide churches with short-term financial assistance as we move toward the day when God’s hopeful vision of all being included in The United Methodist Church becomes fully real. This fund is especially needed where a pastor’s compensation is at risk. Allocated funds for equitable compensation support will be exhausted before the need is met. And, importantly, by Discipline, equitable compensation funds cannot be used for part-time pastors in the same situation.

The appeal appears aimed in part at shoring up part-time appointments in the conferences where the loss of members and financial support would be felt the most quickly. At least, the last line of the quoted material above appears to justify the fund because it would permit support of part-time charges. Whether the problem is confined to part-time charges or is more widespread is not clear from the appeal.

It is tempting to try to draw conclusions about what is going on in these conferences or try to draw some generalizations about the meaning of all this for the wider UMC, but that seems pretty dangerous given the lack of specific information. If you know more about this or the situation on the ground in those conferences, please share in the comments section.