Mismatched clergy and congregations

The Rev. James Howell wrote an interesting blog post about the harrowing future that might be facing clergy and congregations in the United Methodist Church if we split apart.

He raises several interesting points, but one section of his post in particular grabbed my attention. In discussing the position of clergy in his conference if we sundered into two denominations, Howell wrote:

We would also have a rash of mismatched clergy and congregations.  If congregations get to choose which denomination to go with, I’d imagine the clergy would get to pick too.  At least in my part of the world, and I suspect all across the United States, on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.  In Western North Carolina, for instance, out of 1,000 clergy I’d estimate at least 500 would choose the new progressive institution; but no more than a few dozen churches would do the same. Where would the clergy work?  And who would pastor the conservative churches?

Among those who observe clergy, it has long been remarked that clergy are often more liberal than their congregations in the United Methodist Church. Howell is merely speculating about some of the numbers. What is interesting in his numbers is the assertion that no more than a few dozen churches in his entire conference would join a progressive or liberal denomination while hundreds — about half — of its clergy would.

For my part, I do not know where I would land in the fall out of a broken church. I am comforted to know, however, that theologically, at least, I do not have the struggles of so many of my colleagues. When I teach and preach the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church and try to articulate the heart of Wesleyan theology, I do not have to hide my true theological beliefs or couch them in ways that disguise the fact that I secretly consider the faith of my church members somehow backward — or whatever the opposite of progressive is. I am too Democratic for many of the Republicans in my churches and too much a fan of Indiana University for the Purdue Boilermaker fans in my church, but I can pray for healing without crossing my fingers, speak of the resurrection without resorting to metaphors, warn of the devil’s works without feeling sheepish, and wrestle with holiness without trying to dispense with holiness itself. I am grateful for that.

Making the hard argument

I recently read an article written by the a district superintendent in the Mountain Sky episcopal area.

The article is a critique of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The author tries to demonstrate what he sees as hypocrisy and inconsistency in the positions of the WCA. In doing so, he writes some things that I found rather troubling.

Here is some of what he puts forward:

  • The ordination of women is unbiblical.
  • The toleration of divorced clergy is unbiblical.
  • John Wesley’s primary concern was in new expressions of faithfulness.
  • The Nicene Creed should not be used as a litmus test for orthodox Christianity.
  • Central Conferences in the UMC do not have to follow the doctrine of the UMC.

I think the author is wrong in all five of these claims, but today I want to respond to the assertions that the United Methodist Church’s current teaching regarding women’s ordination and divorce are not biblical.

Here is what I believe the author was trying to do. He believes the church is wrong to hold as a matter of doctrine and law that gay sex is sinful and that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. He wants to critique the WCA for its support of current church teaching, so he wants to demonstrate that it is at its core a hypocritical and intellectually shallow association. To do so he asserts that the WCA endorses clearly unbiblical stances on women’s ordination and divorce and suggests therefore that the WCA is merely playing power games in not endorsing the unbiblical teaching regarding gay sex.

I am troubled by this line of argument, especially coming from the member of the cabinet of one of our episcopal areas.

Here is why.

He is asserting that the official United Methodist Church teaching on women’s ordination and divorce are unbiblical. I don’t believe that is fair or true. I believe our doctrines are compatible with the Bible and that we do not hold them in spite of what the Bible says but because of what it says. I believe our denomination tries rather hard to be faithful to its doctrinal standard that says the Bible is final authority in all matters of faith and practice and that we cannot adopt as church teaching or law something that we believe is in direct violation of biblical teaching.

As I see it, there are at least two ways of arguing that our church should change its teaching with regard to gay sex and gay marriage. The first is to do as this author appears to do. Argue that the church has already opted to ignore the Bible in many areas and therefore should do so again. In making this argument there is almost always the implication that dark motives are the real reason behind the current teaching and support of it. The upholders of current teaching are cast as bigots or cynical hypocrites. In addition, such arguments appear to take the stance that it is okay to endorse one unbiblical position because we have endorsed another one. That strikes me as a foolish rule, akin to saying two wrongs make a right. If the church is violating the Bible in ordaining women or permitting divorce, as the author of the article asserts, then the proper response would be to advocate for a revision of our doctrine and law regarding women’s ordination and divorce not the adoption of more self-consciously unbiblical teaching.

The second way to make this argument — and one that seems much more in keeping with the golden rule — is to assume that our church actually has arrived at its current teaching through faithful attempts to listen to Scripture. As the church is always in need of reform, we accept that we always stand in risk of being wrong about the teaching of Scripture and so are open to being taught. But we never intentionally and willfully dismiss Scripture and strive never to hold as doctrine any teaching that we believe is incompatible with the Bible. And so to argue that gay sex is not sinful and that marriage is not intended by God to be between one man and one woman, our author would need to demonstrate how a full and careful reading of the Bible actually supports these positions.

That is a hard argument to make. I know that some have attempted to make it. I know as well that many outside the church have no interest in making it. Millions of people who have no particular regard for the Bible cannot be bothered to treat the church’s attempts to be faithful to the Bible with respect. I understand that. I just hope that within the church we might start from a different place.

Death defying experience

We United Methodists say that experience informs our theology.

When we are being less faithful to our own Wesleyan roots, we mistake “experience” for revelation and act as if whatever we happen to feel or think must be on par with what God has revealed via Scripture. When we are being more faithful to our roots, we recall that Wesley stood with the historic church in viewing experience as way of confirming the truth of theological commitments. What we believe plays out in how we live and therefore adds credence to the truth of our beliefs.

Athanasius would approve of this use of experience as a theological tool.

He wrote in On the Incarnation about the experience of Christians as confirmation of the truth of the resurrection. If Jesus was not alive and death had not been defeated, he wrote, how could anyone explain the behavior of Christians who embrace martyrdom and show no fear of death?

Of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior, all used to weep for those dying as if they were perishing. But since the Savior’s raising the body, no longer is death fearsome, but all believers in Christ tread on it as nothing, and would rather choose to die than deny their faith in Christ. … human beings, before believing in Christ, view death as fearsome and are terrified at it. But when they come to faith in him and to his teaching, they so despise death that they eagerly rush to it and become witnesses to the resurrection over it effected by the Savior.

I love the boldness of this vision of Christianity. This is an experience that confirms the truth of our beliefs, only if Jesus were really alive would people be able to live like this.