WNCCUMC Annual Conference Panel Discussion on Possibility of Amicable Seperation: Recollections and Reflections

Bishop Goodpaster began our time of holy conferencing with a call to the exercise of holy leadership at the clergy session of the Western NC Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska. He spoke on 1 Peter 1:13-15 in which Peter calls disciples to be prepared for action and warns them of the danger of being conformed to ungodly desires from their past. Peter goes on to call them to be holy in all aspects of their life, quoting Leviticus 20:26 as the authority behind the imperative that he has laid out for them. He then encouraged us pastors to remember that we are called to a distinct form of leadership that requires us to attend to all of the means of grace and not just secular leadership resources. For me and some of my colleagues this was quite refreshing to hear. One of those important means of grace, holy streams through which the refreshing and invigorating Spirit of God’s grace flows into our spirits, is holy conferencing. Holy conferencing is a time of conversation where convictions and ideas are shared and, hopefully, deep listening takes place. In addition of the various worship services, Bible studies, times of prayer, and plenary business sessions that included conversation regarding many of the temporal affairs of the church, we also had a special time of holy conferencing on Saturday afternoon regarding the talk of schism in the United Methodist Church over differing beliefs regarding the bounds of holy sex and holy matrimony.

A panel discussion was formed that included Bishop Goodpaster, who led and participated in the dialogue, Rev. Dr. Andy Langford of Central UMC in Concord, Rev. Talbot Davis of Good Shepherd UMC in Charlotte, Rev. Dr. James Howell of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, and Dr. Shannon Sherfey (a lay member who is a medical doctor from Taylorsville). A few people from the audience also spoke. Below are some of my recollections (hopefully not too faulty since I didn’t take extensive notes) and reflections on what was said.

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Rev. Langford got the ball rolling after a few introductory remarks from the bishop. He talked about how “amicable separation” is possible and gave some examples when it happened in the past. He also warned that while it is possible that it is not likely to be able to pass the 2016 General Conference under the current circumstances. He spoke of the growing conservative element of the church, especially in Africa, and how that reality would make a liberal change to the Book of Discipline a practical impossibility since we are a global church. In his talk Rev. Langford also seemed to imply that since the Book of Discipline is not adhered to in other ways, such as some pastors refusing to perform infant baptism or who re-baptize, then why make such a fuss over pastors who perform homosexual weddings. Additionally, if I heard him correctly, he also seemed to call for a boycott of the General Conference in favor of annual conferences deciding matters for themselves. At any rate, he said top down approaches will never work. Only a grassroots movement will be able to bring about meaningful change.

My Thoughts: I don’t think pointing to other bad behavior and covenant breaking as an excuse for more bad behavior and covenant breaking is a good way forward. Rather I think it would take us backward to the time of the judges when everyone did what was right in their own eyes in Israel (Jdgs 17:6; 21:25). I’ve heard several of my colleagues bring up the issue of baptism as someone did right before the panel discussion started. John Wesley, however, did place mode of baptism in a category where Christians of different traditions/denominations with different covenants regarding mode of worship could agree to disagree and yet still be a common witness and in mission together for Christ to the world. For him this would be a second order issue between Christians of different traditions so to speak. I do not believe, however, that he would be happy with pastors who vowed themselves to a covenant that includes the administration of infant baptism and not to re-baptize not abiding by that covenant. Neither do I believe United Methodist pastors should dismiss this part of our discipline. What’s more important is that I do not believe the fact that some pastors choosing to break this part of the covenant in a second order matter should be used to justify or excuse other pastors breaking the covenant in what I believe to be something much more serious that would clearly fall within what John Wesley would have considered to be much more of an essential. Looking for loopholes and excuses for covenant breaking isn’t becoming of the holiness to which we are called.

For Wesley the essential love that unifies Christians of differing opinions regarding modes of worship and church government constrains one:

“to serve him with fear, to ‘rejoice unto him with reverence’ Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory Upon this ground, dost thou ‘hate all evil ways,’ every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man” (Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” I:16).

With regards to the “holy and perfect law” Wesley would have had the moral law in mind as is conveyed in article VI of our Articles of Religion that says “no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” We do not keep these law, which would include the laws regarding sexual holiness, in order to be saved, but because we are saved and graciously inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so. Love is the fulfilling of the law, and the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. I’ll say more on love later, but let it suffice for now to say that love is the first fruit of the Spirit and to love God is to obey God out of a holy affection of heart and desire to please him as Wesley said. I don’t think Wesley would be pleased with a pastor refusing to baptize infants after vowing to abide by our United Methodist Discipline, but I think he would be exponentially more displeased with pastors using that as a rationale to make light of pastors encouraging and giving their blessing to people to break God’s moral law.

Dr. Shannon Sherfey disclosed that she does not believe that same sex relations are sinful and that she supports the full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life of the church without stigma or qualification regarding ordination. She also said that she believes that a person’s sexual orientation is genetically predetermined and immutable and therefore a part of God good design. Dr. Sherfey stated a regard for Scripture but a different reading of it. She held out her hope that in a couple of decades the United Methodist Church will find itself on “the right side of history” with regards to marriage equality. She quoted John Wesley from his sermon “Catholic Spirit” to say that “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” Yet, Dr. Sherfey also expressed misgivings with some of the “middle way”/“agree to disagree” proposals because to her this is a matter of justice for an unfairly discriminated against minority on par with the plight of oppressed Africans and African Americans during the days of slavery and the pre-civil rights era in America. For her to agree to disagree would continue the allowance of what she sees as unjust oppression of a minority, which is, understandably from her perspective, rather unthinkable.

My Thoughts: From a conservative perspective, a few weeks ago I similarly argued that the middle way/agree-to-disagree solutions are untenable (See Here). As Professor Bill Arnold has argued we are at a fork in the road and we can’t really just take it as Yogi Berra might suggest (“Seeing Black and White in a Gray World”). Dr. Sherfey seems to work from a premise that sexual orientation is genetically predetermined and rooted more in identity than simply behavioral. Of all the talk about gray areas in the Bible, here is the area that I really believe falls into that category rather than what the Bible says about same sex intercourse. Even many liberal scholars who support same sex marriage admit that both Old and New Testaments are unequivocal in their condemnation of all forms of same sex intercourse whether it is within a committed relationship or not.
As I’m sure Dr. Sherfey knows there is no scientific consensus regarding the exact nature of the origins of same sex attraction, and it is self-evident that the genetic component if there is any is not akin to the genetic contribution to eye color or skin color as is often asserted or implied. There is obviously a strong unchosen component with regards to sexual desire and attraction as no one consciously chooses any desire or attraction, but there is also obviously a large behavioral component where deliberate decision making plays a key role. People decide for various reasons whether or not to act on certain innate desires all the time. It is also clear that experience and experimentation and the behavioral conditioning that goes along with it plays a critical role in the formation and strengthening of both desirable and undesirable innate desires, attractions, and preferences. There is also a strong cognitive component that can be influenced by information/disinformation (i.e. indoctrination and propaganda). What is really so complicated and foggy is the nature of sexual orientation/behavior and not the Biblical witness against same sex relations. But so often it is framed as exactly the opposite. Then people buy into the overly simplistic notions regarding the nature of same sex attractions and the exaggerated “complication” of the Biblical witness against same sex behavior.

A woman from the audience who spoke later provided an example of the overly simplistic nature argument. She said that since she didn’t choose her attraction to her husband she couldn’t imagine that her LGBT friends chose their same sex attractions; and since they don’t choose their attractions they cannot be wrong. Are we really prepared to overthrow traditional Christian sexual ethics that were virtually undisputed in the Church until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s based on the notion that unchosen innate desires must be ok? Again, who chooses their desires or attractions? No one! But people do choose all the time whether to act on them or not. Like a young woman who decided to have sex with other women because she knew she couldn’t get pregnant that way! Such decision-making is, however, greatly enhanced by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit made available through the atoning blood of Jesus and the power of his resurrection.

Rev. Langford rightly pointed out in response to Dr. Sherfey that the church just can’t go along with the whims of the culture, but that we need to dig deeper into Scripture. With that I strongly concur (see my further thoughts on that here).  The “right side of history” in a fallen world does not necessarily end up in the Kingdom of God.

Rev. Talbot Davis, inspired by a presentation given by Matt O’Reilly the day before at the Evangelical Movement breakfast (See Talbot’s thoughts on Matt’s Presentation here), spoke of what it is we conservatives want to conserve, namely the beauty of marriage that is the reflection of the image of the Triune God and Christ’s love for his church. Rev. Davis argued that the sacred library which is the Bible begins with a heterosexual marriage in Eden and ends with the image of Christ being united with his bride, the Church, in the New Jerusalem. He said, these bookends with the imagery of heterosexual marriage were, in his opinion, not accidental; and that there is something distinctly unique about the marriage of a man and woman that reflects the beauty of the holiness of the Triune God and His love for his Church. Rev. Davis also spoke of the desire to be faithful to Scripture and the historic witness of the Church universal regarding sexual purity and the glory it brings to the Triune God, a witness that is affirmed and upheld by leading New Testament scholars such as N.T. Wright and Western NC’s own Dr. Ben Witherington as Talbot pointed out.

My Thoughts: I concur wholeheartedly with Rev. Davis and with Rev. O’Reilly’s admonishment for the church to not only speak about what it is we are against but to reveal the truth, goodness, and beauty of the sexual holiness to which God call’s His people as revealed in sacred Scripture.

Rev. James Howell was incredibly gracious and quite congenial, but also with a very serious message that it is important for all of us to stay together so that we can continue to learn from one another. He held out hope that with continued discussion and reflection minds could be changed in the long term. He said he would miss his conservative friends like Talbot, and especially Talbot’s pool. Dr. Howell proposed that it was more important to be loving than to be right and that he believed this was an issue over which we could still agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship just like he and his family remain united even though they don’t all think “father knows best.” James said that he thought it was more important to be loving than to be right, a statement that he quickly qualified by saying that he didn’t mean that truth didn’t matter and that being right was unimportant. Dr. Howell also compared the current situation to the issue of Gentile circumcision that was addressed by the Jerusalem council as recorded in Acts 15, which concluded that Gentiles shouldn’t be required to be circumcised. Talbot later pointed out that Gentiles were required to abstain from sexual immorality. James replied that the issue was really over our interpretation of what that really means for us today and that he was advocating the acceptance of a holy form of same sex relationships presumably within the bounds of an altered definition of marriage to be between two persons rather than just one man and one woman. Talbot concurred that he and James definitely disagreed on this issue, but that James could still swim in his pool. Later James pointed out that Myers Park UMC has people call all the time to make sure their church is hospitable for gay people, but never, he said, has anyone called to make sure they are “antigay” before visiting.

My Thoughts: I respect and appreciate the knowledge and wisdom of Dr. Howell on many things. I have had the privilege of getting to know him and to experience his and his wife’s gracious, kind, and hospitable spirit. James is “right” to point out that we shouldn’t just be concerned about being right. Yet, as he admitted, his statement that “it is more important to be loving than to be right” must not be taken in a strictly wooden literal sense. As James also said, truth is important. As Christians we are called to speak the truth in love for the sake of the health and maturity of the body of Christ (Eph 4:15). Love and truth cannot really be separated. The desire to be right though can be wrong. That is, if we desire to be right for our own personal glory rather than the glory of God. Genuine love leads one to seek to magnify God’s kingdom and God’s glory rather than self. As Talbot endeavored to convey we conservatives want to conserve the truth of traditional covenant marriage between one man and one woman because it reflects the glory and beauty of the Triune God, and I would add it requires and exhibits the self-denial that is inherent in the call of Christ that leads to ultimate human flourishing.

Moreover, circumcision, like slavery and women in ministry, is a weak analogy compared to other possible forms of consensual sexual expression from which Christians are called to abstain. Self-denial of innate sexual attractions is required for all disciples, whether married or single. Circumcision, was an important ceremonial law among others that signified Israel’s distinction from the other nations, while the sexual laws were moral laws even though they were not without a symbolic significance of their own. The purpose of circumcision as a distinction between Jew and Gentile was fulfilled in Christ who fulfilled the promise of God that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. In Christ people of all nations were brought into the covenant-family of God so that there was no longer a distinction needed for Jew and Gentile. Yet with regards to sexual morality the requirements for believers became even more stringent not less. Christ closed the loophole in the law that allowed for divorce for any reason by referring to God’s original purpose for marriage at creation, the lifelong, one-flesh covenant relationship between one man and one woman with the primary purpose being the ongoing work of creation through fruitful reproduction and secondarily for strong bonds of companionship to allow for relational and family stability (see Mark 10; Matt 19). Marriage symbolizes the faithful self-giving, self-sacrificial, overflowing love of the Triune God (see Eph 5). Celibacy too has tremendous symbolic value as is born out in the trajectory of the New Testament into the early tradition as those in singleness reflect the beauty of intimacy without sex that is characteristic of the full realization of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. That is, when humans are no longer married or given in marriage but are like the angels (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35). Imagine it if you can, a world, the new heaven and new earth, where sex is no more, but our intimacy with God and each other will never be more truly complete. The beauty in the symbolism is based on the truth of the creator’s design and intention for sex, not as a be-all-end-all for our own recreation, but one of the means through which creation is brought to its ultimate end, the full manifestation of the glory of God through true human flourishing that reflects fully and freely the image of God. This is the truth, goodness, and beauty of the call of Christ to celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage, the way the Creator designed and intended. As Matt O’Reilly pointed out in his talk last Friday morning, ethics must not be thought of separately from eschatology.

Other Overall Thoughts: We really do need to develop a more robust and right view of love that is at least as equally concerned about people’s eternal destiny as their feelings. Love is more than affection and a commitment to covenant has to be at its center, or else it truly would be just a second-hand emotion. We also need to use better analogies in our dialogue, and we do need to dialogue because minds and hearts can be changed for people’s good and God’s glory. Is it really best to compare LGBT issues to war, slavery, and women’s rights, or is it best to compare with other expressions of sexual desires and attractions?

Last fall I carefully read through all of John Wesley’s sermons, all three volumes. There was one person who spoke on Saturday afternoon that made me think the Wesleyan spirit is still alive and well. It was one of our African brothers, who pastors the Ghana Mission UMC in Charlotte. He said, I have heard many speak about what they think, but what about what God thinks? He then proceeded to read from Scripture as if it really was God’s very own account. He warned about the wrath to come and called people to repent and take up their cross of self-denial as Jesus called us to do. From my reading of Wesley there could be nothing more Wesleyan than that, and from my reading of Wesley and the Bible there could be nothing more loving than that.

As far as giving people the opportunity to be changed through dialogue, I’m all for it. When I was at Duke Divinity School there were often panel discussions with folks who had changed their minds from a conservative to progressive perspective. Once, Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman, who at the time pastored a “Reconciling” congregation in the NCCUMC, invited me to come to one such panel discussion that included professor Willie Jennings and Bishop Ken Carder. When I asked who would be speaking from the conservative perspective she looked at me as if I was crazy. Well, there are many people who have converted the other way around, such as my good friend, Rev. Chad Holtz (See Chad’s Testimony here), and Rev. Karen Booth (Karen’s book “Forgetting How to Blush” United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution” is a must read for anyone who wants to know how we got to this point in our church; also see Karen’s Transforming Congregations website here). There’s also the recent testimony of a former lesbian LGBT activist professor (see here), and so many more who have experienced freedom for chastity in singleness or traditional marriage, although this is no guarantee that all unholy sexual desires will completely go away .

Deep listening and good dialogue is a must and I hope it continues (see a great example of just such a dialogue among leaders in the Church of Ireland and Professor Robert Gagnon here; and for a fuller presentation of Dr. Gagnon’s research that shows his exegesis of key biblical texts and his refutation of the “no knowledge of committed homosexual unions in antiquity” arguments go here). Rev. Drew McIntyre and Matt O’Reilly had just such a discussion during our Annual Conference (Listen here). Fellow Methodist and Bible teacher James Michael Smith also gives us a wonderful example of deep dialogue around this issue over at Disciple Dojo as well (see here).  Please, let’s keep listening and may lives be changed and God be glorified for time and eternity.

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6 thoughts on “WNCCUMC Annual Conference Panel Discussion on Possibility of Amicable Seperation: Recollections and Reflections

  1. Gordon-Conwell Charlotte will be hosting a dialogue on this issue in the Fall featuring Dennis Hollinger, Rob Gagnon and a few others. I’ll post more about it when the details are nailed down.

    Great post, Cliff. And great reflections. Here are the questions I wanted to ask, but time ran out:

    Q: Acts 15…The church DID decide on circumcision though. They decided it was not a requirement, and Paul had opposed Peter until Peter came to see (along with the Jerusalem Council) that circumcision was absolutely NOT required for salvation. After they decided, continued attempts to undermine that decision (i.e. Judaizers) were deemed wrong and called out…even with forceful words at times. Should they have maintained continued dialogue for the next generation because of the presence of the disagreeing Judaizers?

    Q: Paul also commanded separation over an issue of consensual adult sexual relationship in Corinth. Was he guilty of schism by doing so?

    Q: Anyone who has counseled those with exclusively prepubescent sexual attraction knows that it is NOT a chosen attraction. Does being born with certain sexual desires mean that is how God created the person?

  2. Cliff, you raise many good points in your commentary.

    While I believe discussion can often be helpful, in my view, holy conferencing is not the correct term for what was happening either in the discussion you’ve described or in most of the discussions we’ve seen on this topic over the last 40 years. Holy Conferencing (although Wesley never used this exact term) is a very good thing when all who are at the table are believers earnestly seeking the will of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit. However, when a topic is being discussed among a group who do not share a common understanding of God, Christ, or the meaning of Christianity, I don’t believe the term is applicable.

    I think one of the biggest issues we face today is our continued reluctance to recognize that not all at the table are Christians. The truth is that many of our leaders, particularly within our agencies and bureaucracy, instead believe and preach “another gospel” (e.g., liberal theology, the Bible as a human book / higher criticism, process theology, womanist theology, etc.). Although feelings will be hurt, we must love God and our fellow man enough to stop the pretense and admit that not all are part of the fellowship of believers; it neither honors God nor shows love to allow a man to continue in a deception that will cost him his soul. The questions then become: How do we effectively evangelize our leadership and agencies (since they truly are a mission field)? How do we remove those who persist in preaching “another gospel”?

    Blessings to you and your family!

    • Paul, I think you raise a very valid point. I have raised the same elsewhere that we are of two minds because we are not of the same spirit. Jesus made is quite clear that not everyone who calls him Lord or who excercise gifts for ministry are genuine disciples (Matt 7). Thanks for the insight.

  3. Rev. Wall,

    You wrote of Christ closing the loophole on the loose interpretation of divorce in the Jewish culture of his day, reminding his listeners, and us, of God’s intent of one man, one woman, lifelong relationship. For over 1900 years it was a disgrace for a pastor in any denomination to divorce and remarry; it was continuous adultery. Yet, in the 1920’s-40’s the Methodist Church struggled over this issue, conservatives on one side and liberals on the other, much like today. It was even banned in the Book of Discipline. But it figured it out. While divorce is never easy and it is tragic that so many pastors end up being divorced, the UMC allows pastors to continue in their roles even after remarriage.

    How is our current debate any different than 70 years ago? Would you advocate going back to the traditional stand on divorce? Can we today figure out a way forward in a similar fashion to what was accomplished then?

    I have read a lot of good blog posts on the false comparison of today’s issues to slavery and women in ministry, but never on this issue of divorce. If you write one, let me know at gbtaylor @ midwestinfo .net. Or message me on my twitter account. Thanks.

    • Gary,
      Thanks for the question. Divorce is getting closer but still not quite the best comparison. I would refer you to Richard Hays in his landmark work “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”. Robert Gagnon also has a short blurb regarding the weakness in this analogy on pages 441-443 of his book “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics”.

      A bullet list of the differences he discusses: 1. Flexibility within the New Testament itself with regards to divorce (although not as flexible as we have become in general in the church today) compared to univocal condemnation of all forms of homosexual practice in both testaments. 2. There are very few in the church who would celebrate divorce as a positive good but only the lesser of two evil in the “not yet” part of Christian existence. 3. Divorce is not an ongoing or repetitive action in the same way was sexual relationships 4. Some are divorced against their will or because of infidelity or abuse while others may just have gotten bored with their spouse and enamored with someone else. A just distinction must be made between the reasons why people are divorced. With regards to same sex behavior the reason for the Bible’s proscription is simply because the act itself is against the Creators intent evident in the natural complementarity of male and female as revealed in Genesis 1-2.

      There are just too many points of dissimilarity for a good comparison between the two. We probably are way too lax with regards to divorce but the New Testament itself does provide some room for some flexibility. Much more could be said. I think professor Gagnon has more information available at his website http://www.robertgagnon.net.

      Grace and peace to you and yours,

      Cliff

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