But this time might just be different. The progressives might just stampede something through that would change everything. Consider just two factors. First, the overall momentum in American society is slowly moving toward acknowledging and accepting gay rights to this and that. Second, the continual disruptions caused by the pro-gay activists have wearied the center, while at the same time talk of disunion has spooked that same center. There is a real possibility that the center may jump to the left this time, instead of the right (as it always has before), in a mistaken attempt to try to stop the chaos. Should that happen – should The UMC actually approve some part of the pro-gay agenda – then that might not just be an incremental change; that might be a quantum shift.
How so? How could one more step in the direction of equal rights for gay United Methodists – as it is presented by the pro-gay side – tip the whole UMC into a hole from which we might never emerge? Well, it’s like this.
First, if the pro-gay activists – the hard-core, unreconcilable, “we’re gonna take the institution” people from Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) achieve their agenda, you can bet that they will capture the center of the church’s machinery. The bishops and general agencies will soon reflect nothing but full-on, all-gay-all-the-time rhetoric. That may not trouble the people in the pews, who have always shown an admirable ability to tune out bishops and boards, but wait!
If the general leadership of the Church buys into the gay-is-good, rights for all argument, then they will set about thoroughly enforcing those values with a kind of political correctness that will border on sending clergy to re-education camps. Clergy with traditional values and beliefs will be placed under intense pressure to go along to get along. Clergy who resist too hard or too long will simply be weeded out. The new powers that be will not tolerate dissent on the right the way we have all tolerated dissent on the left these forty years. When the progressives take over the institution, they will eradicate all opposition and make it a condition of new clergy coming into the system that they genuflect at the right altars – or they won’t be admitted.
This means that even if your church is made up of the same folks it’s always been made up of – including the gay folks who’ve always been around – you won’t just mosey along in the same old way. There won’t be any same old clergy to lead you in the same old way. Only clergy who give you the new, gay-is-good gospel will be sent to you. And why is that a problem? Hey, we’ve survived liberal clergy before in the itinerant merry-go-round that sends us pastors. We know how to screen out what we don’t agree with. Give us some credit, I hear them say.
But in order for those clergy to be appointed to teach you about Jesus and lead you in the way that leads to life eternal, they will have to agree with the new orthodoxy that will insist upon not just allowing same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy, but teaching that homosexuality is a gift of God, partaking of his “very good” verdict upon his creation, and that anything that suggests otherwise will be anathema.
Now, the Bible becomes problematic at this point. Because it’s pretty plain that the Bible has nothing positive to say about homosexual practice. And not just in the Old Testament; the New Testament is every bit as uncompromising in calling homosexual acts sin. So, in order to maintain the goodness of gayness, something has to be done about the Bible’s denunciations. There are three possibilities.
First, one can simply discard the Bible, as irrelevant to the faith and morals we proclaim today. There are clergy today who are willing to do that. They don’t believe what the Bible says about much of anything. It’s all a bunch of old, outdated myths, and basically misogynistic and homophobic and a prop to oppressors anyway. We’re better off without it.
Second, there are those who want to keep the Bible and who claim to reverence it, but who say that we have to receive it in accordance with our evolving standards of faith and morals. There are thus parts which are fully authentic and authoritative, and parts which are not. (Think Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets of Scripture.”) But of course, this begs the question of who decides what’s inspired and what is not, and if WE are the litmus test that determines which parts of Scripture are still to be held to and followed, then there is no real difference between these teachers and the first group who wanted to simply throw the Bible out. If we can simply drop those parts we don’t like, then it’s perfectly legitimate to drop the whole thing. The Adam Hamiltons are just trying to give you an anaesthetic while they amputate the ground of your faith.
Third, there are plenty who say that the Bible is, of course, still fully authoritative, but that we’ve misunderstood it. They go to great lengths to explain away all the verses which speak disparagingly of what they wish to lift up. In fact, they turn the Bible on its head in order to make it say what it manifestly does not say. Having accepted such an exegetical technique in order to get the result they want, their ability to interpret any other parts of the Bible on any other topic is subject to a distorted methodology. No matter how much they may quote the Bible, they cannot just let it speak for itself, and so they are limited to whatever it can be made to say by those calling the tune.
So, if GC 2016 opens the way for a progressive takeover of the institution, in a few years, Every. Single. UM. Pastor. will be preaching and teaching from one of the three theological positions, above. In effect, they will all just be making it up as they go along. The idea that they are appealing to an outside, eternal criterion that will judge them even as it judges those they address, will be gone. And that means that when your little church is dealing with ordinary issues of faith, hope, and love – teaching VBS or confirmation class, or leading a youth retreat, or preaching the gospel and inviting people to enter the kingdom – the only “truth” these people will know is the heretical, or truncated, or highly nuanced religion that is on offer. And without a real belief in a real God with a real revelation that can be appealed to, there will be no “there” there. The church will have a form of godliness, but lack all the power thereof – even when sexuality is nowhere involved in the discussion.
This is what has happened to many denominations who have gone down this route before us. They have dwindled away. (For example, the Disciples of Christ have lost 67% of their members between 1965 and 2012.) And it’s not just that people left; who would come looking for something to ease their soul in such a spiritual vacuum? Their name is Ichabod (“the glory has departed”). In some other denominations, the dawn of the New Day of gay inclusion has led to an explosion and suits over property. (The most prominent example is The Episcopal Church, which has spent some $40 million suing its constituent parts who want to escape it; those constituent parts have spent some $20 million defending themselves from their own leadership.) In the end, the choice has been between a steady decline and a rapid disintegration. Which will be the fate of The UMC under a new dispensation? Nobody knows.
In any case, the evangelical/orthodox/conservative wing of The UMC has not fought this long battle because of a hatred of gay people. We’re all sinners, and I’m certainly not going to throw stones at other people. Those of us who have opposed the progressive/liberal/LGBTQ agenda have done so out of a real concern for keeping the Bible as the basis of our doctrine and morals. And in the end, when all issues of sexuality have long since burnt themselves out, that’s what remains at the core of this argument: Shall we believe and teach a gospel that comes from the Scriptures – however we must wrestle with what Scripture teaches – or shall we simply make it up to suit ourselves?
Making it up to suit ourselves sounds like a winner, but I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s illustration of the madman who thought himself to be Christ.
If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvelous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars likes spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”Essentially, this is what making it up to suit yourself leads to. If your wisdom is greater than the Bible’s, if your credo is to be substituted for the Creed, then what sign do you perform that tells us that we should trust our lives and our hopes to what you proclaim? Why would anyone looking for a God big enough to forgive us, to heal us, to raise us to new life (here or hereafter) trust in you? The Bible, the Creed, the doctrine, the morals we have been given may perplex us at times or frighten us at times or grieve us at times, but at least they offer us something better and stronger and more lasting than what a mere human being or socio-political movement or ideology can offer us.
I reject the arguments of the progressives, et al, because if we are to throw out the Bible and the Creed and all the rest of it and place our trust in nothing better than what they offer, then we will have shut God out of his own Church. Which doesn’t mean he will be in any way inconvenienced thereby; only that he will go somewhere else and do what he does, and the Spirt of God will come down on that altar, but no longer upon ours.