Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Is the UMC really global? An important book ...

Several weeks ago I was sitting in my living room with an amiable British guest, a Methodist pastor visiting from England. His mood changed, however, when I happened to mention the decision of the Methodist Church of Cote d'Ivoire to become part of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The Protestant Methodist Church of Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) had historically been affiliated with British Methodism. As a result of the efforts of British Methodism to move beyond colonialist models of Christianity, the Cote d'Ivoire Methodist Church became locally governed and autonomous in 1963.

Several years ago leaders of the Cote d'Ivoire denomination approached the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the United Methodist Church to explore the possibility of affiliating with the UMC. During General Conference in Pittsburgh last May, the million members of the Cote d'Ivoire church officially became United Methodists and the UMC grew, in one day, from a 10 million-member denomination to an 11 million-member church. See "Cote d'Ivoire denomination joins United Methodist Church."

My British friend was incensed about this and felt that the General Board of Global Ministry was undermining decades of efforts by British Methodists to reverse the negative effects of colonialism and their work to promote independence and self-determination within the African churches. "This is nothing more than 'rice Christianity'," my friend thundered. The terms "rice Christians" and "rice Christianity" refer to the horrendous practice of forcing people to convert to Christianity in India during the famine of 1837 when Christian missionaries gave starving people rice to eat only if they agreed to be baptized. My British friend was suggesting that the decision of the autonomous Methodists of Cote d'Ivorie to become an Annual Conference of the UMC, and part of the West Africa Central Conference, was motivated by financial benefits that might accrue to them as a result of this affiliation.

This conversation is one reason I recently stopped by my local Cokesbury store to pick up a copy of Bruce Robbin's book A World Parish? Hopes and Challenges of the United Methodist Church in a Global Setting published last year by Abingdon Press.

Robbins, former head of the UMC Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, has written an amazingly frank book about a topic that is one of the most difficult to talk about within the United Methodist Church: the relationship between U.S. United Methodists and United Methodists in other parts of the world who are organized into Central Conferences. (Central Conferences -- there are currently seven -- are organizational units located only outside the United States. The relationship between General Conference, Central Conferences, and Annual Conferences is (how to put this?) peculiar; find information about "Conferences" and links to information about United Methodist organizational structures here).

A World Parish? is a short book -- 120 pages -- but it contains the only history of how Central Conferences came to exist I have ever come across. It also raises hard questions about our relationship with Methodists outside the United States, whether they are part of Central Conferences, autonomous Methodist churches, concordant churches, "Act of Covenanting" churches, churches formerly affiliated with British Methodism, or other member churches of the World Methodist Council. In the book's final chapter, Robbins proposes a new organizational structure for worldwide United Methodism that would balance the tension between the desire for both autonomy and interdependence. All throughout the book, he discusses "the elephant in the room" (as he calls it) of the financial disparity between rich U.S. United Methodists and impoverished (beyond our imaginations) Methodists in other parts of the world, and the way this disparity so often distorts the relationship between United Methodists in the U.S. and in the Central Conferences.

Here are a few of the important points Robbins makes:

1. We are not really a global church in any serious sense of the word. The Catholic Church is a global church, but United Methodism is what Robbins calls (based on a model developed by Janice Love) an "extended-national confessional" church. He defines this as "a particular doctrinal tradition embodied in members primarily in one country with additional churches in other nations or regions." (pp. 28-30)

2. The Central Conference structure, established in 1928, sought equality and empowered the younger churches in a way that was remarkable for its day, according to Robbins. But it has since remained impervious to modification or reform in spite of several major attempts to do so. There are some problems with the structure that we have failed to adequately discuss or address. Many of these have to do with the "elephant in the room" of the financial implications of the relationship.

3. Some Methodist churches, such as the churches of Brazil, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and others, have become either autonomous churches or affiliated autonomous churches. (Definitions of different relationships that autonomous churches might have and the implications for representation at General Conference can be found here.) These churches were promised that their relationship to the United Methodist Church would remain as strong as if they were still Central Conferences, including in the area of financial support. This has not happened, largely, I believe, for political reasons. Because the representation of Central Conferences at General Conference is much greater (in 2004, 184 of the 994 voting delegates or 18.5 percent were from Central Conferences) and because Central Conferences are represented on the governing bodies of UMC boards and agencies as well as on the Council of Bishops, Central Conferences have received significantly greater support from the UMC than other daughter/son churches. Frankly, this seems to me to be an unavoidable consequences of the greater degree of political power Central Conferences have within the denominational system compared to autonomous churches.

4. One example of the "elephant in the room" that Robbins puts on the table is the financial and other benefits to individuals that result from being part of Central Conference structures. Robbins is very frank in his discussion of the fact that the bishops of Central Conference churches are advocating that they be paid the same salary as U.S. bishops. This would seem fair; however, such salaries (paid entirely by U.S. funds since Central Conferences contribute no apportionments to the UMC) would make Central Conference bishops amazingly rich in their home economies. Even the opportunities for bishops and other Central Conference leaders to have expenses paid to travel to the United States to attend meetings and, thereby, to establish relationships with U.S. Methodists are very desirable benefits to people living in countries where people have exceeding low income and very few opportunities. As Robbins hints, it must be very difficult for Central Conference leaders not to be influenced by personal benefits when they make decisions that impact their people back home. He says that Central Conference leaders who have resisted changes in the status quo have been criticized back home. People back home have asked: "Concerning those who support the status quo, are they not the same people who have the opportunity to go to the United States and to take advantage of the opportunities created by the 'world church'?" U.S. United Methodists participating in discussions about possible changes in the status quo do not know what to do, Robbins says. "They (U.S. Methodist leaders) saw the impediments and the concern expressed by other parts of the world Church ... Yet they felt it most important to listen to the voices of the leadership who sat around the table with them. Otherwise, they would be exercising a paternalism far more concrete than the structural paternalism inherent in the present church structure. It was a conundrum that would pass from one General Conference to another up to the present day." (pp. 54-55)

5. One concrete and contemporary example of this unfortunate tension between the desire for both autonomy and interdependence is the Philippines. United Methodists in the Philippines are increasingly leaning toward a preference to become an autonomous Methodist church rather than remaining a Central Conference. (See a UMNS news story here and a GBGM analysis of Methodism in the Philippines here.) The Central Conference includes 19 Annual Conferences and, by current church rules, all 19 would have to vote to become autonomous. If even one conference fails to do so, the status quo remains in effect. (pp. 93-95)

6. One of the strangest quirks of the current arrangement is that Central Conference delegates to General Conference vote on the contents of two Books of Discipline. They vote on the version of the Book of Discipline that applies to the United States church, and then vote on a different version of the Book of Discipline that applies to their particular Central Conference back home. As a group that collectively controls 18.5 percent of the vote (this percentage is expected to increase in 2008), Central Conference delegates have a major influence on policies and practices that they themselves do not necessarily have to follow themselves. Another consequence of this strange rule is that U.S. United Methodists are the only group who do not get to vote on their own version of the Book of Disciple. (pp. 19-20)

Robbins' ultimate hope is that the UMC will move toward a new structure that will both maintain the connection with Central Conferences and repair the connection with autonomous daughter/son Methodist churches. The new structure would not be based on competition for scarce resources but a renewed commitment to mission and ministry. Everyone would contribute their apportionments based on their ability to do so. (There is something unhealthy about a portion of the church not having the opportunity to put their apportionments in the plate, no matter how numerically small their contriutions might turn out to be.) The new structure would respect the need for both self-determination and interdependence.

Robbin's basic proposal consists of a General Conference and Regional Conferences. General Conference would include members from all the annual conferences throughout the world. The work of General Conference would be to develop and maintain a common constitution, including the basic theological tenets and Methodist emphases shared by everyone, and to coordinate worldwide mission and ministry. Then, there would also be Regional Conferences, similar to Central Conferences today, except there would also be a Regional Conference, or perhaps more than one, within the United States. Each of the current U.S. Jurisdictional Conferences might become Regional Conferences, or there could be one U.S. Regional Conference (or any other combination). Each Regional Conference would have its own Book of Discipline (as the Central Conferences outside the United States do today) as long as the content was consistent with the Constitution agreed upon by General Conference.

For those of us who have dear friends within the Central Conferences, all this (especially financial matters) can make for awkward conversation. This very fact suggests there are aspects of the current structures that are not as healthy as they ought to be. Robbins deserves our gratitude for raising the issues so directly, openly, and frankly. Now all of us who love the United Methodist Church must prayerfully contemplate what it would mean to commit ourselves to be a truly global church.


The Question I Am Most Often Asked By People Visiting My Church's Website -- Part One

Here is an true-life example of the question that I am most often asked after people visit my church's website or read certain of my sermons:

I am a new Methodist in Texas who came across your church website. Great website by the way.

I have noticed that your church strongly emphasizes an acceptance of homosexual practice. Knowing that there are numerous biblical prohibitions against homosexual practice (not homosexuals), how does your church reconcile those prohibitions with those Bible verses? Thanks for the opportunity to ask the question!

It is a fine question, a discussion Methodists need to continue to have. This particular e-mailer asks the question very graciously, for which I am grateful. I hope my response is equally gracious, as it is meant to be.

(I am sometimes asked similar questions by reporters, and have found that I can not answer them with a sound-bite. This really needs to be a conversation.) So, this is one of the topics I hope we can discuss through The Untied Methodist blog and the community of Methodist bloggers who meet at the Wesley blog . But, really, this is more a conversation than a Q. and A.

Let me begin with a few quick thoughts (more will follow). The most important thing I want to say here is that the Bible really doesn't have all that much to say about homosexual practice. At most, there are seven references in the Bible, and not all those (and maybe none of them) are relevant to a discussion of loving, consensual gay and lesbian relationships.

1. THE FOUR OLD TESTAMENT REFERENCES: There are four Old Testament references: two mentions in stories (Gen. 19: 1-29 and Judges 19) which are really stories about rape --not consensual, loving relations-- and two prohibitions in the Leviticus cleanliness codes (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). These later two verses say that a man shall not lie with a male as with a woman and that the penalty for this should be death. We could discuss these specific Scriptures at more length but the strongest statement about the Old Testament prohibitions was made years ago (1979) by Walter Wink in his article Homosexuality and the Bible. Wink makes the point that we manage to ignore many of Old Testament teachings about sexuality (the following are quotes from his article):

---Old Testament law strictly forbids sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:18-24), and anyone who engaged in it was to be "extirpated," or "cut off from their people" (kareth, Lev. 18:29, a term referring to execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or to flogging or expulsion).

---Nudity, the characteristic of paradise, was regarded in Judaism as reprehensible (II Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa. 20:2-4; 47:3). ... Are we prepared to regard nudity in the locker room or at the old swimming hole or in the privacy of one's home as an accursed sin?

---Semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them unclean (Lev. 15:16-24). Intercourse rendered one unclean until sundown; menstruation rendered the woman unclean for seven days. Today most people would regard semen and menstrual fluid as completely natural and only at times "messy," not "unclean."

---"If men get into a fight with one another and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand." (Deut 25:11 f)

---When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn until she bore him a male heir. Jesus mentions this custom without criticism (Mark 12:18-27 par.) I am not aware of any Christians who still obey this unambiguous commandment of Scripture. Why is this law ignored, and the one against homosexual behavior preserved?

See the Wink article here for more examples and for his thinking about how we should deal with biblical teachings about sexuality.

2. THE THREE NEW TESTAMENT REFERENCES: Homosexual acts are mentioned three times in the New Testament, in each case in the writings of the Apostle Paul, never in the Gospels. (Jesus is not recorded as ever having spoken about the topic.)

In I Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul lists a group of "wrongdoers who will not inherit the kingdom of God." Among those listed, in addition to "the greedy," "drunkards," and "idoloters," are malakoi, a Greek word translated "male prostitutes" in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, and arsenokoitai, translated "sodomites" in the NRSV. The term arsenokoitai appears again in a list of those who are "lawless and disobedient" in I Timothy 1:10.

These two Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, have been studied extensively, and as often is the case with words used infrequently in Scripture so that there is little basis to establish clarity about their meaning, the English words used to translate them have often reflected the biases and assumptions of the translators. Malakoi means "soft one" in Greek, and many translators have interpreted this to mean someone who is effeminate or gay. Maybe. It could also mean someone who is weak or undisciplined. Or someone who likes to wear fancy clothes, a so-called "dandy."

The Greek word arsenokoitai is also ambiguous. It is a compound expression of the Greek words that mean "male" and "bed," and has often been assumed by biblical scholars to mean men who go to bed with each other. Some scholars question this assumption. Mary Tolbert, testifying to a United Methodist Committee on Investigations in 2000, summarized the work of Yale University biblical scholar, Professor Dale Martin, who concludes that the Greek word arsenokoitai "seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex." Read Tolbert's statement here.

The third -- and most significant and difficult -- New Testament reference to homosexual practice is found in Romans 1: 18-32. Here Paul is critiquing the thinking and practices of pagan or Greek culture. He argues that, even without access to Scripture, the nature of God is evident in creation. But Greek culture rejected what should have been obvious and "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a human being or birds" and so on. (Rom. 1: 23) Paul argues that a consequence of this is that God gave them up "to degrading passions." (Rom. 1: 26) Two primary examples given in Romans 1 (others are gossiping, slander, haughtiness, boastfulness, heartlessness, and rebelliousness toward parents [Rom. 1: 29-31] ) for such "degrading passions" are:

1. "Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural," and

2. "The men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men..." (Rom. 1: 26-27)

Scholars have usually assumed the "unnatural" act done by women to which Paul referred was tribadism, the term used in antiquity for certain lesbian sexual practices, although Paul never says so specifically. He may have been referring to other acts he considered unnatural.

Paul's reference to male same-sex acts and desires is, however, quite specific. It is interesting to note that Paul considers these acts and desires to be a consequence of idolatry. Because the Greeks "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds" etc. (Rom. 1:23) "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity ..." (Rom. 1:24 Italics mine) According to this passage, Paul considered same-sex acts to be unnatural and, thus, a consequence of the idolatry of Greek culture.

Of course, Paul had his own particular sense of what is natural and unnatural. In his commentary on Romans in the Anchor Bible series, the biblical scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer, who seems otherwise sympathetic to Paul's opinions in Romans 1: 18-32, does admit that there is a potential problem with taking Paul's teachings there too literally. He points out that the Greek word physis, which is the term Paul uses in Romans 1 to talk about what is natural and unnatural, is the same word he uses in I Corinthians 11: 14: "Does not nature (physis) itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him ..." Fitzmyer, who agrees with Paul's assumptions in Romans 1 about what is natural and unnatural, comments on Paul's assumptions about men and short hair: "In this instance, physis hardly refers to the natural order of things, but to social convention." (Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Vol. 33 of The Anchor Bible, p. 287.) The point is that Paul's own cultural biases do influence his teachings in ways that we might not always consider authorative today.

Personally, I believe the culture out of which the Old Testament was written generally disapproved of homosexuality. I also believe the Apostle Paul shared in Jewish cultural assumptions of his time as to what is "natural" and "unnatural."

My only point here is to illustrate that the assumption that there are numerous prohibitions against homosexual practice in the Bible is not really true, although I understand how someone might get this impression by listening to preachers and teachers who are so fixated on this concern. You might think it was the primary theme of Scripture! At most there are seven reference. Compare this to more than 300 verses about social justice and the poor. See "The Bible on the Poor."

The next question is whether these several references reflect the culture out of which the Bible emerged or whether they are revelatory of the movement of God in the midst of that culture. The Bible, I am convinced, reflects both the culture in which the events recorded happened and the movement of the Spirit of God toward liberation, justice, healing, reconciliation, beauty, and truth. In other words, "we have this treasure in clay jars" (II Cor. 4: 7) or "in earthen vessels" as the King James Version says. Are these few references condemning homosexual practices (and, in the case of Romans 1:27, homosexual desires) part of the treasure or part of the clay?

A significant factor in thinking this through is the question of whether Leviticus or the Apostle Paul understood that there is such a thing as sexual orientation, which is innate and established by nature.

These questions need further discussion and attention.

For more information about biblical references to homosexuality and questions of how to interpret the several biblical references, I strongly recommend an essay entitled "The Bible, the Church and Homosexuality" by Dan O. Via, a retired professor of New Testament Studies at Duke Divinity School, in the book Homosexuality and the Bible published by Fortress Press. (The book also contains an essay by Robert A. J. Gagnon arguing an alternative opinion if you want to read an articulate, if somewhat frenzied, exposition of a view opposed to homosexual practice. Obviously I am not convinced by Gagnon's arguments.)

In his essay in Homosexuality and the Bible, Via puts the discussion we need to have with one another in what I believe is the proper context. "There are two basic positions, although each is variously nuanced," he writes. These are the alternative possibilities:

1. "All homosexual acts are sinful by their very nature," or

2. "Homosexual acts are not in themselves immoral or sinful but, like heterosexual acts, are good or bad depending on the context that defines and gives meaning to them."

I would appreciate hearing your reaction and hope this conversation can continue.


A Sermon on the Post-Resurrection Church -- Luke 24: 13-35

It was the afternoon of the first Easter. Earlier in the day, the women followers of Jesus had discovered that the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid was empty. But it was now later in the day.

Two of the followers of Jesus were walking on the road to Emmaus. They were not two of the twelve disciples, actually there were only 11 left. The 11 disciples were still back in Jerusalem. These were two of the larger group of 60 or more who were also Jesus’ followers. One was somebody named Cleopas and the other was somebody else whose name is lost to history. These two were walking on the road to Emmaus, a town seven miles down the road from Jerusalem.

I want to suggest this morning that Cleopas and the other person whose name we don’t know are, in this story, meant to be a prototype of the post-resurrection church. This story is not just about two of Jesus’ extended community of disciples, it is about the post-resurrection church. They are us. We are them. What is true of them in this story is true of us today. This story is about you and me and the half-anonymous collection of humanity who have been the church these past two millennia.

Here’s what the story tells us about ourselves:

First: they were nonplused. They were scratching their heads, wondering what was
happening.They had thought they knew what God was up to in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They had hoped that Jesus would redeem Israel, but it wasn’t happening the way they had expected. Jesus had died on a cross instead of becoming king, and now the women were saying strange things about an empty tomb.

Something seemed to be happening. God seemed to be doing something, but they couldn’t figure out what it was. It certainly wasn’t what they had expected.

This is the normal condition of the post-resurrection church. We are intrigued, convinced that God is doing something, but we are not quite certain what it is.

This is the significance of the resurrection: what God is up to is outside the box of our human comprehension. What God is up to in human history continually exceeds our own hopes and surprises us. What God is up to in our church continually exceeds our own hopes and expectations and surprises us. What God is up to in our lives exceeds our own ability to fully grasp it and surprises us.

(Sermon continued here.)