Category Archives: United Methodist Church

United Methodists Repeal Support for Roe v. Wade

This is great news from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church yesterday. The UMC has repealed its forty year support for Roe v. Wade and for the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The UMC has never been as theologically “progressive” as other mainline denominations, but this sort of shift doesn’t happen by itself. It is the result of decades of hard work by faithful Methodists who never gave up on the denomination, despite all of its missteps over the years.

Conservative Christians often tell a narrative where denominations only decline, usually due to a leftward shift. It is a narrative of pessimistic resignation, one in which the only appropriate response to theological or ecclesiastical error is to split and start a new denomination. But Christ’s church remains Christ’s church, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).

This is why unity, hope, fidelity, and hard work remain our call wherever God has placed us. Kudos to those Methodists who never gave up.

Advertisements

Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals Defending Segregation

Carolyn Renee Dupont’s Mississippi Praying is a thoroughly stimulating analysis of the ways in which the theology and faith of Mississippi evangelicals shaped their opposition to the civil rights movement. A professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, Dupont argues that, in contrast to the widespread assumption that southern religious opposition to the civil rights movement was the result of the church’s cultural captivity to a racist society, white evangelical theology was the decisive bulwark of segregation in the years 1945-1975. Because civil rights activists often relied on the social gospel for their critique of segregation, white evangelicals viewed the battle over segregation as a battle for theological orthodoxy. They stressed that social change would only follow the regeneration of individual souls, not the interference of apostate religious liberals from outside the state.

Not that most southern pastors and theologians espoused racial violence or explicitly defended white supremacy. The crass apologists who appealed to the curse of Ham or to Israel’s separation from the nations as evidence of a biblical mandate for racial segregation were always in the minority. But the vast majority of southern religious leaders interpreted the faith individualistically such that the Bible could at least allow for racial segregation. Given widespread assumptions about race as a natural phenomena, a product of God’s divine providence, it was enough to emphasize that the New Testament did not condemn segregation as unChristian.

Read the rest of this article here at Reformation 21.

What is the Christian position on gun control?

I receive regular emails from a number of Christian organizations and denominations advocating that I take particular political actions or support specific policies. Last week I was inundated with messages regarding gun control, nearly all of which sought to persuade me that my Christian faith requires me to support a particular policy or political stance.

From Sojourners, Evangelical Jim Wallis argued that people seek guns in reaction to their separation from one another. He noted that while we all want to tell our children they are safe, we cannot, until … Until we improve our gun control laws. Then, apparently, we could decisively tell our children they are safe. For Wallis, America would do the right thing here if only we would allow our faith to overcome our politics:

… if people of faith respond differently just because they are people of faith — that our faith overcomes our politics here, and that gun owners and gun advocates who are people of faith will act in this situation as people of faith, distinctively and differently.

Wallis offers thoughtful theological reasons for his position, and then tells us that he agrees with the judgment of his nine year old son:

“I think that they ought to let people who, like licensed hunters, have guns if they use them to hunt. And people who need guns — who need guns for their job like policemen and army. But I don’t think that we should just let anybody have any kind of gun and any kind of bullets that they want. That’s pretty crazy.”

Not a word on the constitution in this appeal, nor the faintest recognition that inscribed in the American Bill of Rights is the right to bear arms for the purpose – not of hunting, or of serving in government – but of securing the rights of a free people. Faith must not simply overcome our politics, apparently. It must also overcome our constitutional obligations to one another.

The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society likewise calls me to yield to the “moral imperative” of stronger gun control laws, noting that 47 religious leaders have signed a document declaring their support for legislation that would 1) require a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun, 2) prohibit civilians from purchasing “high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines”, and 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime. This statement, thankfully, addressed the question of the constitution, though only to state that the signers believe that the steps for which they are calling are compatible with the right to bear arms. Fair enough, though more on this would be helpful. But aside from appealing to safety and common sense, the Methodist Church gives me no biblical or theological reason why I should support this policy, nor does the letter signed by the 47 religious leaders do so.

That might be fine if I wasn’t receiving mail from advocacy arm of an even larger Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggesting a slightly different response. The ERLC sends me Richard Land’s letter to President Obama, calling for caution. Land declares first that “we [i.e., Southern Baptists] affirm and uphold the Second Amendment’s ‘right of the people to keep and bear Arms.'” In contrast to Wallis, Land declares that “no set of policies or gun restrictions can inoculate us from future Newtown-like killing sprees.”

Yet Land says that Southern Baptists “believe our nation can and should take some preemptive actions to quell gun violence in ways that do not infringe on the Second Amendment.” Among these actions Land identifies numbers 1 and 3 from the letter signed by the 47 leaders, but he notably leaves out the proposed prohibition of high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines. Land also calls President Obama to respect local authorities and states rights, asks him to consider taking action to constrain graphic violence in video games and other entertainment and urges consideration of stricter measures to contain potential violence on the part of the mentally unhealthy. Yet like the statement of the 47 leaders, Land gives little theological reason for his positions.

So what is the “Christian” position here? Wallis offers the deepest theological analysis of the appropriate Christian response to the problem of gun violence, but he is most dismissive of constitutional concerns. Land is most sensitive to constitutional constraints, but it’s hard to see how his position is distinctively Christian. There does seem to be a consensus among all three groups that there need to be criminal background checks on gun-purchasers and that gun trafficking needs to be a crime.

But what if our “faith” demands more than the constitution allows, as Wallis’s rhetoric might suggest? On the other hand, what if our faith requires us to submit to a constitution that prevents us from legislating policies we might otherwise have good reason to support? At the same time, what if the positions of the United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches owe more to their political convictions (and respective constitutional interpretations) than to any sort of substantive Christian teaching. What if there is no “Christian” position on gun control?

Unfortunately, the inevitable result of all of this ecclesiastical advocacy is a loss of credibility on the part of the churches. We all know that Wallis and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society lean left, and that Richard Land and the Southern Baptist Convention lean right. We know their respective attitudes toward gun control. And so we take their statements on these matters worth a grain of salt. Nothing has changed except that we all ignore the churches just a little bit more.

In a sense Wallis does hold more credibility because he does not speak for a church. And we do want Christians to reflect on the potential insights of their theology for difficult political problems. Removing religion from political arguments may seem ideal, but in reality it simply obscures the reasons why people support the positions they do, impoverishing public debate. But Wallis’s enormous confidence in the degree to which his own political judgments are the demands of the faith is unwarranted. Unless you already agree with him, he’s probably not going to convince you.

It’s time for American churches (and theologians) to reconsider their claims to authority on matters of politics and policy. The church is charged with the proclamation of the gospel and the whole counsel of God to a suffering and sinful world. The more we waste our “ecclesiastical capital” advocating policies that have little obvious relation with that mission, the more we undermine our own cause.

What holds the Methodist Church together?

Real Clear Religion has kindly put up my piece, originally published with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, on the Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society. Although the UMC is the most conservative of the mainline denominations the GBCS still leans quite far to the left and is absolutely committed to the social gospel. This has given rise to considerable tensions within the denomination, as many Methodist pastors and congregants find that the legislative positions advocated by the board in Washington D.C. fail to match their own convictions about the implications of Christianity for politics.

While many denominations lean either solidly to the left or solidly to the right, the Methodist Church is unique in that it represents a cross-section of the American populace. For obvious reasons, the politicization of America has therefore helped to politicize the Methodist Church itself, now torn apart between left and right. One might think the way to preserve unity in the midst of all of this is to focus on the gospel and the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith, but a representative of the GBCS argued that a different bond holds Methodists together:

“The Social Principles are a way for us not to kill each other. We don’t talk about it that way, but that’s what they are. We see churches divide … we see churches split. In the United Methodist church we don’t sing the same hymns, we don’t read the Scriptures and the canon in the same way. We speak many, many different languages … but we have one set of social principles.”

You can read my whole piece here.

United Methodists continue to lean pro-life

The United Methodist Church’s (UMC) General Board of Church and Society has posted the revisions made to the denomination’s official statement on abortion. The changes are relatively minor, in comparison to past years, but they reflect continued consolidation of the influence of the denomination’s pro-life core. Note in particular the addition of the negative reference to eugenics, as well as the following lengthy section:

We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception, and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.

Young adult women disproportionately face situations in which they feel that they have no choice due to financial, educational, relational, or other circumstances beyond their control. The Church and its local congregations and campus ministries should be in the forefront of supporting existing ministries and developing new ministries that help such women in their communities. They should also support those crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women explore all options related to unplanned pregnancy.

The statement is carefully worded, but the emphasis on helping poor women who have unintended pregnancies so that they do not have to have abortions is helpful. This is an area of common ground between many pro-choice and pro-life Americans and it is way of addressing abortion that sidesteps the culture wars. It is also a clear means of showing the love of Christ to the needy and the vulnerable. Some Christians are so fixated on the political battle that they fail to see that witnessing to the love and justice of Christ for sinners is far more important – ultimately – than is politics. In that sense believers who perform actions of justice and mercy in response to the gospel are involved in the very essence of the kingdom’s manifestation in this world. Those who fight and win political battles are doing an important work as well, but the means they have to use – the sword of a government that is passing away – highlights the more peripheral nature of their struggle. Think of it in terms of a comparison between the function of a New Testament deacon and the work of a lawyer in Caesar’s court.

At the heart of being a Christian is keeping our ultimate loyalty and hope straight, even when the issue at hand is abortion. The UMC has a long way to go in faithfully proclaiming Christ’s lordship regarding abortion, but at least it is on the right track.

%d bloggers like this: