Challenging Evangelical Paradigms

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Evangelical World. We lost Rachel Held Evans, Pence gave commencement addresses at Liberty and Taylor about coming evangelical persecution, Beth Moore took on Complementarianism, restrictive state abortion laws were met with some evangelical critique, and, to top it off, James MacDonald was accused of trying to arrange a murder to be carried out on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum.

Somehow, all of this disruption got me thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 1962, Kuhn analyzed how science is transformed over time. For example, he explored how a Ptolemaic view of cosmology gave way to the Copernican view (which was then disrupted by Einstein and then by quantum physics). One of my sociological theory texts from grad school contained this helpful graphic explaining Kuhn’s theory.

Key to understanding Kuhn is the notion of Normal Science. This is what is accepted among scientists as the way a topic is understood. It is characterized by broad consensus and the establishment of institutional power centers (educational institutions, journals) that teach and research around the key questions and dominant understandings. Empirical evidence that doesn’t fit the dominant view (Anomalies) are ignored or explained away. Over time, however, the magnitude of the anomalies reaches a point where they can no longer be fit into the previous paradigm. New attempts to conceptualize the problem develop which better align with the existing empirical evidence. As those prove more effective explanations, the New Paradigm begins to take shape. Eventually, it becomes the dominant understanding of the younger generation and is institutionalized. In relatively short order, it is established as the new Normal Science in which research and teaching are centered.

Here’s how that relates to shifts in evangelicalism in the US. While we aren’t relying on empirical data in the same way as the natural sciences, there is a way in which establishment forms became dominant and were institutionally reinforced. The raw material from which the paradigm is built is through homogeneity of information. This happens through seminaries, denominational bodies, para-church networks, and dominant periodicals. The voices of Normal Evangelicalism don’t explore the questions that are disparate from the “Orthodox” view.

This presumed homogeneity of Normal Evangelicalism has been challenged with the availability of the Internet. Suddenly other voices were focused on those questions and perspectives that the dominant paradigm thinks shouldn’t be raised. These new voices, disproportionally women’s voices, didn’t arise from the establishment — as Tish Warren observed in 2017:

This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium.

In light of Kuhn’s model, it is instructive that Warren refers to these changes as “a crisis”. She’s correct, especially from the perspective of Normal Evangelicalism.

Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and numerous others occupied the space that Warren was describing. They benefitted from the dramatic way in which social media democratizes and deinstitutionalizes communication. They were able to build significant followings precisely because they were willing to wrestle with the anomalies in Normal Evangelicalism.

With Rachel Held Evan’s death two weeks ago, a natural question arises: who will take her place? The Religion News Service’s Emily Miller reflected on this yesterday in a piece titled “Who will be our next Rachel?” It’s an important question, but if I’m right about the democratization of social media, there are a host of people ready to step into that gap. Abby Norman, a recent M.Div. graduate of Candler Theological, wrote as much last week.

The Crisis phase, however, isn’t yet formed into a new Normal. This means that conflict is the story of the day. The Mother’s Day weekend interchange between Beth Moore and Owen Strachen was a perfect illustration. Beth Allison Barr captured well the importance of that exchange:

I think Beth Moore has decided not to be left out of the “divine loop” that means everything for evangelical women. This is our “critical moment.” And Beth Moore has stepped out in front holding her giant-size weight.

What was particularly telling that weekend was the groundswell of voices within evangelical circles who shared and celebrated Beth’s twitter thread. People were eager to weigh in on the need to provide a serious response to the implicit assumptions of too much of complementarian argument.

Voices challenging the Establishment paradigm can be seen in a host of other places as well: the #ChurchToo response to abuse in places like Willow Creek and some SBC congregations, the alignment of evangelicalism with pro-Trump triumphalism, critiques of the purity culture movement, and the recent actions of the United Methodist Church on LGBT issues.

It remains to be seen what is on the other side of the Crisis period.. My best guess, following Kuhn, is that new voices which are addressing tough questions and realistically struggling with them through the lens of vital Christian faith will prevail. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me suggests that the younger generation is eager to engage that struggle.

Building a New Paradigm is hard. The lack of power centers relative to Establishment Evangelicalism makes that more difficult. Yet seeing that develop is the most likely outcome over the long run. I can’t conclude this piece better than Kristin DuMez concluded hers from this morning, so I’ll simply quote her.

It remains to be seen what sort of power Beth Moore and the network of evangelical women she has forged will exert in the face of conservative evangelical networks. It also remains to be seen what will be come of the coalition of progressive Christian women Rachel Held Evans helped forge without Evans herself at its hub. In many ways, however, the future of American evangelicalism will unfold in terms of the relative power struggles within and among such networks and coalitions.

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Rachel Held Evans and the Future of Evangelicalism

No single person has been more important to my thinking about the changing nature of evangelicalism than Rachel Held Evans. Like thousands of others who have been impacted by her writing and her encouragement, I’m struggling to process the sense of loss I feel at her death.

On this May the Fourth, I keep hearing Obi Wan Kenobi saying “there has been a great disturbance in the force”. Something is wrong with the world today and a great void has been opened with Rachel’s passing. I’m sure that those who love her will step into that space, but it will take us a bit of time to feel comfortable taking on that mantle.

In her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, she characterized herself as the Christian girl who knew all the answers — Bible drills, youth group contests, apologetics classes. Great at debate, she knew how to pick holes in secular arguments to show how Christian worldview answers could stand up to scrutiny. And then she found that the broader world didn’t fit the tight apologetics box that she had constructed.

What does one do when the world is more complicated than one’s faith perspective suggests? Many simply abandon the faith as a bunch of fairy tales. Others double-down on their prior perspectives and attempt to pretend everything is fine.

Not Rachel.

For her, the conflict was the beginning of a long and challenging journey to make sense of her faith in ways that grappled with the complexity she found. That she never forgot her roots even while frustrated with contemporary expressions of evangelicalism is testimony to how hard she worked to have it all make sense in a Jesus-honoring way.

Many in the evangelical world did not see her hard work, courage, and faith as I did. They saw someone who wasn’t sufficiently biblical, who was speaking beyond her training, and who, of course, was a woman attempting to correct men. I like to think that Year of Biblical Womanhood was directed at those critics.

Her concerns about the institutional expressions of evangelicalism were captured in a piece she wrote on the CNN Belief blog on why millennials were leaving the church. My response affirming that piece remains the single highest one-day view count this blog has ever had.

The complexities of life she tried to work through included views of science, acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, and the nature of salvation for those in foreign lands. When conservatives evangelicals were willing to stop supporting needy children as a message to WorldVision opposing its proposed stance to hire LGBTQ staff members, she declared herself no longer an evangelical.

I’ve always taken her departure from evangelicalism more in the spirit of “if that’s what it takes, then I can’t be part of it”. That’s more or less what she told her home church pastor as she described in Searching for Sunday.

And yet Rachel was committed to a life of faith. She believed the Bible is God’s word for God’s people and thought it should be taken seriously. She was devoted to following Jesus as Savior and guide and longed for the coming Kingdom. She gave herself to endlessly sharing that message with thousands of others.

If that’s not the Bebbington Quadrilateral, I don’t know what is.

I was privileged to attend the Evolving Faith Rachel hosted along with Sarah Bessey in Montreat last October. It was a delightful event with a great lineup of speakers: you can find my account in the archives.

Three things stand out to me as I remember Rachel at that event. The first was her leading a conversation about all the good seed that had been planted through her evangelical upbringing. The second was her interest in honestly struggling with the various perspectives those great speakers shared. Third, and most importantly, it was clear that Rachel was a person who loved relating to others whether that were her fellow conference speakers or random people who came up to talk (there’s a reason the book signing session ran an hour long!).

Rachel showed us all that evangelicalism has more resilience than either its most vicious critics or it staunchest defenders have ever considered. That it was okay to ask yourself questions about faith and culture while striving to follow Jesus. That God is not afraid of the questions or the moments of doubt.

That in the midst of the politics and the structures and the patriarchy and the pain, there was still Good News and that we need to embrace it.

In her much too short life, she lit a path that shows us a way forward. It will now fall to those she influenced to step into the void she leaves and continue the work. Based on what I’ve read online today, I’m tremendously encouraged about what the future holds in store.

Thank you RHE for all you brought to us. For your wit and grace and honesty and struggle and faith, we give God thanks.

The Mueller Report: On Law and Morals

Four weeks ago I wrote this post about the Barr letter summarizing his views of the Mueller Report. This week we finally got to see that actual Report. Like many others, I devoted several hours Thursday night to give a cursory read of what Mueller presented.

Cover of the Mueller report.

The report is laid out in two volumes; the first on Russian election interference and the hacking of DNC e-mails and the second on matters of obstruction of justice. As expected, the first part of Volume I repeated in narrative form everything that had been covered in the earlier indictments of Russian agencies and individuals.

Mueller and his team were meticulous in spelling out what the legal standards they would use to conclude that a crime had occurred. There had to be intent to commit the offense with clear knowledge of the illegality involved and a demonstrable act. There was no evidence that the Trump campaign was aware of the “active measures” to impact the election (although Manafort’s sharing of polling data fits that supposition) or that the DNC servers were going to be hacked.

It appears so far (this may change when the likely Stone redactions are removed) that there was no illegality with regard to the sharing and celebration over the WikiLeaks dump of the hacked e-mails. The same is true with the Trump campaign using/sharing the active measures items from groups like TNGOP (one of the Russian fake twitter accounts).

Yet it is troubling moral behavior even if not illegal. The “win at all costs” mentality which demonizes opponents and believes the worst of others is deeply problematic. Imagine a shady appliance store selling hugely discounted flat-screen TVs. You may not be involved in stealing TVs or in receiving stolen property but you know these prices are too good to be true. You didn’t coordinate (or “collude”) but you knew illegal stuff happened somewhere along the way and just didn’t care.

The rest of volume one is about other contacts between the Trump campaign/administration and the subsequent lying/misdirection about those contacts. There are a lot of these. The Mueller team explain that the laws about conspiracy (not collusion) would apply if parties clearly and definitively acted in concert to violate laws governing foreign influence, campaign finance, or fraud. The team did not charge any individuals with conspiracy on any of these grounds.

Again, things that fall short of legal standards still raise troubling moral issues. Some of the outreaches to Russians were about legitimate policy and yet were covered up. Others might have questionable status but were not brought to completion. The avoidance of standard channels and the lying about what had happened has been a feature and not a bug of the Trump administration.

Volume two is about obstruction. The obstruction question hinges on several elements of law as well as the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel policy around indicting a sitting president. The report makes clear that to violate the law, one would have to knowingly attempt to interfere with an ongoing investigation or proceeding with some corrupt motive. The decision to consider the OLC guidelines reflects a concern that even a sealed indictment puts a defendant at great disadvantage because of the impossibility of mounting an affirmative defense. So proceeding without a prosecutorial decision occurs out of a desire to be fair to the administration within the guidelines of due process.

Yet, in spite of the legal limitations, the Mueller report is clear about the concerning nature of what occurred. This is evident in this description from the beginning of the obstruction volume.

Beginning in 2017, the President of the United States took a variety of actions towards the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and related matters that raised questions about whether he had obstructed justice.

That these actions occurred is not in question. The report instead explores whether they approach the legal standard, the OLC guidelines notwithstanding. The Mueller team divides the obstruction questions into two time periods — before and after the appointment of the Special Counsel. Activities prior to that, while unusual, fail the legal test because there was no investigation related to the president and his team. Matters after that point raise more difficult questions as some of the incidents do appear to be designed to disrupt the ongoing investigation. This is why the following paragraph appears at least three times by my count:

[I]f we had confidence that after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not obstruct justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the available legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Again, this conclusion seems to fit with a distinction between what can be legally charged and what is of deep moral concern. The President appeared to be willing to do what ever might work to his advantage including clear deception and giving orders that subordinates refused to follow because they were so far outside the norm (and likely opened them up to personal liability.

This pragmatism over morality endorses a “whatever accomplishes the goals” strategy. I was reminded reading the responses to the report of this PRRI poll from October of 2016. It asked respondents if a candidate with immoral personal characteristics could still be effective in public life. While only 40% of Americans agreed in 2011, over 60% agreed in 2016. For white evangelicals, this jumped from 30% to 70%.

The two days since the report was released have shown the same tenuous views of morality. Administration talking points cherry-pick pundit or politician overreach of what the Mueller report would show and use those as indicative of all media or political figures. Sarah Sanders directly contradicts what she told the Special Counsel’s office, knowing that her denials will likely work.

There are voices calling for impeachment hearings, notably Senator Warren. But the issues of impeachment are complicated. While many have argued that impeachment is intended for more than just illegal behavior (see Clinton 1998), the phrase “high crimes” has become entrenched in our public discourse. In the absence of crimes in the Mueller report, it’s hard to see where impeachment proceedings would lead.

It is far more important that attention be paid to the moral questions raised by the Mueller report. Congressional hearings on administrative oversight are important, not as a means of scoring political points but as illumining distortions and overreach by the administration. Reporters should be getting politicians on the record on the importance of moral consistency and not on political gamesmanship (kudos to Romney for his meager attempt at this). The question of whether obstruction is acceptable should be asked at town hall meetings (if they happen). The 2020 candidates should be required to address how they will restore norms within a functioning government. And voters must move away from a pragmatic focus on personal preferences to support for a moral president who looks out for the citizenry as a whole and not just political interests.

The Importance of Intent: A Quick Note on the Barr Letter about the Mueller Report

Friday afternoon we learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had delivered his final report to Attorney General William Barr. Yesterday, the public got to see Barr’s interpretation of the report, marking the official end of the Special Counsel’s 24 month review.

To recap, Mueller was appointed to review three issues — whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election, if anyone in the Trump campaign acted in coordination with that attempt to interfere with the election, and if the President obstructed justice with regard to either of the first two points.

The answer to the first question is clearly “yes”. As Mueller made clear in the major indictments out of his office, the Russians intentionally disrupted the 2016 campaign by stoking anti-Clinton and pro-Trump sentiment on social media. Russian actors also hacked into the DNC servers and worked to disseminate the results to the broader public in order to weaken Clinton.

The answer to the second question is “no” but has to be qualified. Because the coordination was to be specifically about the attempts to influence the election (as opposed to other avenues of coordination), there was insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign intended for the Russians to engage in election meddling. This is not to suggest that the campaign was morally upright: they seemed eager to take advantage of whatever the Russians had learned through their independent initiatives. As many commentators have noted, the Trump campaign never once contacted authorities to express concern about Russian outreach. But crimes of omission are notoriously difficult to address. One has to demonstrate a willful negligence, being fully aware of the harm that would result. That’s not to say that the Trump campaign/administration wasn’t attempting to coordinate. The efforts at backchannels and shifting stories about Trump Tower Moscow (or New York) suggest a willingness to take advantage of a Russian relationship, but not in ways that violate the law even if they violate operational norms.

Which brings us to obstruction. We all heard the president make his quip about Russia and the 30,000 e-mails. We also heard the interview with Lester Holt and the reference to “the Russia thing.” Why don’t those rise to the level of prosecution?

Barr’s letter quotes Mueller that the evidence on obstruction neither accuses the president nor exonerates him. I would suggest that this also is due to the challenge of intent. To prove obstruction in court, one would have to demonstrate that the president acted in particular ways that he knew would disrupt the ongoing investigation into the election interference.

Here is where I think Mueller ran into a wall. First, since 2016 Trump has been unwilling to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered. Furthermore, the president’s twitter feed provides a shotgun effort to minimize anyone involved in the investigation with false claims of Deep State actors and insurance policies and illegal investigations (which he has repeated in the last 24 hours while claiming he trusts the results.) The big problem in demonstrating intent is that Trump has a long record (well established by journalists like Daniel Dale) of saying whatever he needs to say at the moment.

It appears that the guiding principle of the president is to protect his legitimacy and denounce his critics. But his comments, as we have seen, do not hold to measures of logical consistency. They are purely tactical statements based on his need to maintain image. So one day he can say that he fired Comey because of the Clinton investigation and the next day he can say it was because of Russia and the next he can say it’s because the FBI had lost confidence. It becomes impossible to draw a straight line between any one of these comments and subsequent actions.

This is all remarkably depressing because it worked. The president’s willingness to say whatever he needs to say without the shame he should feel for lying to the press and the public winds up undermining any legal attempt to hold him accountable for the messages he shares.

As Michael Cohen testified to the Oversight Committee, this “flexibility” makes the demonstration of intent challenging, if not impossible. If he didn’t mean what he said on any given occasion, there is no intent to obstruct.

The Confusing State of Religious Freedom

My sociology of religion students discovered an important lesson on Monday of last week. If you want me to abandon my plans for the day, ask me a religious freedom question. I had used Randall Balmer’s essay on the importance of the Bob Jones case as a set up for the day’s discussion on religion and race. Two questions later, we only had twenty minutes left and I hadn’t moved to the next PowerPoint slide.

The next class session, I had the pleasure of having Kelsey Dallas from Deseret News on Facebook Messenger. She was in DC covering groups for and against the Bladensburg Cross case which had oral arguments in the Supreme Court that morning. As she recounted in her story, at issue is whether the Cross is a symbol honoring war dead or is a distinctly religious symbol that violates the establishment clause. In this a reversal of what one might expect, the civic authorities defending the cross made the argument that this was simply a memorial without any religious significance.

This week the Supreme Court allowed a lower court decision banning taxpayer funds in New Jersey to be used for historic church renovations. While the news reports were about a dissent offered by Justice Kavanaugh complaining that this constituted “discrimination against religion”, it shows how the nature of state law influences our understandings of religious freedom or establishment. The New Jersey constitution explicitly prohibits taxpayer monies going to churches, separating it from the 2017 Missouri decision allowing a Lutheran school to gain access to funds generally available for non-religious purposes.

This week, the Portland, OR (where I spent 11 years) city council approved an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against citizens for being atheists or nonbelievers. In one of the least religious segments of the country, this ordinance is consistent with religious freedom jurisprudence. Think of it as the anti-RFRA.

Many people were upset when by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court failed to support Dominique Ray, a Muslim man who wanted an imam by his side when he was executed. The state argued that he’d been able to meet with an imam earlier in the day but that only correctional employees could be present. While the institution had a Christian chaplain on staff, it hired no full time Muslim clerics. The majority may have been right on the letter of the law, the lack of diversity within the religious supports within the prison raise likely establishment issues.

A similar issue of diversity and lack of sensitivity is present in a case currently underway in Arkansas. Three different Muslim groups with distinct religious teachings, are required to share a Friday prayer service. The prison provides separate worship opportunities for seven different Christian groups: Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Protestant, and “General Christian”. Furthermore, the Muslims are required to regularly attend or lose their religious accommodations. The lesson here is that Arkansas recognized that different types of Christians would want to worship separately but, like Alabama, hasn’t considered the impacts of religious diversity.

Then there are the “religious belief” cases that are far more common in the news. (Likely because of the role of Christian Legal Organizations who keep those visible — read Daniel Bennett‘s excellent book for more detail.) In addition to the well-known cases of bakers and florists, we can add the concerns of tax preparers. The Indiana based tax preparer, who had done a woman’s taxes for several years, refused to prepare her joint return after she married her wife. Because the tax preparer believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, she felt that preparing the return would constitute an endorsement. She gave the couple the names of other tax preparers instead. Indiana does not have a non-discrimination law, so there is no official recourse.

Here’s one more interesting case involving religious beliefs. A high school wrestler in Colorado decided to forfeit his match rather than wrestle against a female opponent (pictured below — screen capture from the Washington Post).

To be clear, this isn’t a case of a transgender wrestler. The athletic association allows women to wrestle. Yet, the forfeiting wrestler explains his decision (in part) on his religious beliefs.

“There is something that I really do find problematic about the idea of wrestling with a girl, and a part of that does come from my faith and my belief,” said Johnston, who identifies as Christian and said he attends the International Anglican Church in Colorado Springs. “And a part of that does come from how I was raised to treat women as well as maybe from different experiences and things.”

As I’ve written before, these last two stories underscore the challenges presented by the Court’s fuzzy use of the phrase “sincerely held religious beliefs”. It is unclear what people really mean by that. It may well identify a felt discomfort with a situation that is uncomfortable or unknown. But I always want to know what precise religious views are being violated. Does doing taxes mean one is violating biblical beliefs? Is wrestling a girl who wants to wrestle something that puts one at odds with theological tenets?

In just the last few weeks we have evidence of how religious freedom must deal with diverse religious views (including no religion at all), how the states engage religious symbols in the contexts of their unique laws, and the uncertain nature of “religious beliefs”.

I fully expect my students to get me to chase down these rabbit trails quite frequently over the coming months.

Being Right and Being Wrong: The UMC General Conference

Before the United Methodist Church’s specially called General Conference got underway last week in St. Louis, I shared my perspective on why the Council of Bishop’s “One Church Plan” was the most sociologically sound. It acknowledged that differing views of how scripture called for Methodists to respond to LGBTQ persons were not easily reconcilable. Therefore, a plan that left ordination decisions in the hands of conferences and marriage policy in the hands of congregations seemed like the best solution among challenging options.

If you follow religion news at all, you know that what is called “The Traditional Plan” prevailed with 53% in favor and 47% opposed. This plan retains the language about homosexual practice being incompatible with Christian teaching. More importantly, it adds harsh penalties for pastors performing same-sex marriages — suspension without pay for first infraction, removal of credentials for the second. (photo reference screen capture from https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-daily-feb-26 )

In retrospect, there are many reasons why my optimism about the One Church Plan was misplaced. While many have rightly focused on the role that the non-US delegates played in the vote, there are other dynamics in play.

First, the supporters of the Traditional Plan had been issuing ultimatums about leaving the denomination for months prior to the General Conference. Much effort was spent in strategizing about what would keep them committed for the future. Retired Bishop and former Duke Chaplain Will Willimon wrote “As [the Bishops] called for generosity and openness from the podium, Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals.” In retrospect, nobody seemed to have gamed out what would happen if the progressives left the denomination.

Second, the “non-Traditional” block was not unified. There were technically four options going into the General Conference: The Simple Plan (removing all LGBTQ references or restrictions), The Connectional Plan (dividing the UMC into affirming and traditional structures), and the One Church Plan. From a simple electoral strategy, the three groups of non-Traditional supporters were required to develop a consensus position — the Traditional supporters were not.

Third, as with most church (and political) conventions, the population on the floor in St. Louis was older than the general population. I can no longer find the specific reference, but I read during the proceedings that there were less than 15 delegates under 30. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released data this weekend showing that while only 54% of Methodists support of same-sex marriage, support from college educated Methodists jumps to 64% and for Methodists between 18 and 49, it is 69%

Fourth, it is mind-boggling that decisions of this magnitude are decided by simple majority vote. In spite of conversations at the federal level about the impact of the Senate filibuster, there is something to be said for denominational decisions to be made with an eye toward fostering consensus. To my view, that could have required a two-thirds vote by the delegates (which is required for constitutional changes). This General Conference was important enough to have followed that same requirement. As it is, a shift of a mere 28 votes out of 822 cast would have seen the Traditional Plan fail.

Finally, a set of presentations I heard this weekend at the Midwest Regional meeting of the AAR reminded me that tensions between rank and file church leaders and denominational executives are nothing new. Greg Coates reported on research he’s doing on James O’Kelly, who created the Republican Methodist Church (later renamed) in the late 18th century. O’Kelly drew parallels between the Episcopacy supported by Asbury and the King and Nobles who had been the foils in the War of Independence. Diane Lobody gave a remarkable presentation on the history of splits within American Methodism as part of explaining the lack of split over the social gospel in the early 20th century. I was reminded that tensions between Methodist leadership and everyday clergy and parishioners over civil rights activism was blamed as a trigger for UMC declines in membership (I see other factors as more explanatory).

I was reminded today that all of the factors I’ve mentioned have been part of Methodism and other denominations for a long time. Diana Butler Bass reminds us that Methodism was born out of tension between an institutional structure and desires to see a Spirit-led ministry take on new forms. Nancy Ammerman contrasted tensions in the UMC with those from the Southern Baptists three decades ago.

I hesitate to make more predictions about where I think things go from here but it’s never stopped me before. First, I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see significant civil disobedience as progressive Methodist clergy perform same-sex marriages to force the legitimacy of the Traditional Plan’s sanctions (see this response from Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest UMC church in North America). Second, some progressive churches will opt to affiliate with other denominations or no denomination at all. Third, the questions of where LGBTQ people fit in the UMC will come up again in the next General Conference. Expect a lot of fireworks.

Methodists Wrestle With Diversity Instead of Imposing Uniformity

I have spent nearly half of the past 30 years as a member of the United Methodist Church (the rest of the time I was Nazarene or Church of God — Anderson). I have been in Methodist churches in rural Kansas, urban Oregon, and now Michigan. It is no surprise that these three churches were very different in their temperament, their theology, and their politics. That’s not even getting into the distinctions between the former Evangelical United Brethren churches which maintain a unique culture fifty years after merging into the UMC.

I recently read research outlining that 80% of Methodist congregations are located in the South or Midwest. No doubt those regional dynamics play a role in how people think about what it means to be Methodist. Then there is the urban-rural distinctions. Urban Methodists are different from Rural Methodists and likely to have a very different set of issues that motivate them. Clergy take different positions than do rank and file members.

There’s also a distinction to be made between those people who are multi-generational Methodists and those who happen to find themselves comfortable in a local congregation yet grew up Baptist or Catholic or nothing at all. There are also significant differences between older Methodists and their younger counterparts. The former look back at the days when the congregation was bigger and the church played a significant role in the community. The younger generation wants a vital faith experience that speaks to the world in which they live.

People are part of Methodist churches because they support their community or they want to serve those in need or they want to better understand their Bible or because it’s where their primary social circle is centered. Or sometimes all of these at once.

This diversity I’m exploring is a feature of the United Methodists, not a bug.

That feature is what has brought about a specially called single-purpose general conference in St. Louis over the next few days. Called in response to the 2016 General Conference, it is a way to explore the varied positions that exist within the denomination regarding LGBTQ issues — how the church views sexuality, whether or not to ordain LGBTQ clergy, and whether to permit same-sex marriages to be performed by Methodist clergy or in local congregations. For a great overview, you can’t beat this piece (or any other, for that matter) by Emily McFarlan Miller of the Religion News Service.

As I have considered the various plans that are under consideration this week, I have developed two guiding principles. First, a good solution must protect the diversity that exists within the denomination. Second, nobody should be forced into a position that violates their own sense of integrity.

The first principle would serve to legitimize what we already know. There is a wide range of theological perspectives on LGBTQ questions within the denomination’s membership. We must avoid the temptation to search for winners and losers. We must not villainize those on the other side as unbiblical or homophobic. The delegates in St. Louis should be trying to discern God’s best vision for the future of the UMC. Ideally, that precludes those who want to take a “my way or the highway” approach. There has been far too much talk of schism before the conversations even got underway.

The second principle follows from this. Legitimizing difference means finding ways of resolving conflict that neither force people into positions (i.e., conducting a same-sex wedding, accepting a gay pastor) nor seek to punish those who act out of conscience (suspension without pay, removal of credentials). Any efforts to create uniformity through force, coercion, or sanction are not in the Spirit of the early church.

There are four primary plans under discussion in St. Louis (our local Bishop, Dr. David Bard, did a great explainer video).

The Connectional Plan creates two Methodist churches — one affirming and one traditional. Local congregations would align with one of these two bodies regardless of where they are located. The varied logistical nightmares of assemblies and councils make this solution untenable. While it protects my second principle, it is a shallow version of the first.

The Simple plan removes the Discipline language about homosexuality being inconsistent with Christian teaching as well as any restrictions on ordination or marriages. The Traditional plan retains the language and increases the penalties for violation of existing Discipline rules. Either of these two options falls short of my second principle.

That leaves me with what the Bishops call the One Church plan. This option allows individual conferences and boards of ordained ministry to resolve the question of ordaining LGBT clergy. It allows individual clergy and congregations to resolve the questions regarding same-sex marriage. The One Church plan affirms the diversity of the UMC while providing freedom to local jurisdictions on how they plan to proceed.

What is the likely impact of such a solution in the years to come? It is frankly hard to predict. Yet there is reason to believe that it might not be as fraught as many are predicting. First, since Obergefell the general public has become far more accepting of same-sex marriage. The percentage of local congregants who have family members, friends, or coworkers who are LGBT is likely quite high. Second, the younger generation has already shifted on the same-sex marriage question. According to PRRI, a majority of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage as of 2017. Resolving, at least in part, the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ issues may help stem some of the generational loss impacting all religious groups.

I wrote on Twitter yesterday that I was thinking about #GC2019 with an eye toward the Catholic conference going on in Vatican City and while still reeling from the horrific news of the last few months about the Southern Baptist Convention, Harvest Bible Chapel, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, or Willow Creek. Those examples show us how far our churches need to go to address the critical challenges of our day, especially on issues of sexuality and human dignity.

I’m sure many friends will see the One Church Plan as half a loaf because it still allows UMC churches to be nonaffirming. Other friends will be similarly disappointed because they see any accommodation to broader social changes to be a failure of the church. This diversity is, as I said earlier, one of the great strengths of the UMC. The challenge for us all is to embrace those differences while celebrating the core of what we all have in common.

The people called Methodists have always been a diverse bunch and will continue to be so. That’s not a bad thing because the world is made up of the same kinds of diverse folks.

If the United Methodist Church can acknowledge its internal diversity while maintaining the dignity of its member bodies, we will find the opportunity to stand in witness during these changing time by truly “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World”