Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why I Am A Mainline Christian (And Not Some Other Kind)

Over the past month or so, there has been a flurry of blog posts and articles in response to Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times about Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants, that asks, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? 

Once comfortably at the top of American society (the image of President Eisenhower laying the cornerstone for the National Council of Churches’ headquarters comes to mind), the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists are now a fraction of their former selves.  And while it is true that nearly all churches are in decline these days – including Baptists and Catholics - questions about the future are most pressing for the liberal churches, some of which may literally be facing extinction within a generation.

All kinds of theories have been thrown around over the years to explain this decline, from low birth rates to liberal theology to a post denominational age.  But there is certainly something to Douthat’s suggestion that there are few differences between liberal Christianity and plain old secular liberalism these days - leading many to ask, “why bother going to church at all?”  After decades of pushing for social justice in society – many times being ahead of the curve on things like de-segregation and women’s rights – a lot of liberal Protestants stopped talking about God in any particularly Christian way altogether.  Some even openly advocated abandoning core Christian doctrines like the resurrection.  Now, with fewer distinguishing features and dwindling ranks in the pews, it is more likely that people will listen to liberal NGOs like Amnesty than to liberal churches like the Episcopalians when it comes to matters of social justice. 

Douthat puts the challenge facing mainline Protestants this way:
Today...the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
The time has come for mainline or “liberal” Protestants to rediscover their Christian voice in American society.  David Hollinger, a history professor at Berkeley, calls for a resurrection of Harry Fosdick’s old challenge: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?  Even Douthat admits that "the defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life."

Mainline Protestants should be standing in the gap between religious fundamentalists on the one hand and atheism on the other, offering a third way to a disaffected generation of Americans who maintain Protestant values but have abandoned the institutional Church.

Why bother with the Church anymore?  As a young pastor in the mainline, I keep going to church for the same reason any Christian does: to hear and see once more the good news of God’s love and grace.  The good news that God has graciously refused to give up on us by sending us Jesus to show us the way toward peace and hope and eternal life, and by stirring within us as a community of ordinary folks trying to live out what the gracious love of God looks like in our world today.  I keep going to church because I find there the words and the way of life and hope in a world of death and despair.

As a mainline Christian, I am set apart from my atheist and secular friends by this faith in God – Father, Son, and Spirit.  But I am also set apart from fundamentalist Christians in some important ways I live out my faith. 

In other words, why do I bother going to a mainline Protestant church and not some other kind of Christian church?  What makes mainline Christianity worth saving?

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is an ecumenical faith, where we are proud of our distinctive heritage as Protestant Christians, but believe that God’s love and grace are bigger than the things that divide us.  We are all God’s children and so we work to be reconciled to all our sisters and brothers in the same way Jesus has reconciled us to God.  As John Wesley once said, “if your heart beats as my heart, give me your hand.”  That’s why we welcome everyone who loves Christ to celebrate the holy meal of Communion with us.  That’s why we work with other Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith in order to bring the world closer to God’s Kingdom of love, justice, and mercy for all.

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is a reforming faith, keeping in mind that it’s the religious people in the Bible who often miss out on what God is doing in the world.  We recognize that God is bigger than our own limited ideas, that human selfishness often clouds our understanding of God, and that God’s gracious actions were recorded in the Bible by ordinary, imperfect people bound by their particular cultural contexts.  That’s why we welcome questions and try to keep an open mind, always ready to reform our beliefs and practices as we grow together in faith guided by God’s Spirit and the tools of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. 

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is an inclusive faith, where in Christ, our differences are no longer seen as reasons to exclude or divide, but as reasons to celebrate the variety of gifts being brought to the whole.  That’s why you’ll find women and people of color serving at every level of leadership in our churches.  It’s also why we work hard to make sure that a diverse variety of people are included in our decision-making processes – instead of allowing power to remain consolidated in the hands of a small group of male clergy.  A commitment to diversity and inclusiveness requires that we do a lot of listening and that we sometimes agree to disagree.

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is a socially active faith, not confined to the intellectual or personal realm, but deeply involved in the difficult and holy task of making God’s love and grace a reality in the world.  We believe the best way to make new followers of Jesus is not to merely talk about God’s love, but to show people what God’s love looks like.  Over the course of our history, we have founded some of the best schools, universities, hospitals, children’s and retirement homes, and humanitarian relief agencies in the country and the world.  Today, we are committed to working for the rights and dignity of all God’s children, until the Kingdom of God has come upon the earth. 

While certain evangelicals or Catholics may share one or more of these commitments, no other Christian tradition in America is as fully ecumenical, reforming, inclusive, and socially active.  With other mainline Protestants, I refuse to give up either on my Christian faith or my commitment to justice and mercy for all people.  We offer a third way for people tired of extremism on both sides, asking a new generation that has wandered far from church, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Agreeing to Disagree

A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry
I am a United Methodist.  Thanks to nineteenth century circuit riders, the Methodists remain the most widespread church in America.  Along any given Main Street, you are more than likely to find a United Methodist Church.  Methodists have the highest favorability of any major religious group, and are known for our many soup kitchens, preschools, and other community programs.  As the home of George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Beyonce, we are also known for our "open minds, open hearts, and open doors."  We are a big tent church.  We know how to agree to disagree and focus on the important things that we hold in common.

Over the past couple weeks, the UMC held its General Conference in Tampa, Florida.  For all you non-Methodists, General Conference meets every four years and is the only body that can speak for the whole denomination.  Close to 1,000 delegates are elected from around the world to represent their annual conference (the Methodist equivalent to a diocese or presbytery).  Complicating this democratic process is the UMC's increasingly global makeup.  Although still the largest mainline Protestant church in America, church membership has continued its steady decline in the US to around 8 million.  Overseas, the UMC is booming, especially in Africa and the Philippines, now numbering roughly 4.4 million.  Since delegates are proportional to membership, every four years at General Conference, there are fewer representatives from Los Angeles and more from Lagos.

United Methodists went into this year's General Conference with high hopes.  Bishops and leading pastors touted a "Call to Action" that would streamline a bloated 1960's era bureaucracy in order to bring a united focus on building stronger congregations and reversing membership decline in the US.  For progressives, shifting public opinion in the US and votes to ordain gay clergy in other mainline churches seemed to provide momentum for changing the church's positions on sexuality. Add to the mix calls for a "set aside bishop" to lead the global church and elimination of so-called "guaranteed appointments" for ordained clergy, and General Conference 2012 promised to be one of the most important since the 1968 merger.

Church Structure

As General Conference got underway, the bishops and pastors of some of the largest churches made a big push for the Call to Action plan (to turn formerly independent agencies into committees under a central board focused on local church vitality).  Maybe they pushed too hard.  Judging from the flurry of tweets and blog posts, there was a general feeling that a few (mostly older, white men) were forcing this plan on the whole church through a rhetoric of fear.  Lines emerged between the "leaders" on one side and young people and caucuses representing women and minorities on the other.  In committee, the plan was chopped up and amended beyond recognition.  When no plan for restructuring got out of committee, the Call to Action folks swooped back in with a new compromise ("Plan UMC") that kept some of the agencies, but still made them accountable to a central body that would focus on local church vitality.  In spite of heated protest, the plan passed. 

  • The longstanding practice of guaranteed appointments for ordained pastors was eliminated without discussion in favor of a process (with some checks and balances) for transitioning "ineffective" pastors out of ministry 
  • A set aside bishop was voted down (there was some troubling anti-Catholic rhetoric here about a "Methodist pope") but delegates also declined to set term limits for bishops in favor of retaining the current ecumenical model of "once a bishop, always a bishop"
Then, on the last day of Conference, a requested ruling was handed down by the church's highest court: Plan UMC was unconstitutional!  The central governing board it would create took on authority that the denomination's constitution assigned to the bishops and the General Conference.  The Plan would require a 2/3 vote to amend the constitution and then must also be approved by 2/3 of the annual conferences.  A dramatic, last minute attempt to salvage something - anything! - of the original plan turned almost comical as weary delegates who were ready to go home began to lose patience with one another.  Opponents felt vindicated, with some even citing the Holy Spirit in the court's ruling.  Supporters felt defeated, helpless to change the status quo.  Both sides were left with very little change, but more than a little distrust of folks on the "other side."    

Sexuality (and other social issues)

A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

Let's be honest, this is all most "outsiders" care about (including the New York Times, USA Today, and the Huffington Post).  After passing a resolution calling for people to oppose Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the Conference rejected a controversial move to divest its own pension funds from companies that benefit from the settlement construction.  Even for those who opposed divestment, there was a sense of just how silly it is for the UMC to make grand, sweeping statements about world political issues - and then refrain from "putting their money where their mouth is."

On the much watched issue of human sexuality, the conversation centered around a vote to change the church's law book that states: "the church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."  Two amendments were put forward to "agree to disagree" on the issue.  The amendment introduced by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, pastors of two of the largest churches in the denomination would have read:
"Homosexuality continues to divide our society and the church. All in the United Methodist Church affirm that homosexual persons are people of sacred worth and are welcome in our churches, but we disagree as a people whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God.

The Bible is our primary text for discerning God's will. We read and interpret it by the light of the Spirit's witness, with the help of the thoughtful reflections of Christians throughout the centuries, and assisted by our understanding of history, culture, and science.

The majority view through the history of the church is that the scriptures teach that same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to the will of God. This view is rooted in several passages from both the Old and New Testaments.

A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstances and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God. They read the scriptures related to same-sex intimacy in the same way that they read the Bible's passages on polygamy, concubinage, slavery and the role of women in the church.

United Methodists will continue to struggle with this issue in the years ahead as a growing number of young adults identify with what is today the minority view. The majority view of the General Conference, and thus the official position of the church, continues to hold that same-sex intimacy is not God's will. We recognize, however, that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.

It is likely that this issue will continue to be a source of conflict within the church. We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.

We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and, above all, we pledge to seek God's will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who one said, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may."
Both amendments were voted down by a loose coalition of conservatives in Africa and the US South in favor of retaining the church's present language.  In the process, one African delegate compared same sex intimacy to bestiality.  Following the vote, protesters with rainbow stoles marched to the front of the room singing songs and celebrating Communion until the Conference was unable to continue its afternoon session.  After meeting with the bishops, one report suggested that the protesters agreed to stand down if all other legislation related to homosexuality and abortion were moved to the end of the agenda.  Given the chaotic debate that ensued once Plan UMC was ruled unconstitutional, petitions related to changing the church's position against ordaining gay clergy, same-sex marriage, church membership, and removing the UMC from the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice - were never addressed.

In other news, delegates:
  • Approved full communion with five historically black Methodist denominations in the USA
  • Urged the US Congress to support the DREAM act, offering a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who serve in the military or go to college
  • Voted to remove funding from pro-choice advocacy groups that go against the church's position on abortion (this could include the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice, although the UMC would retain membership)
  • In a service of repentance, acknowledged the participation of Methodists in sins against the indigenous people of North America
  • Approved more money for training clergy outside the US and for recruiting more young clergy in the US
  • Separated United Methodist Women from Global Ministries agency
  • Lumped ecumenical agency into Council of Bishops
  • Reduced agency boards by about half
My Thoughts

I love my church.  I love it so much that I sat there like a dork in front of a live feed on my laptop or on my cell phone and watched people talk about budgets and "amendments to the amendment."  I want to see us fulfill our mission to introduce more people to the life changing message of Jesus and transform the world together.  But for me, General Conference 2012 betrayed the best parts of who we are as United Methodists - that we are a big tent, we agree to disagree, we focus on the important things.  At this General Conference, our divisions were on display like never before.

Instead of acknowledging together that our structure is broken and outdated, we turned it into an argument about our differences: insider vs. outsider, old vs. young, white vs. people of color, men vs. women.  Even the conversations around bishops and guaranteed appointment revealed a deep lack of trust between bishops and pastors and congregations.  The sad thing is that most United Methodists don't care what happens at General Conference.  And that's kind of the point.  We had a chance to overcome that disconnect, to cast a vision that would inspire and unite us all, and we totally dropped the ball (even if Judicial Council hadn't ruled it unconstitutional!).

Instead of acknowledging the truth that we are a church divided on issues surrounding sexuality but united in our love for God and for each other, we dug in our heels in predictable ways.  Conservatives rejected an amendment that would have simply acknowledged with refreshing honesty and humility what is already going on in most local United Methodist churches (including mine).  Liberals retreated to arguments about "exclusion" - as if Christians who prayerfully uphold traditional interpretations of Scripture and sexual ethics don't ever love and welcome LGBTQ sisters and brothers who might disagree with them.  "Why can't we agree to disagree?" the protesters asked, even as they pressed to keep the Conference from voting on the UMC's membership in an organization that does not represent many of their fellow Methodists' views on abortion.

But in spite of our differences, I agree with my friend (and western NC young clergy delegate!) Jeremy Troxler, who wrote,
"I am more convinced than ever that positive renewal in our church will not come through formal bodies, although they may perhaps empower this work.  It will come wherever one, or two, or three people take ownership for the church, realize that THEY are the UMC, and serve God together with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength."
I am a United Methodist.  I love my church.  As mainline churches continue their drift to the left and evangelicals and the Catholic bishops double down on the right, United Methodism has the unique potential to stand in the middle and focus on the big things that bring us together in spite of our differences.  As Paul wrote to the Ephesians so long ago, "Christ is our peace.  He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group.  With his body, he broke down the barrier of hostility that divided us...He reconciled both sides as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.  We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit" (Ephesians 2).  And so, until 2016, can those of us who are United Methodist continue to agree to disagree?
"We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.  We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and, above all, we pledge to seek God's will.  United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who one said, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"
Without a doubt, we may.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The "Shambles" of the Mainline

In his now notoriously controversial speech at Ave Maria University in 2008, Rick Santorum warned that Satan had attacked the mainline Protestant churches in America, leaving them "in shambles" and "gone from the world of Christianity."  Pundits and commentators on the 24 hour news cycles pounced, mocking Mr. Santorum's fiery religious rhetoric and questioning his electability.  But putting his laughable qualifications for judging who the "real Christians" are to the side (including President Obama's [mainline Protestant] "phony theology"), no one is really arguing whether or not the mainline churches are in shambles.  The decline of the mainline is just one part of a larger demographic shift that is reshaping American religion in a breathtakingly short period of time.  White Catholics are leaving their church in droves.  Evangelical growth is stalling.  And in what TIME magazine dubs the "rise of the nones," the fastest growing "religion" in every single state of the union is - no religion at all. 

And yet, this fascinating shift in the public life of our country is undeniably having the most dramatic and immediate effect on the old, historic Protestant churches dubbed by sociologists as "the mainline" (a term derived from the WASP stronghold along the Main Line railroad in Pennsylvania): the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, northern Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Disciples of Christ.  In the world my parents were born into, these churches still served as the flagship institutions of the nation's conscience and provided society with a common religious language and moral framework.  Fifty years ago, their combined membership numbered 30 million; today, they total around 20 million, losing a third of their members even as the country grew by 125 million!

Of course, 20 million people is still a lot of folks.  Larger than the New York City metropolitan area, for example.  And in religious identification surveys, the number of people who claim some kind of connection to these churches is much higher than their actual membership.  But beneath the surface, things are actually about to get much worse.  Here's why:

From Mainline to Oldline

Most people have some vague sense that there are a lot of Catholics in the Northeast, the Southern Baptists abound in the South, and the Mormons hang out in the mountain West.  While not dominant in one particular region, drive along any Main Street across the USA and you'll find the mainline churches.  Step inside one of these beautiful buildings on a Sunday morning, though, and you're likely to notice a couple things - a lot of empty pews, and even in the churches where the pews are packed, a lot of gray hair.  The average age of your typical mainline Protestant is so high, that some are beginning to refer to the "oldline."  In the country's largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church, the average age has risen to 57.  For years, struggling mainline churches have stayed afloat as fewer members increased their giving.  But in about a 15 years, as aging baby boomers lift the US death rate to its highest point since the advent of antibiotics, many of these older congregations will be effectively wiped out.  The Rev. Lovett Weems, who studies these depressing numbers, has coined the phrase "death tsunami" that has been floating around in mainline circles.  Sounds rosy, doesn't it?

The End of the Big Tent

Even more sadly, the mainline may end up self-imploding before the so-called death tsunami gets here.  For decades, mainline leadership in seminaries and church bureaucracies have trended left (theologically and politically) of most laypeople, leading to squabbles at denominational assemblies on everything from the authority of the Bible to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But it is over issues related to sexuality that conservatives in the mainline have chosen to draw a line in the sand.  The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Presbyterian Church (USA) have each voted to ordain clergy in monogamous, lifelong homosexual relationships.  And in each church, disgruntled conservatives have walked out - forming the Anglican Church in North America (2009), the North American Lutheran Church (2010), and most recently, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (2012).  These splits have only served to hasten the mainline's decline as smaller and more liberal denominations risk being marginalized within their own larger Protestant traditions.

All eyes are now on the United Methodist Church, the last large mainline church that has managed to hold liberals and conservatives under one tent, claiming that all people have "sacred worth," but that "homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching."  With a growing proportion of its membership in Africa and Asia who hold to more traditional views on sexuality, this position seems unlikely to be repealed, putting progressives in the US in a unique position among their mainline peers.  Will they split the denomination by leaving as their conservative counterparts have done in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches?  For years, they have opted to stay, working together in a reconciling network of churches to change the official church policy from within.  But that may be about to change.  Hundreds of clergy have signed on to statements pledging to bless same sex unions in spite of the denomination's ban, effectively challenging the bishops to discipline them en masse.  In response, hundreds more clergy have called on the bishops to enforce the church's position, before the promised disobedience occurs.  All of this has the potential to come to a head at General Conference next month in Tampa, where lay and clergy delegates from around the world meet every four years to set church policy. 

A Vision for the Future

In spite of all the challenges and ridicule from presidential candidates, I am a proud mainline Protestant.  In a context where Christianity is too often defined in the public sphere by our noisy evangelical cousins, the moderate and sensible voice of the mainline is needed more now than ever.  As Frank Schaeffer points out in an excellent column, the mainline is missing a key opportunity to reach record numbers of disaffected young ex-Christians.  Given the present realities of demographics and broader cultural changes, it may also be our last opportunity.  I do not doubt that, even in the worst case scenario, individual former mainline congregations will survive in America.  But what would it take for the shambles of mainline Protestantism to not only survive, but to thrive?  As a young pastor in the mainline, I offer up two simple suggestions:

1. Remember Who You Are.  Too often, mainline Christians don't know what they believe.  They're nice people, but they are indistinguishable from the United Way or the Lion's Club.  We are well liked by the general population, but that doesn't mean they want to get up on a Sunday morning and spend an hour with us if what we believe makes little difference for their everyday life.  Furthermore, in mainline congregations that do have an identity, it either aligns more closely to the Democratic Party than to Christian tradition - or it is a lame attempt to copy the megachurch down the street.  Unlike many evangelical and nondenominational churches, who pay little attention to anything more than 10 years old, mainline Protestants have a deep well of tradition from which to draw.  As a former evangelical myself, I almost gave up on the church out of frustration.  It was only by the chance discovery of the writings of John Wesley in a dusty corner of my college library that I discovered the mainline Protestant tradition that manages to balance the head and the heart, scripture and sacrament, the personal and social dimensions of faith.  If a young recovering evangelical wanders into your church, will they find a thoughtful and engaged community of Christians or an apathetic chapter of the United Way?  Be proud of your liturgy!  Welcome a diversity of views!  Resurrect the ghosts of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley!  Don't just preach about social justice, show people what it looks like in your community!

2. Reject the Sin of Schism.  Much is being made in mainline churches over the practice of homosexuality.  Conservatives should recognize that the homosexuality described in the Bible bears little resemblance to the monogamous, faithful relationships advocated for in churches today.  Furthermore, the same kind of attention and lack of grace is rarely applied by conservatives toward heterosexual sins like sex before marriage, adultery, pornography, or serial divorce.  In fact, if God's best for human sexuality is indeed "one man and one woman within marriage for life," than a loving homosexual couple may approximate that standard much more closely than many of the aberrant heterosexual relationships in our churches.  Also, if the sole problem with homosexual relationships is that they lack the biological possibility to reproduce, then conservatives in the church must also be willing to reexamine the morality of heterosexual contraception with the specific intent of never having children.  On the liberal side, progressives should be willing to acknowledge that, as Christians and as Protestants, the Bible has primacy for our theology - and that (unlike debates over slavery or women in leadership) in every single biblical reference to homosexual practice, it is expressly forbidden.  Given the longstanding history of Christian interpretation on this subject, progressives should not be too quick to follow the shifting winds of culture and place more value on the latest episode of Glee than on the faithful interpretation of Scripture.  On both sides, there must be a commitment to stay in Christian community together, to do the difficult work of talking to each other, working together, and loving each other - even when we disagree - so that "the world might believe" in the One who calls us all children.  The sin of schism and the scandalous compromise of our witness to Christ's reconciling love is far more important than our disagreements over sexuality.  For United Methodists, Wesley has a good sermon on this.  But perhaps the infamous Saint Paul says it best,
"(Dear mainline Protestants,) I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.  Conduct yourself with all humility, gentleness, and patience.  Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.  You are one body and one spirit just as God also called you in one hope.  There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all." (Ephesians 4.1-6)

If we will be faithful to that higher calling, to Jesus' prayer that we might be one, then we may indeed see the mainline rise from its shambles as a vibrant Christian movement in the United States once again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Women Pastors? (A Methodist's Perspective)

In contrast to other large Christian groups like Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, United Methodists maintain that women who are called by God may serve at every level of leadership within the Church.  Aware that this position sets us apart from other brothers and sisters in Christ, this decision was not arrived at lightly.  Rather, it is the result of a long process of prayerful theological discernment that has sought to be faithful to Scripture and Christian tradition as well as to our own reason and experience. 

Groups like the Quakers and Pentecostals have affirmed the gifts of women for ministry from the very beginning of their movements, while mainline Protestants – including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples, Congregationalists, and some Baptists – did not begin granting women full clergy rights until the twentieth century.  However, since the earliest days of Methodism, certain women demonstrated what John Wesley called an “extraordinary” call from God to share the good news and so were licensed to be preachers.  Wesley’s own mother led a Bible study in her home that drew so many people that it began to rival her husband’s ministry as the parish priest.  Thus, United Methodists have always been mindful that some women are not only persuaded of a call from God to preach, but also that the living out of this call has produced much spiritual “fruit” (Matthew 7:16) – drawing many to a deeper love of God and neighbor.  Today, women lead around 8% of all American congregations and account for 20% of mainline Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran clergy.  


We believe that God is active in the world, revealing himself to us over the course of human history.  Over hundreds of years, God inspired ordinary people to write of their encounters with the divine in stories, letters, and poetry (to name a few biblical genres) – words that were collected together in the Bible.  When read in faith, these words are for us the living Word of God, telling us the good news of God’s purpose for us. 

As United Methodists, Scripture is of primary importance for understanding God and how we are called to live in the world.  And yet, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Bible has been interpreted in many different ways.  Often, particular passages are taken out of context and wielded like weapons to support causes that contradict the Bible’s message as a whole.  For this reason, the Bible is not read in isolation, but instead is interpreted through the lens of tradition (what has been “handed down” [1 Cor. 15:3] through the community of faith), reason, and experience.  We approach the Bible, not as those who have mastered God’s Word, but as humble children, acknowledging our weaknesses, and relying on the Holy Spirit to “lead us into all truth” (John 14:26).

With this in mind, we maintain that certain so-called “proof texts” against the full inclusion of women in the life of the Church (1 Tim. 2:8-15; 1 Cor. 14:34-35) are used in isolation and are often taken out of context by those who oppose women’s ordination.  In similar ways, sincere Christians have relied on isolated texts to support slavery (1 Peter 2:13-18), apartheid (Gen. 11:1-9), head coverings for women (1 Cor. 11:5), or to prohibit remarriage after divorce (Mark 10:2-12).  Before considering these specific Pauline texts, then, it is necessary to establish what the rest of Scripture has to say about women and their role in the Church.

1.     Men and women were created equally in the image of God.  In contrast to the long-held assumption that women are sub-human or dependent on men for their humanity, the Bible describes God creating “male and female” in his own image.  The woman was created as the perfect complement to man, and she shares with him in the task of caring for the rest of creation (Gen 1 – 2).

2.     The oppression and belittling of women is rooted in sin.  In the aftermath of the humanity’s disobedience to God, the relationship between men and women was distorted.  We can see the beginnings of male abuse of women in Adam’s excuse before God: “It’s her fault!”  The conflict between the sexes is the result of the Fall – including all domestic violence, sexual abuse, systematic exclusion and oppression meant to undermine the sacred worth of women as human beings created in the image of God (Gen 3).

3.     Women held significant leadership roles in Old Testament.  Although the majority of Jewish leaders were male, females also contributed in very important ways.  Most strikingly, Deborah served as a judge over Israel (Judges 4 – 5) and Esther delivered her people from extermination (Esther).  The example of these women reminds us that women were not entirely excluded from leadership roles in the community of faith and that God worked through them in extraordinary ways.

4.     In Christ, there is no longer male and female.  Jesus broke down social barriers by reaching out to women and including them in his apostolic community.  The same woman who gave birth to the Messiah was with him at his death, when most everyone else had run away.  Jesus’ female disciples were the first ones to witness his resurrection.  Through Jesus, God opened the way for a new community, the Church, where salvation, baptism, and discipleship are available to all people – including women.  Old barriers of division and exclusion, including the conflict between the sexes that is rooted in sin, no longer apply within the new community of faith (Gal. 3:28).  In contrast to social norms where women were viewed as property, women in the Church are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. 

5.     Women held significant leadership roles in the Church.  It is clear that “femaleness” is not a barrier to full participation in salvation, baptism, or discipleship.  This being so, it is logical to conclude that Christian ministry is also extended to all people.  Indeed, the New Testament affirms that women participated in the ministry of the Church on many different levels.  In fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, so that women should “prophesy,” the same word that connotes the sharing of the Gospel message (Acts 2:17).  Thus the arrival of the Spirit points to a new context for the ministry of women in the Church – women like Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Priscilla (Rom. 16:5), Euodia and Synteche (Phil. 4:3), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), deaconesses (1 Tim. 3:11), and Junia, who is referred to as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7).


In light of the larger narrative of Scripture, it seems reasonable to maintain that women should not be universally excluded from leadership within the Church.  In these “latter days,” God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, leveling barriers that were formerly meant to exclude, including between male and female (Acts 2:17; Gal. 3:28).  Therefore, all efforts to silence women from “prophesying” that are based in a male desire to control or dominate females must be understood as a re-imposition of old sinful divisions within the Church.

However, it must also be acknowledged that for the vast majority of the Church’s history, women have not been able to participate fully in the leadership of the Church.  This is partly due to a particular interpretation of the aforementioned Pauline proof-texts and partly because of the belief that only a man could stand in the place of Christ as a priest (since Jesus was a man) and that Jesus only chose twelve male apostles. 

We do not cavalierly shirk off these historic objections to the ordination of women.  As previously noted, we do not approach the Scripture as individuals but as part of a wider community of faith that cuts across time, space, and denominational divisions.  And yet, we are also convinced that all tradition must be continually measured against the apostolic witness of the Scripture as a whole.  Especially in view of the longstanding violence and oppression against women – inside and outside the Church – we are compelled to take a closer look at these objections and are careful to remain open to where the Spirit may be leading us toward reform.


As we seek to be faithful to the Word of God, we cannot dismiss out of hand biblical texts that we may find uncomfortable.  To be sure, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).  At the same time, though, we must be careful to interpret individual passages within their own context and in light of the Scriptural narrative as a whole.  In this task, it is critical to rely on the God-given resources of tradition, reason, and experience – while continuing to acknowledge that sin too often clouds our ability to hear the Word that God is speaking through the text today.  That being said, the Pauline texts in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 have traditionally been used in Protestant circles to bar women from ordained ministry.  Although many have approached these texts with a preconceived sexist agenda, others maintain their position against women’s ordination out of a commendable desire to be faithful to God’s Word. 

Still, it should be noted that a selectively literal reading of Paul’s writings on women casts suspicion on the motivations of the interpreter.  Why is it that those who oppose women’s ordination strenuously quote Paul’s advice that women “be silent” (1 Cor. 14:34) and that they should not “have authority over a man” (2 Tim. 2:12) – but ignore his explicit instructions on women’s apparel in worship such as head coverings, gold jewelry, pearls, expensive clothes, and braids (1 Cor. 11:5; 2 Tim. 2:9)?  Furthermore, women are rarely confined to complete “silence” as a literal interpretation would suggest (they may testify, sing, offer prayer requests, etc.), instead they are carefully excluded by men from the recognized power structures and leadership in the Church (despite doing most the work).  It is in these selectively literal contexts where women are excluded from leadership that men in authority most often overlook domestic violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation of women in the Church.  If those who oppose the ordination of women want to be taken seriously, they should be consistent in their literal interpretation of Paul and should root out all forms of abuse against women in their churches. 

1.     1 Corinthians 14:34-35: “Women should be silent in the churches…If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.”  Perhaps the most obvious point is that this passage does not refer to who is leading the service, but only to those who are in the congregation.  Moreover, the “silence” here implies “reverence” or “respectful attention” more than limitation, since women (who were overwhelmingly uneducated) may have been asking questions or causing other disruptions in the service, “for God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (14:33).  Silence in this passage is related to the ordering of worship within the particular context of the church at Corinth, not restricting half of the body of Christ to total public silence for all time.

2.     1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”   In all of Christian Scripture, this is the only text that instructs all women to be “silent.”  In context, however, Paul is giving his own personal advice to Timothy’s particular situation, saying that women in the congregation should be decent and modest in appearance, not “seizing authority” over men.  Why would Paul say this?  Timothy was a young pastor in Ephesus, a city where the female-only cult of Artemis was the main religion.  In order to prevent newly empowered Christian women from getting carried away and dominating men like the cult of Artemis, Paul encourages them to learn in silence (“reverence” or “respectful attention”), so that men and women together can develop the gifts of leadership God is giving them.  Such a spirit of reverence and respect need not contradict all other biblical passages where women appear in leadership roles (see above).  In fact, it is this very spirit of respect that prevents women from seizing the kind of authority over men that men previously held over women.

To a lesser extent, opponents of women in Church leadership roles will point to the requirements for selecting pastors (elders) that refer only to men (1 Tim. 3).  Yet such a restrictive interpretation is not consistently applied, since to do so would be to suggest that all pastors should be married fathers with disciplined children who obey their teachings.  This not only makes an assumption (beyond the text), that Paul and Timothy were married men with children, it demonstrates the opposite bias of a literal interpretation of the texts that refer to Junia as an apostle (Rom. 16:7) and Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1).


In addition to the biblical proof-texts (widely circulated in evangelical Protestantism), Catholic and Orthodox opponents of female ordination often cite tradition and theology.  The Catholic Church's opposition to the ordination of women has hardened in recent years, although a majority of churchgoing American Catholics are actually in favor of female priests.  Supporters of the Vatican's policy point out that God became a man, not a woman.  It makes sense, then, that only male priests can fully represent Christ to the people in worship.  Furthermore, Jesus chose all male apostles when he certainly could have selected from among his devoted female followers.  

Certainly, proponents of female ordination should not simply dismiss centuries of church practice.  However, in the case of the argument that a female cannot sufficiently represent Christ in worship, it is helpful to remember Gregory of Nazianzus' maxim that "that which he did not assume he did not redeem."  In other words, the incarnation is about Christ assuming and redeeming our common humanity, not "maleness" - otherwise, all women remain unredeemed!  Furthermore, to follow this narrow logic, one would also have to exclude all Gentiles from ordination as well.  Paul underscores the opposite point in his letter to the Galatians - in Christ, there is no male and female, no Jew or Greek (3:28).  Therefore, gender cannot be a determining factor for what it means to be human and to stand as a representative of Christ to the people in worship.

The second objection of Jesus only choosing male apostles is more difficult to address.  But surely, even though the apostles were given particular authority by Jesus and the early Church, we should remember the faithfulness of his female disciples, who remained by his side when the apostles fled.  We should also bear in mind the patriarchal context of the ancient world.  There is no reason to infer that because Jesus chose all male apostles that he meant to exclude women from leadership in the Church for all time.  Indeed, the leadership positions women did hold in the early church (particularly Romans 16:1, 7) and the spiritual fruit of women in ministry today seem to imply the contrary.


Even in traditions where they cannot serve as pastors/priests, women have lived out calls to ministry over the centuries as nuns, missionaries, pastors’ wives, deaconesses, and teachers.  Within Methodism, women have served as class leaders and local preachers.  Over a period of time, the fruit of this ministry has been observed by our corner of the Church to be blessed by the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the reasons for excluding women from full participation in the Church’s leadership contradict the greater message of Scripture – that in Christ there is no longer male or female – as well as our own experience of the effectiveness of females in various non-ordained ministry roles.  Thus, as United Methodists and other Protestants, we have come to a consensus that women should be ordained as a witness to the wider Church that we are truly living in the latter days, when the Spirit is poured out on all people and our “daughters shall prophesy.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

End the Protest

Protestant Christianity is coming up on its 500th birthday.  In just 5 years, I expect we’ll see news articles and television specials commemorating half a millennium since Father Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg’s church.  Only today, the movement spawned by Luther’s hammer counts twice as many adherents in places like Nigeria than in his homeland of Germany.  Far from being a blip on the radar of history, the loose coalition of churches known as “Protestantism” now boasts a global population of over 800 million – or 37% of all Christians. 

We in the United States have been shaped by a Protestant Christian identity more than perhaps any other country.  Notions of freedom, individualism, and personal responsibility are deeply rooted in a Protestant ethos that has influenced our society on everything from the way we vote to the things we believe to the stuff we buy.  Interestingly, in spite of the well publicized decline of the historic “mainline” Protestant denominations (Protestants still make up a thin majority of all Americans), America will likely continue to be “Protestant” even if it ceases to be so in church membership.  

There’s no doubt that Protestantism, as a movement, has been a successful one if you’re looking at numbers and influence.  But has it achieved what it set out to do as a movement within the Christian Church?  In other words, what exactly are Protestants “protesting” anymore?


The medieval Church was corrupt.  Luther wasn’t the only one saying so.  He just managed to say it loud enough to get kicked out.  Sure, he turned out to be crazy about a few things, but Luther’s excommunication is one of the saddest moments in the Church’s history.  Like any divorce, blame falls on both sides.  And even if the separation was necessary, it is certainly nothing to celebrate.

Ironically, or perhaps tragically, the Catholic (or “counter”) Reformation that followed Luther’s exit ended up addressing many of the reformers’ concerns.  Even more of those original protests have been answered by the staggering amount of change embraced by the Catholic Church over the past century.  Mass in the peoples’ language?  Check.  Empowering the laity?  Check.  Freedom of conscience?  Check.  Bible studies and Protestant hymns?  Check (check your missal).  Justification by grace alone through faith?  Double check

While the Catholic Church is looking more “Protestant,” Protestantism has fallen victim to the thing Catholicism has always most criticized it for.  Without one central focus of unity and authority, it continues its never-ending course of fragmentation into thousands of denominations.  Today, after a brief period of ecumenical consolidation, independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches and mainline squabbles over sexuality threaten to splinter historic Protestantism beyond recognition. 

Life outside the Catholic Church for Protestants has always been a necessary evil until the reformers’ “protests” have been addressed.  Now they have.  We’ve achieved what we set out to do as a movement.  What we must now address is the unnecessary evil of remaining divided in spite of Jesus’ prayer that we “might be one…so that the world will believe.”

It’s time to end the protest.


I’m not saying that all Protestants should rush over to the nearest Catholic parish and sign up for RCIA.  I was born and raised a Protestant Christian and as a Methodist minister, I am determined to work for unity from this side of the Reformation divorce.  Neither can I (or any self-respecting Protestant, for that matter) accept the Catholic claim to be the only true church, especially in an age where half of all baptized Christians aren’t Catholic!

What we Protestants can and should do is acknowledge the negative consequences of the Reformation on our unity and witness as Christians in the world today.  Our current sad, divided state of affairs makes this seem self-evident.  In an effort to protect individual freedom, we have too often been willing to ignore wider Christian tradition and permit (or condone!) unnecessary further divisions within the Body of Christ.  Given our current disjointed state, we can certainly say that although we do not need a pope to be “church” – the office could certainly be useful as a visible sign of unity and authority! 

In addition to acknowledging the harm of our present divisions, we Protestants should affirm that we no longer believe that our differences with the Catholic Church present a sufficient barrier to unity.  Most people sitting in Protestant and Catholic pews already believe this to be true!  But before we can make such a positive claim, it is important that we are clear on what it is that we already hold in common.  I believe Ephesians 4:5 provides a beautiful starting point and rallying cry: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  One Lord Jesus Christ, God with us, the Savior of the world.  One faith as contained in the Bible and interpreted by tradition, reason, and experience.  One baptism by water and the Spirit into the family of God.

Here is the essence of Christianity.  We already hold it in common: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  The only thing that holds us back from greater unity is the insistence that we must accept more than this to truly be brothers and sisters.  We’re ending the protest.


Of course, the Catholic Church would not welcome Protestants back into their fold without some kind of re-ordination (which would, conceivably, exclude at least all women – a deal breaker for my own United Methodist tradition).  But at least, we Protestants would no longer be defining ourselves negatively as “protesters” against the Catholic Church but by what we hold in common and the potential for greater unity.  We’d be saying that we need each other; that we’re ready to take steps toward healing this divorce if and when our Catholic brothers and sisters are willing to meet us halfway.

For sure, living in separate communities for 500 years provides lots of practical challenges, not least of which are those boring issues of denominational property and pension plans.  But the recent Anglican Ordinariate provides some cause for hope (or at least some creative imagination).  Here are married (re-ordained, yes) Anglican priests being received into the Catholic Church and allowed to continue many elements of their worship and traditions!  What if we could retain our own denominations’ gifts and emphases? What if particularly befuddling Catholic dogmas could be re-presented to us Protestants (since we were excluded from most of those conversations in the first place)?  What if the ordination of future Protestant pastors included Catholic bishops as a (for Catholics, necessary; for Protestants, useful) step toward full unity?  What if there was a day when whole Protestant denominations could exist in communion with Rome as autonomous churches like the Byzantine Catholics?

That’s a lot of what ifs.  But maybe it starts with ending the protest.