Thursday, August 9, 2018

Traditionalism: Hardened Hearts and Dull Ears

Millennial Panel at Uniting Methodists Conference- photo by IRD
"For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Matthew 15:6-9

Jesus is hard on traditionalists. It is a point that seems lost on today’s traditionalists, who wear that label proudly. And yes, they do wear it "proudly" in spite of the fact that Jesus is also critical of religious pride.

And few things are more traditional in response to those who are different, and marginalized for their differences, than a hard heart.

As Jesus says:

This people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

Matthew 13:15

The hardened heart of traditionalism was on full display in an article posted in the Juicy Ecumenism blog of The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

In a post titled, “Uniting MethodistsPanelists: the Bible Is Wrong,” Dan Moran reports on a conference sponsored by the “Uniting Methodists” caucus and focusing on the “One Church Plan” endorsed by the Council of Bishops as a “Way Forward” for the United Methodist Church.

The article is almost entirely devoted to commentary on a panel discussion led by the Rev. Mike Baughman who is the lead pastor for Union, a new church start in Dallas, Texas. The participants were four young milennials who are leaders of the worship planning tea at Union. Moran voices disappointment that all of the panelists “were fully LBBTQ-affirming,” and then concludes that, “The unorthodox beliefs shared by these ‘Uniting Methodists’ panelists appear to speak clearly to the heart and future aspirations of this caucus and its preferred plan.”

Moran centers his analysis of the discussion on a comment by Lauren Manza, “who identifies as lesbian.” She was, in Moran’s words, “unabashed in criticizing the Bible itself.”

He writes that when she was speaking about same sex marriage and commenting on “the verses that traditionalists use to argue against it,” Moran reports that she said:

“I believe if I sat down with Paul today, Paul would say ‘I’m not down for that,’ but I think the Bible’s wrong.”

The emphasis is Moran’s.

That’s the issue. She thinks the Bible is wrong.

Clearly, for the traditionalists, that was was a “gotcha” moment.

And to make matters worse, Rev. Baughman did not correct her.

“Instead of providing a counterpoint to her attack on Biblical authority, Baughman continued Manza’s train of thought.” He recalled that there were times when a member of the worship planning team would ask, “Can we just say the Bible’s wrong?”

“One of the things that’s been interesting,” said Baughman, “is I think there is this sense among a lot of millennials that just because the Bible says something, that doesn’t mean it has any authority whatsoever.”

He is talking about the saying, not the Bible. The saying does not have authority just because it is in the Bible. Which is not the same as saying that the whole Bible has no authority.

Not surprisingly, the assertion that the Bible doesn’t have “any authority whatsoever” caught the attention of the traditionalists.

At last, the progressive agenda has been exposed!

One typical comment asks, “If the Bible is wrong, why do we even have it anymore? Just throw it out with the rest of our morals and “do our thing”. And then he adds, “Satan is alive and well in the Methodist Church – I know he is in ours.”

Moran summarizes it this way:

“Baughman and the panel ultimately presented an approach of disregarding the fundamental concept of the Bible as the ultimate source of religious truth and authority. They commended this approach to their audience on the grounds that some young Americans at this particular moment in cultural history find it acceptable. . . . If there was any doubt that the agenda of the ‘One Church Plan’ and its most enthusiastic supporters is liberalizing the UMC, this panel made it clear.”
The Uniting Methodists have a very different vision for the future of the UMC than the traditionalists do. And the biggest difference is that the Uniting Methodists want to preserve a place for the traditionalists, while the traditionalists have no place for the progressives. In the traditionalist plan, the progressives, like their LGBTQ siblings, are welcome to stay only if they cease to be progressive or gay.

Which leads me to three observations, a question, and a final comment:

First, the panelists were not talking about the Bible as a whole. They were talking about a few verses. And those verses are far from the center of the biblical message.

Second, the authority of Scripture is not verse by verse. The authority of the Bible is found in its great overarching themes of grace and justice and building the Kingdom of God on earth. Individual verses or passages can never be decisive.

Third, we all know that the Bible is “wrong” at many points. Even the most devoted hard line traditionalists don’t believe in executing people for having same sex relations. And that’s just the handiest example. One of the most important tasks of biblical interpretation is separating those things which are time-bound and reflect the limits of ancient culture from those truths which are eternal.

Fourth, a question: When did United Methodists become biblical inerrantists? Or biblical literalists, for that matter? There is nothing even remotely Wesleyan or Methodist about biblical inerrantism.

And finally, just for the record, I’m confident that if Lauren Manza could sit down with the Apostle Paul today, he would agree with her.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


  1. In a system that is decided by voting, turnout is important. The traditionalists see this as something that will hurt their membership. Moving to LBTQ-affirming would cause membership declines in conservative areas, even if that region doesn't approve. But if the region approves, then it will definitely hurt membership in the conservative churches in the approving regions. I would be open to hear your argument why they won't be the case, but I'm pretty sure that traditionalists believe it. With membership declines, it becomes more likely that we become more LBTQ-affirming, which leads to greater declines until we get to the point the bishop stands up at annual conference and says she doesn't want to hear about churches not wanting a gay preacher.

    And everyone understands this. We've done this twice before with racial equality and womens' equality. The traditionalists aren't fundamentalists because the fundies left. No fundamentalists stay in a church that is pro-life, ordains women, condemns racism stongly, etc.

    The One Church Plan leads to a winner take all dynamic. With racial equality and women rights, we decided as a church that it was the right thing to do. We had a consensus. Is the difference between LBTQ-accepting versus LBTQ-endorsing/affirming so great as to warrant a winner-take-all approach?

    You can argue about the theology, but the structure of the church is pretty clear. If traditionalists want to preserve their churches, they are forced to defeat the One Church Plan and if it passes to fight for their assets anyway they can. At the minimum, it would not be sound of them to make capital donations to the church (if they didn't leave). The Traditionalist Plan is a non-starter with multiple poison pills that will never allow it to pass. The Conference Plan seems to me to be the only plan that truly leaves a space for traditionalists, progressives and moderates in the UMC.

    The Trust Clause wasn't, in my mind, intended to enforce winner-take-all solutions, but to try to encourage consensus building and enforce that everyone supports the consensus that develops. There simple isn't a consensus within the UMC today. This issue is just the most obvious. With the Conference Plan each conference will be able to drive to a consensus, the churches will be able to support that consensus, and our governance structure can work.

  2. Life will get much easier when progressives understand that traditionals and progressives are approaching church and Christianity form completely different perspectives and that it is not an insult that everybody does not agree with your particular point of view. In his sermon on the catholic spirit John Wesley made it perfectly clear that all Christians should hold their hands out to one another. However, Wesley also made it clear that a single church should contain only those that have a common core of beliefs from which they work. Currently, the United Methodist Church has no such set of common core beliefs. As a lifetime Methodist/Untied Methodist, I am no longer surprised at the 50 years of numerical decline which has the capability to make the denomination disappear. Who wants to be part of any organization that collectively has no clue who it is or what it is it needs to be doing? My own long term relationship with the church has been strained since I discovered that it is so mired down in theological plurality it ends up saying nothing in particular except what the next person deems appropriate/important. It is time for this theological insanity to end.