Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Wesleyan General Conference Decisions

I know many will feel the opposite but I thought yesterday went very well at the Wesleyan General Conference (GC).  Here are four things that make me think we are on the right track as a denomination. I am very encouraged.

1. First, the GC voted to change its structure to one General Superintendent (GS) with four Executive Directors. I could see both sides to this debate (former GS Lee Haines made a fine counter-speech) but, in the end, I think they made the right decision for two reasons:
  • Our most gifted leaders are currently not at all attracted to enter denominational leadership. I think this is because, for good or ill, the idea of being part of a relatively weak three person pow-wow is not attractive to them. The down side is that the position might now be very appealing to megalomaniacs, the testosterony, and individuals who mistake their own personalities for God's. It's a trade off ;-)
  • It shows "large organization" rather than "small church" thinking. Lee Haines mentioned that Roy Nicholson, a GS from the 1950s, thought the one GS model had been horrible. But I can't imagine he knew as much about leadership as even I do now (as a naturally-born leadership idiot), given the massive literature out there these last 50 years.  In particular, I doubt he knew how to delegate and set up a support structure. He probably thought the GS needed to kiss every baby in every church.
2. Second, the GC voted to continue with Joanne Lyon as that one GS.  Mind you, I'd rather have someone else leading a parliamentary procedure, but I firmly believe she is the right person for the job. I've been disappointed to recognize that there is still some resistance in the WC to a woman as the top person. But I celebrate that the GC, in my opinion, did the right thing. I believe she is the right person for this time.

3. We had a proposed memorial on sin to put in our Articles of Religion.  I was so pleased that the denomination voted it down in order to come up with something better.  Three reasons: 1) the other GCs of the Philippines and Caribbean were not consulted (if it had been passed, I was hoping those other conferences would vote it down to make it clear to the North American Conference that they are now our equals and can't be taken for granted on such important issues); 2) accidentally, it was written with no awareness that the article right before it already said half the same thing; and 3) it was poorly written, seemingly spliced together from various emails from key people... and in 1940s H. Orton Wiley language to boot.  Thank you church for taking the time to do it right!

4. The church voted to include marital violence as a legitimate basis for divorce.  Now, mind you, it makes our denomination look bad that we are even having to discuss this question. For one thing, although I'm not sure how to get around it, we are still operating with a "bounded set" mentality when it comes to membership, one that is overly preoccupied with who is "in" and who is "out."  A "centered-set" approach is more concerned with our core values rather than about how individuals measure up to it.

In my opinion, however, large segments of our denomination remain legal-oriented, or fundamentalist, when it comes to the Bible.  For example, if we think that a "biblical basis" for divorce can only be limited to a specific statement along the lines of "Divorce can be allowed when a husband beats his wife," then we not only are legal-oriented in our hermeneutic but we do not have the Wesleyan spirit of the 1800s on issues like slavery and women's rights.

Why was Jesus against divorce? Why was Malachi against divorce? Surely it was primarily because divorce was a form of (non-physical) violence against wives. By the way, ironically this is what Malachi 2:16 is talking about--not sure how that passage read in context does anything but support the proposal.  God hated divorce in Malachi because it was a form of violence against wives!!!

I believe Jesus' prohibitions on divorce were, in the first instance, surely meant to protect women. If so, then it is then ironic in the extreme that we find ourselves hesitant to allow for divorce in a case where a woman's life may be in constant danger. Although it is complicated and a matter of debate, it is quite possible that the prohibitions on wives divorcing husbands related more to the expansion of Jesus' message to a broader Mediterranean context than to his original Galilean audiences.

In terms of our heritage, the "principle" approach to a biblical basis is exactly the approach Luther Lee took on slavery. While the "fundamentalist" hermeneutic of his day looked to specific Scriptures that allowed for slavery, he looked to the ideal values of the biblical text instead. In that sense, the "principled" approach to issues such as this one better fit the founding spirit of the denomination than the "legal" approach.

Yes, I realize there is the potential for slippery slopes.  But I liked what one speaker was trying to say on the floor yesterday. Which side do we want to err on--the side of protecting the oppressed or worrying about whether someone is going to get by with something?

After all, I doubt God is fooled.


Matt Brady said...

As someone who did not grow up Wesleyan, and only recently joined the WC, I see a lot of promise for the days ahead. I know there will always be dissenters regardless of the issue being discussed, but I am thankful for a church that is willing to be led by the Spirit and make changes when changes are due.

John C. Gardner said...

I am glad that the sin statement was defeated. I read it and found that it was muddled, almost incoherent, and confusing. The issue of divorce needed, as you indicate, to be positively addressed.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

Nice recap for those who are watching from the bleachers so to speak (Thank you Technology Show for all the streaming videos of sessions!!).

I agree that one GS is a good thing and that Dr. Lyon is the right one for it. At the very least from a practical perspective, the general level of the church is still operating like a church in many ways. How many churches effectively have 3 senior pastors? None that I've heard of. I like this step.

I agree with Lenny Luchetti tweeted yesterday about how surprising it was that none of our Wesleyan schools or our stand-out seminary were consulted for the article on sin. After reading that thing myself, I'm honestly shocked that it made it all the way to the general level before getting voted down. Seemed like a bit of a no-brainer.

This day in age, and as a child of divorce, the divorce memorial kind of confounds me a bit. This idea seems like common sense and I can't believe it's 2012 and we're still discussing it... divorce is terrible, but if somebody's rights are getting infringed (in this case the abused wife), then how is it even a question about whether or not there are grounds for divorce? Granted I have an optimistic hope towards reconciliation in all marriages, there are simply some that won't be healed for one reason or another. Abuse is a tough hurdle to overcome for a marriage, and the question of someone's life in danger shouldn't have even been a question I feel like.

However (this may be a minority position), but I don't think the memorial went far enough. Though harder to guage, I would say that mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse is far more insidious to an abused person's spirit than physical (though they often go hand in hand). There are plenty of cases where there is no physical abuse, but the fear for life is still there because of such mental and emotional abuse... is this not at least as harmful as getting beaten? Yet I didn't see provision for this in the memorial.

Finally about the divorce resolution, though it is not as publicized nor as popular... may not be the right word... spousal abuse, at least legally, is now inclusive of a wife abusing her husband. How will the Wesleyan Church respond to a non-physically, but still abused wife? Or a husband being abused?

Anonymous said...

This is Jeff Brady by the way.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this.

Jo Anne Lyon was a good choice, I believe. But there is still resistance to women in leadership, and it seems that her election, this time and last, is an aberration, not likely to be repeated for some time.

Why not? As far as I know, The Wesleyan Church has never had a General Officer (other than Lyon) or whatever they are/were called, who is/was female.

I believe that there has only been one female DS in the history of the merged denomination. (In Puerto Rico).

I doubt if any of our large churches are led by a female senior pastor.

So, unless some other godly woman starts a para-church organization, and makes it important, again, it's hard to see a second General Superintendent with two X chromosomes per cell.

Martin LaBar said...


By the way, it's Techology show, with no N. On purpose, I believe.

Ken Schenck said...

You geneticist you ;-)

John C. Gardner said...

The use of the argument over slavery is a cogent illustration in this post. See Mark Noll's book and theology and the civil war which shows just such arguments being made by Christian abolitionists.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your kind words about Lee Haines' (my father's) speech. Quoting Nicholson, as you point out, was not a high point in his argument. I think the strongest part of his speech was the reference to Collins' book, Built to Win. That's an author who knows something about leadership and healthy organizations.

While I'm not as positive as some about the decision, I do believe our practical theology says God speaks through the majority. And I'm very glad we have a GS with Dr. Lyon's skills and gifts.

I also thank the Lord that the GC passed the memorial on family violence and divorce.

Jon Ward said...

whether or not the one GS is the right decision, I believe it is a good decision - done for the right reasons, with the right process and seeking the right outcome. only time will tell if it is also the right decision.

i am also glad of the failure of the sin memorial due to the stated reasons.

i am however, apparently in the minority on the abuse and abandonment issue. abuse is an heinous sin - and should be handled as a sin. confrontation leading to repentance or excommunication. either way the Scriptures provide for a mechanism to handle such issues. the major problem seems to be the lack of the church's willingness to intervene and discipline. i also believe that the larger principle discussion as Ken states can be framed in many different venues: martyrdom, forgiveness, the sermon on the mount's emphasis upon those who suffer as being blessed, etc; however the best big picture lens for abuse is sin. The church's response to it should be consistent as such.

Jon Ward