Commentary: Methodist rejection of same-sex marriage is a victory for Christians of the Global South

by Mathew Block

News that the United Methodist Church (UMC) has reaffirmed the historic teaching of Christianity on same-sex relationships is a welcome surprise, and represents a victory for Christians of the Global South.

The 2019 General Conference of the UMC, which just met in St. Louis, Missouri, was widely expected to be a turning point for Methodists. A vast majority of bishops were pushing for the adoption of the “One Church Plan,” which would have seen the church strike prohibitions on the marriage of same-sex couples and the ordination of practicing homosexual ministers in the United States, and open up the possibility for other countries to follow suit.

The plan, however, was defeated by a vote of 449 to 374 (about 55 percent to 45 percent). Instead, delegates voted in favor of the Traditional Plan, reaffirming the church’s historic position on gender by a vote of 438 to 384 (about 53 percent to 47 percent).

So what happened? How did the historic Christian understanding of sexuality carry the day against the wishes of most UMC bishops? The answer is simple: Africa said no.

For a long time, the affluent church in the United States has pressed dependent churches in Africa and elsewhere to adopt the progressive ideologies of western mainline Protestantism. But the churches of the Global South have resisted, culminating in the recent votes at the UMC General Conference.

That experience is hardly unique to Methodism. We see the same thing happening in world Lutheranism. A few years ago, Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council, published an article entitled “Colonialism in the Global South: The Imperialism of Western Sexual Ethics.” There he argues that the imposition of western progressive theology on churches in places like Africa represents a new form of colonial oppression by western churches.

And yet, many mainline Protestants seem to think the opposite. In his article, Dr. Collver notes a 2014 essay from the Lutheran World Federation which argued that “the rejection of homosexual love” was itself “another form of colonialism.”

This position leads to the incongruous image of western Protestants accusing their African brethren of colonialism, even as they attempt to push western progressive theology on their dissenting historic colonies. What is more, western mainline Protestants are increasingly tying financial support for churches in places like Africa with the acceptance and promotion of progressive ideology on issues like sexuality—an apparent attempt to starve out dissenters.

Despite this pressure, many churches of the Global South have firmly resisted attempts by westerners to impose progressive theology. Churches like the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, for example, have made their opposition to same-sex marriage clearly known, rebuking western church bodies which have departed from Scriptural teaching in this matter.

Their position will only become stronger, given the rapid growth of Christianity in the Global South. This is especially true as mainline Protestantism in the West continues its long decline.

It was precisely this sort of situation—the growth of Christianity in the Global South and the decline of mainline Protestantism in the West—which led to the dramatic showdown at the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference. Unlike many denominations which have separate national church bodies in different countries, the UMC functions as a single church body throughout multiple nations. So while western progressives planned to push through divisive doctrinal change on the issue of sexuality, the growth of Methodism in the Global South meant Africans (who now make up more than 40 percent of all United Methodists worldwide) had a much stronger voice than in years past—and a much greater share of voting delegates.

Their voice was powerfully present during the General Conference. This was particularly true during a speech by the Liberian theologian Dr. Jerry P. Kulah on the morning of February 23. “We Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics,” he said. “We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up.’”

His words are a stunning rebuke to the colonialist ideologies of western mainline Protestantism. He continued:

“We Africans, whether we have liked it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.

We stand with our Filipino friends! We stand with our sisters and brothers in Europe and Russia! And yes, we stand with our allies in America.

We stand with farmers in Zambia, tech workers in Nairobi, Sunday School teachers in Nigeria, biblical scholars in Liberia, pastors in the Congo, United Methodist Women in Cote d’Ivoire, and thousands of other United Methodists all across Africa who have heard no compelling reasons for changing our sexual ethics, our teachings on marriage, and our ordination standards!

We are grounded in God’s word and the gracious and clear teachings of our church. On that we will not yield! We will not take a road that leads us from the truth! We will take the road that leads to the making of disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of the world!”

That stance may mean some financial difficulties for orthodox Methodists in Africa and elsewhere if western Christians choose to withhold funding. But that doesn’t mean African Methodists will back down. Dr. Kulah continued:

“Some United Methodists in the U.S. have the very faulty assumption that all Africans are concerned about is U.S. financial support. Well, I am sure, being sinners like all of you, some Africans are fixated on money.

But with all due respect, a fixation on money seems more of an American problem than an African one. We get by on far less than most Americans do; we know how to do it. I’m not so sure you do. So if anyone is so naïve or condescending as to think we would sell our birth right in Jesus Christ for American dollars, then they simply do not know us.”

These are powerful words, and well worth reflecting on in our own Lutheran circles. Many Lutheran church bodies today face similar pressures to submit to western ideologies contrary to the teachings of Scripture. You who resist are to be commended for your faithfulness in the midst of great challenges. I pray that the words of the great Lutheran hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt will give you strength to meet whatever challenges you may face:

If God Himself be for me,
I may a host defy;

For when I pray, before me
My foes, confounded, fly.
If Christ, my Head and Master,
Befriend me from above,
What foe or what disaster
Can drive me from His love?

May that love of God be your strength as you continue to stand firm in His Word. And as you stand firm, know that we in the International Lutheran Council stand with you. May God bless you and your churches with every good thing in Christ.

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Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for the International Lutheran Council.

Norwegians celebrates publication of Sami-language New Testament

Two Sami congregants pose with the new edition of the New Testament along with The Lutheran Church in Norway's Provisional Bishop Torkild Masvie (second from left) and Rev. Olav Lyngmo (far right).
Two Sami congregants pose with the new edition of the New Testament, along with The Lutheran Church in Norway’s Provisional Bishop Torkild Masvie (second from left) and Rev. Olav Lyngmo (far right).

NORWAY – The classic Sami-language New Testament has now been published using the modern spelling standard, with the first presentation of the new edition in Norway taking place in a congregation of The Lutheran Church in Norway.

Rev. Olav Berg Lyngmo, a Sami-speaking pastor who has been involved in the project, presented the new edition of the New Testament during a service held August 15, 2016 in Alta, Finnmark (Norwegian Lapland). Many of those in attendance have been awaiting this edition of the New Testament for years.

The Sami are a small population in modern day Europe, a fact which has led to challenges for Sami Christians. The Sami in Norway consist of three different language groups who don’t understand each other’s languages. The New Testament project focuses on the largest of these three: the Northern Sami, who make up a group of about 20,000 people, with most living in Norway and some also in Sweden and Finland.

Producing Bibles and devotional material for small language groups has always been expensive, so recent efforts for the Northern Sami have focused on reproducing the 1895 Bible, Luther’s Small Catechism, a hymnal, and a few other books that have been published over the years.

In 1977 a new Sami spelling standard was introduced in the schools. In many ways, it was a gift, as it simplified spelling for Sami schoolchildren and also allowed non-native speakers of Sami greater ease in reading the language. But it created a gap between the new generation of Sami speakers and previously produced literature, as only a limited amount of classical devotional material has ever been made available in the new spelling system.

A new translation of the New Testament was produced in 1998 in accordance with the new spelling standard, but most Sami preferred the older translation of 1895. Bringing this classic version into modern spelling has been of great importance to the Sami people, leading the Sami Parliament in 2010 to allocate funds to make the new edition of the New Testament possible.

With the traditional version of the New Testament now in modern Sami spelling, different generations can read together from the same beloved text, each using the spelling system they are most comfortable reading. While an important step forward, the Sami know challenges remain, as the Old Testament is still only available in in the old spelling system.

The Lutheran Church in Norway is a member church of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran churches.

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Seeking God’s Word as we approach Advent

President Egon Kopereck.
President Egon Kopereck.

by Egon Kopereck

Dear brothers and sisters,

We approach the end of another ecclesiastical year. This season’s biblical readings, texts, and reflections in our worship advise us to be watchful. We are not of darkness but are instead children of the light, and we are therefore given the warning to not sleep but keep watch (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6): “Keep awake and be sober,” St. Paul writes, “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (5:6, 8).

The admonitions, the warnings of the Word of God seem as if they were written for today. Keep watch! This is our challenge.

In fact, the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature are very astute and dangerous enemies. They use subtle, subliminal, and dangerous weapons. One of these is to occupy our time to the maximum, with television, electronics, socialization, work, and amusement filling all our time. We no longer sit down with our family and read the Holy Bible or a devotional story. We no longer inculcate the Scriptures “diligently to our children” (Deuteronomy 6:7) nor “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6). And yet when children do not want to go to church and are not interested in the things of God, we wonder and cannot understand the reason why.

No wonder we’re told to keep watch! St. Peter writes, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

The psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” before answering: “By guarding it according to Your Word” (Psalm 119:9). For this to occur, that Word needs to be in our hearts, and this only happens by studying, reading, meditating on, and applying the Holy Scriptures. As the Apostle Paul told the Romans, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

My dear brethren, the word of Jesus to “be watchful” echoes firmly and strongly still today. Therefore, let us not overlook meditating on, listening to, contemplating, and practising the Word of God, but instead make time for it (Colossians 3:16). Let us also teach this attitude in word and action to our children and families (Ephesians 6:4). Let us be careful of what we feed our own minds and hearts (1 Corinthians 6:18). And let us seek help, rescue, and refuge in God (Psalm 46), because only in Him is there hope and life.

May everyone have a blessed ecclesiastical year-end and Advent Season, and may the Church’s New Year be filled with peace, love, joy and hope.

With love,

Egon Kopereck

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Rev. Egon Kopereck is President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil and sits on the International Lutheran Council’s Executive as representative for Latin America.