From the leftward turf of mainstream Protestantism to the evangelical heartland, disputes over biblical authority and interpretation colored much of the religion news in 2000. At the beginning of the year, some conservative Anglican archbishops overseas fired a salvo that shook and slowed the off-course U.S. Episcopal Church. Toward the end of the year, Southern Baptists were tending their wounds from a family brawl, and scholars in the Evangelical Theological Society were feuding over issues that raised the questions: "What exactly is an evangelical? What are the boundaries?" In between, combatants clashed along a wide, twisting front. The Mainline: Showdowns over sexuality
Among several major denominations, the most divisive issue in decades is the homosexual agenda that gay activists and their supporters want the church to accept. They kept up the pressure in 2000 for acceptance and pulpit endorsement of homosexual marriage, and for full participation of open homosexuals in the life and work of the church, including ordination. Traditionalists and conservative renewalists in the churches argued for adherence to Scripture and historic church teaching. The outcomes were mixed, but overall, conservatives had more to cheer about than liberals.
- li>Rebellious liberals in the 8.4-million-member United Methodist Church, the country's second-largest Protestant denomination, failed repeatedly in assaults on key positions at the UMC quadrennial general conference at Cleveland in March. By solid two-thirds majority votes, delegates upheld official church stands: Homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching," practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained, and same-sex unions cannot be performed by UMC ministers or in UMC churches. The rebels vowed to keep the heat turned up, meaning more disobedience, disruptions, and church trials likely are ahead. However, time and church-growth patterns favor the conservatives, and some liberals are talking openly about taking a hike.
- By a narrow vote of 268 to 251, commissioners to the annual general assembly of the 2.6-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in June adopted a proposed constitutional amendment that tightens sexuality standards. Citing Scripture and historic creeds to rebuff a church court's controversial ruling that allows same-sex unions, it says, "God's intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness." It also prohibits participation in same-sex unions by PCUSA clergy and churches. The struggle now has shifted to the church's 173 regional presbyteries, where at least 87 must vote to ratify the amendment before it can take effect.
- Rather than risk having their denomination tossed out of the worldwide Anglican Communion, delegates to the triennial convention of the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church in July voted down (but only narrowly) a measure to include "rites" for same-sex unions in a book of services. Nevertheless, they adopted by a large margin a vaguely worded multi-part resolution on sexuality that liberals, who control the denomination, can safely interpret as sanctioning homosexual marriages and ordinations. (Such unions and ordinations have been a fact of life for years in many of the church's 100 dioceses.) Seeing no hope of the denomination returning to its historic moorings, several dismayed evangelical Anglican primates and bishops abroad decided to intervene. They teamed up with some traditionalists and evangelicals in the Episcopal Church to work toward establishing a biblically faithful Anglican province on Episcopal soil that will be recognized by the Anglican Communion. They consecrated two American conservatives as bishops to help lead the effort-a shot heard around the Anglican world. More fireworks are ahead: Episcopal bishops have appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury to stop the invasion from abroad.
- For the first time, controversy over homosexuality and the Bible led to a structural fracture in a mainline Protestant denomination. A committee reporting to the biennial convention of the American Baptist Churches of the Northwest concluded that it was impossible for churches with differing views on homosexuality to live together under the same roof. Delegates agreed and voted to restructure their four-state regional unit of the 1.5-million-member American Baptist Churches U.S.A. into at least two separate entities along moderate-liberal lines. It's an idea that could spread throughout the ABC and be adopted in several other denominations.
- Some of the worst controversy in years swept through the 1.4-million-member United Church of Christ after officials announced in June a scholarship fund for lesbian and gay seminary students. Seeded with $500,000 from UCC unrestricted reserve funds, it was named after the first open homosexual ordained in the UCC, William Johnson (now a member of the UCC's headquarters staff in Cleveland). It is "a bad decision and a bad process," executive minister Lyle Weible complained in a letter to pastors in his Pennsylvania conference. His reasoning: Since sexual orientation isn't a basis for evaluating ministry in the UCC, it shouldn't be in evaluating scholarship needs, either.
In each of these denominations, some conservative-minded clergy and congregations have headed for the exits in disgust, continuing a 31-year exodus that has drained mainline Protestantism of up to a third or more of its membership. Others have chosen to stay, work for better days, and hang onto their piece of the high ground. Evangelicals: Tightening the border
As evangelicals see it, liberals ended up in control of the core mainline denominations and their seminaries because gatekeepers decades ago grew lax about standards. Not wanting to see a repeat of such negligence, at least two denominations in 2000 drew doctrinal lines in the sand.
- With 15.8 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is America's largest Protestant denomination, and one of the most conservative. Still, by a large majority, messengers (delegates) to the SBC's annual meeting voted to close loopholes in the historic Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement, the nearest thing to a confession of faith that Southern Baptists have. Although the original 1925 BFM held the Bible to be divinely inspired and inerrant, a 1963 revision described it as "the record of" God's revelation, and said the "criterion" for interpreting the Bible is Jesus Christ. This vague and subjective wording helped to keep liberals and moderates in place at the SBC's six seminaries in the years leading up to the conservative takeover of the reins of power, which began in 1979. The 2000 revision cancels out the offending 1963 revision. It says the Bible "is" God's revelation of Himself and all Scripture "is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation." The BFM is not binding on congregations and pastors, but it is for SBC agencies and employees, including seminary professors. In retaliation, moderates in Texas who had fought against the changes led their state convention-the SBC's largest state unit-to defund the SBC's seminaries, its headquarters offices, and its public-policy agency by millions of dollars. SBC leaders acknowledge the going may be rough for a while, but they emphasize that keeping the biblical basics clear and in force is worth whatever the cost.
- The smaller but also largely conservative 140,000-member Baptist General Conference ended its debate about the omniscience of God. At issue was the "openness" or "open theism" view of God's foreknowledge, promoted by Greg Boyd, a popular BGC pastor, author, and teacher in St. Paul, Minn. He contends that God doesn't know in advance everything that is going to happen, a view that has caught on among many students and younger leaders throughout the country. Delegates to the BGC annual meeting by a standing vote overwhelmingly affirmed that "God's knowledge of all past, present, and future events is exhaustive," and that "the 'openness' view of God's foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship's historic understanding of God's omniscience." Delegates allowed Mr. Boyd to keep his teaching post at Bethel College, provided he observed certain guidelines.
- "Open theism" was one of the hot topics at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual thoughtfest in Nashville, Tenn., in November. (Others included Israel's future, Jewish evangelism, whether women can be pastors, and essentials of salvation.) Greg Boyd, the leading champion of open theism, and Southern Baptist theologian Bruce Ware, author of a book rebutting it, traded jabs in a panel discussion. Mr. Ware warned that the view is at odds with Scripture and undermines the doctrine of God's omnipotence. In response, the ETS executive committee placed on the agenda for next year's meeting in Denver a discussion of whether open theism is within the bounds of evangelicalism. The theme for that meeting will be "Evangelical boundaries."
Even the ETS statement of faith will be under scrutiny. ETS founders opted for a minimal one, simply affirming the inerrancy of Scripture. A statement on the Trinity was added later. But some theologians want to see it expanded and made specific; they fear that in the absence of well-defined boundaries, an "anything goes" philosophy will take hold and seriously threaten the future of the evangelical movement.