Why do our bishops lead in such ecclesiastically unhealthy ways? For several reasons.
First, many of them were theologically and morally formed during earlier days of American Christendom, before secular forces in the culture became dominant. During those days, the church and the culture mostly got along. If they did not, the church simply tried to catch up to the culture. The church and her leaders were seldom at odds with the culture and its leaders.
Second, there are theological reasons for inept episcopal leadership. Liberal Protestantism’s God—the “God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (as H. Richard Niebuhr put it)—has trouble saying “No” to anything except the racism, sexism, and other isms denounced by progressives. So do bishops who worship this God. As you might guess, these bishops believe this God is all—and I mean all!—about the grace of acceptance.
Third, some key bishops are progressive in their moral theology, or at least they have progressive sympathies. They have clearly taken sides in the current church struggle; they do all they can to support the progressive cause; and they are all too willing to intimidate the more evangelical and orthodox bishops on the Council of Bishops.
And fourth, more than a few bishops lead in this way because of an articulated, or assumed, organizational calculation. This is what they figure: If they play the middle in this disagreement in their church, if they “reach out” to the progressives and the moderates and the traditionalists, if they try to please as many United Methodists as possible, if they create as many moral choices as possible for clergy and laity in the church, if they offend as few United Methodists as possible, if they work hard to “accommodate diversity,” if they talk incessantly about the “unity” of the church (without substantive reference to doctrine, scripture, or truth), then they and their ministries will hold the United Methodist Church together. Instead, their goal of accommodation is leading to a slow, continual erosion of the church.
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