What’s Going On?
Yesterday, the United Methodist Church made headlines by announcing that a taskforce of both conservative and liberal factions within the UMC have reached a settlement to part ways, with a new theologically conservative denomination branching off. For the past several years, the country’s largest mainline denomination and second-largest Protestant denomination (second only to the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention) had been embroiled in conflicts and intense debates over human sexuality.
Yesterday’s announcement made for an interesting turn of events in the story of the UMC, considering that the traditionalists had won the vote by a slim margin to keep the traditional marriage/sexuality stance during last year’s February conference, a vote that was bolstered by theologically conservative churches in the global South (e.g. Africa), where Methodism and evangelicalism continues to grow. However, it seems that many conservatives have grown disillusioned with the denomination and have seen the writing on the wall. The denomination is simply no longer a friendly place for orthodox Christianity. And people on both sides seem to be weary of fighting.
The vote is expected to pass this coming May. Should the Plan follow through, it would mark the largest schism in American Methodism since the slavery debates in the 1840’s, and would fracture the denomination that had united several Methodist/Wesleyan groups since the 1960’s during the Ecumenical Movement. Debates surrounding sexuality had also given rise to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) back in 2009, which broke off from the increasingly liberal mainline Episcopal Church and is seeking recognition as a legitimate communion within the worldwide Anglican communion. The ACNA, along with many other evangelical denominations, continue to thrive and even grow, while their mainline-liberal counterparts are continuing to shrink and bleed members.
According to a UMC website, specifics regarding the Protocol are as follows:
“The document’s signers include representatives from Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and the United States, and include persons representing UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, Uniting Methodists, The Confessing Movement, Good News, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, as well as bishops from the United States and across the world. The representatives have pledged to work together to support the proposal and develop legislation to implement it.
The Protocol anticipates the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Once formed, the new church would receive $25 million over the next four years and give up further claim to the UMC’s assets. An additional $2 million would be allocated for potential additional new Methodist denominations which may emerge from the UMC.“from “United Methodist Insight,” emphases added
What to Make of All This
Ever since the early centuries of the church, when debates raged on in the ecumenical councils, schism was always regarded as the very last resort, and the thought was always taken with the utmost sobriety and heavyness of heart. Jesus prayed that believers be one together as He and the Father are one (John 17), and the early church took this to heart when they spoke of “one, holy, catholic [universal], apostolic church.”
But there are times when schism is necessary. Though the Reformers never sought to create a new church (they wanted to “reform” the catholic church), the Reformation was one of those times. This, unfortunately, is one of those times as well.
The Reformers held that the markers of the true church are wherever the “Word was rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline is rightly practiced.” One of the things most overlooked in our modern day and age is that of church discipline. Jesus talks about it in Matthew 18 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 5. There comes a point when if the Word is not rightly preached, a church ceases to be a true church. There comes a point when some are in such error and living in sin, there can no longer be any communion on the basis of common belief and conviction. They can be regarded as neighbors and friends, yes, but not as members of the covenant community. That is why communion (or the “Eucharist” or “Lord’s Supper”, depending on your tradition) has historically been practiced during the recitation of one of the creeds, because we “commune” on the basis of common belief. And that is why communion has also historically been withheld from people that are in living in the wrong.
The United Methodist Church, despite having a Book of Discipline, has consistently failed to implement it when faced with unbiblical teaching. The gospel and message of Jesus Christ includes a call to “deny oneself,” to die to oneself for the sake of following Him. That was the message that made Methodism grow when evangelists took the the colonies and to the American frontier on horseback, proclaiming the “good news.” But that is not a message that you hear regularly preached in many churches. And arguments about sexuality aside, many individual United Methodist clergy deny such cardinal doctrines as the virgin birth and the resurrection–an explicit denial of historic, creedal Christianity. Such denials are upstream of any debates regarding human sexuality, because when the gospel story is robbed of its veracity, it is also robbed of its authority. To speak candidly, it would be a farce if individuals and churches would be made to commune with each other when their convictions are altogether different.
“Confessing Millennial” Thoughts
In many ways, this is not my fight, as I am an outsider looking in. But one of my previous posts mentioned that the United Methodist Church and the American Baptist Churches are the two mainline denominations that have managed to retain a decent-sized evangelical presence. I attend an American Baptist church, and my wife’s family comes from a United Methodist background, so I do have some vested interest on the future of the UMC. And being in a mainline denomination myself that has had perennial tugs-of-war between liberal and evangelical factions, the question has always lingered: when on a sinking vessel that is one of the mainline denominations, when do you know it is time to jump ship as opposed to staying to salvage it? After all, it is the evangelical portions of the UMC and ABC that are retaining members or even growing, while the liberal ones are dying off.
(The mainline churches, of course, are those denominations that have strong ties to America’s history. As such, I would like to think that such denominations have the potential to influence many cultural centers in the country for the gospel. But we have lost a lot of ground, as denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, the UCC, and the PCUSA have each succumbed to theological liberalism. Though they, too, retain a small evangelical faction, their influence is marginal at best.)
Of course, it seems to be a number of the evangelical churches (headed by the likes of the Wesleyan Covenant Association) that are “jumping ship” to form their own theologically conservative denomination, allowing the more liberal voices in the UMC to repeal the Traditional plan as well as any disciplinary action regarding same-sex marriage or clergy. Though the UMC would remain a place for both conservative and liberal conferences and congregations, an understanding of biblical sexuality would not be binding on the denomination and therefore no discipline would be exercised regarding that matter. Therefore, conservative conferences and congregations within the UMC have the choice to stay or leave. This would likely make the American Baptist Churches “the last one standing” when it comes to historic Christian sexuality, a position that it retains with some degree of precariousness.
In light of these developments, here are some of my closing thoughts and observations:
- If the UMC is to overturn the Traditional plan and the historic Christian understanding of sexuality, I suggest that the remaining evangelical churches leave and join the new, theologically orthodox denomination that will be starting. Reason being: the conservative vote won by a thin margin, even with the backing of the African churches. With the departure of many churches to the new denomination, staying in the UMC would likely be fighting an uphill, losing battle.
- $2 million is also allocated in this plan for any other groups that want to form their own denomination. Again, I would strongly advice all evangelical and orthodox churches to stay in this one new denomination. “We” are stronger, and better off, together rather than apart.
- Continuing on the last point, the new denomination will likely be joined by the conservative African churches. Assuming current trends will continue, I predict that this new denomination will flourish and even grow while the remaining UMC denomination will begin to die off, based on what I have observed from the the Episcopal Church and ACNA (the latter of which also has a huge base in Africa and the global South). In this sense, I am a bit surprised that the UMC is willing to let the African churches go their own way so easily, considering they make up the bulk of Methodist growth. And the conservative American churches are already given provisions for retaining their assets (a privilege that was not given to the ACNA). Therefore, I predice a bright future for the new denomination, and a decline for the remaining UMC.
- The new conservative Methodist denomination MUST find a way to be a safe place for LGBTQ persons to ask questions, explore Christianity, and make friends all the while retaining a firm stance on biblical sexuality. Too often, orthodoxy is held on to at the expense of orthopraxy and loving one’s neighbor, and it is often LGBTQ persons that are the most misunderstood among conservative Christians. The new denomination will have to learn to strike a balance.
- Finally: the remaining UMC should give up the label “United Methodist” in exchange for another name. Wherever one falls on the human sexuality debate, one thing is clear: Methodists are no longer united. In fact, they haven’t been for quite some time.
Methodist Mark Tooley shares what I think is an astute and accurate prediction for the two diverging denominations, writing for the Institute of Religion & Democracy:
My prediction: General Conference will approve a version of this plan. During several subsequent years of sorting, United Methodism’s current 6.7 million members in the USA will drop to about 6 million. About 2.5 million will join the conservative church, and about 3.5 million will be in the liberal church. Nearly all the 5.5 million overseas members, mostly in Africa, will join conservative church, so the conservative denomination will have about 8 million members globally.
Though such news is sobering, I share the optimistic sentiments of Tooley, who writes,
This process will be messy and often tragic. Many local congregations will divide and die. But United Methodism is already dying in America. This division will allow evangelistic-minded Methodism to plant new congregations and grow. American Christianity and society desperately need a theologically cohesive rejuvenated Methodism.
I’m looking forward to participating in a Methodist revival!
And more importantly, I believe the words of Jesus when He spoke of His church: “…and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” (Matthew 16:18)
Soli Deo Gloria.