Church history spans two millennia—2,000 years of recorded experience. The weight of that history is heavy and humbling. Seen in that light, it takes a really big event to rank as historical, even as it happens. Such an event happened within the last seven days.
In St. Louis Missouri, the United Methodist Church met for a special General Conference to answer unavoidable questions central to the sexual revolution and the LGBTQ agenda. The United Methodist Church stands as the last mainline Protestant denomination that has not yet fully surrendered to the sexual revolution. The church has long agonized over this issue, with many in the church advocating for capitulation while a slim conservative majority still held to an orthodox teaching of marriage and sexuality.
A standoff has engulfed the church since the 1970s, with liberals pushing for the full acceptance and normalization of homosexuality and the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ ethic—they demand the ordination of openly gay clergy, the affirmation of same-sex marriage, and even electing homosexual bishops. But the liberals within the United Methodist Church have been thwarted in this effort – and the reason is illuminating.
Despite its basic theological liberalism, the UMC made history this week by upholding a biblical ethic on sexual morality. The General Conference sustained its biblical standards on marriage as an exclusive union between one man and one woman and rejected the LGBTQ revolution. This has never happened before and thus history was made. A mainline Protestant denomination long characterized by theological liberalism defeated the LGBTQ juggernaut and affirmed the biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. This demands our attention.
Though Methodism stretches back to the 18th century with the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, the UMC, as a denomination, is only about 50 years old. In 1968, The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged, forming the United Methodist Church. Generally identified with liberal Protestantism, the UMC also included a large representation of classical Methodists committed to traditional Christianity—many of these Methodists could rightly be described as evangelical.
Those conservative members have long summoned the UMC back to its historic, evangelical roots. In the wake of liberalism within mainline denominations, the evangelicals in the UMC founded the Good News Movement, which promoted conservative and orthodox theology, encouraged evangelism, and opposed the abdication of biblical morality.
As the sexual revolution targeted and captured many mainline Protestant denominations, the UMC held its ground. The committed conservatives within the church did not leave; they pressed on with convictional leadership as they attempted to stem the tides of secularism and liberal theology. Moreover, conservative leaders in the UMC received encouragement when the denomination opened its membership to international churches in Africa and Asia—these churches maintained a deep fidelity to traditional, biblical sexuality. Indeed, over the last several decades, the majority of the UMC’s growth arises from those Methodist churches abroad. Thus, when the denomination gathers every four years for its General Conference, conservatives have enjoyed greater representation because more representatives hail from places like Africa and the Philippines.
Liberals saw the writing on the wall—they understood the general trend of the denomination towards a conservative theology and biblical ethic. As such, the liberals who fought for the UMC’s acceptance of the LGBTQ agenda understood that with every passing year, their chances of success dwindled. The liberal leaders within the UMC knew they needed to force a vote on these issues fast, hence the special General Conference of 2019.
The showdown in Missouri stems from a long line of debates held at every General Conference since 1972. For the last 47 years, liberals have already fought for the liberalization of the UMC’s official teaching, which is known as the Book of Discipline. The historic discipline of the denomination asserts that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained as ministers, even as it is to be recognized that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” It also promotes marriage as union of one man and one woman, and states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Despite the clarity of that language, the liberal faction in the UMC has repeatedly defied the denomination’s dogma. Dissident pastors have affirmed the LGBTQ agenda and celebrated homosexual marriages in their churches. Openly gay pastors serve in pulpits, and one conference of the UMC is led by an openly gay bishop – all in open defiance of the Book of Discipline.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. Church practice cannot be severed from official church doctrine. The separation between doctrine and practice will doom any denomination. Indeed, the UMC stood at a crossroads. It would have to go one way or the other—a decision that would assuredly lead to a massive division in the church and eventuate in a denominational split. After yesterday’s decision, the UMC will most likely endure a schism between conservatives and liberals, with the conservatives holding onto the UMC while the liberals start a new denomination made in the image of the sexual revolution.
When the delegates arrived at the General Conference, they faced three different proposals: the liberal option, the traditional option, and a middle option. The middle option, known as the “One Church Plan,” boasted the overwhelming support of the bishops in the church. It promoted a local option, where congregations and conferences (regional jurisdictions of the UMC) could decide for themselves which direction to take.
The middle option was illogical and unprincipled. The UMC’s bishops would willingly sacrifice doctrinal and moral clarity on the altar of denominational unity. The “One Church Plan” surrendered theological conviction for a loosely defined and weak ecclesiology.
Furthermore, 93 presidents of historically Methodist universities implored the General Conference to join the sexual revolution. These presidents represented universities like Duke, Boston University, Emory, and American University in Washington D.C. They demanded the liberal option.
Thus, the battle lines were drawn. Liberals and conservatives marshaled their forces, counted votes, wrote articles, preached sermons, and descended on St. Louis for a historic showdown over the future of America’s second largest Protestant denomination.
The final vote not only rejected the liberal option but the defeat of the “One Church Plan” as well. The General Conference upheld the historic teaching of the church regarding sexuality and marriage. The vote, however, was remarkably close—438 to 384, or 53% to 47%. This marks a deep divide within the UMC.
There is no going back. This divide will not heal. The theological divergences that have plagued the UMC bubbled over this week in St. Louis and the results will undoubtedly lead to a massive split in this global denomination. The two sides of this debate essentially affirm different religions, not just different visions of Methodism.
Perhaps the most important decision taken by the General Conference centered on its rejection of the middle option. Even though an overwhelming number of UMC bishops called for the “One Church Plan,” the delegates decided that unity at the expense of doctrine is no unity at all—if the church does not present a unified and clear teaching on something as basic as sexual morality then it is no church at all. It cannot stand as one body, unified by its faith in Christ, if half the church upholds orthodox sexuality while the other half joins the sexual revolution. This decision by the General Conference took an enormous amount of conviction and fortitude. It sent a clear message that the UMC will not join the sexual revolution.
Even though the UMC remains a generally liberal denomination, that will likely change as the ripples of this decision spread. Eventually, a church must decide which road to take. The forces of modernity and the tides of secularism have swept many churches and denominations away. The UMC, however, drew a line in the sand and made no compromises on sexual ethics. As such, part of the history made yesterday is not only a mainline denominations refusal to join the sexual revolution, but a denomination that may, in the years to come, return to its evangelical heritage and theological roots that reach back to men like John and Charles Wesley.
The General Conference’s decision amounted to a surprising and stunning turn for this major denomination. It contradicted the wisdom of the world, which demands that all churches dance to the tune of the sexual revolution. Long ago, many denominations surrendered their theology in the service of cultural relevance. Those churches are now dying—the churches that are growing are those who have held fast to the clear teachings and admonitions of Scripture.
No church or congregation can move in two contradictory directions at once. Theological fidelity cannot mix with cultural capitulation. One must give way to the other. Yesterday, the UMC stood upon the authority of the Bible. History was made, and such a moment, rare as it it, should give hope to all biblically minded Christians.