The news out of the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) made history. At last, a major mainline Protestant denomination had, after much maneuvering, turned back an effort to abandon its historic biblical affirmation of biblical sexuality and marriage. The event was an earthquake of sorts, sending shock waves around the world. And yet, even as there was cause for the faithful to be relieved by the vote, the real battle still lies ahead.
The UMC, formed in 1968, is the largest of the mainline Protestant denominations. The church has been generally quite liberal in theology and social statements. Though there have always been evangelical believers and pastors committed to biblical orthodoxy within the denomination, the elites in control of the church’s bureaucracy have grown even more liberal over time.
The vote to uphold the UMC’s Book of Discipline is explained by sustained efforts undertaken by conservatives and by the growth of the denomination outside the United States, particularly in Africa. Thanks to the growth of the UMC’s membership in the global South, a slim plurality of the delegates operated from a conservative and evangelical worldview. The UMC churches from Africa and Southeast Asia have no plans to capitulate on the questions regarding same-sex marriage, LGBTQ normalization, etc.
I covered the news out of the General Conference extensively (See my article, “Church History Made Before Our Eyes: United Methodists Make History, Affirm Biblical Standards of Sexuality.”) But the aftermath of the meeting requires further attention.
Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times reported, “Across the country, progressive United Methodists are reeling from Tuesday night’s vote. As their conservative brethren celebrate churches like Foundry are faced with difficult decisions.” (Foundry refers to Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, DC, which openly celebrates the LGBTQ agenda.)
Another article by Ian Lovett from The Wall Street Journal reported, “While some progressive congregations say they are considering leaving the United Methodist Church, others are preparing something of a rebellion.”
A resistance has formed within the ranks of the UMC. The liberals have made it clear: they will no slip quietly into the night; they will not surrender their ground; they will press forward with their agenda.
The two articles by Dias and Lovett highlight the divide among UMC churches. It turns out that the United Methodist Church is not as united as you might think. The liberal and moral revolutionaries within the UMC have decided to continue to press the fight and attempt to enact sweeping moral changes to the UMC’s dogma.
Since the formation of the UMC in 1968, a disequilibrium has always existed between theological conservatives and theological liberals. The disagreement between these two groups has always caused friction in this loose conglomeration of divergent theological presuppositions. Some have attempted to find reconciliation between the conservatives and the liberals—even as recent as last week where a proposed plan called the One Church Plan was overwhelmingly defeated by the General Conference.
The One Church Plan would have granted autonomy to local conferences and congregations. This plan would allow local churches to ordain LGBTQ pastors and bishops, and allow local conferences to adopt their own statements regarding sexual ethics. This middle way, in theory, would have kept the UMC united. The delegates at the General Conference, however, knew that unity could not be secured through theological capitulation on such serious and grave matters as marriage and biblical sexuality.
Moreover, the cracks in the unity of the UMC that were present even in its founding were observed as early as 1980 when professors at the Duke Divinity School argued that the UMC possessed no “singular” identity but remained fractured into at least seven different churches—those fissures were largely influenced by geographical location. Thus, the tensions of last week’s General Conference marked the eruption of almost 50 years of theological disagreement and divisiveness.
Lyle Schaller, the late scholar of United Methodism, addressed the divergence between conservatives and liberals, arguing, “One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects the calls for surgery... It’s hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis.”
The conservatives have tried to convince the liberals that a deadly tumor threatens the UMC. The liberals, however, reject the diagnosis and resist any form of treatment. No middle ground can be won when the different factions disagree on such a fundamental level.
Indeed, Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton, two United Methodists, wrote a book in anticipation of the General Conference, titled: Are We Really Better Together? They conclude, “It is our contention we are not and not simply because we have different views regarding sexuality and marriage. Our differences go deeper to some of the foundational questions of what it means to be the church. Is Jesus Christ the only way to God? Is his death on the cross the only means for salvation? Are the Scriptures fully inspired and authoritative for revealing God’s will and binding on how we should live? We believe the answer to these questions is a 'Yes,' while others in the church would answer differently. The painful truth is that we cannot agree.”
Renfroe and Fenton point to the real issue faced by the UMC. The issue is not merely a disagreement on sexuality but on fundamental teachings of the Christian faith. A doctrinally confused church faces a crisis over sexual morality when it lost previous battles—battles on the doctrine of God, on soteriology, on the inerrancy of Scripture, on the affect of Christ’s atonement.
Churches who capitulate to the sexual revolutionaries have already surrendered the essential pillars of the Christian faith. Either the Bible is God’s Word, or it is not. Either the gospel is the only hope for salvation, or it is not. The debate over the future of the UMC is centered on something far deeper than sexual ethics—it was a question over faithfulness to God and to the Scriptures. It was a question to obey or disobey. On this, there could be, nor will there ever be, a middle ground.
Indeed, Adam Hamilton, the pastor of the largest UMC in the United States, suggested that all the texts in the Bible, including the texts about human sexuality, must be sorted into three different buckets. The first bucket contains verses that never amounted to “the expression of God’s will.” The second bucket encompasses texts that, at one time, denoted the expressed will of God, but no longer. The last bucket holds texts that “are true expressions of God’s will and always will be.”
Hamilton has repeatedly denied the inerrancy of the Word of God. But he goes even further and actually argues that human beings are to decide which biblical texts are—or ever have been— God’s Word. The audacity of applying human reason to jettison verses as never expressing the will of God is lunacy. Furthermore, some elite must decide which verses go in which bucket. You can guess which texts get thrown into the first bucket quickly. Confusion begets confusion. Capitulation on first things sows capitulation over all things. When a church jettisons the fundamental doctrines of the faith, it will allow for any cultural anomaly to enter through its doors, all in the name of relevance.
The church must always endeavor to live as a people of the book--as Scriptural people devoted to zealous study of God’s Word. The Bible is the norming norm that cannot be normed. Christians must affirm biblical authority and always remember that when you surrender the authority of Scripture, you threaten the very existence of your church. Where you find a church, you find a community committed to the Bible. Take that away, and the walls will crumble.