Wednesday, April 28, 2021
It's Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Major Crisis in the United Methodist Church: As the Denomination Heads Toward Division, Liberals Try to Gain Power While Theological Conservatives Prepare to Leave
Over the course of the last several decades, we have seen most of the historic liberal Protestant denominations in the United States abdicate biblical authority, revolt against doctrinal orthodoxy. And embrace the spirit of the age, particularly when it comes to the LGBTQ revolution.
But of course, that couldn't happen in a vacuum. That took place in all but one of the mainline Protestant denominations long after there had been a sustained process of doctrinal atrophy, and basically denying the major doctrines of the Christian faith one by one.
The big story right now is taking place in the United Methodist Church. It is a very long story. The revolt goes back even to the basic origins of United Methodism in 1968. It goes back specifically to very clear language that represents a very clear biblical teaching on homosexuality that was adopted by the general conference, that is the major legislative body of the United Methodist Church in the year 1972.
Almost ever since then, liberals in that denomination have been pressing for change in a liberal direction. Normalization of same-sex relationships, and now the entire array of identities and behaviors under the category of LGBTQ, and don't forget the plus. We're going to be looking at a specific case, a very explosive case in the State of Georgia in what's known as the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.
But before getting there, we need to recognize something. Liberals in these historic Protestant denominations of the old established mainline just won't stop until they have full victory, and they've been pressing onward and onward. But there's only one of those old historic churches that has held out and it's held out for a very interesting reason. And of course we are talking about the United Methodist Church.
Still on the books, still in the official book of discipline of the United Methodist Church is very clear language on homosexuality. The language is this. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.
The article goes on to define self-avowed practicing homosexuals as those who openly acknowledge to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, or others, that they are a practicing homosexual, other clergy, or ordained minister.
What we're looking at here is something that is absolutely not acceptable to the left, to the liberals in these denominations. In every other major mainline Protestant denomination, just a little footnote here. The Southern Baptist Convention is not, and has never been considered a part of that denominational family or family of denominations. The only church that still holds to this kind of biblical stance is the United Methodist Church.
The liberals are in full control of every other denomination, and at this point, the conservatives have basically been forced out. Interestingly, we're looking at the conservatives in the United Methodist Church being forced out because the liberals have been living, ordaining, preaching and acting in revolt to the official doctrine and discipline of their church for a matter of decades. And they want to see the conservatives pushed out.
What makes the United Methodist Church so interesting right now is that unlike the other churches, the other denominations, where the liberals were able to change the doctrine and discipline, that's not yet true in the United Methodist Church. Conservatives have prevented any change in the official denominational teaching.
Conservatives won as recently as a specially called general conference in the year 2019. But as we have said, the liberals just won't give up and they are in control of much of the church's bureaucracy. It has been largely a network of conservative pastors and grassroots United Methodists, and with support of United Methodists in international churches, primarily in places such as Africa, that have held the church's feet to the fire in maintaining its official teaching grounded in the clear teachings of Scripture.
But what's happened over the last several decades is that there have been liberals who have just defied the official teaching. There is no question what the discipline of the church is. There is no question what the official doctrine of the church is, but we have seen bishop after bishop. We have seen conference after conference live and teach and ordain in open defiance of this policy.
Push is coming to shove among United Methodists, and there was scheduled a major general conference in the year 2020, that was likely to present the conference, the denomination with a set of choices. The most likely choice was one that would facilitate a division of the church. United Methodist would be, no pun intended, united no more.
But conservatives have recognized for a long time, it has been decades since there has been any real theological unity in the United Methodist Church. In one sense, looking in retrospect, there really never was, even going back to say the 1960s with the union of the Methodist Church along with the United Brethren.
What we're looking at here is a situation of open apostasy, and that's exactly what is being resisted by orthodox Christians within the United Methodist Church, who are allied with an organization known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The covenant has wanted to maintain orthodoxy within the denomination and a clear affirmation of biblical authority. The "Wesleyan" goes back to the Wesley brothers, first of all, John Wesley, but also his brother, Charles, who are well-recognized as the founders of the Methodist movement. But that general conference, the official, national, and international meeting of the United Methodist Church that was expected to facilitate the division in which you would have conservatives leaving and forming their own denominations, but also congregations taking their property. That general conference wasn't held because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn't held and won't be held in the year 2021. It is not now scheduled to be held until September of 2022.
And here's what's insidious. The liberals in the church are doing their very best to seize control of congregations so that if the division actually happens as is expected now with a vote in 2022, they'll be in control of more of these churches. There'll be more of these churches effectively trapped in what will become an increasingly radical liberal denomination. Now the sad thing here is that liberalism's never built a church. Liberalism's never built a movement. It's never built a denomination.
The great churches of United Methodism, the great facilities, the great properties on which those churches and congregations now sit and worship, they were almost to a church, they were built by conservatives, paid for by conservatives, paid for by grassroots United Methodists who actually believed the gospel. They believed the scripture and they believed in the mission of the church to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, the very vision of John and Charles Wesley. As John Wesley famously said, "The world is my parish."
Two Religions Can’t Exist Within One Denomination: A Prominent Methodist Church in Georgia Makes a Courageous Stand Against Theological Liberalism
But keep that in mind as we look to the epicenter of controversy right now in the United Methodist Church. It's in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. It's actually in East Cobb County. It's the Mount Bethel United Methodist Church, a church that's about 175 years old. It's a church that is in the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is an evangelical congregation that numbers its members and its attendance in the thousands. It sits in a very important and strategic piece of property in East Cobb County, in a very fast growing city, the metropolitan area of Atlanta.
It has a Christian school and other ministries, and yes, of course, the liberal leadership of the denomination, including the United Methodist Bishop of Atlanta, do not want to allow that congregation to depart from the United Methodist Church, which it almost assuredly will do if indeed it makes it under current leadership to the general conference in 2022, and to an option to leave the denomination with its buildings and its property and its momentum in ministry.
Here's the thing. Anyone aware of the United Methodist Church, anyone aware of its big churches, understands that when you're looking at Mount Bethel United Methodist Church, you're looking at one of the most important churches in the denomination, but it hopes to be one of the most important churches in a new evangelical theologically orthodox Methodist denomination. And it wants to be a continuation of the 175 year history of that congregation.
Its current pastor is Dr. Jody Ray, and Ray has been there since 2016. The pastor was recently told by the Bishop and the Bishop's council there in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, that he was going to be reassigned. In the appointment process of the Bishop and the Bishop's cabinet, he was told that he would be moving to an administrative role within the annual conference. He is not going to be serving any longer as pastor of the church.
All that came to a head in recent weeks when the pastor indicated that he would not accept the new assignment, because everyone understood what it was. It was an effort to remove a clearly evangelical, clearly orthodox, clearly historically Methodist pastor from one of the most important and historic Methodist congregations to put him away in the bureaucracy, making way for the Bishop to appoint a pastor who would be less likely to lead and encourage the denomination to join a new Methodist grouping.
But what we're looking at is also a church that has refused to allow this to happen. The pastor announced to the congregation on a recent Lord's day that he would not be accepting the reappointment. He spoke from a position of biblical conviction. He spoke of a commitment to evangelical orthodoxy. He spoke of his determination to continue in Methodist conviction and in the Methodist tradition. That in the face of a Bishop and of a bureaucracy in the church that is increasingly, if now rather consistently, living in revolt against the official teaching, the tradition, the doctrine and the historic practices of United Methodism.
This becomes more interesting when the lay leadership of the church is also now sending a very clear message that it does not intend to receive any new pastor that might be sent by the North Georgia Conference and in particular by its Bishop, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson. And there is no doubt about where the Bishop stands. She's made very clear her intention to remove Pastor Jody Ray from being the senior minister of the Mount Bethel United Methodist Church, and to put him in a bureaucratic position, an administrative position.
The pastor said at a recent press conference, "Unfortunately, my options were to accept the move, take a leave of absence, or surrender my credentials. That's not consultation," he said. "It's just notification, and it violates both the spirit and the letter of the covenants that bind us together." The consultation there is supposed to be consultation between the Bishop and her cabinet on the one side and the leadership of the church on the other side.
But as the church has made clear, there was no real consultation. This is a punitive action. The Bishop is denying that it's punitive, but her motives are transparent. And so also is her own theology. Back in an address given in 2018, the Bishop spoke of a fellow bishop, Karen Oliveto. She's a former senior minister of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. That's a center of liberalism in the church and she became, and this was widely attested in the media, the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church.
Now here's what you need to note. I just read to you the requirements for ordination, much less serving as an Episcopal officer, a bishop in the United Methodist Church. It explicitly precludes anyone who openly identifies as LGBTQ, but no matter. You have a bishop who is openly living in defiance, and you have other bishops who were openly celebrating that, including the Bishop of the North Georgia Conference. Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference said of the openly lesbian bishop, that she is "one of the finest bishops I've ever seen."
The Bishop there in Atlanta also went on to say in this address, that Methodists could disagree on the issue of human sexuality, "but we can agree that this is not an issue that should divide our church, nor should it be an issue on which we establish our polity." Let me be very clear. It already is an issue that defines her church. It already is an issue that is defined in its polity. The book of discipline could not be more clear on this issue. It actually says quite clearly, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Again, short, concise, extremely clear.
In the same address in 2018, the Bishop said, "I long for the day when every child of God is truly welcome in the church. When we leave it up to God to sort out, whatever God's categorization of sin is." Well indeed, we do as Christians committed to scriptural authority and theological orthodoxy, we do leave it up to God to sort out whatever is his categorization of sin. But that's exactly what he has done in the holy Scriptures. That's exactly what he has done in his revealed word. That's exactly what the church has recognized as the truth about human identity, human nature, human dignity, human sexuality, sexual behavior, morality, marriage, you go down the list, based upon the clear teachings of Scripture. There is no real confusion on this issue.
Later, also in the same 2018 address, the Bishop said, "As clear cut as you see the matter of human sexuality, a lot of people over 60 see it in a very clear-cut way. My 16 year old and her peers don't get our consternation." Well, that's what you should expect if you turn over the doctrinal authority of a major church to a 16 year old and her peers. But we should note, it also makes a tremendous amount of difference what that 16 year old and her peers have been taught about scripture, about doctrine, about human sexuality according to the Bible, and about the plan of God for human flourishing. That will make all the difference in the world.
More recently, the Bishop and her colleagues have made clear her and their position on this issue in a statement known as the welcoming table. In that statement, we read, "We believe that harmful language about LGBTQ people and restrictions on marriage and ordination should be removed from the book of discipline. Clergy have always had discretion about what couples, that is which couples they will agree to marry. And no clergy will be asked to do anything against their conscience, and clergy executive sessions of the annual conferences have always followed the advice of the boards of ordained ministry and the Holy Spirit to discern who to ordain."
Notice that's just a statement for an official recognition of absolute mayhem and absolute disobedience to scripture and the existing book of discipline when it comes to marriage and ordination in the United Methodist Church. Now keep something else in mind. If there is a biblical definition of a bishop, a biblical role for a bishop, and here, I'm just going to have to say that as a Baptist, I believe that that bishop is a pastor of a church. I believe that every pastor holding the teaching office in the church is in some sense a bishop.
But Methodism as a movement began as a movement for holiness within the Anglican communion, and it has from the beginning recognized bishops. If there is any purpose for being a bishop, for having a bishop, it is for the defense of the teaching of the church, for the defense of orthodoxy, for the defense of biblical truth. But now we're looking at the fact that it is in many cases, the bishops of the church who are acting, ordaining, living and preaching, advocating, and also reassigning pastors in defiance of that very truth.
This very point is made abundantly clear in a recent article from Dr. Timothy Tennent, the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, which by the way, is located like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the State of Kentucky. Asbury Theological Seminary is an independent seminary in the Methodist tradition and in a very important article, President Tennent writes about the trust clause. That is the clause that goes all the way back to John Wesley that says that properties of the church belong to the church as a whole, not to individual congregations. He writes this, "The purpose of the trust clause was to protect the church from heterodox teaching, which was inconsistent with the Scriptures and the received interpretation of the Wesleyan message as found in Wesley's [that means John Wesley's] canonical sermons."
Today, this is being turned on its head. Those churches committed to abiding by the express will of the general conference and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith are faced with losing their land and buildings. The trust clause was designed to protect churches from false doctrine. "Today," wrote Dr. Tennent, "the trust clause is being used to pressure churches into embracing false doctrines." All this means that not only is the United Methodist Church right now the focus of many headlines, it is one of the most important defining battles. One of the most important definitional struggles in the struggle to maintain biblical orthodoxy within historic churches.
The United Methodist Church and its future should be of interest, not only to Methodists, not only to United Methodists, but to all Christians who love the gospel and who love the Scripture. Even where Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians, for example, may disagree, and trust me, we do, when you have biblically-minded, when you have gospel-committed Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists, we all understand that we stand together in the great defense of the gospel against liberal doctrinal atrophy, against the subversion of biblical authority, against the sexual revolutionaries, and also against those who actually deny the very existence of revealed and objective truth.
All eyes and Christian prayer should be directed at the Mount Bethel United Methodist Church and Pastor Jody Ray and the battle they are now facing and will face for some time. And it is a battle that will be eventually decided not only by the general conference of the United Methodist Church, if indeed it eventually meets in September of 2022. Eventually matters of truth and falsehood, matters of right doctrine and false doctrine, matters of rebellion or obedience will be settled in the judgment of God.
The Unimaginable Becomes Reality: When a Drag Queen Becomes the Latest Candidate for Ministry in Your Church, You've Completely Abandoned the Christian Tradition
But next, before leaving issues in the United Methodist Church, I simply want to look at one additional headline story. This one's also from Religion News Service. It's by Emily McFarlan Miller. The headline is this, and I'm not making this up, "First drag queen certified as candidate for United Methodist ministry, speaking in a new way to new people."
The RNS story begins by telling us about the drag artist known as Ms. Penny Cost, a play on Acts 2, the day of Pentecost. The article tells us that Hope Church in Illinois "celebrated Drag Sunday on Sunday, April 11th, with a message by Ms. Penny Cost, and music, readings, and prayer by other drag artists from Central Illinois and beyond." The drag artist said, "It's our way of celebrating and uplifting the voices of drag artistry within the church." Again, I promise you, I'm not making this up. You can look at the story yourself, and the story of course comes also with pictures. What would a story like this be without photography?
The next paragraph in the article tells us, "The Illinois Great Rivers Conference's Vermilion River District Committee on ordained ministry recently unanimously certified Hope Church's director of operations, Isaac Simmons, who goes by Ms. Penny Cost in drag, as a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church." In the next sentence, "Simmons, age 23, is the first openly gay man to be certified within the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, and as far as anyone can tell, the first drag queen certified in the United Methodist Church."
The young man said to the press, "It is mind-boggling, simply that it's 2021, and I'm the first, but it's also incredibly humbling." The new young candidate for ministry said that he sees his candidacy as "a sign of validation." Well, make no mistake, that's exactly what it is. And the local group there of United Methodists, that would be in this district or this conference, is intentionally sending a sign of validation. And that just underlines the fact that by the time any kind of church or church body reaches this point, it has already basically embraced doctrinal annihilation. There is virtually nothing left of the historic Christian tradition.
Speaking of his own identity, he said, "For me, there's nothing more carnivalesque than drag because it's something that is full of laughter and full of love, full of support, but also full of protest, full of change, full of demanding justice." Well, that's how he sees it.
The Christian church would have to see this very development and this very carnivalesque drag identity as an intentional refutation and revolt against the very order of creation that God has given us, and a direct violation of the clear teachings of Scripture concerning the fact that those whom God has made as men should identify as men. Those whom God has made as women should identify as women. That is found in paralleled scriptural teachings, by the way, in both the Old and New Testaments.
Another very interesting part of this man's statement is the fact that he can hardly believe this has only happened in 2021. Well, let's think about that number for a minute, 2021. At least in an historical and in a symbolic sense, that dating goes back to what was believed to be the year of the birth of Christ. We're not so certain that that was the exact year, but nonetheless, that is the hinge in history that is being marked by the beginning of a numerical sequence from one, which by the way, at the time wasn't dated one, but was in retrospect looking at the birth of Christ, all the way up 2021 years later to the year of our Lord 2021.
This man says that he is shocked, and of course that means offended and disappointed, that his particular move and the move of this Methodist group in certifying for ministry, an undeniably openly gay drag queen. The fact is what we're looking at here is a revolt against the Christian tradition.
It would have been unthinkable at virtually any point in the continuum of organized Christianity, going all the way back to the first century until well, only the very most recent times could anything like this even be imaginable within the Christian Church. And for all of those centuries, it wasn't unimaginable because Christians were simply not up to date. It's because Christians were operating out of a Christian biblical understanding.
This is open revolt, and of course, you're going to see a division between those who are appalled by it, deeply troubled by it, deeply concerned by it and opposed to it on the one hand, and those who celebrate it and say that it's arrived far too late on the other hand.
Just to state the obvious, you're looking not only at two different positions, as we will understand, you're looking at two different religions and those two different religions cannot possibly continue to exist in one church or in one denomination.
And also understand this. Once conservatives are out of the picture in the United Methodist Church, this is only the start of where things will go in the future. And yes, right now, much of it is unimaginable, but it won't stay unimaginable for long.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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