Thursday, December 21, 2023

It’s Thursday, December 21, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Dramatic Disaffiliation: The Biggest Schism in American Protestantism Is Taking Place in the United Methodist Church Right Now

There are plenty of crises for us to observe around the world. We’re going to have to turn to a couple of those today, but first I want to turn to a crisis in the Christian Church. And this is a crisis that is illustrated most glaringly as we come to the end of the calendar year 2023, and perhaps most tellingly in what has been known as the United Methodist Church. Because the big story is that by the end of this year, somewhere over 7,000 congregations will have officially left the United Methodist Church over many of the theological issues that are currently at stake in the great battle between more liberal and more conservative forces in so many denominations. But behind this is not only a set of numbers, it’s the very real life of so many of these congregations. And there’s the story of Methodism, particularly in the United States, and why the coming apart of the United Methodist Church is such a big story.

So first of all, again, the numbers. About 7,600 churches will have left the United Methodist Church by the end of this calendar year. And the end of this calendar year brings to an end a particular agreed upon period in which these congregations had the right to leave, and at least in some cases with their property or with some kind of settlement over their property.

In order to understand this, we have to go back to why there is a denomination known as the Methodist. And that takes us back to England, and in particular to the 18th century, where you had a man by the name of John Wesley, whose brother, of course, was the great hymn writer, Charles Wesley, who with others created a society for devotion within the Church of England. They at no point during the lifetimes, say of John and Charles Wesley, intended to leave the Church of England. The Methodists, as they became known, basically saw themselves as a renewal movement, a movement with a particular devotion to serious spirituality and a method of spirituality within the Church of England. A very warm-hearted Christianity as compared with what John Wesley saw as a lot of coldness and sterility in so much of the Church of England.

Now, as was so often the case, and by the way, this is true of the Baptists as well, Methodists didn’t name themselves Methodists. They were named Methodists as something of an epithet, and they, on the other hand, were not named Methodists by accident. It is because Charles Wesley was famous for a method of devotion and his Methodist societies, as they became known. They were also committed to that same devotional method. It was Wesley himself who described his own conversion as a heart strangely warmed. He meant warmed by the grace and mercy of God. And so Methodism was, you might say, a renewal or a revival movement within the Church of England. But as throughout church history has so often been the case, they eventually ended up outside the Church of England. And thus, both in Great Britain and in the United States where there had been Methodists who had come and Methodist circuit riders who became a very important part of American religious history, on both sides of the Atlantic, the Methodists became denominationalized. They actually became a Methodist Church.

But as you look at the history of the United States, and in particular as you think about the rise of Wesley, and you could say the Wesleys in this case, both John and Charles and their influence, the influence of the Methodist societies, eventually the emergence of the Methodist Church, you have to put that in the context also of revolutionary America. And then fast-forward to the 19th century where you had the rapid expansion of the United States on the frontier, Methodists were among those who were most adaptable to the frontier and also most religiously enthusiastic in order to plant churches and form Methodist societies. Wherever you found a community with the westward expansion of the United States, certainly in the upper half of the North American continent, you found Methodist societies. And Methodists had a particular way of being able to create fellowships that became congregations on the American frontier. Famously, with that expression I used earlier, the circuit rider, the circuit-riding preacher.

And so, even as you really couldn’t have say a Church of England parish until you had an official university trained curate to be sent as the priest, the Methodists were expanding everywhere that Americans were expanding, all across the North American continent. That’s why you see Methodism, you see a Methodist Church pretty much close to the center of every Mid-Western, Southern, and for that matter, Great Lakes region. So as you think about the Great Lakes expansion, you think about the westward expansion, you think about the population in the South, wherever you find a county seat, wherever you find a city square, you’re likely to find a Methodist Church, and very often, the first Methodist Church. They’re very close to the heart of the action, and not by accident.

But long before you could have a first Methodist Church, you could have a circuit congregation that would be served by one circuit-riding preacher who would ride and serve several congregations, perhaps week by week. And so he’d be in one place one Lord’s day, another church another Lord’s day. So the Methodists could expand on the frontier while the Episcopalians are back trying to figure out how to get somebody from Cambridge to arrive in a settled community. They were really slow.

Now, it shouldn’t surprise you that one of the leading dynamics in the 19th and 20th century was driven by both the Baptists and the Methodists. The Baptists, like the Methodists, were named Baptists largely by people who were seeking to dismiss Baptists or argue with us. And yet it was the practice of believers baptism by immersion that certainly was the Baptist distinctive. So it wasn’t false. And so the Methodists eventually owned the name Methodism and the Baptists eventually owned the name Baptists. And even during my lifetime, especially as a boy, there was real competition between the Baptists and the Methodists on the frontier.

Now, there was cooperation, there was friendly cooperation. In my own family, my dad was raised in a Methodist congregation. My mother was raised in a Baptist congregation, and they backed up to one another, and right across the street was the first Presbyterian church in this Southern town. And the youth groups in the various churches during the 1940s, they arranged their youth meetings so that all the kids in this tiny little town could go to all the churches, just on different nights. As you might expect, that did lead to a little bit of ecumenism where you had young people who paired off and got married, and that’s exactly what happened. But my dad, I simply have to say, became a Baptist, indeed a very convinced Baptist, but he always had great affection for the Methodism that had given him such wonderful Christian experiences as a young person. And his parents continued to be Methodists throughout their lifetimes.

And so, that was just a picture of small town America. It was pretty much divided right downtown between the brand names and the biggest of those brand names. And most of those churches throughout most of those decades were the Baptists and the Methodists. The Methodists spread all throughout the American frontier, and the Methodists had a particular strategy that helped to drive them and a particular understanding of how to start these societies that would eventually become churches and how to assign these circuit-riding preachers. So to be honest, the Methodists were out-organizing the Baptists throughout much of the 19th century, and it shows. It shows right on the Downtown Square.

Now, there was another distinction that would be fun to unpack, and that is that the Methodists are confessionally Armenian, whereas the Baptists are certainly overwhelmingly far more Calvinist. And so there you had another distinction between the two, but it was a friendly dynamic in small town America. It was also a matter of denominational competition, and there’s just no other way to call it. But one of the big distinctions between the Baptists in the United States and the Methodists in the United States, and this is not just about theology and ecclesiology and church governance and organization, it has to do with the effect of the Civil War. And so, the tensions between the North and the South meant that by the time you get to the last half of the 19th century, you certainly have a Methodist Church in the North, and a Methodist Church in the South. There’s two separate entities.

The same thing happened among the Baptists, but the big issue is that the North and the South among the Methodists combined in the 20th century to establish one Methodist Church, once again, including Methodists in the North and in the South. They also merged with another similar group in the 1960s known as the Brethren, and they created what was known as the United Methodist Church. And all three of those words were very important to Methodist ecclesiology in the United States. You had the Methodist Church. That’s, by the way, to be contrasted with the fact that you do not have the Southern Baptist Church. You have the Southern Baptist Convention of Churches. There is no national Southern Baptist Church. The Methodists, it is a national church, by their declaration. United Methodist, adding that third word, was the union of these previously separate or divided denominations. And United Methodism, when it was established, basically was rivaled only by the Southern Baptist Convention in terms of membership, as you look at the number of members and the number of churches.

But something else happened when the Methodists came together as the United Methodist Church in the 1960s. This was actually a combination of what turned out to be differing Methodist traditions. And even though the very name of the denomination is the United Methodist Church, there’s a sense in which almost every year since it was united, it became less so, if Methodist conversation is honest. So to put this into context, the Northern Methodists had been far more pervasively influenced and far more open to liberal theology than was true in the South. Part of this was just the geography. You take the Northern cultures, you take the proximity to liberal centers of academic and theological production, and so you can kind of understand that’s the way it was. And it’s one of the reasons why the SBC did not reunite with Northern Baptists, because of differences that were already very clear by the middle of the 20th century.

But the United Methodists did come together, and yet it was an unwieldy combination. It was massive in terms of its institutional reach, and frankly, it was very thick in terms of its polity.

But from the very beginning, there were those who were far more liberal and those who were far more conservative, and yet it all basically held together until the LGBTQ issues were the fuse that ignited the bomb. And as is so often the case, this is a bomb that did go off. And it went off within the United Methodism in a way we need to watch pretty closely. Because the official policy of the United Methodist Church right now, as of December the 21st 2023, is that homosexuality is incompatible with the role of the Christian ministry and the Christian minister. And so an entire range of issues will flow from that.

The official Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church makes these issues very clear, but the tensions within United Methodism have been even more clear, especially since about the year 2015/2016. And I think it’s easy to figure out why. With the advent of same-sex marriage, the Obergefell decision in the United States, other things, you have had liberal Methodists defying their own Book of Discipline by blessing homosexuality and presiding over same-sex unions, and in so many of the conferences of the United Methodist Church actually having openly gay clergy, openly gay bishops elected in some places, and also some who were involved in openly LGBTQ unions. And so you look at this and you realize this is a bomb that’s going to go off. And you had conservatives who simply biblically could not do this. Based upon their own convictions, they could not bless what they rightfully believe that scripture condemns. They can’t do it.

And so the tensions became so great, that over the course of the last several years, it was very clear that there would be a separation of the United Methodist Church. This is where you have the intervention of politics on the one hand and a pandemic on the other hand. First of all, the politics. A matter of about, say three or four years ago, it looked like the Conservatives were going to play a stronger hand in terms of the negotiating posture leading into the separation. Because one of the big issues here is that, historically, United Methodist congregations have not owned their property. The property has been held by the denomination as a matter of trust. And to put the matter bluntly, you’re talking about billions of dollars of property. And these churches, many of them simply couldn’t afford to leave if they had to leave all their property, and so this was a matter of leverage.

But you also had Liberals in the church who, quite frankly, have put up with Conservatives, in their view, long enough. And you have Conservatives who, during the period of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even in the ’90s through renewal movements, thought that they might be able to recapture control of Methodism. The fact is the conservatives lost and the liberals won and somebody was going to have to leave. It also became increasingly clear that given the bureaucracy of the current United Methodist Church, the more natural exit would be on the part of the conservatives. The question is, where would they go? And the answer now is a multiple choice answer, because you have groups that have been established, and so you have conservative or certainly more conservative groups that have been put into place. You have, pretty regularly, the declaration of some new group defined one way or another. It’s not really clear where this is going to go.

But in a bureaucratized situation, this is something conservatives just need to underline, understand, highlight. Every time the bureaucracy has the final say, the bureaucracy is almost always far more liberal. And so the plans of conservatives to be able to part on better terms were thwarted by the politics of those on the left and in the bureaucracy, but also by the pandemic. Because had the United Methodist Church been able to have what was scheduled as a special conference to deal with this issue, the conservatives had a stronger hand a few years ago than what happened over the period of the pandemic. The bureaucracy was able to consolidate its own attempt to thwart the conservatives during the pandemic.

Coming out of the pandemic, however, coming down to the numbers that have just been released, even as the conservatives were dealt a weaker hand than they had expected, they’ve actually taken more churches than the bureaucracy had ever actually estimated would exit. We’re talking about 7,600 churches. At least 7,600 congregations. Count that. Just think about a country like the United States. Take a denomination, they had about 30,000 congregations, and take out 7,600 of them. That’s a huge number.

Ryan Burge, who’s an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, said bluntly, “It’s the biggest schism in any American denomination in the history of our country.” That’s why we’re talking about it at this length today, because it’s a massive story. This is the biggest schism in an American denomination ever.

There are a lot of big lessons here, what is known as the disaffiliation of these 7,600 churches. And for one thing, when you’re looking at conservative United Methodists, you’re still looking at folks who in many ways are not as conservative as you would define most conservative evangelicals to be. The big issue here has to be the ordination of women as pastors, which goes back in Methodism with roots into the 1950s, and certainly in the 1960s. And so, there you see a distinction. So even the conservative organizations, which are created as an alternative to the more liberal United Methodist Church, are basically pro-women clergy. It’s also not clear when it comes to the more conservative groups, how confessional they’re going to be. That is to say how strictly confessional they’re going to be. But in any event, they were done with paying for, cooperating with, and subsidizing what they saw as the subversion of biblical Christianity.

Another thing to note is that when you’re talking about the number of churches, you had 30,000 to begin with, and 7,600 have disaffiliated in this process. One of the things you need to understand is that a lot of those churches are the biggest, the most evangelistic, and the wealthiest churches in United Methodism. So this isn’t just some random 7,600 congregations that have gone. In the large part, these are some of the largest, fastest growing, wealthiest and the most influential formerly United Methodist Churches, now in a kind of brave new Methodist world which is not yet fully developed.

Part II

LGBTQ Issues, Control, and Theological Arguments: Why Conservatives are Leaving the UMC

Now, another fascinating thing we just need to talk about before we leave this story today is that you have people on the left saying this is all about money, and you have people on the right saying no, it’s all about LGBTQ issues. The reality is, oddly enough, there’s truth in both arguments. And yet, when it comes to the theological argument, which has to be, I must say as an evangelical Christian, the theological argument has to be the primary argument. The theological argument is abundantly clear. And when you look at the LGBTQ issues, you don’t just get there from simple Methodism to having openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage and all the rest. You have to abdicate an awful lot of Christian orthodoxy in order to get even close to that neighborhood.

And here’s a prediction that is absolutely certain, and that is to say that there will soon be a realignment of what is left of the United Methodist Church. And it will be a far more liberal denomination, largely because the congregations that were adequately conservative, left. They’re not going to be there. So the Liberals are going to have pretty much free rein in that denomination going forward. So, you are warned.

The article by Peter Smith of the Associated Press ends with a very interesting comment. “There’s no immediate estimate on how many individual members are leaving the United Methodist Church, since some members of departing congregations are joining other UMC churches, but the departing churches include some of the biggest in their states.” So the number of churches leaving, 7,600, doesn’t yet give us a clear picture of how many Methodists are leaving. But it’s also very important to say that the Methodists have been leaving for quite a long time when you look at the membership numbers of that church, and the conservatives are the ones that, in the main, have the growing churches. No surprise there.

I said money’s also an issue. And the money comes down to the fact that there was an apportionment required of congregations in the United Methodist Church, and it was divided into districts and larger than that in annual conferences. But just to take the United Methodist Church, congregations had to pay a certain apportionment, and those apportionments could get very expensive. And the bottom line is that a lot of these conservative churches just felt like they were subsidizing theological liberalism, and that’s not what they wanted to do. So was money a part of it? Yes, of course it was. But as Christians understand, the theology and the money often come down to the same questions.

Part III

Who are the Houthi Rebels? Just Look at Their Motto: The Theology and Ideology Behind the Terrorist Attacks in the Red Sea

Okay. Soon after the 1st of the year, we’ll talk about some of the other developments, including recent developments in the Church of England. Big surprise here, blessings, same-sex unions. We’ve talked about that in terms of the move by the Vatican just days ago. So we’re going to leave that and we’re going to go to the Red Sea and talk about the Houthi rebels, because this really is a big story. And it’s a big story theologically in a way the mainstream media are giving absolutely no theological attention. So if no one else is, let’s do this for just a few moments today.

Because the big story is that the Houthi rebels are far more sophisticated, based in Yemen, than they had been before, and now have helicopters and drones, and they have all kinds of modern military equipment, and they pose a very real threat to the shipping of the entire world, especially through the Red Sea headed for the Suez Canal. And so you have major shippers who are saying they’re not going to be shipping through the Red Sea simply because of the threat from the Houthi terrorists. So at the very least, you’re going to be adding days to shipping. You’re going to be adding thousands of miles to the cost of shipping, much of what around the world gets transferred by ships, and that’s far more than you would think. And so, this is going to mean prices are going to go up on all kinds of things, simply because it’s going to cost more to get them from one place to another.

And I think most Americans will be absolutely shocked to know that when you walk into your corner, say, drugstore, how much of that, and I don’t mean the pharmaceuticals, I mean in particular just the stuff. And you go into a place like Walmart or someplace like that, an enormous amount of that stuff has been carried on massive container ships across massive oceans to bring it at low cost. You increase the cost of shipping, then you increase, eventually, the cost someone’s going to pay at a cash register.

But the big issue here is that the Houthis have been creating all kinds of mischief in that part of the world for a long time. There’s been a civil war in Yemen. Most Americans have paid no attention to this. Well, we’re about to pay attention to this, because it is extremely doubtful that the United States can allow these rebels to continue to disrupt shipping. And this is very much tied to the war between Israel and Hamas. And there’s no doubt on which side the Houthis are. And that requires the theological explanation, and I can do this pretty fast.

When you talk about the Houthis, you are talking about a Yemeni sect of Shia Muslims. This means that they are Muslims and they’re associated with the minority of the major division among Muslims, which is the Shiite versus the Sunni Muslims. And the most important thing you need to know about the Shiites is Iran. Iran is behind virtually all the Shiite mischief going on all over the world. They are big time behind Hezbollah and Lebanon. They are big time behind the Houthis. They’re the ones providing the Houthis with this military assistance, with the military training, and even with the armaments. The Houthis aren’t buying these just on some global market. They’re being subsidized and at least encouraged, if not organized, by Iran. And this just raises the likelihood that there’s going to be further conflict between the United States and Iran.

And it makes the point that Americans just had better recognize, which is that Iran has declared itself to be the implacable foe of the United States and the implacable foe of Israel. But the Houthis have declared the same. So the original motto of the Houthis is this, “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon Jews, victory to Islam.” So that’s the official motto of the Houthis. You want to know what’s going on in the Red Sea? Well, just ask them what their motto is, because there it is.

But again, make no mistake, this is a big story. And it’s a big story in terms of defense issues, it’s a big story in terms of commercial issues. And by the way, those two are never totally separate. It’s a big issue in terms of theology, with the Shiite Muslim group implacably opposed to Israel and wanting Israel to be annihilated, but also identifying the United States of America as the great enemy, saying, death to Israel and death to America. It’s not like we don’t know where they stand. And eventually this is going to come to not only a test of wills, but to something far more dangerous. And just to make the matter perfectly clear, the shooting has already begun in the Red Sea.

And once again, we see that theology is there, ignored largely by the mainstream media, but what we know as Christians is that some way, one way or another, somehow the theology is there if we just know how to see it. In this case, all we have to do is ask the Houthis, because frankly, they’re telling us what the theology is.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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