Thursday, January 25, 2024

It’s Thursday, January 25, 2024.

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

Part I

We are Watching the Biggest Schism in American Protestant History: The Staggering Numbers of the UMC Split Come to Light

One scholar calls the split in the United Methodist Church, “The biggest schism in any American denomination in the history of our country.” We need to recognize that, that means a schism or a division within the United Methodist Church, we should simply no longer, nearly so united. It took place between 2019 and 2023. The end of the calendar year just passed, marked the end of the opportunity for these congregations to leave the United Methodist Church and in particular, to leave with their property under some arrangement. Now, you are looking at a split in American Methodism, and that’s happened before, but it hasn’t happened like this and it certainly hasn’t happened over these issues.

What we’re looking at here is an emblematic story, an illustrative story of the major changes that have been taking place not only in the last several months, but over the last several decades. In the background to this headline news story lies decades of change. Indeed, well over a century of theological change. In the mainline, more liberal Protestant denominations. This has meant outright theological warfare between theological liberals and theological conservatives. Even as you’re looking at this, you need to recognize that if there is a church that has represented the United States of America, the entire nation as one Protestant denomination that has been in virtually all states pretty evenly spread throughout the entire nation, you’re looking at United Methodism.

There’s a history behind that, that turns out to be important as well. First of all, who are the Methodists? Well, the Methodists are a denomination in the United States. The largest denomination being known as the United Methodist Church. Methodism didn’t begin as a denomination. It began as a devotional group or a holiness group within the Church of England. Of course, his founder, John Wesley, was himself a minister of the Church of England, as was his famous hymn-writing brother, Charles Wesley. The Wesley Brothers basically established a new denomination, though that is not what they set out to do. John Wesley recognizes the founder of the movement, sought to bring about a revival or reform, a spiritual enlivening within the Church of England, of which he was a priest.

He started Methodist societies, and those societies began to follow a method of devotion. It was actually in derision that the Methodists are first called Methodist because of their methodical way of devotion. Eventually, the Methodist did become a separate denomination there in England. By the time you come to the revolution in the United States of America, in Colonial America, you had a lot of Methodists. The Methodist grew, especially on the American frontier, precisely because of the philosophy of the circuit writing preacher. Now, by the way, this was actually also the way that some American federal judges worked. They wrote a circuit on horseback. They went from place to place and sacked court wherever they would arrive. That’s why the federal appeals courts are still called circuits. The circuit writing Methodist preacher became a staple of colonial America and helped to establish Methodism as at least one central pillar of the American Protestant experience.

One of the things that made Methodism catch on like wildfire is that it seemed to fit the American democratic ethos and our democratic spirit. It also tended to spread because you could have one preacher who could ride the circuit, preach several churches while the Episcopalians were trying to organize to find out how somehow a diocese might be extended so that a bishop could appoint a minister for a church. The Methodist already had a church, and they probably already had a pastor or a preacher writing a circuit of churches. The word Episcopal was in the legal name of the denomination in the United States, precisely because Methodism requires bishops, or at least historically, it has. The current denomination is actually the result of a merger that led to the United Methodist Church. At least one major form of the Church of the Brethren had joined such that by the 1960s you have a mainline Protestant denomination known as United Methodism or United Methodist Church.

You had Methodist preachers who were well known across the nation, and you also had Methodist churches that in many ways dominated the courthouse squares, especially in county seat towns. You also had urban Methodism and you had Methodism in the North and in the South. That is at least partly the explanation for why theological liberalism began to gain ground among Methodists. One of the centers of that liberalism was Boston University. Historically, a Methodist university. By the time you reached the 1920s mainline Protestantism, particularly in the North, was being torn apart by what was known as the fundamentalist modernist controversy. That was a controversy between the theological liberals known as the Modernists, who argued that Christianity had to be theologically and doctrinally modernized in order to fit in the modern age, and the fundamentalists who were the conservatives arguing for the continuation of biblical orthodoxy.

Now, the issue is that with its Episcopal structure and with the general ethos of Methodism, Methodism had been resistant to the kind of splits that had taken place in other more liberal denominations. To be sure, even as you look at the picture in the United Methodist Church, it’s a picture that shows some pretty clear distinctions between theological and liberals, but not the same distinctions as you would find, for example, in some other denominations. Again, more on that in just a moment. What we need to consider is that there were regional differences as well. The theological liberals tended to be far more successful pressing their agenda in the North, and that means north of the Ohio River. Meanwhile, conversely, Methodism in the South was more conservative. Now, in that light, Methodism is mirroring other denominations, including the Baptist. The Southern Baptist Convention, by the time you reach even the early part of the 20th century, was markedly more conservative than what was then the Northern Baptist Convention.

Now, those churches, by the way, those denominations, has split over the Civil War. After the Civil War, Methodism had rejoined the northern and the southern churches. Again, they added a large part of the Church of the Brethren that led to the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church at the time was the largest Protestant denomination in the United States of America. Methodism was at the heart of mainline Protestantism, and it was clearly associated with America and the American spirit. Methodism in that sense, far stronger in America than it had been even at its height in Great Britain. Over the course of the last decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the division was becoming incredibly clear. Yet theological conservatives seeking to hold on to biblical orthodoxy and also, seeking to hold onto evangelism and historic Christian missions as a task of the church. They were faced off by far more liberal United Methodists. Here’s the thing, the conservatives won most of the major battles that actually came before the church and what is known as its general conference held every four years.

In particular, right now, the United Methodist Church still has an official teaching making very clear that homosexuality is incompatible with scripture. Nonetheless, over the course of the last generation, you have had rebellious bishops and rebellious Methodists who have been affirming and even consecrating LGBTQ relationships, most importantly, same-sex marriages. You have had openly homosexual or openly LGBTQ pastors and now bishops. Clearly, things are coming to the breaking point. The question was, how would the break happen? Because Methodism was basically established in order to prevent this very kind of break. One of the most important issues there had to do with the fact that there is a clause, historically, a clause in the Methodist movement in the United States. It’s sometimes called the reversion clause saying that if a congregation leaves the United Methodist Church, the property stays with the denomination. It doesn’t go with the exiting congregation.

Especially, when you deal with churches small that might have no options or large, that have huge investment, that became a ballast keeping many churches in the United Methodist Church, even as they were no longer comfortable being there. There were reform movements, such as what was known as the Good News Movement that was seeking quite earnestly to bring reformation and revival to the church. By the time you reach the last decade, conservatives within the United Methodist Church were very much aware of the fact that there were going to have to be two denominations. The theological divisions are simply too great. That’s a good lesson for us all. That’s a huge worldview issue. A church can’t go, a denomination can’t go in two directions at once on key issues of the truth of the scripture, the integrity of the gospel and the continuation of the faith once we’re all delivered to the saints, the church, the denomination is either going to stand or fall.

When it comes to United Methodism, quite bluntly, it fell. Now, as you might expect, there’s some interesting twists in this tale, and it’s one that I have followed very, very closely, knowing people in United Methodism who were first working for reformation. Then secondly, trying to arrange the strongest form of exit for conservative congregations. Well, it was very likely before COVID, given the directions and given the arrangements that were being made, that conservatives would have a pretty strong hand in exiting the church, or perhaps in remaining in the church and the liberals leaving. Although, quite frankly, that was never really much of a possibility. With COVID, especially called the general conference was actually not held. Over time, the liberals gained ground and the conservatives lost ground. By the end of the day, the conservatives basically left one way or another with some arrangement that allowed them either to take their property or to offer some compensation to the general conference in order to gain their property back.

Nonetheless, the conservatives recognized that they had reached the breaking point and they began to break away. The official period were the years from 2019 to the end of 2023, just a matter of a few days ago. Now, here’s what we know. Over the course of that time, given what was at one point, America’s largest Protestant denomination, 25% of the congregations left. I go back to that statement made by Professor Ryan Burge, who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University. He said, “It’s the biggest schism in any American denomination in the history of our country.” Now, that’s a huge thing. We go back to the 20th century, the early 20th century, and the fundamentalist modernist controversy, and we recognize that in most denominations, the liberals won. That’s basically true throughout almost all of what was then called mainline Protestantism. You look at the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, and you look at the Disciples of Christ, you look at the United Methodists, you look at the mainline Lutherans, you look at the more liberal Presbyterians, you just go down the list.

You had split after split, or you had the liberals just take control, and that actually became more of the norm. What you see here is that over a period of time, some of the conservative congregations in United Methodism simply said, “We can’t tolerate this any longer.” We also recognize that theologically, this raises a huge point. At some point, a congregation, or for that matter, an individual Christian, may find him or herself or the congregation itself in the position of having to choose between staying in a denomination that is simply theologically compromised or worse, apostate, or leaving and paying whatever the price of that leaving. You need to understand the emotional toll that is taken there. Many of these people who have now pulled out of the United Methodist Church, their mothers, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, their ancestors were deeply involved in the church and absolutely committed to the church.

They built those buildings, they built the infrastructure of the United Methodist Church, and now basically, it’s been taken over by liberals flying a rainbow flag. This is a situation in which we simply have to say to our conservative Evangelical Methodist brothers and sisters, in leaving, you are doing exactly the right thing.

Part II

Red and Blue America Shows Up in the UMC Split: The Worldview of Geography Behind the Headlines

Just at this point, just given what we know, we need to recognize this is one of the biggest stories in American religion of our entire national experience. It has taken place just over the course of the last few years. At least with this period, it came to an end just a matter of days ago. Even since then, we’ve learned more. There’s some really, really interesting material here. For one thing, when you look at a map of the United States, and we know that it’s divided between red states and blue states, as you look at political concepts and as you look at party affiliation, voting patterns, but more importantly, as we’re concerned, when you look at the issue of worldview.

It’s correlated with church attendance. It’s correlated with the strengths of churches in these communities. Far more secular northeast, far more liberal, far more to use their own term progressive on moral issues. The same thing in the Pacific Northwest, although the distinction between the American Northeast and the American Northwest is that the American Northwest, states like Washington and Oregon, Northern California, you can include there, they were never as evangelized or congregationalized as the American East and the Atlantic seaboard. As you look at the red and blue map of America, you recognize it is not exactly a north, south. It’s not exactly an east, west distinction. You know, it really is a deep south and mid-west and center of the country phenomenon when it comes to red. Similarly, when you look now at the data available to us, the majority of the congregations that left the United Methodist Church over the very problematic liberalism of so many in the denomination, it turns out that you have a red and blue America show up here too.

Now, let me just give you some hard facts, and these numbers are, I just have to admit, absolutely fascinating. We have this data, thanks to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, which is a research unit at the United Methodist Seminary known as Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. They have the numbers, and here’s where the numbers are absolutely shocking. When you look at different annual conferences, or you might say districts of the United Methodist Church, you had about 30% of the congregations in the Indiana Conference leave the United Methodist Church, about 30%. When it comes to the annual conference known as Northwest Texas, it’s 81%, which is to say, if you take all the United Methodist churches in that region in Texas, eight out of 10 left the United Methodist Church. Now, that’s simply seismic. It’s almost hard to imagine. In North Alabama, 52%. In Texas as a whole, in that conference, 50% Kentucky, 49%. In the conference known as Alabama, West Florida, 43%. North Carolina, 41%. North Georgia, 41%.

You just go down the list. Even in Western Pennsylvania, by the way, a far more traditionally conservative religious region, that is to say Western Pennsylvania is compared to Eastern Pennsylvania. Well, there, the number of churches leaving was 38%. By the way, that pattern in Western Pennsylvania holds in the Presbyterian family as well. In Florida, 34% of the congregations left. Well, that’s simply massive, but it also tells you that you are looking at a geographical distinction here. Not so many congregations in Boston left. Not so many congregations near Berkeley left. You are looking at a phenomenon in which you have the American heartland and you have the deep South and the state of Texas. Again, the figure of 81%, simply staggering.

Part III

The Short Hermeneutical Jump from Ordination of Women to LGBTQ Affirmation: Conservative Methodists Have Many Other Issues to Face

I have to raise one other theological issue, and that has to do with the fact that the United Methodist Church has been for decades now, ordaining women to the ministry. Something that I believe is unbiblical.

It’s important to recognize that even among the churches leaving largely over LGBTQ issues, we’re told that 19% of those congregations had or have had women as pastors. That’s a pretty remarkable thing. Now, my argument is that the hermeneutical issues related to the ordination of women and say the ordination of LGBTQ persons, they’re actually very much related. The interpretive issues are very, very similar. The interpretation of the biblical passages, I think they need to be handled exactly in the same way. Thus, it’s interesting that in the churches that didn’t leave, 29% have women. In the churches that did, 19% have women. You are looking at the fact that even the churches known as conservative among the United Methodists, now leaving the United Methodist Church. Many of them are not so conservative on the women’s issue, which means they are likely still to be in a world unto themselves, and they are unlikely to find a natural home in conservative evangelicalism, which of course, was formed because of conservatives unwilling to become liberal during the fundamentalist modernist controversy.

The Methodists are unlikely to join the evangelicals in this sense, certainly organizationally, largely over the issue of women as pastors. I just want to state very publicly that I deeply admire the conviction and the courage of the United Methodists who have left the United Methodist Church over the issue of apostasy, especially on LGBTQ issues. Frankly, on an entire host of major doctrinal issues where heresy has been, if not, openly articulated and embraced, it’s certainly been openly taught and affirmed. At the same time, I have to say, not only as a Baptist, but I have to say as a conservative evangelical that the issue of the ordination of women to the pastor is no small thing. Thus, you do have United Methodists, even those that are now leaving no longer United Methodists, but Methodists still in one sense or another. They still are at some point of difference with the conservative evangelical mainstream. That’s worth noting too.

Part IV

Why So Little Media Coverage on This Great Protestant Disaffiliation? The Secular Shift of Attention in a Post-Christian America

One final issue for us to note here, if this split had taken place, say 50 years ago, it would’ve received a great deal more attention. Interestingly, only one major American newspaper has really come back to the story and understood its significance, and that is USA Today. That’s kind of a surprise, but that’s just a fact. Most of the other major media have just ignored the story. There are other things they find far more interesting. That tells us something about the displacement of these American religious denominations in an age which is increasingly secular. The fact is, many Americans, perhaps most Americans these days don’t really know and frankly, don’t much care about what’s going on in the United Methodist Church or any other church. That’s where listeners to the Briefing are different. You know not only that this is a big story, but frankly, the fact that it’s not a big story in the media, you also understand is a big story in itself.

Part V

Don’t Save Us If You’re a Conservative: Recent Sale of Baltimore Sun Has Alarm Bells Ringing on the Left

Next, thinking about the media as a big story, well, sometimes the media becomes a big story, and that’s exactly what happened. For example, the New York Times this week ran a headline news story, Baltimore Sun sale alarms the newsroom. Now, there’s more to it than that. There have been two other major stories in terms of the media, indeed, of newspapers in the last several days. One is the fact that the ownership of the Los Angeles Times, another very influential paper in the United States has laid off a good deal more staff. You also have had in the New York Times a major article appear with the headline, billionaires wanted to save the news industry. They’re losing a fortune. This includes Time Magazine owned by Marc Benioff of Salesforce. It includes the Los Angeles Times, and it also includes the Washington Post owned by Jeff Bezos. All three of those papers were bought by capitalist titans who intended to make money with the newspaper. All three of them are still losing money. Indeed, in one sense, they’re hemorrhaging money.

The changes in the news ecology, the changes in the newspaper business have meant that many of these newspapers are basically not financially viable, even if you have a capitalist who says he knows how to run a business. Well, it turns out that is not translating into success. As the New York Times says, these billionaires are losing fortunes. I want to go back to the article that appeared in the Times about a sister newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, because this turns out to be really interesting. Remember the headline, Baltimore Sun sale alarms the newsroom. Now, why would the newsroom be alarmed? Now, by the way, their paper has been in financial straits or stress for a very long time. That’s simply common knowledge. Now, you have a man who is willing to pay at least reportedly, over a $100 million for the newspaper. The news writers, the newsroom, the editors and the reporters, they’re up in arms. That’s the sale alarms the newsroom headline. The point is this, the new owner of the Baltimore son is, here’s the good news, a loyal son of Baltimore. Here’s the bad news for the liberals.

He is also a major figure and executive chairman of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is a conservative media group that among its holdings, holds some Fox News stations, and so far as the newsroom or the Baltimore Sun is concerned, the enemy has just bought the paper. There is a clear sense of alarm in this article. You had, Mr. Sinclair, by the way, used his personal funds, not Sinclair Broadcast Corporation funds to buy this newspaper. He is putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. This son of Baltimore is actually putting a massive personal fortune into this newspaper, and he said he didn’t do so intending to lose money, but to make money. Even as he met with figures in the newsroom, it’s clear that the newspapers, reporters, and editors, by and large, are absolutely aghast. They’re appalled, they’re scared out of their skins because someone who’s actually a conservative is the owner of their newspaper. Now, the point I want to make is this, no one ran similar headlines going the other way when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. No one offered that kind of headline.

When Marc Benioff bought Time Magazine, people didn’t say, look, liberals have bought the paper. That’s more and less true, perhaps in the case of some of these people identifying as liberal. The point is, the newsrooms in America are now so liberal by and large, that they see liberalism as normal. They’re not alarmed, they’re not even concerned. They don’t even see two sides of the story in so many cases. Frankly, they don’t have a category for a conservative ownership of a newspaper like the Baltimore Sun. Now, I just want to remind us, and we’re here hearkening back to an era in which virtually none of us were alive. There once was a time when major American cities sometimes had more than one major daily newspaper. Sometimes there was a morning paper and an evening paper. You also had situations in which there was a more liberal paper and a more conservative paper. There was something very healthy about that. There was a check. This had to do with the reporting. You could have multiple angles to a story. This could have to do with the editorial stance taken by the one paper or the other.

Citizens at least had access to both arguments. That’s not true anymore. I think we know that the hegemony, the majority control, the almost absolute dominance of the media class by liberals, and in some cases, we’re talking here not just about liberals, but people who are far more radically on the left. In the New York Times, for example, you’ve had traditional liberals toppled in recent years by very radical young staffers. What we’re looking at here is the fact that you have a major American newspaper, which just might be saved, it just might be, perhaps emphasis here on might. It might be saved by a man in Baltimore willing to put something like $100 million into the project. Yet, it’s very clear that at least some in the project don’t want to be saved. Not if it means that there would be a conservative owner, which just might, just buckle your seat belts here, get ready to be appalled, who just might have some influence on a more conservative direction for the newspaper.

That tells us a lot about the media ecology in the United States. We are now so far along in this process that we’re no longer shocked by a liberal trajectory in a major American newspaper or media holding. It turns out that the other side is really shocked when a conservative buys the Baltimore Sun. Will it work? Well, time will tell. In the meanwhile, it is very telling that you have had this face-off between the newsroom at the Baltimore Sun and its new owner. You know what? The owner is at the end of the day, the owner. Maybe those reporters need to look up that fact and factor that into their considerations about the newspaper and their future as well.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can call me on Twitter by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’m speaking to you from Jacksonville, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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