The UMC: Talking about the Future With Your Church

The future(s) of the Untied Methodist Church hangs in the balance awaiting a special called session of the General Conference scheduled to meet February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. The hope is this General Conference will be able to approve a solution to the current impasse the denomination faces over the presenting issue of sexual morality. If a solution is reached or not—many including me are doubtful that the UMC is functional enough to reach a consensus on any proposed solution—each  local church faces the reality of an uncertain future for which they need to be prepared. The time to start the conversation has long past, but if your church has yet to talk about it wait no more.

In my conference (Western NC) a delegation has been assigned the task of leading “Healthy Conversations” regarding the current state of the church and the possible future(s) of the UMC. I attended the session in my district on April 22nd.

The moderators of the discussion were two progressive women, one a lay delegate to the 2019 General Conference, the other a deacon and clergy delegate to the General Conference, who also works in our Conference office. The lay delegate shared the history of the additions to the Book of Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality since 1972, and the more recent open declarations and acts of “ecclesial disobedience” among progressives, such as the Western Jurisdictions election of an openly lesbian Bishop shortly after the 2016 General Conference. She just stated the facts without adding her own commentary. Likewise, the clergy delegate explained the development and the stated goals of The Commission on a Way Forward (COWF), which consists of representatives from across the theological spectrum and from around the global connection.

The COWF was tasked by the Council of Bishops to propose possible solutions to the current impasse in the UMC over issues regarding sexual morality. She explained the three possible sketches given by the Council of Bishops last fall:

  1. Affirm the current Book of Discipline language and place a high value on accountability. The church policy book says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.                                                                                              **(Presently it seems the COB will not propose this model, but it could still possibly be proposed from the floor of the General Conference.)**
  2. Remove restrictive language and place a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  3. Create multiple branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. This model would maintain shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops.

*Each possibility includes a way to exit for those church entities that feel called to leave the denomination.*                                                    

The gathered group at this district meeting, clergy and one lay representative from each church, were also shown a video of Rev. Tom Berlin explaining the current factions in SugarPacket_Blogthe denomination as he sees it using sugar packets. Rev. Berlin, who is in favor of the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, describes four factions. From left to right they are:

1. Progressive Non-Compatibilists, who see anything less than full inclusion (i.e. full acceptance including LGBTQ+ beliefs and behavior) as a intolerable injustice.

2. Progressive Compatibilists are those who prefer full inclusion without exception, but are willing to live with the second sketch above, sometimes called “the local option,” where pastors and churches would not be forced to participate in same sex weddings, for example.

3. Traditional Compatibilists are those who hold the traditional view regarding Christian sexual morality, but again would be willing to remain in the denomination that allowed for “the local option.”

4. Finally, there are the Traditional Non-Compatibilists, who could not in good conscience remain in a denomination that allowed for the acceptance and promotion of what they see as sin according to Scripture.

While somewhat helpful in terms of general descriptions, Rev. Berlin’s presentation is misleading in a number of ways. (see Rev. Berlin’s Video Presentation HERE)

  1. It is too America-centric. The United Methodist Church is a global denomination. General Conference representation is made up of people from around the world. Representation from very conservative areas of the world continues to increase while representation from the United States is on the decline. Membership in Africa has grown significantly since 1968, while membership in the United States decreased from about 11 million to around 7 million today. Rev. Berlin, himself, says in his presentation that on the current trajectory membership in the United States is expected to drop below 1 million over about the next thirty years. Barring a miraculous reversal (and a miracle is exactly what it would take) General Conference representation will eventually be predominantly African. In Rev. Berlin’s presentation he literally marginalizes the African voice and talks about it only as an afterthought. That is a mistake and seriously misleading.
  2. It is also too centrist-centric. That is, Rev. Berlin’s presentation makes it seem like the “compatiabilist” camp is the overwhelming majority. In fact, the clergy moderator of our district conversation sent out a social media message several months ago promoting the centrist “Uniting Methodist” movement essentially saying that 90 percent of the church agreed with them. If that really is the case then why did our own annual conference in 2015 vote down a petition to call for the removal of the restrictions against homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline? The lay delegates from my own church were appalled that so many clergy voted in favor of it, but because of the lay representation the measure failed. I have no doubt that if it was up to the American representatives alone across the United States a measure like that would pass, but it is not up to the United States alone! Moreover, Rev. Berlin’s presentation has the effect of painting those in the non-compatibilist camps om either end as extremist. Being on the end of a spectrum on a particular issue doesn’t make one an extremist. As someone else said, no one wants to be identified with the lunatic fringe, so a presentation like this has the tendency to make people want to to identify themselves somewhere in the middle even though it may not accurately reflect their true views.
  3. Another problem with Rev. Berlin’s presentation is the lack of specificity. His model is based on conjecture and anecdotal evidence not hard data. And each faction should be defined much more specifically, especially, I think, the so-called traditional compatibilists category. What is it that these folks actually believe? Are these people who believe the practice of homosexuality is sin, along with other sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, which if engaged in unrepentantly would exclude one from the kingdom of God as in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10? If so it’s hard to see how they could be comfortable treating it as an indifferent matter anymore than they would treat any of the other sins listed there in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that way. In fact, Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, in his assessment of Rev. Berlin’s model, believes traditional compatibilists are a rare breed indeed. In his view the centrist category is populated almost entirely by progressive compatibilists. (Read more about that HERE).
  4. The way Rev. Berlin describes progressives’ and traditionalists’ views of the authority of Scripture is also problematic. He implies that both value the authority of Scripture equally, but just emphasize different portions of the Bible. He does this by implying a greater tension between the law and the prophets and and the Gospels and the letters of Paul than actually exists. Rev. Berlin says traditionalists emphasize the laws regarding personal holiness found in the Pentateuch whereas progressives emphasize the message of the prophets and concern for the marginalized in society. I assume, like many progressives, Rev. Berlin also believes Paul wrote some things in his letters like the aforementioned passage from 1 Corinthians that the Jesus of the Gospels would not necessarily have condoned. While I do understand that different passages in Scripture present us with tensions and paradoxes, I do not believe it does so to such an extent that the prophets, for example, give messages that are blatantly contradictory to the law. The ministry of the prophets was to call God’s people back to faithfulness to the law not to progress past it. Jesus certainly substantiates this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-20 (see also Luke 16:16-17). In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and the marginalized poor beggar, Lazarus, Abraham from paradise tells the rich man in hell that the law and the prophets are enough to keep his brothers from ending up in hell too (see Luke 16:19-31). Jesus certainly didn’t see any major contradiction between the law and the prophets, and there is none between Jesus or Paul either. In fact two of the great prophets, Jeremiah (31:31ff) and Ezekiel (36:25ff) foretold the promise of the New Covenant that Jesus came to fulfill wherein God would write the law on his people’s hearts. Rev. Berlin unnecessarily and unjustifiably pits Scripture against Scripture to confuse. The historical position of the Church has been, following the analogy of faith, that Scripture is mutually illuminating not hopelessly contradictory. Moreover, when progressives like Rev. Adam Hamilton are arguing that not all of the Bible is inspired by God contrary to 2 Timothy 3-4 (see context) and to the teaching of John Wesley (see his Preface to his notes on the NT, section 10), it is more than a stretch to argue that progressives value the authority of Scripture just as much as traditionalists.

During the second half of the district conversation we were also given some questions to discuss with those sitting at our round tables. It seems Rev. Berlin’s video presentation and the discussion questions were designed to promote, subtly at least, “the local option.” One of the questions was on whether we thought of diversity as a strength or weakness. At my table there were six people, including me, and the views spanned the full spectrum. One person was very progressive, one leaned progressive, one said she was right in the middle and three of us were traditional non-compatibilists, or at least leaning heavily in that direction. Concerning the question about whether diversity is a strength or weakness, we all seemed to agree that it depends on exactly what one means by diversity. If the diversity is complementary and directed toward the same common goal then it is a strength; if it is contradictory and competing with people whose ultimate goals are contradictory then it is a weakness.

A related discussion question was whether our common mission outweighs our differences. At our table, there seemed to be agreement that our common mission was to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Yet we also agreed that when it comes to specifics we probably have very different visions of what makes a Christian disciple a disciple. We also agreed that we may very well have contradictory and competing visions of who Jesus is and what he really desires of us.

Another question was about what we think the church needs to do to reach the non-religious and those who have stopped attending church. The very progressive person at our table said the church should truly have “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” and accept all people for who they are.  I asked, “Do you think the church in any way should expect and call for transformation, a change of heart and lifestyle, for people who become members of the church?” She said she wasn’t sure. I said, “well let me give you a specific scenario.”

“Let’s say I have a married couple, a man and a woman, attending my church. After several weeks they decide they would like to become members. When I as the pastor talk with them about faith in Christ and what it means to be church members, they inform me that they have an open marriage. They say they have thought a lot about it and do not see anything wrong with it. They believe their desires to be with other people sexually are a good gift of God and perfectly natural. And as a matter of fact they would like to have their swingers club meeting in the fellowship hall of the church and invite other church members to participate.” Then I asked, “what should I tell them as the pastor?” Again, my progressive conversation partner wouldn’t commit one way or the other.

Think about that in light of the progressive “Denver Statement” made in response to the conservative “Nashville Statement” last summer regarding sexuality.

 WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices. (emphasis mine)

The kind of diversity that some are so eager to sanctify and ratify is not a strength. We we have contradictory and competing visions of who Jesus is and what he expects of us. We have been operating with these contradictory and competing visions in America for quite some time, even though the progressive vision has never gained official General Conference approval. The results prove that John Wesley was right that doctrinal indifference is “a great curse, not a blessing” (Sermon 39:3.1 “Catholic Spirit”). More doctrinal indifference (i.e. contextuality) is not really the blessing that some would have us believe.

Walter Fenton and Rob Renfroe ask in their new book regarding the current state of the United Methodist Church, Are We Really Better Together?   As do they, I think the overall results in America already show that the answer is clearly no. I highly recommend Rev. Fenton and Rev. Renfroes very succinct book to get an inside view of how we got to the point we are at today.

The “local option,” also called “the one church contextual model,” (sketch 2 above) will not bring a truce. It will only prolong the battle and intensify it by localizing it. It will bring the heat of the battle from the General Conference level down to each annual conference and each local church. You can’t bring unity through attempting to sanctify division!

Regardless of what happens at the special General Conference next year, each local church needs to be prepared one way or another. The leaders of our district’s “Healthy Conversation” emphasized this too. Each church needs to decide where it stands. As a church who are you? What do you value and why? You need to be specific. This is not the time for vague platitudes. Some fallout is unavoidable no matter what. Avoidance hasn’t helped us avoid fallout either, has it? Every church I have served has already lost people on all sides. The church I serve now was on the verge of losing dozens of people just a couple of years ago. Over several months we had discussions about the current state of the denomination, and the possible future(s) given in those three sketches above. We talked about the presenting issue and the deeper divide. We also opened the conversation up to the whole church. After much consideration our church council decided that we stand with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The conversation has not been easy, but it has been absolutely necessary. Where does your church stand? Have the conversation to find out. It needs to happen and soon. May God give you wisdom and courage.

(Here are some of my thoughts about how to go about it from a traditional perspective).


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