News broke late last week that an agreement had been reached to divide the United Methodist Church. Some news outlets wrongly reported that this was an “official” decision to divide the denomination over conflicts about LGBTQIA+ issues. The agreement reached through the help of a world class mediator was an agreement among United Methodist leaders representing people from a very wide swath across the ideological spectrum. This was an agreement among these diverse leaders to support this particular plan of separation together at the General Conference in May this year, giving it wider overall support than plans previously submitted. The General Conference will have to consider, debate, and vote on the plan of separation once presented. Amendments and modifications to the plan are also a possibility. The General Conference vote in May alone will determine whether the plan becomes official.
The new proposal incorporated elements from some of the other plans previously with modifications and additions representing a broader compromise between the differing factions: traditionalist and progressive. Some of the significant compromises that were negotiated involve the voting thresholds needed for annual conferences and local churches to reaffiliate with the traditionalist denomination that would be formed without having to relinquish property and other assets.
Generally speaking traditionalists have asked for simple majorities (50% +1) for annual conferences and local churches to make those decisions. Progressives, on the other hand, have fought for higher thresholds. In fact, up until last year’s special General Conference, they made it clear that they did not want a consistent plan of disaffiliation for local churches to be able to separate from the denomination and keep their local church property at all. Progressives desire as much leverage as possible. When they reluctantly came to provide for disaffiliation plans for conservative churches that do not desire to be affiliated with the increasingly radical progressive movement, they set the threshold for disaffiliation much higher. Their disaffiliation plans required a two-thirds vote threshold as well as other high cost hurdles for local churches.
Conservatives have generally wanted to make the process as painless as possible, but progressives want the decision for local churches to be more difficult. Again, as late as last February, they insisted upon being able to force congregations to have to choose between remaining faithful to their convictions or possibly walking away from their property altogether. Progressives used many noble sounding reasons about the importance of unity to justify the coercive tactics to be sure; but a coerced unity is not really unity at all. And their preferred “One Church Plan” with no disaffiliation option was defeated.
Nevertheless, the newest proposal reaches some middle ground between the simple majorities that traditionalists prefer and the higher thresholds that progressives prefer. By a vote of 57%, annual conferences (Methodism’s version of dioceses) may vote to affiliate with conservatives. Conferences that fail to meet that threshold, or that choose not to vote at all, will remain with the UMC as it now is (but if this separation plan is adopted will quickly allow for same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy without the current constraints of traditional marriage and probably even celibacy in singleness).
Local churches will have to officially call for a churchwide vote to affiliate with the conservative side. There will be an incentive for progressives to try to avoid having churches vote. Conservatives in local churches will need to be aware of the options and push for a discussion and vote in the local church. No vote means no chance of affiliating with the new conservative denomination where there will not be a trust clause, which means local churches will own the local church property.
Conservatives want a fellowship of the committed rather than a coalition of the coerced where the denomination can hold local churches hostage by threating to seize church property. Conservatives want churches free to focus on the mission of making disciples without the current confusion about what a disciple is really supposed to be. And conservatives want to be free to voluntarily work together to sow for a great awakening and see another mighty move of God in our day.
Nonetheless, for a local church not to vote will leave it by default with the progressive denomination, which will retain the United Methodist name and the trust clause (I seriously doubt the progressive denomination will give up the trust clause). If a vote is called, the church council, however, would have the power to set the threshold at a simple majority or at a two-thirds majority. This means a church council that is disproportionately progressive relative to the congregation as a whole could require a higher threshold and vice versa.
Again generally speaking conservatives want the decision threshold to be easier to achieve, and progressives want a higher threshold. Progressives seek as much leverage as they can get. They want to use property as leverage to put individuals and congregations in a position of having to choose between their traditional Christian convictions and remaining in a local church, that in many cases, they and their families have been a part of and helped build for generations. That is a horrible position to put individuals and local churches in, but that’s very well a position in which many local churches may find themselves.
In some cases a mere 34% of a congregation will be able to force a local church into remaining in the progressive affiliation where there will be more going on than many have really considered. Not only will the progressive UMC have same-sex marriage and practicing LGBTQIA+ clergy, there will also be progressive churches having drag queen children’s sermons promoting the early sexualization of children and potentially encouraging children as young as seven years old to begin gender transition treatments. These are real things and real debates happening in progressive circles already, including in progressive churches. There’s a lot more in that acronym than an L and a G! Progressive Mainliners have made it clear that they see an endless spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, virtually all of which should be celebrated and affirmed. People in the pews and local congregations should not be fooled by those who will employ the terms “centrist” and “moderate” to lure people into remaining affiliated with the progressive radicalism.
The real tragedy here is that many people and conservative leaning congregations will be forced to choose between church property and what is right according to the Bible. In some cases people very well may have to decide between walking away from a local church property and remaining in fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:1-11). It’s a terrible position to be in.
We know Jesus talked about how horrible it would be for someone to gain the whole world but lose his or her soul, but we may never have imagined that local church property might be included in the admonition. We need to pray that local churches will have discernment and courage. If it comes down to it, church property is not worth losing one’s soul over. This doesn’t mean that people should rashly walk away, but we must count the cost. Some are going to gain church property and denominational assets by almost any means necessary, but at what ultimate cost? That’s the worst tragedy with this whole mess. Too many have walked away too early, but some will hold on far too long. May God give wisdom.
The other confusing thing in this new proposal for a lot of people is why it seems the traditionalist side has to “leave” the denomination when the traditional position is still the official position of the United Methodist Church. That position was actually strengthened at last year’s special General Conference! It is strange. But the reality is that progressives are in control of the mother ship so to speak. Although the progressive position is not official, most of the leadership of the denominational institutions and boards and agencies in the United States is progressive. Progressives have created an overall denominational leadership culture in the United States that operates under the assumption of theological pluralism. There’s really no serious commitment to the historic doctrinal standards of Methodism. Liberals and progressives have played fast and lose with the historic doctrines for a long time. Most of the time they use the traditional vocabulary but with liberal/progressive definitions.
Sometimes they use the term “generous orthodoxy” but really mean a license for heterodoxy and heresy. There is little will or desire among leadership in the United States to enforce commitment to our doctrinal standards despite the very serious vows we all take at ordination about teaching and defending them. In fact, the opposite often happens. Heterodoxy is given a pass or even celebrated, while a serious commitment to orthodoxy is punished as being too narrow or inflexible. In my own case, the board of ordained ministry expressed concerns about my conservative views. One person insisted that I should understand that all religions really lead to the same place. The board also officially required me to read a book that promotes the idea that genuine Christianity is radically diverse in terms of doctrine and that orthodoxy, including that found in the historic creeds and even in the teachings of John Wesley, was a corruption of the Christian faith. True story; I have it in writing.
Just a few months ago I was at a conference, sponsored by Duke Divinity School and the Duke Endowment with two bishops and several district superintendents present, where one of the main speakers not only denied the doctrine of original sin, but denied that Adam and Eve sinned at all in the garden of Eden. Many in attendance were concerned, but not enough among the leadership of two annual conferences and Duke Divinity School. They were indifferent at best, if not openly praising the false teaching. If this is true for two conferences in the Bible Belt, what do you think it’s like across the United States as a whole? Bishops and pastors can not only deny the virgin birth and bodily resurrection and get away with it, they can also deny the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity without any serious concern. For that matter, some can bring monotheism or possibly even theism altogether in question without any serious concern of accountability to our doctrinal standards. If anything they might receive a tap on the hand and a wink and a nod to be more subtle.
So, as strange as it seems, even though the official position of the denomination is the traditional position, most of the leadership of the denomination in the United States will not enforce accountability to that position. For many decades now, the operating assumption in the United States has been a commitment to theological pluralism and doctrinal indifferentism, which ironically involves a hostility to a serious commitment to orthodoxy and traditional morality.
That’s why we have the strange phenomena of it looking like the “winners” at all of the General Conferences since the 1970’s have to “leave” the denomination. The new proposal, however, is actually an agreement to divide the denomination into two separate denominations. One of the concessions though is the progressive side gets to keep the United Methodist name and almost all the denominational assets with the exception of local church properties and annual conference properties that vote to align with the conservative side, which will also get $25 million. At any rate, it will be hard to avoid the perception that Traditionalists were just allowed (forced?) to “leave” with the short end of the stick. If this new proposal in some from passes, denominational property and assets will be gained and lost by both sides, even if some will gain more than others. Everyone involved should pray not to lose their soul in the process.
We all need to count the cost. As strange as it may seem, Jesus just might say, “what good is it to gain a church and lose your soul. God, grant us wisdom and courage!
There are major decisions ahead for local churches. Local churches must call for a vote if they will have a chance to choose which side to align with. Not voting at all is a vote to align with the progressive movement. The potential decisions ahead are quite stark, a broad way of being a church or the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14). Choose wisely.
God be with you!