By Rob Renfroe-
Prior to General Conference being held in Portland, Oregon, the chairperson of Good News’ Board of Trustees made the following observation. “United Methodism is drifting without proper leadership on the national level. Policies are being planned, opinions are being espoused and monies are being spent for some causes which do not claim the support of a great many United Methodists. Yet we seem helpless to do anything about it. As a result, thousands of our members drop out each year, or change denominations because of frustration.”
The author of that statement was the late Rev. Edmund W. Robb Jr., United Methodist evangelist and chairperson of the Good News board of directors back in 1976. Forty years later, the Good News board is now led by the Rev. Keith Boyette, but The United Methodist Church will be returning to Portland in order to address many of the same old issues.
• Is the Bible God’s inspired Word and still authoritative for the church’s beliefs and practice?
• Will we cave to the culture regarding sexuality with the mistaken idea that if we do, the church will become relevant to secular people and begin to grow again?
• Will our bishops excuse and even encourage rebellion during the General Conference or will they be fair arbiters as we seek the mind of Christ through holy conferencing?
• Can we continue to be a double-minded church and expect to experience God’s blessing?
• Will faithful United Methodists remain within a conflicted, dysfunctional denomination and fight for its renewal or will we see an even greater departure as orthodox believers seek out church bodies that are fully committed to the uniqueness of Christ and the authority of God’s Word?
Forty years later many of the issues are the same. But there are some differences.
For one, United Methodists now have a Connectional Table, the purpose of which is to serve as the church’s visioning body and to coordinate its ministries. This body was created in 2004 with great hopes for a more effective and efficient church. Over the past few years it could have proposed concrete ways to bridge the gaping lack of trust between our institutional leaders and its clergy and laity. It could have vetted credible strategies for turning around our plunging worship attendance and called the church to action. It could have defended our polity and urged all United Methodists to honor the sacred covenants that bind us together. Instead, it allowed the most radical LGBTQ advocacy group in the church to drive its agenda. So instead of coming to General Conference with plans for creating healthy and vibrant local churches to share the gospel with the last, the least, and the lost, it is bringing forth a plan that will continue to ensnare the church in the debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Ironically, the plan the “Connectional” Table has proposed is one that would make us more disconnected than ever and would practically guarantee schism within the UM Church.
Another difference is that the LGBTQ protesters within the UM Church have become more radicalized. That’s saying something. In Cleveland (2000), progressives violated the bar of General Conference, forcing church leaders to call the police in order to have them physically removed. In Pittsburg (2004), an LGBTQ advocate smashed a communion chalice on the floor during a protest that disrupted the conference. In Ft. Worth (2008), protesters desecrated the Conference’s altar table by draping it in black. And in Tampa (2012), they stormed the floor and brought conference business to a halt for the better part of a day, forcing a rearrangement of the agenda and preventing key legislation from even receiving a vote.
All these actions happened after the conference voted on sexuality issues, but at a national convention in San Antonio this past summer, some LGBTQ advocates discussed disrupting the General Conference in Portland on the very first day, before any votes are taken.
One final difference from Portland in 1976 is that some bishops in the past might have disagreed with the church’s teachings, but they fulfilled their responsibility to hold clergy accountable to their vows. Today, a number of our bishops have not only publicly spoken against the church’s teachings, they have failed to uphold the church’s requirements. This new willingness to defy the church’s authority undermines its witness and effectiveness in the world. Instead of leading the church to health and wholeness, they have ignored the will of General Conference and kept us fixated on issues that are divisive and counterproductive.
I was raised in The United Methodist Church. I came to Christ in The United Methodist Church. And I have had the privilege to serve as a pastor in the church for 34 years. We are at our best when we effectively share the gospel with others and know the joy of seeing lives transformed. We are at our best when we allow Christ to work in and through us so the poor are fed, sheltered, and empowered to lead richer and fuller lives in God’s world. And we are at our best when people of all ages are attracted to our vibrant and healthy churches where they know they can grow in the faith.
For nearly 50 years the men and women associated with Good News have championed the life-giving teachings of our doctrinal heritage. We have called for the promotion of Scriptural Christianity. And we have stood for the passionate, unabashed proclamation of the Gospel. We have done these things because we love the Methodist expression of the Christian faith. We are committed to connectionalism, to Spirit-empowered local churches in communities large and small, and to social and personal holiness. We are confident that United Methodism is at its best when it draws to our churches people who feel lost and alienated in a culture too often characterized by nihilism.
I can assure you that Good News hopes for, and is working for, a truly united United Methodist Church. We would love to leave General Conference convinced that the church is rededicating itself to its core mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are convinced this must be first and foremost in our hearts and minds. However, it cannot be and it will not be if our leaders do not demand accountability to our good polity, and do not model integrity with respect to our membership and ordination vows.
Friends, I write these closing words with love and respect for all the GC delegates, church leaders, and our bishops. We must decide very soon whether we are going to continue expending valuable time, talent, and resources on a debate that is divisive and destructive, or choose to live in faithfulness to Scripture and the historic teachings of the church. We can no longer afford to live in a house so deeply divided, where some have convinced themselves that violating sacred covenants and vows are appropriate means for championing a narrow cause. This path will only lead to the diminishment of our witness, and ultimately to disunity and division. I hope and pray we can avoid that.
I am grateful for all the delegates and leaders who will attend General Conference. I hope you will join me in praying for them, and praying for our church at this critical time.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.