By Rob Renfroe-
If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to create a schism within The United Methodist Church, its delegates could not have devised a better plan than their recent election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto to serve as a bishop of the UM Church. As is widely publicized, Oliveto is married to another woman and has announced that she has performed over fifty same-gender weddings.
This provocative act is simply the latest indication that the UM Church is coming apart. Nine annual conferences have now voted that they will not comply with the church’s positions regarding sexuality – meaning they will allow partnered gay persons to serve as ordained pastors and they will not hold accountable pastors who marry gay couples.
Unfortunately, the way the UM Church is organized, there is little that can be done to bring these annual conferences into compliance with UM doctrine. And though Rev. Oliveto’s election has been appealed to the Judicial Council, it is unlikely that the Council will rule her election out of order. Any elder “in good standing” may be elected to the episcopacy. At the time of her election, Oliveto was in good standing within her annual conference.
The election of a partnered gay bishop was not a surprise. Good News had been predicting such an event for the past two years. Knowing progressives could not change the church’s official views legislatively at General Conference, they had two options: give up the fight or step up their acts of disobedience, in hopes of demonstrating that there is no real accountability within the UM Church and signaling to others that they may now disobey the church’s instructions regarding sexuality.
The ironic part to this drama is that when orthodox United Methodist leaders have questioned whether, with all of our differences, we could live together as one church, they were condemned as “schismatics” by progressives who said we should all remain at the table and “continue the conversation.”
What’s obvious at this point is that when the conversation is not to the liking of progressives, they feel free to disregard the views of the majority and do what they “know to be best.” And they expect us “to stay at the table and remain in holy conferencing” – not because they are open to change or to honoring the conversation but because they know they can turn over the table and dishonor the practice of holy conferencing without any consequences. And should we even hint that we don’t see the point of continuing in dialogue any longer since it has no bearing on what progressives do, we are made out to be the villains, rather than those progressives who disrespect holy conferencing and the table they claim brings us together.
Question. If I was unfaithful to my marriage covenant and my wife discovered it, and if I responded by saying that I had my reasons and that I intended to be unfaithful in the future and that there was nothing she could do to change my mind, what would you tell her to do? If I told her that to be a good spouse she needed to stay in relationship with me and keep talking about our relationship, not because I’m open to changing but simply because that’s what a good wife should do – how would you advise her?
I’m guessing you would think that I have no right to tell my wife how she should respond. (I have never counseled a couple whose relationship has been shattered by adultery that the cheater should be the one to determine the rules for the faithful spouse.) I’m guessing that if she was willing to put up with such continued abuse, you wouldn’t find her noble and healthy but weak and co-dependent. At some point, you’d tell her “he’s not going to change; it’s unhealthy for you to stay in this relationship; so you can respect yourself, you have to say, ‘enough.’”
That’s where we are. We have an unfaithful spouse. He has his reasons for what he’s doing and he has told us that he is never going to change. And he tells us that we should stay in conversation because that’s what good people do.
This is the situation that the bishops’ commission must address. Trying to create some compromise that allows continued unfaithfulness will not work. Re-writing our marriage vows so that fidelity is no longer required won’t heal our relationship. Attempting to “contextualize” our behavior so that the spouse can cheat in places where cheating is acceptable won’t resolve our differences.
That’s why “A Third Way” failed. That’s why talk of re-writing the Book of Discipline and removing restrictive language about the church’s teaching on sexuality is foolish. And that’s why claiming that churches in more liberal contexts should have a different position than those in more traditional parts of the world is unthinkable. We don’t determine faithfulness based on the sentiments of a fallen culture but on the clear teaching of God’s word.
So we are in a time of crisis and chaos. And the future of the UM Church is in question. Why are we here? There are many reasons but the primary one is this: our bishops have been permissive parents. Many have signaled that pastors are free to be unfaithful to our covenant in their annual conferences. And even the conservative bishops have not unified, organized, spoken out together, or warmly promoted our church’s biblically based sexual ethics. And what permissive parents always discover is that failing to enforce the family’s rules never leads to a healthy, unified family but to a family that is dysfunctional and selfish.
In this vacuum of leadership, many orthodox leaders – lay and clergy – have created the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This network of innovatively traditional Wesleyan churches is coming together to witness and work together for the orthodox faith, to resource each other for effective ministry, and to strategize for the future, regardless of what the commission may recommend. They have decided that it’s time to stop waiting for the progressives to change their stripes (they won’t) or for our bishops to restore integrity to our covenant (they are too divided to do so).
Whatever God has in mind for the people called Methodist, the Wesleyan Covenant Association is prepared to lead the way to a better day for Bible-centered Methodists. It will have no authority to change the church’s teachings and has no desire to do so. But it does have the power to encourage faithful United Methodists to step into the future strong, smart, strategic, and together.
God has the ability to bring order out of chaos, blessing out of brokenness, and life out of death. What he asks of us is faithfulness. And if we do that – if we remain faithful and together – whatever happens, there is a better day coming. God will create it. And honestly, I cannot wait to step into that future with brothers and sisters who long for the world to know Jesus.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.