Methodism at a Crossroads

Tom-Lambrecht-Bio

Lambrecht

By Thomas Lambrecht-

Since 1972, The United Methodist Church has been wracked by an ever-increasing conflict over doctrinal issues, particularly relating to human sexuality and marriage. Disagreements over the definition of marriage and the practice of homosexuality have not only become more vociferous within the U.S. portion of Methodism, they threaten to tear the church apart. Demonstrators have become bolder in their efforts to disrupt meetings and dictate agendas. Pastors and even bishops have determined to ignore and contradict church teaching by openly performing same-sex weddings and ordaining persons living in a homosexual relationship.

Many attempts at dialog, negotiation, and compromise have proven unfruitful. The root issues are biblical authority (will we keep church teaching in line with what the Scriptures say) and institutional integrity (will the church enforce its requirements or trivialize them by ignoring violations). Neither “side” is able to compromise bedrock principles. The progressive position of affirming same-sex relationships and behavior is irreconcilably at odds with the traditional position that sexual relations are to be enjoyed only within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman.

Meanwhile, The United Methodist Church is in steep decline. According to recently released statistics from 2014, membership and attendance losses are increasing. Our churches in some areas of the U.S. are losing 4-5 percent per year, which means they could go out of existence in 20 years. The continued conflict over sexuality is both exacerbating the decline and drawing crucial resources of time, money, and energy that could be devoted to discipleship, evangelism, and missions.

What will the 2016 General Conference do to resolve the conflict? The Rev. Rob Renfroe, my colleague and president of Good News, calls it a “cage match” – with both “sides” trapped in a cage and fighting, with neither able to leave the cage until one or the other is beaten. And if we are truly trapped in a cage match, will anything be left of the church when the fight is over?

Individuals and groups of leaders in the church have been working tirelessly over the past 18 months to try to come up with a solution to the conflict that bedevils the church. What follows is a survey of some of the proposed solutions that will come before the General Conference for consideration.

Amicable Separation. Given the deep theological divides in the church and the inability of either “side” to compromise due to reasons of conscience, it would appear that the most straightforward solution to our conflict is amicable separation. Like Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13 or Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, the church could decide to allow those who want to affirm homosexual behavior and perform same-sex marriages to go one way, while those who desire to maintain the church’s historic teachings on sexuality and marriage to go a different way. Some envision a possible third group of those who would allow each pastor and congregation to act according to their own conscience but not take a stand as a denomination on this question.

A detailed plan for enabling the denomination to separate into two or three different new denominations has been submitted to General Conference. A different proposal would form a commission on separation to write its own plan of division and bring it to a special called session of the General Conference in 2018. Either of these two options would lead to denominational separation in the U.S., while allowing the churches outside the U.S. to decide either to affiliate with one of the new denominations or to become autonomous churches.

It is unlikely that a move toward separation would pass General Conference in 2016. There is still a strong desire for unity among delegates, even with our disagreements. Many delegates, both liberal and conservative, are committed to doing all they can to preserve the institution of United Methodism. In addition, any plan of separation would require a 2/3 vote of the General Conference, as well as a 2/3 vote of approval by all the members of the various annual conferences. These factors make adoption of such an approach unlikely.

Jurisdictional Options. The Rev. Chris Ritter of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference has put forth several forms of a “Jurisdictional Solution.” Under his proposals, United Methodists would stay united in one denomination, while forming different non-geographical jurisdictions for the two or three factions within the church. Each jurisdiction would be empowered to determine its own stance on same-sex marriages and set its own qualifications for ordination. The jurisdictions would still be united around a common pension plan, missions program, and some of the other resources offered by the general church. However, the jurisdictions would have greater autonomy in determining their approach to ministry, and some of the general agencies would likely become jurisdictionally specific agencies, rather than serving the whole church.

While a jurisdictional solution offers some positive points in its favor, there has not been a lot of support for it. Some see it as a stepping-stone toward eventual separation, and therefore oppose it. Many on the far left object to being “segregated” in a “pro-gay jurisdiction.” They also object to being part of a church that still allows what they would call discrimination against LGBT persons. Many on the far right object to being part of a church that would allow some churches and pastors to perform same-sex weddings and ordain practicing homosexuals, which they view as fatally compromising the teachings of Scripture. These proposals would also require a 2/3 vote of approval by General Conference and annual conference members, making any of them difficult to pass.

Local Option Proposal. Eighteen months ago, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., floated the idea of a “local option” plan, sometimes called “A Way Forward.” Under his proposal, the denomination’s position on the practice of homosexuality would remain the same, while local churches, pastors, and annual conferences would be given the option of “adapting” the denomination’s requirements to allow them to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals.

Hamilton views this proposal as a compromise that would enable each pastor and local church to follow their own conscience in this matter, while enabling the church to stay united. Many evangelicals, however, are not open to this proposal because they believe evangelicals would be doing all the “compromising.” Liberals would get to do what they want to do — perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals — while conservatives would gain nothing. We believe that liberals would see this approach as merely a stepping stone toward changing the denomination’s position on marriage and sexuality. They would not stop fighting until the UM Church required that gay persons be married on the same basis as heterosexual persons, and that gay persons be ordained on the same basis as heterosexual persons. The “local option” would not end the conflict, but only advance the progressive cause closer to their eventual goal.

In addition, the “local option” would encourage the spread of the conflict down to the annual conference and local church level. What is now a once every four years donnybrook would become an annual affair in every annual conference until that annual conference voted to ordain practicing homosexuals. And since the “local option” would allow local churches and pastors to opt out of the denominational requirements, every local church would sooner or later have to face a request from a member to perform a same-sex wedding. Each local church would be on its own to resolve the conflict, and long-term relationships will be torn apart by deep-seated disagreement.

Evangelicals are wary of this proposal because they believe that, in annual conferences that vote to support same-sex marriage and ordain practicing homosexuals, they would be coerced into agreeing to these practices. Evangelicals who failed to adopt the “party line” of their annual conference would be discriminated against by being given poor appointments and shut out of leadership, and evangelical candidates would not be admitted into ordained ministry in those annual conferences. As with the jurisdictional solution, many conservatives would view the “local option” as fatally compromising the teachings of Scripture and therefore would not be able to remain in the church.

The “local option” might look like a way for the church to stay united with a “live and let live” approach, but it would result in escalated conflict and would probably precipitate the very separation it is designed to avoid.

Connectional Table Proposal. Two years ago, activists from Love Prevails, a pro-gay advocacy organization, took over the Connectional Table (CT) meeting through a demonstration. In response, the CT (the denominational equivalent of a church council) modified its agenda to facilitate a series of three dialogues on the church’s teaching regarding homosexuality. After just the first dialog, without any strong presentations in favor of the church’s current position, the CT voted to draft legislation to change the church’s position.

The CT proposal removes the prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It also changes the definition of marriage to “two people,” from “a man and a woman.” Supporters of this proposal see it as a compromise – a “third way” – because it leaves intact the prohibition of using church funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality, and it alludes to the fact that The United Methodist Church “historically has not condoned the practice of homosexuality.”

However, evangelicals consider the CT proposal a clear change in the church’s position, not a compromise. Enacting this plan would ultimately allow same-sex marriage and the ordination and appointment of practicing homosexuals anywhere in the church. Performing a same-sex marriage or being an ordained practicing homosexual would no longer be a chargeable offense. The church would officially be allowing and even supporting behavior that conservatives believe the Bible calls sin.

If the CT plan were to pass, it would no doubt cause many evangelicals to separate from the UM Church, although this separation would probably not be amicable. Many congregations would try to leave the denomination with their property, which is held in trust for the denomination. There would undoubtedly be lawsuits and court battles, similar to what has happened in The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Hundreds of conservative congregations have left those denominations, as well as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ. The Episcopal Church nationally has spent over $40 million to attempt to hold on to church properties (not counting the amount spent by the churches trying to leave the denomination).

Other mainline denominations experienced a doubling of their rate of decline in the wake of changing their position on marriage and sexuality. In 2014, the UM Church declined 1.6 percent in membership and 2.6 percent in attendance. Were those figures to double, we would be losing 225,000 members per year and 150,000 in attendance per year. Our church cannot withstand many years of those type of losses.

Covenantal Unity Plan. The Covenantal Unity Plan was originally provoked by ideas from two prominent seminary professors, Dr. Bill Arnold (Asbury Theological Seminary) and Dr. David Watson (United Theological Seminary). The premise of this plan is that unity can only be restored in the church by a return to covenantal accountability — a determination by all United Methodists to live within the boundaries established by General Conference.

Accordingly, the CUP proposes a mandatory minimum penalty of a one-year suspension for clergy guilty of performing a same-sex wedding, with loss of credentials for a second offense. CUP aims to close loopholes by requiring that any “just resolution” of a complaint must involve the person who filed the complaint and must include an apology and commitment not to repeat the offense. CUP also contains a process to strengthen accountability of bishops by making them accountable to a global committee of clergy and laity, rather than their fellow bishops. Finally, in recognition of the fact that covenantal unity cannot be coerced, the CUP contains provisions to allow congregations and clergy who cannot by reason of conscience live within the teachings of the church to withdraw with property and pension intact.

This plan has a realistic chance of passing General Conference. It has the benefit of maintaining the church’s current teachings on marriage and sexuality, while restoring a level of accountability that has been lacking over the past four years. The CUP would not solve all the conflicts in the church, but its passage would be a solid signal that the church is moving in a more conservative and evangelical direction.

Conclusion. These are the more prominent plans that have been proposed over the past 18 months in an effort to end the conflict that is damaging The United Methodist Church. Only God knows whether one or a combination of the above proposals will pass General Conference and actually resolve the conflict. If nothing is enacted, the conflict will continue to escalate in the U.S., and the church will continue to weaken and decline. For the sake of God’s Kingdom, we pray for wisdom and guidance for our General Conference delegates, as they negotiate these complex problems.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Links to the various plans mentioned in this article will be available at www.Goodnewsmag.org.

Comments

  1. As a lifetime Christian Methodist of the age of 55, I have always believed that it is the responsibility of society to conform to the teachings of the Bible, not the other way around. I’ve also always believed that if you don’t agree with an organization/company/society/country on major issues, then it’s your responsibility and option to leave that group. In all but the most remote of cases, I would not support changing a fundamental belief of the church, as those beliefs are based on the teaching of the Bible and are constant and eternal.
    So I would support the Covenant Unity Plan, but cannot support the others. I have love and compassion for homosexual people, but I am gravely concerned about the long term negative effect gay marriage will have on the traditional family unit. The welfare and well being of children is at the heart of my position on gay marriage. I’ve already read about gay couples adopting babies. It has been well documented that a child needs a father and a mother, and for that reason I cannot support gay marriage in any way.

  2. In this world where we seem to be commanded to live politically correct, as evagelicals need only follow the WORD of God. My old Pastor said it right about every sin,… Love the sinner but hate the sin. But leaders in the Church must not be partakers of purposeful sin. Homosexuality is sin, pedophilia is sin, beastiality is sin,….. not just someting to look the other way at. Another Pastor said, Sin is a slippery slope, taking one step can lead to another to another and the slide over the edge. We cannot allow the fear of offending others by calling sin what it is,.. sin. Adultry is adultry. Fornication is just that Fornication. Theft is theft. murder is murder. Just because we may have ties with one or another sin and we like it, does not make it less sin.We do not encourage murders because we dislike someone. we do not tolerate theft, because I may covet what you own. Call it what it is, SIN. Love the sinner, show them the sincere love of GOD, show them the WORD of GOD, not popular or current opinion. Hate the sin, love the person.

  3. Daniel blanton says:

    This why I left the Methodist church. This a waste of time and resources.

  4. Terr Marr says:

    If/when the UMC allows gay marriages I will be leaving the denomination that I grew up in and am involved in still today. We need to abide by the Word of God not by whims of those that go against it.

    • Louis Sanders says:

      I agree. As a lifelong Methodist, I’m sure the liberals who run the denomination will approve homosexual clergy and homosexual marriages. It’s just a matter of time before they cave to political correctness, just as they have done on every other controversy.

    • Janet Bissell says:

      My sentiments exactly.. actually the mere fact they have to discuss this at all proves the church has become a lukewarm church or even a dead church now….I’m already deciding to go to a non-denominational church…the Methodist church has so many people in administrating we waste a lot of time and resources just to support it.

  5. Jeff Rice says:

    Where in the Bible does it say homosexuality is not a sin? How can you change part of what the Bible says by interpreting it differently? Does that then also allow us to change other areas we don’t agree with like maybe though shall not kill? Once you try changing the Bible to suit your stance, there’s no turning back. If the Methodist Church changes it’s stance on same sex marriages I will find a new place to worship

  6. mrs. h. e. bowlin says:

    I was not aware that God’s Word gave us an option on His word. To me it is simple. What does the Bible say? Read the first chapter in Romans and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are other scriptures concerning this matter. Our heavenly Father said it would be an issue in the last days and here we are. Are we going to take a stand for God or for Satan. Now, having said all that, I want to make it clear that God still loves the sinner–just not the sin being committed. We have all committed sin and must resist it. The Bible says for us to pick us our cross. We are to die to ourselves. In other wods, if a person is married they are to resist the temptation to commit adultery. The same is true for the homosexual. We must recognize the sin we are committing, ask God for forgiveness, and quit doing what we know is wrong. God loves us but He does not compromise His word and neither should we.

  7. Stephen Smith says:

    Can”t help but wonder what would happen if our money & energy were put toward reaching out to “different” others in love instead of figuring out ways to keep “them” out, or vice versa. The Real Question is WWJD “What would Jesus Do?” This is all about Bible Interpretation. Everybody interprets the Bible, where they say so or not, and noone has the last word on it, even though many think they do. For me, the interpretive principle should be “God is Love.”(says so in the Bible, by the way). Wonder what would happen if we asked the love question only, and prayerfully. Finally, as an afterthought, since scripture says “we’re all sinners”, which sinners do we let in and which do we keep out.. Hmmmm. I think the chuch would empty pretty quick, as it seems to be doing.

    • Rich Jenkins says:

      What He would do is what He did: He loved them even when He had to tell them the way they had been living was wrong. In the case of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, He lovingly confronted them (NIV Matthew 23:13). In the case of the “woman caught in adultery”, He not only confronted her accusers but the woman herself, telling her “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (NIV John 8:4). In the case of the man blind from birth, Jesus said to him at the temple “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (NIV John 5:14)
      And finally, the most direct teaching of Jesus on human sexuality is set out in Matt 19 where what first appears to be another lesson on divorce (which was already covered in the Sermon on the Mount) concludes with what seems to me two choices: abstinence or monogamous marriage between a man and a female who become one flesh.

    • MARY RIVERA says:

      The UMC welcome EVERY sinner. Always has. Always will. What we haven’t done is redefine sin, and permits selective sins within our clergy. Marrying the homosexual would be the UMC supporting sin, rather than helping the sinner correct the sin and follow the Lord.

  8. Marcella Rejoice Ruch says:

    May the Lord of heaven, who taught us that we could move mountains, fill us with enough love and wisdom to find a solution that does not tear the church apart. Satan loves conflict and division. He is in the business of destroying churches. Let us not help the enemy for he is truly against the church.

    Let us find new reservoirs of compassion and love for each other and for the lost who need our church to be a light living out the sermon on the mount boldly for all to see. Dissension weakens our. Witness!

    Our society is broken with music, movies, fashion, Internet, and tv filled with blantant sexual content. The chu4ch problems reflect much larger social issues that our country is not addressing. Who will address them if the chur.ch is so busy with this cotroversay, that we no longer have the resources or the energy to love and
    to serve the lost, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the lonely, and the sin sick soul. God help us to be Christians! God help us to love each other. What happened to “Go and sin no more?” Legalism is death to the Holy Spirit’s work in our souls. Let us rise above it and trust the Holy Spirit to convict , we are not to judge, we are to serve, to wash each other’s feet, to forgive 70 times 7, and to pray for our brother or sister who has fallen/or who does not agree. Let Praise be continually on our lips, and show the joy of our salvation!

  9. Claire Luscombe says:

    Argue as some may; protest as some may – The Bible is very clear in many places about sexual practices.
    With that knowledge the politics of assembled ordained pastors in the Methodist Church is not of issue to me. If they lose their jobs they can go work for another group that condones homosexuality.

    I am proud that in this debate that has gone on for many years, the Methodist church has toed the line and not surrendered to the enemy. Unfortunately it sounds like the resolve of our assembly is crumbling under political pressure.

    We need to follow the Bible not popular demand. The fall of Greece and Rome, two great empires was accomplished by drunken debauchery. If the Methodist church chooses that direction, I say good riddance to bad rubbish!. I can read the Word, pray, and speak God’s truth with follow believers outside of the church.

  10. Jim Perry says:

    It is indeed a sad commentary when the Church is more concerned with sex and sexual practices than making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The passion on both sides is for winning on the sexual issue, with little being voiced about matters that are eternal. Society has gone to pot following the same philisophy that is shared by the leaders of the denomination. The answer is not to make the church over to fit a failed society, but to engage society in a way that the church becomes the salt, the yeast, indeed the light for the world. Otherwise, we are two competing social movements calling ourselves the church.

  11. Edward Crandall says:

    I have a sincere and deep concern for the United Methodist Church and the possibility that it might choose the wrong course re: sexual issues and practice. I truly pray that a denomination that once proclaimed the need of a born-again experience and a fully sanctified heart and life would turn back to the Bible as the real basis of personal and corporate faith and practice. How wonderful if there could once again be a great sweeping revival of Spirit-filled Christianity in this and other denominations, and then we would just speak the truth in love and stay true to the Word, while seeing lives conformed to what God has in mind for us. The UMC still has a great “remnant” who would welcome and sustain that advance.

  12. Sarah Caldwell says:

    Some of these commentators use the phrase “The Word of God” as if that Word had spoken on homosexuality. My Bible says that Jesus is the Word of God, and Jesus was silent on this matter.

    That same Bible says that women are to keep silent in the church and not to have authority over men, but women have been ordained, first, in the Methodist Church and, later, the United Methodist Church for over 60 years. This is also a clear example of Biblical teaching, but our current members have not found it a reason to leave.

    What is it about homosexuality that makes it THE issue where evangelicals feel they must take a stand? Why not tithing or feeding the hungry or prison visitation? Why not turning the other cheek?

  13. Mike Tupper says:

    Steve Harper has written an excellent blog post at obedire.wordpress.com about his response to this article. I agree with Steve. I think a “Peace with Justice” Summit is needed to hammer out a negotiated compromise treaty that can be adjusted and voted on by General Conference. This could end our 44 year war. Thanks Tom for the excellent review of where we stand right now. I believe that your leadership will continue to be central to the future of our church.

  14. Darlene M. says:

    Just out of curiosity, why doesn’t the church just get out of the marriage business? We no longer perform marriages in sanctuaries. If the couple wishes the pastor to marry them, they go somewhere else. That way, it is left up to the individual pastor’s conscience who he/she will marry, but it is not a reflection on the church itself.

    As for ordination, I have no issue with a homosexual being ordained, but, as a conservative, I would insist the person is celibate. I expect my single pastor to not be sexually active; I expect my married pastor to be faithful to his/her spouse. If someone is willing to put their relationship with God and their ministry to His people above individual sexual expression, I have no problem with that.

  15. Tom,what does thie loss of over 5% of UMC members each year say to you and others? I know what it says to me. It says that the UMC is not saying or preaching what people need to hear. Thus, they go elsewhere, or nowhere, and become Christian Alumnae. I has been proven psychologically and through science that being LBGT is not a choice but how someone is born. Just as the color or one’s hair, eyes or adult height, all things about a person that is predetermined at birth.
    How, in good conscience, can the church marginalize someone whose sexual orientation is a matter of chance, not choice?

  16. Ross Dunn says:

    I don’t have a problem with homosexuals having equal rights but I do have a problem with them calling it marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman. If our church says it is o.k to Mary people of the same sex and allow homosexuals in our pulpits we will lose thousands of loyal and faithful members. If we want to save the lost we must remain loyal to the word of God. Only then can we attract the lost and become a light to the nations. We are already attracting many members from those whose denominations have given in to the homosexual agenda.

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