Navigating Forward

By Thomas Lambrecht –

With apologies to Robert Frost, one of my favorite poets, he describes the current situation in The United Methodist Church in his poem, The Road Not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

Two roads are diverging within United Methodism today, and we can see the impact of that divergence in the “sketches” offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops (COB) as described in a recent UM News Service article.

Sketch #1 “affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.” This approach is the most popular among evangelical and traditionalist United Methodists. It would require major efforts at accountability, including church trials and the “voting out” of bishops and annual conferences from United Methodism in order to be effective.

Sketch #2 “removes restrictive language and places 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.” This model is the most popular among so-called “centrist” or moderate United Methodists. It would neither affirm nor prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. The decision would be left up to individual pastors and annual conferences. This plan has been floated before and did not find success at General Conference.

Sketch #3 is “grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” This model would dispense with the current five geographical jurisdictions and replace them with three branches, each with a defining theology and moral stance. This option is the most complex and the most difficult to adopt, since it would require constitutional amendments.

It should be noted that the COB descriptions do not indicate how the central conferences outside the United States are accounted for in each of the models. It will be important that whatever proposal adopted by the General Conference considers fully and fairly its impact on the central conferences, so as not to harm them.

Divergent Theological Roads

These proposals suggest that there are two theological roads that are diverging in The United Methodist Church. One road believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and that God is not glorified by this practice. Out of that theology flows the prohibition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. At a deeper level, this theology is based on an understanding of Scripture that gives the Bible primacy in determining what we believe and how we are to live. It values continuity with the historic Christian understanding of Scripture. Holders of this viewpoint are often called evangelicals, traditionalists, or orthodox.

A second road believes that God creates persons with a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, and that God is glorified by persons who understand and live out of their authentic orientation and identity. Out of that theology flows the affirmation of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. At a deeper level, this theology is based on an understanding of God’s revelation as continuing over time, based on but sometimes superseding the witness of Scripture. It values the incorporation of new insights and new understandings from science and philosophy that can reinterpret or even render obsolete the teachings of Scripture. Holders of this viewpoint are often called progressives.

Some in our church want to settle the question of which theological road is correct and which is wrong. They want to line up the Scriptures that support each road and have an exegetical face-off. Whichever side “wins” the face-off should set the position of The United Methodist Church, and those who disagree should either change their view or leave the church.

Some evangelicals question whether those following the second road are acknowledging the authority of Scripture at all, or are merely paying it lip service while essentially allowing aspects of “experience” and “reason” to be their ultimate authority. Some progressives believe that those following the first road are fundamentalists, hide-bound to tradition and resistant to new insights they believe are provided by science. They worry that maintaining the church’s current stance is hurting the church’s ability to attract new, younger disciples and “neglect[s] the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

Both sides believe they are being biblically faithful. Both sides can marshal exegetical arguments in their favor. As an evangelical United Methodist, I believe that the conservative interpretation of Scripture on these matters is more persuasive, historically faithful, and far superior, but that does not convince my progressive friends to change their minds.

Unfortunately, there is not a good way to settle this fundamental disagreement, which is why we are in the mess we are. Methodism does not have a pope or any kind of church magisterium to declare authoritatively what the correct understanding of Scripture is on these matters. The closest we have is a General Conference, which could change its mind every four years. This does not lead to certainty or closure. Instead, we have the quadrennial battles for the hearts and minds of General Conference delegates, to get them to vote in a way that reflects the position we agree with. And if we lose, there is always next time — a recipe for continual infighting.

Dr. David F. Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary, questions whether it is even possible to have unity when our process for making decisions as a whole church breaks down. “When there is disagreement, we have methods of resolution,” he writes in a blog entry entitled “Let’s Make a Deal, #UMC Style.” “In fact, every church has methods of resolving disagreement because, without these, unity is impossible. Our decision-making processes in the church, our ways of resolving disagreement, are instruments of unity. Once we abandon these instruments unity becomes impossible” (emphasis original).

These theological roads lead in different directions. They truly diverge. The models make room for that divergence with the “gracious exit” path that is provided with all three. Under Sketch #1, followers of the second theological road will need to depart from the UM Church, either willingly or unwillingly. Under Sketch #2, many followers of the first theological road will need to depart by reason of conscience. And the exit path is available to both groups under Sketch #3, if they find they cannot live with that model.

I have come to believe that the fighting in our church is hurting our mission and damaging the church. It is diluting the impact of the church on our culture, which we are committed to trying to transform. How many people will choose not to follow Jesus because they see the church divided and mistreating one another? Would it not be better to find a way to create the space needed for those who follow different roads to engage in ministry according to their convictions without hurting those with whom they disagree? That leads us to the second divergence envisioned in the options presented.

Strategic Roads

These proposals also suggest that there are two strategic roads that can be taken. A choice will need to be made between separation from and separation within. Both Sketches #1 and #2 envision the creation of a fairly univocal and united Methodism, from which those who cannot live with it will need to depart. In the case of Sketch #1, it is clear that progressives will need to depart and form their own separate church. Many progressives have said that they will not willingly depart. Their goal is not to form a separate denomination, but to change The United Methodist Church to an affirming view of LGBTQ practices. Progressives would need to be forced out, which would require years of accountability actions, trials, and discipline. It would have to overcome the reluctance of our current bishops to enforce the Discipline. This model would not end the fighting within our denomination and therefore would face a very difficult challenge in succeeding, even if adopted.

Sketch #2 is a bit more subtle. On the surface, it purports to create a space where each person can act according to his/her own conscience and beliefs. However, this model is inherently unstable. It is impossible for a church to hold two contradictory theological positions at the same time for long. Many evangelicals will choose to depart from the denomination because they cannot in good conscience be part of a church that permits practices that they believe go against Scripture. Many progressives will not rest until LGBTQ persons are fully affirmed everywhere in the denomination. They cannot long tolerate a situation where parts of the church are allowed to discriminate (in their view) against LGBTQ persons. So the pressure to affirm LGBTQ practices will continue, which pressure will in turn drive more evangelicals to depart from the denomination. The whole “centrist” approach appears to be a strategy to hold as much of the church together as possible while people either die, depart, or change their minds to embrace a progressive understanding.

In his blog, Dr. Watson points out how the potential separation would affect the United Methodists outside the U.S. in the central conferences. “The unfortunate central conferences would find themselves in a very difficult position under this scenario. They could go with the conservatives, with whom they tend to have more theological agreement, but will the conservatives form a new denomination? What will it look like? Will they continue the same level of central conference support? There are many unknowns here. Alternatively, the central conferences could stay with the main branch of the denomination, now weakened by the conservative exodus, perhaps unable to provide the same level of support as before, and declining at an accelerated rate.”

Sketch #3 takes a different route. Rather than the separation from that will result from following models #1 or #2, Model #3 provides for separation within the denomination. A space would be created for each theological perspective — one that affirms LGBTQ practices and one that does not. A third space would allow such practices, but not require them. The individual spaces or branches would be the primary place where theology and ministry would be worked out and applied. Accountability would be maintained in each branch according to that branch’s understanding. Each branch would have to have the ability to determine its level of participation in any shared general agencies of the church. Each branch would have to have the ability to set its own standards and qualifications for clergy. Each branch would have to be able to elect its own bishops. And each branch would have to be financially self-supporting, such that funding is not going to support a branch that is in disagreement with the branch providing the funding. (Some have called this provision a “financial firewall.”)

For those thinking outside the box, this third model may hold the greatest potential for keeping the most people and congregations in The United Methodist Church. However, it is also the most difficult to adopt and implement. It would require numerous constitutional amendments, which takes a 2/3 vote at General Conference and a 2/3 vote of all annual conference members. There would need to be a several-year transition period of implementation, as annual conferences and congregations, as well as bishops and individual clergy, make their choices about which branch to affiliate with. If quick and easy are the requirements for a solution, then Sketch #2 is probably the best option. If one is looking at a way to keep the most people united, then Sketch #3 could fill the bill.

Again, Watson adds some helpful critique: “With some modifications, this [third] sketch might work. I do have some concerns, though. For example, we can probably agree upon shared services, but shared doctrine? I have never been comfortable with the claim that ‘there is only one thing that divides us.’ It is simply not true. All manner of doctrinal expression has found its way into churches, seminaries, and even into the writings of bishops. Are we united in doctrine? Perhaps on paper we are. In practice, we are most certainly not.”

Watson continues: “Further, doctrine and practice cannot be entirely separated from one another. The idea that ‘there is only one thing that divides us’ fails to account for the fact that our ideas about ethical matters are necessarily related to our ideas about doctrinal matters. In other words, questions about human sexuality cannot be separated from doctrines around creation, theological anthropology, and the authority of Scripture.”

Watson concludes: “Finally, a single Council of Bishops will probably not work for conservatives. In many ways, conservatives see the Council of Bishops as the problem. Yes, there are individual bishops who are great leaders, but the Council seems unable or unwilling to hold its own members accountable or provide a coherent vision for our denominational future. From all appearances, doctrine and ethics take a backseat to collegiality and institutional unity.”

Forks in the Road

So there are forks in the road ahead: We will need to decide which theological road to follow. Will we affirm LGBTQ practices or not? And we will need to decide which strategic road to follow. Will we go for separation from or separation within? As in Frost’s poem, the road we choose, both individually and collectively, will make all the difference.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergy person and vice president of Good News. He also serves on the Commission on a Way Forward.

For further analysis, Google web-based articles: “Let’s Make A Deal, #UMC Style” by Dr. David Watson (davidfwatson.me); “Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part I)” by Dr. Timothy Tennent (timothytennent.com); and “A Milepost on the Way Forward” by Dr. Chris Ritter (peopleneedjesus.net).

Obviously, we need to have a lot more details about each of the options in order to fully understand and respond to them. Much more will need to be said about them, examining both the positives and the negatives of each. But we now have enough of an idea that we can begin to think about the possibilities inherent in each approach.

Comments

  1. Steve Zinser says:

    Option 3 is the only viable option. The closing paragraphs of the article spell oit the reasons very well. Those areas on which cooperation would make sense would be health, pensions, publishing, emergency relief, and others like them which benefit from combined resources for greater financial impact.

  2. Jim Proctor says:

    Unfortunately no fourth option has been presented by the Commission on a Way Forward – not separation from, nor separation within, but separation of. Split the denomination into two separate denominations entirely, both (or neither) considered successor denominations to the United Methodist Church. Neither would be named the United Methodist Church. Force everyone out, find an equitable way to divide the assets, and let each carry on as they see fit. I guess in one view this is option #3, but eliminates the need to continue yoking these two oxen that are pulling in different directions. Frankly I am not sure if it is the best option, not having the knowledge necessary to evaluate all the ins and outs of it, but I wish I knew that someone was giving it a serious look.

  3. And what really is Biblical unity? What did Jesus say in John 17?

  4. I am an unashamed theological conservative. A church divide will not stand. Better it would be to lose the progressives and centrists than lose the soul of our denomination. Retired clergy with about 40 years service, I find it impossible to recommend that anyone attend a United Methodist Church. The Council of Bishops is deluded by Satan, and in their fervor to keep the church together, they had allowed the very seeds of separation to germinate. Were The Book of Discipline obeyed, as every ordained clergy has vowed to do, there would be no problem. The UMC would, I suggest, be stronger, with significantly more members than we have today. However, numbers should not be the goal. Winning souls to God’s Kingdom is the goal, but those who would deny the authority of the Bible are trying to lead us down the politically correct, often-used highway we have been warned not to take. The tragic result is this also guides those who believe they are saved to the gate of hell. We shall by taking this way be held accountable. I know of several congregations that have withdrawn from the denomination. They are doing quite well, freed from many of the encumbrances imposed on them by the denomination. I am aware of many people who have already gone elsewhere, convinced that even the discussion and the debate demonstrates a moral ineptness that already testifies to disobedience of scripture. The UMC is changed forever in the hearts of millions. Can it recover, even with the best outcome of this divide? Only God knows! (PS I already subscribe to Good News and get email information.)

  5. Jim Merck says:

    Rev. Lambrecht, your synopsis of alternatives is succincty clear.

    John Wesley made the following statement in response to a question as to how to keep Methodism alive after his death: “Preach our doctrine, inculcate experience, urge practice, enforce discipline. If you preach doctrine only, the people will be antinomians; if you preach experience only, they will become enthusiasts; if you preach practice only, they will become pharisees; and if you preach all of these and do not enforce DISCIPLINE, Methodism will be like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest.” ” CHRISTIANITY ACCORDING TO THE WESLEYS” by Hildebrant p. 12.

    Orthodox Wesleyan Theology, and a woeful lack of discipline are prevalent in the UMC..

    How many “highly cultivated gardens without fences” are within the UMC ? I do not know, but I know this, because it is my decision alone, Sketch #1 is the only one of the three that will keep me in the UMC.

    Even so, maranatha

  6. Chris Buskirk says:

    THIS IS A FAIR AND HONEST APPRAISAL OF THE OPTIONS BEFORE US. MY THANKS FOR YOUR CAREFUL ANALYSIS. IT WILL BE SHARED WITH MY CONGREGATION.

    MY HEART IS TO FIND MISSIONAL MOMENTUM IN OUR METHODIST CONNECTION BY RESOLVING THE PARALYSIS OF OUR DIVERGING DIVERSITY. ALL OPTIONS FOR SEPARATION WITHIN LEAVE THE PARALYSIS AT WORK. I ONLY SEE HOPE IN SEPARATION FROM. MY HOPE IS THAT WE FIND THE COURAGE TO PURSUE IT. AND THAT WE RELEASE ONE ANOTHER TO FOLLOW OUR CONSCIENCE WITH MUTUAL RESPECT EVEN IF WE CANNOT COME TO AGREEMENT.

  7. William (Bill) Fitzgerrel says:

    As a practicing conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist/whatever, I often find that my understandings can make me appear to be a troglodyte (cave man) in the midst of a culture of people quite sure that they are not troglodytes. In this case I am thinking about the implications of association. To be blunt–down-right troglodyte-ish–about it, I do not want to be associated with the progressive agenda. It is difficult enough to proclaim the gospel today when my denomination elects a lesbian bishop, even though that is against our official polity. But sketches #2 and #3 make it church polity that the progressive agenda, including blessing of homosexual relationships, would be tolerated. In #2 a free-for-all local option (pretty much the present situation) would be church polity. In #3, two of the three branches would make the progressive agenda a matter of polity (either by local option or by mandate). So this means that my position as a conservative pastor would be to proclaim Scriptural Christianity one Sunday and the next Sunday try to explain why prominent elements within my denomination defy Scriptural Christianity. The message of Christ would constantly be undermined. I believe that unity should be true unity. If one reads Ephesians 4-6, one finds the unity of the church begins with a walk worthy of our calling (4:1). That walk includes doctrine (4:13-15), holy living (4:17-6:9), and spiritual warfare (6:10-20). I believe the day is going to come when we have to risk being called troglodytes and stand up on our hind legs and proclaim that this issue is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of truth. No, we will not be associated with those teachings that undermine our walk with the Lord and therefore destroy the true unity of the church.

    • Yes, let us “proclaim that this issue is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of truth”. If it were a matter of opinion, especially my opiniion, I would run to change! Oh, the relief to my agonizing heart—to be done with this impending doom and to be adorned by my culture as one of the “open minded” and “enlightened”.
      I love my church! I want to care for others, bring them to Christ, and live out the purpose of His church together, especially in my UMC. However, I cannot, in good faith, bring in even one searching soul to be left under the authority and discipleship of any UMC for fear she will be deceived and led astray; not so much today, but later down the road—having already been groomed with carefully selected subtleties toward deception.

  8. Diana Skufca says:

    Option 1 is, of course the correct choice, although it will probably be the most difficult. It will require REAL people of God with the intestinal fortitude to do what is right regardless of the opposition. I’m not sure the United Methodist church in America has enough of those left to implement this option.

  9. James P Barrett says:

    I have attended several the Texas Annual Conference several times since my wife and I joined the United Methodist Church. At each Conference there has been a Service of Ordination & Commissioning. During this service the men and women stated before God and members of the denomination that they would uphold the UMC Book of Discipline. When the time comes that they can no longer do this it is time for them to resign. If they chose not to do this then charges should be brought against them and they should be removed. Bishops who are not willing to do their duty should also be remover, Live by the Book of Discipline or leave.

  10. Thank you for your thoughtful and prayerful essay. I know that Christ commands us to love each other as we love ourselves. Only when we can find His love in our hearts will we be able to figure this whole thing out. There has been a definite lack of love in many of the presentations. This is the beginning of finding our way to answers. “What will it profit if we have lost our Love?” There can be no way forward without Love. God is expecting us to practice what we teach. Open Hearts, Open Doors. The world is watching! I keep the committee in my prayers. We must not fail the one who called us for we must be about His business : saving the lost, Healing the Sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, and offering the Water of Life to the thirsty. Onwards !!!

  11. Gail Beardsley says:

    All of life’s issues are found in scripture. You need only to “seek and ye shall find”. The Bible warns us to watch out for false teachings. There is but one Bible. It is very clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. It is also clear that we are to love our enemies. As I see it, you love the sinner but not the sin. God will deal with the sin. I am not ashamed to take a stand for God and say, #1 is the only way I would vote.

  12. Trent Thomas says:

    I’m a heterosexual male married to my wife for 25 years and have voted conservatively my entire life. We joined the Methodist church because it is based on principals that we live our lives by. One of these principals is inclusion and love for all. Do we really think Jesus would stand in our church doorways and turn away LGBTQ? He MADE everyone. Why would he turn them away? HE will judge everyone in due time. There’s no reason for us to do that now. If someone feels that can’t get closer to God because the person next to them believes differently than they do, then your faith needs help and not the person next to you. The only way the Methodist church grows is to be the leader at accepting everyone just as God made them. There will be a church that figures this out and I’ll be in that congregation.

  13. Josh Ahava says:

    “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

    Who made the world?
    Who made the swan, and the black bear?
    Who made the grasshopper?
    This grasshopper, I mean-
    the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
    the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
    who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
    who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
    Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
    Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?

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  1. […] as the expression of a deeper divide over the authority of scripture.  Tom Lambrecht in a recent article in Good News Magazine stated: One view “gives the Bible primacy in determining what we believe and how we are to […]

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