Respect or Contempt

Rev. Rob Renfroe

By Rob Renfroe-

Soon we will know which plan or plans the United Methodist Council of Bishops will recommend to the extraordinary General Conference in St. Louis. In just a matter of months we will learn how the Council proposes to resolve our denomination’s emotional and destructive division over sexual ethics. For over four decades we have waited for the Bishops to speak clearly and act decisively so we can move forward in mission and message as one church.  It’s not an overstatement to say that the future of the UM Church and the credibility of the Council will be determined by the solution they put forward.

“Time is running short and we need to focus,” begins a press release from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, on January 22, 2018. “Simple is better than complex. Reasonable detail is better than ambiguity. Fewer disciplinary changes is better than more. Honor the parameters and values of the Mission, Vision and Scope document – unity, contextualization and enhanced mission.”

Because I love our church and because so much is riding on the bishops’ proposal, I was deeply troubled by Bishop Ough’s statement. I would love to learn that my concerns are unfounded – that I’m reading too much into Bishop Ough’s words regarding the various proposals the Council is considering. Let me explain my concern.

The bishops have reported that three plans have been put before them. One would strengthen the church’s present position against homosexual practice and would allow progressive churches to leave the denomination. Another, often referred to as “the local option,” would let individual pastors determine whether they will marry gay couples, and each annual conference would be free to determine if it will ordain practicing homosexuals. A third option would create three branches within the UM Church, each with a different sexual ethic, ranging from thoroughly progressive to fully conservative (the latter of which is actually nothing more than maintaining the church’s present position).

The details of the third option have not been made public, probably because they have not been fully determined. And they have probably not been determined because they are numerous and challenging. How will churches and pastors decide which of the three branches they will join? What if there are more fully committed progressive pastors than there are progressive churches willing to receive them? What if there are more  progressive bishops than there are progressive annual conferences – must conservative conferences accept a bishop whose sexual ethic is different than its own? Will all churches be expected to pay apportionments to national boards that promote policies contrary to their beliefs? Can a conservative conference live with a partnered lesbian bishop on the Council that oversees the entire church? Or must there be three different councils?  This third “multi-branch” option cannot be the plan Bishop Ough had in mind when he called for a plan that was simple rather than complex, with little ambiguity, and few disciplinary changes.

Where does that leave us? Option one – a more tightly-enforced Book of Discipline and liberal churches exiting the denomination – will never be recommended by a Council that leans left and largely believes we need to liberalize the church’s position (there are notable exceptions within the Council). The only plan remaining and the one Bishop Ough seems to be suggesting is the “local option.” Annual conferences vote. Pastors make their own decisions. The church stays together. And it’s done. Simple and with little ambiguity.

Except for one small detail. It will create schism, not unity. At its first national conference in Chicago, October 2016, with over 1400 pastors in attendance, The Wesleyan Covenant Association approved a statement that said, “A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the “local option” around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.” Good News sent a similar statement to the Commission on a Way Forward. So did the Confessing Movement. So did UM Action.

I’m not troubled that the Council might recommend a plan that conservatives disagree with. I expect they will. What does disturb me is that it appears the Council will propose a plan that all of the denomination’s conservative leaders have said will fracture the church and lead to a mass exodus. Why would it do that?

One reason could be that the bishops don’t believe us. All I can say is, “Pass the plan and you’ll find out. You may not understand it but we will not remain in a church where pastors and bishops are free to promote and bless what we believe is contrary to Christian teaching and dishonoring to God.” We are told that we should find this plan acceptable because we will not be forced to perform marriages and blessings that we do not support. I can appreciate that progressives don’t truly understand us. But whether they can comprehend our reasoning or not, they need to hear it: It violates our consciences to be in a denomination that promotes what we believe counters God’s will and purposes. We can live in a church where there is disagreement about our church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality  – we’ve done so for decades – if pastors and bishops who promised to uphold the church’s teachings actually do what they promised. What we cannot do is remain in a church with an official sexual ethic that denies the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture. Liberals don’t have to understand our thinking. But they would do well to take our warning seriously. The local option will create schism – and it is likely to be litigious, costly, and ugly.

Another reasons may be that the bishops simply may not respect us. In addition to innumerable small and medium-sized heartland congregations, we lead some of the largest and most vibrant congregations in the denomination. From the town and country congregations to the megachurches, we pay millions and millions of dollars in apportionments, including their salaries. For decades, we have represented the majority opinion within the church concerning sexual ethics as demonstrated at every General Conference where the issue has come to the floor. At the same time, our deeply help beliefs seem to be dismissed because one supposes that the bishops think they know better – or simply want to promote a different worldview.

“Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart,” writes Dr. John Gottman, one of the world’s leading experts on relationships and researchers on marriage. “People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.”

Contempt doesn’t destroy marriages only. It destroys all relationships.  And that’s how traditionalists will perceive the bishops’ putting forth the local option.  We have told them it doesn’t work for us. We have told them it will force us to leave the church. We have voted it down at General Conference.

If this is the bishops’ plan for the future of the church, what can we believe but that they hold us in contempt? “Deliberately ignoring the partner.” “Responding minimally.” Yep, that’s a pretty good description of what the bishops will be doing to the majority of the church if they promote the local option. And the message to traditionalists will be that we are, in Gottman’s words, “invisible” and “not valued.”

Treat us with contempt and one of three things will happen. One, we will defeat the plan and the bishops will have failed in the one thing we have asked them to do in decades – resolve our division and lead us forward – leaving the church in chaos and further disunity. Two, we will put forth a plan that resolves the conflict by allowing traditionalists to be faithful to our understanding of Scripture, and that plan will pass. Three, the local option will pass and we will become invisible. You won’t see us or many of our churches in what’s left of the denomination. As for our value, you’ll find out how much we added to the church when we’re gone.

But maybe I am wrong.  Perhaps, Bishop Ough and the Council won’t make the mistake of ignoring what we have told them in good faith. Maybe they will value us enough to take us seriously and propose a plan that we can endorse. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to be wrong. I pray that I am wrong.


  1. William (Bill) Fitzgerrel says:

    I appreciate your words. However, for some reason, you ignore, for the most part, the third option: “A third option would create three branches within the UM Church, each with a different sexual ethic, ranging from thoroughly progressive to fully conservative.” I cannot see how this option could be supported by conservatives. In reference to the “local option” plan you say: “we will not remain in a church where pastors and bishops are free to promote and bless what we believe is contrary to Christian teaching and dishonoring to God.” Is that not true of the third option? If there are “three branches,” there is still one “UM Church,” as you state in the quotation that describes the third option. So, in one or two of the three branches, pastors and bishops will “promote and bless” homosexuality. Why should conservatives remain in such a church. How can one preach one sexual ethic and then explain: “Well, there is another branch of the UM Church that says otherwise”? That is madness. We need to be clear that neither the local option or the three-branch monstrosity is acceptable.

    • Isn’t it also the case that the status quo is not acceptable, as demonstrated by General Conferences for decades?

      • I agree that occasionally status quo is not acceptable, but when societies values pressure their way into changing what God has taught us as living Christian values when it pertains to husbands, wives, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and a man should leave his mother and father to be with his wife and a woman shall leave her mother and father to be with her husband. No where does the bible bless or encourage that a man should be with a man to go forth and make many nations and sons, nor does it say anywhere a woman should go forth with another woman as God did not create us to multiply within the same sex otherwise we would be an aphid or a New Mexico whiptail. God tells us as disciples to love everyone, but teach them in the way they should go. God never told us, hold your tongue if it offends someone or makes them unhappy or uncomfortable.

        • Our social principles state that “We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage.” (para. 161-C) I’m curious as to how you mesh that with the biblical teachings you describe above.

  2. The historical pattern of liberal or progressive movements is to have “contempt” for traditional movements. To the progressive city dweller, the farmer or rancher is an uneducated hillbilly. The city dwelling liberal fills their belly with the work from the hands of those who they have “contempt” for. The city dwelling liberal has “contempt” for the farmers rifle which is used nearly exclusively to eliminate pests like venomous snakes that could harm his family or livestock so that the work of food production. Ironically many a conversation of liberal minded people pontificating about how they can change things for the “better” is had over a meal that was made possible by the “traditional” farmer who will be negatively impacted by their great progressive ideas.

    Rob is correct that the liberals won’t understand until they are hungry for what the traditionalists provide. The best thing the traditionalists can do is take what fills the belly of the liberal away in order to have a teachable moment. Traditionalists should divert their funding and perhaps their presence should the liberals get their way. It’s hard to philosophize on an empty stomach. Philosophy is all well and good until it interferes with the ability to eat. Farmers get their work done before they have fun or luxury since eating is a necessary prerequisite for other activities. City dwelling liberals will wonder what happened when the traditionalists stop shipping the “bread” as the hippies called it.

    • Is the strict dichotomy you describe in your first paragraph actually true? I live in a Metro area where the city and rural surroundings interact positively and joyfully. In fact the best restaurants in the city are “Farm-to-Table” establishments.

    • Mary Bellon says:

      In Iowa most of the farmland is owned by highly educated agricultural leaders and corporations

  3. Rob, how about organizing an effort to get the message to the council of Bishops. I know there is supposed to be a resolution to all AC’s this year promoting unity. How about getting one in before the deadlines to all AC’s calling on support for the BOD’s position on homosexuality. Or another great idea if you have something better. I am very disturbed by the Bishops intentionally leaving traditionalists out. You have expressed my feelings very well, and like you said, if this passes I will be out.

    God Bless you sir!

  4. Don’t forget the saying attributed to St. Athanasius – “the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” It does not provide any comfort but perhaps accurately describes the unfortunate state of reality in which we find ourselves these days. It amazes me that UMC bishops often refer to orthodox laity and clergy by quoting Jesus’ sayings about Pharisees. I fantasize about someone getting their attention by going up to them and sticking a log in their eye when they issue such pronouncements.

    Unfortunately, a look at The Episcopal Church shows the future of the UMC if these bishops have their way. You are free to leave but leave all real and personal property behind, and if you don’t we’ll sue you in court collectively and as individuals. Even more troubling is that, with very few exceptions, the courts have completely agreed with The Episcopal Church.

  5. Thank you for all the quotations from the work of John Gottman. His support of same sex married couples has given great comfort to adherents to the opposite side of your argument, reminding us that they are resilient, blessed, and to be respected and supported. I’m sure Dr. Gottman would cringe to discover his words were taken out of context in an attempt to subvert church leaders who support full ministry to same sex couples.

    Beyond the misuse of Gottman’s words, I’m disappointed to read that unity requires conformity. If that’s true, your position trades supposed contempt for conservatives for contempt for progressives. This doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of Christ, who celebrates unity in diversity (I Cor 12).

    • Gary Bebop says:

      Anyone well lectured in a Progressivist conference has heard plenty of wanton misappropriation of Jesus and Paul and Wesley in support of sexual revisionism and damnation of anyone who opposes it. Get real.

  6. Dennis Wallace says:

    So what happens if Option 2 or 3 are presented and voted down? Then the church will be in the exact same situation it is in today.

  7. After just reading the home page of so-called UM Insight I am afraid the contempt show by UMC bishops extends beyond just them to the clergy. The slanted, twisted stories there about the “other,” in this case those who are not like minded progressive Christians, are astonishing and sad, matched only by the thin gruel of laughably deficient theology espoused by various UMC clergy attempting to spin scripture into their own web of fancy with the weakest of exegesis.

    The progressives are beginning to act like cornered animals, lashing out and seeing evangelical conspiracies behind every door and in every dark corner. The next thing you know they will claim the Russians are behind it. I do not forecast happy times ahead for the UMC.

  8. If the bishops can ignore scripture they can ignore traditionalists.

  9. Daniel Casselberry says:

    I know many clergy and laity who do not want a split and do not understand why the bishops would rather endorse a liberal sexual agenda rather than confirm scripture and discipline and embrace those loyal to the church. Instead they embrace those are willing to bring it down. Some don’t know what is to become of them or the church they love. They pledged to keep covenant with the church and her polity and discipline but their bishops betray both. When you challenge the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ you are not a church just a institution with a social agenda.

  10. Until we reach perfection, all of our beliefs will contain some level of falsehood. Isn’t that what it means that “now, I know only in part” (1 Cor 13:12)? What do we then do when those falsehoods are exposed?

    Scripture tells us to follow the truth. Regarding sexual ethics, we used to think sexuality was a choice. That falsehood has been exposed. How then can we support a sexual ethic based on the assumption that it is a choice?

    • Actually, if you are talking about acting on homosexual desires being sinful, that is absolutely a choice. If, on the other hand, you are talking about desires, which sinful desires are a choice? Do people choose to be sexually attracted to someone other than their spouse? Do people choose to be angry with people? How about covetous? Does that make those things any less sinful? (Not according to Christ).

      That is not the basis of the sexual ethic. The sexual ethic is based on explicit, repeated prohibition through out all of Scripture (Old and New Testaments, Law Prophets, Gospels and Epistles). This is a univocal issue from beginning to end, and unless you can show where I am misinterpreting or misrepresenting (a) passage(s) then the only option I see room for is repentance.

      • Please show me where homosexuality is prohibited in the gospels.

        As for acting on desires: we are allowed to under the covenant of marriage. I believe that the church ought to be joyfully welcoming same-sex couples who desire to enter such a covenant. And there is ample evidence that same-sex married couples can live into their covenant as faithfully as straight ones. Again, this exposes the falsehood that LGBT+ people are ravenous perverts who cannot control themselves.

        • Since you asked, there is not a rational argument that homosexuality is not included in the Greek word porneia (sexual immorality or fornication) in Matthew 15:19, especially given it was spoken in a Jewish context where people would have been steeped in Torah. Additionally, , in Matthew 19, Christ clearly reiterates from Genesis that the marriage covenant is defined by God as one man and one woman. Finally, we have to remember that the Bible itself insists that one God stands as the inspiration for all of it, and therefore any hard divisions in the Word of God(e.g. well Jesus didn’t ever say…) they are of my own creation and wrong.

          I have not said anything to slander or imply negative characteristics of any person or group. You are conflating sinful and holy desires in your second paragraph. Sinful desires are sinful because they are rebellion against God (breaking the greatest commandment). Holy desires are holy because they are God’s purpose for us and our lives. So, God gave us sex and marriage to be enjoyed together, but He also defined what is marriage. He says in Creation that ” for this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” I do not see room in that definition for a homosexual relationship of any type, and that is why God’s church must submit to His Word on this issue. Now that is not to say that we shouldn’t love those who have homosexual desires and evangelize and disciple them. We absolutely should; we are called and commanded to as a matter of fact. However, the most unkind and unloving thing I could possibly do for anyone is to look at what God defines as sin defining their lives and tell them they are fine just as they are. God reaches into our lives as we are ( and we are all sinners by nature), but he doesn’t leave us there. I would really encourage you to spend some time in Ephesians, looking at Paul’s underlying argument.

          • What does it mean to evangelize non-hetero people?

          • It means exactly the same thing it does to evangelize any other sinner. It means to present them with the gospel in context of the rest of the Bible’s story line. That we are all born in sin; we are not good or inclined to do good. As a matter of fact, we are all rebels against our God and creator to whom we owe absolutely everything. We rebel in different ways, and different sins rule our lives before we are identified with Christ. However, we are all in sin and under the righteous and just condemnation of God (deservingly). Yet, despite who we are and how we live, God out of His great mercy and love deigned to make a way for us to be reconciled to himself at great cost. Namely God, in the second person, became a man and lived a perfect sinless life. He voluntarily, out of obedience and love for His Father, died a substitutionary death on the cross whereby He paid the price for the sins of the repentant. Also, His righteousness was counted unto us, so that we can come before this holy, righteous, and just God as the righteous. This righteousness is not our own but is from outside of us. He rose from the dead vindicating all of His claims and His sinless nature, and, because of that, we also will rise to eternal life with God in the New Heavens and the New Earth for all eternity. However, for the unrepentant, for those who remain in rebellion against their God and King, they shall be raised to eternal punishment in accordance with the Scriptures. That is the central line through scripture, and, for the Church and for Christians to herald anything other than, or opposed to, that message is to be less than the Church and Christians.

          • So if I say “We killed Jesus” rather than “God sent Jesus to die” I’m not a Christian in your view?

          • Not necessarily. We certainly did kill Jesus in one sense. However, if you want to say that as a comprehensive answer, though, then you are wrong on a core issue (cf. John 10: 17-18, Mark 10:32, etc.).

          • There are lots of views of atonement. Most of the traditional ones seem determined to satisfy a bloodthirsty element in God’s nature. I feel that is projecting human bloodthirstiness upon God. (Recall, how God grieves Abel’s slaying.) The notion of ‘paying for our sins on the cross’ perpetuates the myth that God requires blood to be reconciled.

  11. Who is responsible for the shame that drives the raised suicide rate among LGBT+ people?

    • This is called” begging the question,” and it is a logical fallacy. You have to provide evidence that this “increased shame” actually does DRIVE the raised suicide rate (i.e. prove causation not assume it).. I would reflect on Romans 1:18 and following and come to a very different conclusion about the cause.

      • Are there non-religious reasons for opposing homosexuality?

        Please share your conclusion about the cause.

        • Are there non-religious reasons for opposing homosexuality? I’m sure there are, but they are not my reasons.

          My conclusion about the cause for the increased suicide rate among the LGBTQ community? The first thing I should say is that there is a whole worldview disconnect here, but I will try to condense this as much as I can. The Bible insists that God created the world and everything in it. How ever you would like to understand that, there is an irreducible minimum of what this means. Namely, it means that God played a direct, causal role and provided an order for everything. Consequently, reality reflects God’s order, and there is an absolute, objective truth. However, in the garden humanity as a whole rebelled against God, and we have continued rebelling ever since (cf. Gen. 3, Gen. 6:5, Ps 14, Ps. 36, Ps. 53, John 3:16-21, Rom 1:18-3:20, Eph. 2:1-10, etc.). A part of that reality is the definition of marriage and the so-called “gender binary” (cf. Gen. 2:15-24, Mat 5:27-32, Mat 19:3-9, Mark 9:43-48, and Luke 16:18).

          I believe that one of the things Romans 1 (esp :18-23) teaches is what is known as the Noetic Effects of Sin (please forgive the theology lesson if you are already familiar with the idea). The Noetic effects are the impact of sin on our minds. Namely, we cannot know things comprehensively because we are not God, and we cannot even know those things we do know perfectly because sin has corrupted our minds. There is a wickedness in our minds (think subconscious) that does not want to know the truth and so rejects it. However, we still live in God’s world, and God’s world is still organized according to His will and purposes. So, in our minds, in various ways and to various degrees, we are actively fighting against this reality. With the LGBT community, they are specifically fighting against God’s design for who we as people are and God’s design for marriage and sexuality. Other people fight different things and in different ways, but, at some point, you come to the reality that you cannot live that way. Everything you believe and feel is in conflict with what you observe (recognized or not), and you cannot live with the cognitive dissonance.

          If anything, I think the argument to be made is that the pushing of the LGBT to be a person’s identity is the root of the problem. Biblically, I find two real “identity positions:” Christ and the world (that which is opposed to Him) (cf. John 15:18-27, John 17, etc.). So, people are being encouraged more and more to find their very identity in the things of the world (LGBT sexuality and gender) which cannot satisfy and cannot deal with the cognitive dissonance. Because it is so tied up with the core of who they are, I think, these poor souls lose hope that things will ever improve and kill themselves. In short, it is indeed a crisis of identity.

          At least some of the blame falls on the church for not believing our message enough to evangelize. We have allowed our message to be diluted with the concerns of this world, but we have good news, even if the message doesn’t sound like such at first. We have hope to offer: hope for deliverance from bondage to sin (whether in this life or the next), hope of eternal blessedness, hope for a future where there will be no more death, no more sorrow, and no more tears. We ought to fight for the purity of that message, and we ought to proclaim it every chance we get because it is the only hope for a hurting and dying world and everyone who makes it up.

          • How do you reconcile women’s ordination with Scripture? There is some cognitive dissonance in scripture regarding women’s place in the church. I’m wondering how you determine which scriptures ‘win’? Shouldn’t women be silent in the church? If not, what do you do hermeneutically with that passage?

  12. Linda A. Richard says:

    If this truly is the official stance of the Good News Movement and the WCA – Then why are we wasting our time effort prayers and money with the Way Forward Commission and GC 2019, I disagree wholeheartedly with your characterization of the three branches one church model being explored by the COB. It would allow you to be part of a segment of the Church which adheres to the present BOD language and standards. You wouldn’t have to compromise anything about those standards. It would allow others who are more centrist or progressive to be united with like minded faithful Methodists and not have to compromise their standards. We would gain an ability to jointly tackle issues of justice, hunger, poverty, disasters etc. This stance says: “We are right and we will crush you!” Well what a wonderful way to demonstrate that we are a Christian Denomination! Not!!

  13. Gary Bebop says:

    With all due respect, the effort to force change upon the church is not coming from Good News or WCA but from progressivise advocates for a revision of traditional Christian moral understandings. There is no traditional option left on the table, at this point. A traditional understanding of a church unified in its historic moral commitments is now subject to erasure.

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