Tribalizing Methodism

2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Photo: Mike DuBose, UMNS

By Scott Kisker –

With the 2019 called General Conference looming, it is time to address the risks posed to our United Methodist polity as a peculiar articulation and preserver of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

The United Methodist Church is set up as a conciliar catholic church – the only one I know of. This means that, in our polity, the highest earthly authority is not bishops. While the bishops gather in what they call a council, that council is not our highest authority. Rather, the highest authority in The United Methodist Church is a particular regular lay and clergy council, which we call General Conference.

This General Conference is catholic (I use “catholic” here in the sense of representing the whole of The United Methodist Church). General Conference includes proportional participation from global United Methodism. This catholic council has allowed United Methodism to avoid captivity to peculiar cultural contexts better than most mainline Protestants – resisting some of the pressure to capitulate to culture and turn the worship of Yahweh, the Creator, into that of a tribal deity.

Our catholic council, General Conference, is the instrument of unity in our polity. It is instituted to preserve unity of teaching and practice among the people called Methodists. It is where we decide “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.” This is not a faux unity that in practice allows people to conform what they believe and how they behave to the forces within their particular time, place, and ethnicity. And every culture and era has its principalities and powers.

We hear a lot about contextuality, as though it were an unquestionable good. This rhetoric tickles contemporary ears, but it has a mixed track record in history. There are legions of examples in the modern era alone where churches have accommodated to the evils of their times and cultures, deforming the gospel. “Contextualization” of the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church allowed for slave holding in the American South beginning in 1808, as well as the acceptance of racist segregation in the name of “unity” for the formation of The Methodist Church in 1939.

Resistance to the pressures of time and context is hard. But resistance is essential if a 2,000-year-old revelation of the Word in flesh is to be passed on to our children for their salvation. The good news is that our instrument of unity, a catholic, global General Conference, disciplines us to contend with one another cross-culturally for the truth of the One God, and to preserve the faith “believed at all times, in all places, by all peoples,” as Vincent of Lerins wrote.

Bishops in our polity hold an itinerant office. They are responsible for Word, sacrament, and order in the church as elders, but not as a separate order from other elders. Their office is an extension of, and attached to, the office of elder. They are not Lords of the Church or princes of a diocese. They cannot speak for the church, even ex cathedra. Their authority comes from the General Conference to do a particular job. They are sent forth as officers to hold members and congregations and annual conferences accountable to the doctrine and discipline established by our catholic council, the General Conference. In their apostolicity, their duly sent-ness, (apostello means “to send”), they visibly connect Methodists across space and culture to the General Conference, not to themselves.

Through an extraordinary procedural move at our 2016 General Conference, a group of bishops, aided by some influential pastors, managed to prevent the will of General Conference for corporate discipline from being articulated. By an appeal to “unity,” they were able to get a plan passed to transfer the power to mediate conflict in our church from our instrument of unity (the General Conference) to themselves, a less catholic, less accountable (thanks to jurisdictional divisions) group with no intrinsic authority to resolve such issues.

Given what the bishops have indicated they are likely to propose in 2019, the temporary authority they managed to acquire in 2016 seems to have encouraged more presumption of authority. Anything like what could have passed General Conference in 2016 (the avoidance of which was the reason for their maneuvers) looks unlikely to come from the Council of Bishops. That alone should give the church pause. Should General Conference accept any proposal from the bishops other than, perhaps, a proposal that bishops uphold their vows to enforce the doctrine and discipline discerned through general conferencing, the General Conference will have demoted themselves and elevated the council of bishops to a position in our polity it was never intended to have.

Though many bishops do not realize it, if they are successful in pushing through either of the plans they have said they are seriously considering, they will undermine the conciliar and catholic nature of our church, thereby unraveling the very logic of Methodist ecclesiology. The catholic council for United Methodists, General Conference, will be impotent for anything that matters. “What to teach, how to teach and what to do” will become a regional, local, even individual concern.

The irony is that this is all being done in the name of “unity.” In practice we will have divided the church into congregations or regions or ideologies, while crying “unity, unity,” where there is no unity. Definitive for being “United Methodist” will be where you live and who is your bishop. That is not unity. That will only accelerate the forces of tribalism and atomization. Our connection will, at most, be to our bishops, who, despite the rise of their council’s status, will de facto be subject to the whims of culturally captive conferences or congregations.

We will not be a catholic church. The global nature of our discernment of the Spirit will, for practical purposes, be at an end. We will not be a conciliar church. Our council, the General Conference, will be a pageant. General Conference will no longer be where we do the difficult work of cross-culture discernment, will no longer have authority for the global church, and will no longer bind us together. We will have rendered useless the instrument of United Methodist unity.

Should the bishops succeed, there will be little of historic Methodism left in a reconfigured United Methodist Church. The Council of Bishops will have made unrecognizable the historic Methodist understanding of the unity of the church, the catholicity of the church, the apostolicity of the church (and their own apostolic office), not to mention the sanctity of the church and 4,000 years of sexual ethics by communities who worship the one creator God.

Our name will be rhetoric with no content. We will be neither United nor Methodist. More crucial though, we will have surrendered our claim to be “Church.” All Nicene marks (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), as historically interpreted by Methodists, will have been obliterated in a new United Methodism.

Scott Kisker is Professor of Church History and Associate Dean of Masters Programs at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of Mainline or Methodist? Recovering Our Evangelistic Mission (Discipleship Resources) and is one of the contributors featured in Holy Contradictions: What’s Next for the People Called United Methodists (Abingdon).

Comments

  1. Very well said. It’s a sad world and I’m sure Jesusis not pleased

  2. Gary Bebop says:

    This superlative essay calls us to arms and sets forth the stakes in the church struggle. If traditional Methodism is to survive in unified conciliar form beyond 2019, this opening alarm must be followed with a rally of General Conference delegates to vigorously abjure any option that weakens our ecclesiology. Desultory and indifferent actions will not spare the church.

  3. I don’t think anything matters much until there is a definitive process for disciplining bishops that cuts across all jurisdictions. The UMC jumped the shark, IMHO, when Joe Sprague was not put on trial for heresy when he publicly denied the basic parts of the Apostles Creed; e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The lawlessness of succeeding bishops derives directly from this sad episode. If you can’t believe, confess and teach the basic elements of the Christian faith, then don’t call yourself a Christian, and for goodness sake don’t become a UMC elder. Become a social justice warrior someplace else that will appreciate your political zeal and won’t question your religious beliefs.

    • Dan, there is a process for bringing both complaints and disciplinary charges against bishops. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the stomach or fortitude to do this, even when much needed (as in the case you mentioned).

      We also have a Judicial Council whose very purpose is to uphold the Discipline of the Church. We have been fortunate, at least in recent times, that the members of the Judicial Council have not been afraid to interpret the Discipline accurately and fairly. There are a couple cases, such as the case of the practicing, married lesbian bishop Oliveto, where the Judicial Council have asked for the local (in this case the Western Jurisdiction) to correct their previously erroneous and illegal decisions (to elect and consecrate Oliveto as a bishop), but so far that Jurisdiction has been non-responsive. This needs to be addressed by the Judicial Council as well.

  4. One of the keys to the General Conference will be the selection of the Delegates to that Conference. Each Annual Conference usually selects these Delegates at the Annual Conference preceding the year of the General Conference year. Transparency of the proceedings between now and the General Conference must have oversight that procedures and policies do not negate the integrity of the representation of delegates to that Conference or create an imbalance of strength to one faction or group. Diligence and preparation now for the forth coming legislative affairs of these proceedings will yield a proper outcome.

    • William says:

      It has been pointed out by Good News and various others that the 2019 Special General Conference delegates will be essentially the same as those at the 2016 General Conference. Now, if Annual Conferences this summer can elect new delegates to the St Louis conference, then that will be the first real battlefield in this war. All eyes are rapidly shifting to St Louis. The very fate of the UMC will be in the hands of those delegates. This is the most important General Conference since the mid-19th century, obviously. Orthodox forces must unite and now focus exclusively on this General Conference and make plans to assure that they are not outmaneuvered by the ever sly progressive forces. This time for accommodation, talk, debate, rhetoric, and dialogue is past. Either the the original Option #1 Plan will be adopted by the delegates or the church will go into division mode immediately thereafter.

    • Roger, if I’m not mistaken, the delegates to the 2016 GC will also serve at this specially called 2019 GC, unless for some reason they cannot serve (health, moving out of the AC area they represent, death, etc.). Then there will be new delegates elected for the 2020 GC.

      Someone please correct me if this is not the case.

  5. This states that the commission’s report to the bishops will contain the THREE models/options:

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishop-urges-new-mindset-for-way-forward

    • Gary Bebop says:

      What’s disturbing about the “new mindset” is that it’s the same covert language-game so familiar to us who reside in progressive conferences. It’s the language of the progressive facilitator, who ostensibly seeks no foreordained outcome but who, in fact, is pressing for change to the church’s traditional policies on sexuality. The language of “making peace” will be used to orchestrate a change antithetical to the ecclesiology advocated by Scott Kisker. “Discipline yourselves, keep alert.”

      • Gary, I agree. Bishop Steiner Ball is up to the same old tricks – act as though it’s a bad thing to go to GC prepared for battle! And yet this is exactly the reality of what happens at GC every four years – there is a battle because progressives do not want to be subject to their ordination vows and the Book of Discipline.

        I find myself simply wanting to tell these people to grow up: they aren’t adults at all. Adults suck it up and sacrifice to do the right thing. Adults understand boundaries and discipline and right and wrong. The progressive movement is nothing but the continuing sexual and moral revolution of the ’60’s (in the United States and other western nations) that keeps pushing boundaries and rejecting authority. Those of us who have repented and grown up are very weary of their tantrums and continued disobedience when they know full well what the church believes.

        Forgive me for sounding less than conciliar, but “tolerance” only goes one way for these people, and their intolerance is so hypocritical to those of us who have chosen to be faithful to the gospel and the BOD in our own personal lives and ministry.

        When will someone (the delegates at the next GC perhaps?) tell these people to grow up and act like adults? Okay – rant over – forgive me; I’m just fed up.

        • Mike,
          Thank you. But, you need no forgiveness for telling the truth. The progressives in the UMC have slyly adopted secular liberal/progressive tactics and planted them in the middle of the discourse across the church. They have mastered the passive aggressive mode of operation and, unfortunately, used it rather successfully. They generally practice what they accuse the orthodox people of doing. They skillfully disguise their hate, intolerance, contempt, and disdain in love, peace, unity, and tolerance talk. They continually attempt to sow doubt and confusion with relation to the Bible by using various forms of subterfuge, supposition, conjecture, and “new revelation” in order to drive a wedge in the denomination with the hope of it ultimately giving them their way. To them, the end justifies the means.

          Yes, the days of accommodation must end in St Louis. The orthodox forces in the UMC MUST show up UNIFIED and with a full proof plan based solely on the BIBLE and confidently present it in order for the delegates to vote a plan for the saving of the Methodist Church.

  6. In addition, why not adopt OPTION #1 and update the BOD along these lines?

    1. Drop the wording homosexuality and simply replace it with sexual immorality so as to be inclusive and non-discriminating.
    2. Keep the stated definition of Christian marriage as only that between a man and a woman.
    3. State that all sexual relations outside that of a man and a woman in Christian marriage constitute sexual immorality and are incompatible with Christian teachings.
    3. State that candidates and licensed or ordained ministers are to be celibate in singleness and are to practice fidelity in Christian marriage.
    4. State that UMC clergy are to perform only Christian marriage ceremonies, and that UMC facilities can only be used for Christian marriages, receptions, etc.

    It is true, the practice of homosexuality has been singled out in the BOD. To be just and fair, all practices of sexual immorality should be equally included.

    Now, if there is Scripture that supports any form of sexual relations outside that of a man and a woman in Christian marriage and is not considered sexual immorality, then let the progressives present it at the 2019 General Conference so that the delegates can see and read it before they vote on a “local option” plan or a “three branch church” plan.

  7. I think William’s suggestion is a great idea. It would remove the word games that are played around the words “self avowed”. Also please pay attention to the actions of the COB. They are seeking a decision form the Judicial council as to whether or not petitions not coming from the COB can be presented to the special GC of 2019. It sounds like they want to stack the deck with only what they propose. If so this is an unprecedented power grab.

    • Gary Bebop says:

      That’s how the game is played. Progressive bishops are deft in the use of semantic mysticism to control the conversation and the process. Amateurs need not apply. To unmask what’s going on will require steely nerves and skill, more of what Scott Kisker has done in this essay. It’s time to wield the two-edged sword.

  8. Keith Griswold says:

    If the following happens, (“Though many bishops do not realize it, if they are successful in pushing through either of the plans they have said they are seriously considering, they will undermine the conciliar and catholic nature of our church, thereby unraveling the very logic of Methodist ecclesiology.”), then we should push on and go back to the future, and thus reinvent the old Methodist Protestant Church that limited the Bishops.

  9. We should push on and go back to the future and thus reinvent the old Methodist Protestant.

  10. Reality is the reason the one church/unity model is appealing to Bishops is because that is exactly the way they have been functioning for decades. Multiple generations of Bishops have become used to keeping multiple theological balls in play because what the church does as a whole is way more important than what we believe.

  11. Gifford Tompkins says:

    I love the suggestion of “William says:” I have long wondered why the BOD regarding sexual ethics focuses on homosexual immorality when heterosexual immorality is equally unacceptable. Celebacy outside of marriage, between a man and a woman, should be the only biblically acceptable stance. As William said, Celibacy in singleness and fidelity in Christian marriage should be the only stance for candidates, licensed or ordained ministers, and for that matter, all who call themselves Christian. Our sin, heterosexual or homosexual, should not be grounds for a call to rewrite the BOD to accommodate our flavor of the month SIN.

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