I Confess: I Don’t Understand

The Rev. Rob Renfroe

By Rob Renfroe –

I remain confounded as to why the majority of bishops would endorse “The “One Church Plan” as a way to unify the denomination. In a previous editorial, I suggested that one reason is they do not comprehend who we evangelicals are, what we believe, and how deeply we hold those beliefs. They simply cannot understand that many of us will feel compelled to leave the denomination should the United Methodist Church change its sexual ethics. So, in the name of unity, they are supporting a plan that will actually cause the church to shatter.

I’ve done some introspection and I confess that I don’t understand those who are behind the “One Church Plan.”  I think I understand progressives. They believe we should change the church’s position so that all pastors are compelled to marry gay couples and all annual conferences will ordain practicing homosexuals. They believe any other policy is unjust, homophobic, and a failure to be like Jesus who accepted everyone. I disagree with progressives, but I understand why they think the church should change and change now.

It’s the “centrists” I cannot comprehend. They believe the church can hold and promote two contradictory sexual ethics at the same time. Under the “One Church Plan,” some of us in the name of Jesus could teach that homosexual practice is contrary to God’s will and refuse to marry gay couples. Others of us, also in the name of Jesus, could teach and do the opposite. Some annual conferences could reject the ordination of practicing homosexuals whereas other conferences could ordain such persons – both in the name and with the authority of the same United Methodist Church. The One Church Plan would allow some of us to teach that the practice of homosexuality is a sin and others of us to call it a blessing.

I cannot understand how anyone can suggest that one church hold such contradictory positions. Do centrists believe that God has not spoken about sexuality so each of us is free to determine our own position? Do they believe that God has spoken, but not clearly enough for the church to know his mind so it’s acceptable to teach contradictory doctrines? Or do they believe that God has spoken clearly, but God’s views on sexuality are not important enough for the entire church to have one position?

I know that some centrists have said they want the church to adopt a fully progressive position, but their local churches are not ready for such a big change. So, the One Church Plan is a way of providing their congregations time to change their views with the least disruption. Still, I don’t understand. If ordaining and marrying gay persons are matters of justice or of being true to the Spirit of Jesus, how long should we give people to change? I would like the centrists to tell me how long they would have given their congregations to welcome persons of color into their churches or for their pastor to perform interracial marriages. Would they have promoted a plan that allowed churches to discriminate against African Americans for a time? Or would they have said, “faithfulness to Jesus means we must be fully inclusive now, and if it disrupts local congregations, so be it. If we don’t embrace persons of color, we’re not really the church, anyway.” That I could understand – and respect (and agree with). But I simply don’t understand how principled people can promote a plan that allows for what they believe is discriminatory, unjust, and unfaithful to Christ until their congregations at some future indeterminate time finally become enlightened. 

Something else I don’t understand is what centrists believe has changed since General Conference 2016. As president of the Council of Bishops at that time, Bishop Warner Brown (now retired) called progressive, centrist, and evangelical leaders together at the beginning of that General Conference to discuss how we might move forward with a spirit of mutual respect. It was one of the leading centrists who said in that meeting, “I think it’s inevitable that the church will split.” His statement turned what was to be one meeting into four. Our talks were respectful and frank. Before the meeting concluded, all of us agreed that none of the plans before General Conference – what now are known as the “connectional church plan,” the “one church plan,” and the “traditionalist plan” – could hold the church together. 

In Portland before the Conference ended, a different leading centrist, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, told a group of college and seminary students that as he sat in those meetings and as he thought about the growing number of African delegates, “I began to think no matter what, even if we allow conservatives to go, we’re still in the same stuck place. … So the conversation began to be what if a special commission was appointed (to) … develop … a plan for reordering the life of the people called Methodists in the United Methodist Church. That plan for reordering would create out of one UM church potentially three new UM churches.  One would be the conservative UM Church. One would be a church for those who are progressive who only want to be in a church with people who are progressive …. And then a church for … United Methodists who are somewhere in the middle…. I’m sitting in these meetings and I’m like ‘I feel like I want to throw up’ when I ’m thinking about this and I’m also thinking I don’t really see any other way that we’re ever going to break past the gridlock.”

So, centrist leaders agreed behind closed doors that our differences are irreconcilable and then went out and told the world that the only way to break our gridlock was to adopt a plan that would create three new churches. But shortly thereafter, they began to promote the One Church Plan that is hard to distinguish from the “local option” plan they had agreed would not “break past the gridlock.”

I don’t understand. What has changed? Maybe something has and I’m not aware of it. The centrist leaders were promoting the One Church Plan long before the commission made its report and prior to the majority of bishops endorsing the centrist plan. So something must have changed that had nothing to do with the commission or the bishops that made the One Church Plan now capable of breaking our gridlock and unifying the church. But I have no idea what that might be.

I also don’t understand why centrist leaders believe they can determine for the rest of us that we should be able to live with a compromised sexual ethic. Centrist leaders have been quoted in recent news articles and have told us in personal conversations, “Marriage and ordination of homosexual persons is not an issue that should divide the church.”  Leaders with the “Uniting Methodists” caucus are not only proposing a change in our sexual ethics that we believe contradicts the clear teaching of the Scriptures and leads people into sin, but they also feel they have the right to tell the rest of us how we should respond to those changes.

Imagine that I tell my wife, “I’d like to change our covenant. The change would allow me to do what you believe is wrong and unfaithful, but it shouldn’t break up our marriage because you don’t have to do the same things if you don’t want to.  Honestly, dear, I don’t see my changing our covenant as a marriage-dividing issue and you shouldn’t either.”

I think my wife would believe she has the right to decide what kind of marriage she can and cannot live with. I am also very sure she would find it rather demeaning that I thought I could tell her how she ought to respond to the changes I wanted to make to our covenant. It certainly would not make her feel like a valued and equal partner. Nor would that kind of disrespect  make her want to remain in our relationship.

I am completely clueless how others who want to change our covenant feel comfortable telling me how I should react. I get to decide how I will respond if the church adopts a position that violates my conscience and makes me complicit in promoting what the Bible teaches is contrary to God’s will and harms people. So do you.

I think I understand progressives within the church. But I confess: I don’t get centrists. I don’t understand what they believe about sexual ethics, why they think a plan they once said wouldn’t solve our problems now will, or how they feel comfortable telling traditionalists that we should not make a big deal out of a plan that contradicts the Scriptures and two thousand years of Christian teaching.

Comments

  1. Thomas Luther says:

    I totally agree with you! But I think I know the difference in those who can see the problem and those who can’t. Those who can’t see are spiritually blind because they have never confessed their sin, repented of it and trusted in Christ for salvation. They trust in a god who allows them to continue to rebel against his commands and he is all loving. They have experienced Grace but not Truth and Jesus came to bring is both! Those of us who know what it means to be in fellowship with a Holy God have learned that He does not want us to be United with unbelievers! And if we know that salvation is by faith in Christ through Grace that leads us to repentance of sin and not tolerance of sin, then we know that we need to be set free from those who are blind so we can diligently seek to proclaim the Grace and Truth of God’s Gospel to those who are perishing! We seem more concerned with trying to save the denomination than the souls that are bound for hell!

  2. Tim Farrell says:

    I believe the centrist position is the prime example of a failure of nerve on the part of the UMC leadership. It’s easier to try to accommodate all sides than to take a stance with conviction. I’m convinced its a position rooted in deep fear and one that will only harm the denomination. What’s needed is the courage to communicate self-definition and to stand by that definition even if it causes unwanted changes. Accommodation allows our current leadership to “keep their hands clean” and not feel the burden of what is ultimately inevitable (an approach that cannot be sustained). What we need in our denomination is courageous leadership… yet all that we are getting is a shadow of leadership where fingers are crossed and politics are played. Nothing good or lasting comes from a centrist position. It seems we’ve lost sight of John Wesley’s kind of leadership and a theology that centers on what was once our distinctive calling… to spread scriptural holiness across this land. I think all we seem to be spreading is capitulation to culture and what we think people want.

  3. Rob, the truth is that most of the “centrists” are not truly centrists, they are progressives who just see this as a step on the path towards full inclusion. There are a few “centrists” who do not have a developed theology and go by the “can’t we all just get along” theory, but I doubt there are many, especially clergy who are truly centrists. How many people are traditionalists and still support the one church plan? The only ones that are, are the ones who have given up the fight. A few weeks ago my DS told me that even if the one church plan didn’t pass this time, that it would keep coming back until it is passed. Sadly I have to agree with him, that the progressives will never leave and never give up. I hope they never win but the battle is fatiguing. His reasoning was that with the change in society it is inevitable that the church will change. In other words we will change our church to accommodate society. Here is the crux of the issue. Christians have always believed that we were to change to accommodate the teachings of Jesus Christ. We were to be transformed people. Now the leadership of the church wants the teachings of Jesus Christ to accommodate the will of the people. We have changed the focus of the church by 180 degrees. I given up totally talking to the progressives. They are mostly closed minded, angry, and hateful. Ever since I was labeled a “Methofacist” on um-insight I have given up on them. Personally I am ready to let them have the UMC, the 500 million dollar bloated budget and the useless progressive agencies and form a new denomination that honors Wesleyan values and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  4. Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth says:

    One Church Plan = The United Methodist Church – (doctrine + discipline)

  5. “I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, Breaking my covenant with them.” Leviticus 26:44
    WHY I DISAGREE WITH THE SIMPLE CHURCH PLAN & THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH PLAN
    Humans are not good at keeping covenant which basically means maintaining relationships. Within the scriptures however we see that God remains faithful despite human sinfulness (turning away from God) and that is the difference between human covenants and the divine covenant. Humanity is corruptible and temporary. The divine is unchanging and never-ending. This is why we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and that he was fully human and fully divine. So that by his human nature he could represent all of humanity; but that despite his fully human nature, because he was also fully divine, he would still be able to maintain covenant with God on our behalf. The new and final biblical covenant based on sacrificial love is summarized in the great commandment to love God and to love others as yourself. The great commandment provides a means by which people can make moral decisions which take into account the diversity of ethical goods or goals which coexist in a more just manner. The example of divine covenant teaches us that it is possible for us to remain in covenant with God and with one another even when we disagree and even when rules are broken and it is absolutely necessary to remain in covenant if we really want to be included in God’s new creation.

    While I understand the desire of both the Simple Church Plan and the Traditionalist Plan proponents to remain true to their convictions, in the process of pursuing total uniformity of the Body with their convictions, they are promoting a complete break in their connection or relationship with all those who disagree with them, which in essence means breaking covenant. ABOVE ALL ELSE AND DESPITE ALL ELSE, GOD MAINTAINS COVENANT AND WILL THEREFORE ALWAYS MAINTAIN RELATIONSHIP WITH US. THUS WE TOO, while we may have disagreements and may need to go in some separate ways, we MUST MAINTAIN SOME TYPE OF CONNECTION.
    Pax Christi, ut omnes unum sint ut.

    • Well, no Keith. It is impossible for God to make a covenant with Satan and certainly would never consider maintaining some type of connection with him. That’s where we’ve arrived, in our separate ways, either stay with God or turn and follow Satan. This is no middle or centrist ground to be found since it does not exist.

    • We are all Christians even if we belong to different Denominations and disagree on various points of theology so we do have a covenant with each other. Traditionalists want to retain their convictions as stated in the Discipline of the UMC. There are already Denominations with a theology which agrees with that of the centrists and progressives so there is no need to change the UMC.

    • Your thoughts reflect the general loss of understanding in The UMC that it is only one small part of the universal/catholic Church. As such it shares some theology with every other part of the universal Church but at the same times it possesses theology that is unique only to it. John Wesley split with the Fetter Lane Society over what I call “lesser theology” and moved to the Foundry. There is absolutely nothing in our history to justify trying to maintain a covenant while peaching/teaching contradictory beliefs that basically cancel each other out. While the church represents its understanding of God to the world, ultimately the church is not God.

    • If I understand this correctly, you think the church should accommodate the sinfulness of humans since none of us can go without sinning. I thought the job of the church was to teach people to accommodate the teachings of God and Jesus Christ and lead us away from sin. Are you saying that since we are all doomed to sin, we should just do what we want and God will not punish us, or do you not believe in divine punishment?

  6. Ommer B Everson says:

    It’s all about money and power They know it won’t work but want salaries and benefits for themselves and buddies.

  7. Beverly McIntosh says:

    I agree with William’s comment “either stay God or turn and follow Satan”. Wide is the way but narrow is the gate. Social gay behavior while it may be accepted society should not be upheld in leadership roles of the Church. I’m not condemning the individual just the action.

  8. I am convinced that Centrists are actually Progressives who are willing to move at a slower pace while engaging in deceptions along the way. The Traditional Plan has to be passed to save our denomination.

  9. Tami Chandler says:

    The centrists believe the traditionalists are not enlightened and therefore will eventually change their views and come to understand the new more liberal version of truth. The more liberal version is inclusion of all, sin us arbitrary. I have heard and sat through countless sermons on God’s love and how we should remember how much we are loved. The cross is still visible in the sanctuary but the one who hung on it is seldom discussed. He is the sword and we who truly know Him understand that it is He that is dividing us. On the one side is those that only want to hear of God’s love and on the other side are those that know that love came at a cost. It is as if He is whispering to our hearts, “take up your cross and follow me”. We know if things continue that we cannot stay. We will take up our cross by the millions and follow Him away from the Methodist church.

  10. Kevin Thomas says:

    Rob we recently had a district meeting with our Bishop and conference superintendent about the proposed plans. Bishop Trimble stayed that he believed this issue was not a matter of theological importance to the church. Perhaps this attitude answers the position of the Bishops support of the local church plan. I disagree completely and am tired of being told otherwise. This seems very reminiscent of the arrogance or self elevation that lead to the reformation to begin with. Perhaps we have come full circle and have to make a choice

  11. Our disagreement is about theology but their reluctance to leave and form their own Denomination is because of appointments, salaries, health insurance, expense accounts, pensions etc. They need the financial backing of the UMC.

  12. Stephen Rhoades says:

    Like Rob suggests, I’m convinced many “centrists” are really progressives in disguise. Perhaps some are simply “progressive lite” folks. Beyond that, our church is filled with people for whom the preservation of the present institution is of primary importance (and that group is much larger than just the bureaucrats). I suspect the threat of change and/or loss is hugely threatening to these people. Finally, I think Billy Abraham’s observations about “doctrinal amnesia” are sadly relevant to our crisis.

  13. If they go with the one church plan. You can read about them in Revelation 3:14 to 21. As far as finances go. Who will pay their shares in ministry, if they think the money will go to support those who don’t believe as they do. I know I cannot support those who say sin is ok.

  14. Pastor Rob,
    In your opening line, you suggest that the bishops maintain backing the “One Church Plan” because it will “unify the denomination.” Given my clerical lineage, I have been exposed, socially, to UM ministers, district supers and bishops. My personal observation has led me to believe that most pastors, some district supers and few bishops are what I would refer to as “men and women of the people.” The higher you go in the UM ecclesiastical “food chain,” the more distant they are from the people in the pews. There has always been a significant degree of arrogance among the UM aristocrat class and this current schism is simply bringing into specific relief an issue that has been with us since the beginning. Pastors, missionaries and those who are closer to the men/women in the pews have a greater empathy for and appreciation of the daily walk of the typical UM member. Those bishops, supers and clergy, who choose to keep their own company and incubate themselves in the theological nests of their like-minded colleagues, are caught in the trap of their own self-righteousness and their theological deafness. In their arrogance, they are prepared to risk loosing the majority of the church membership, the financial resources and the blessings of a long-suffering God. Perhaps there are issues that incidental to church unity; however, choosing to directly disobey God’s Word, thumb their collective noses at decades of Wesleyan theological teaching and place themselves in direct opposition to the UMC Book of Discipline are hardly incidental. These are issues which disqualify these leaders of the UMC from church offices and positions of influence; they are a stain on the theological pilgrimage of John Wesley; most of all, they are putting their eternal salvation in jeopardy, as they add to and take away from God’s holy word. Unity is NOT more important than the salvation of our eternal souls. I beg these people to seek the truth of God’s word and pray that the Holy Spirit will, in spite of the late hour, convict, convince and purify these wayward brothers and sisters before their arrogance takes down the entire denomination. May God hear this prayer.

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