What Is a “Good” Witness?

By Thomas Lambrecht –

As we approach the 2019 specially-called General Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of the arguments being made for the One Church Plan is that staying structurally united as one church will be a good witness to the world, and that any sort of structural separation would be a bad one. The argument is made from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus’ desire is unquestionably that we be “brought to complete unity” by being “in us” (in the Father and in Christ). This unity that is brought about by our being united with God would indeed be a witness to the world that God loves the world and has sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.

This unity, however, cannot be manufactured by us. Rather, it comes from our being perfectly united with Jesus Christ. As it was once explained to me, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to each other.

What if we don’t have that unity? What if, due to the fact that we imperfectly perceive the things of God in our human condition, our disagreement is of a level that we are not at the same place in our understanding of discipleship and therefore not able to be in unity with one another? The apostles dealt with differences in doctrine and teaching. In some cases, they counseled separation (for example, 2 John 9-10, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).

We have in the church two groups that believe the other group is bringing erroneous or false teaching into the church. Traditionalists believe that to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman would be to violate the clear teaching of Scripture, including the specific teachings of Jesus on marriage. Such teaching would be false and not true to the Gospel and therefore unacceptable in the church.

Progressives believe that the Bible does not speak about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and that the Holy Spirit is showing the church a new way that affirms such relationships as equivalent to marriage in every way. They believe that to discriminate (as they see it) against same-sex attracted persons is a violation of Jesus’ commandment to love one another and is therefore a false teaching that must be changed and repudiated by the church.

We should all be able to admit that these two views are mutually exclusive and cannot survive long-term in the same church. When two groups hold each other as purveyors of false teaching, even in biblical terms, separation is justified.

A Better Way

So what is a “good witness” in a situation like this?

Earlier in the same “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

If we cannot be united in structure, we can at least witness to the world by treating one another with love and respect. This would be a dramatic departure from the way the world is doing things right now, particularly in the civil and political realm. Love doesn’t mean approval or agreement with another, but reflects the way that we treat one another in our disagreement.

So far, the tone is not encouraging. One United Methodist blogger levelled the cheap slur of “Metho-fascists” against those who believe differently than he does. The slur is not defined or explained, and no examples are given. Reconciling Ministries Network has featured an article by a progressive African pastor serving in ministry in the U.S. charging Good News with taking a “colonial” attitude toward partnership with African leaders and delegates. The article contains factual errors and spends most of its space recounting grievous instances of “cultural imperialism” committed by others decades ago, smearing Good News with guilt by association.

It is a clever and slick political ploy to attempt to drive a wedge between traditionalists in America and traditionalists in Africa. It will not work because we share the same view of the Lordship of Christ, high regard for the authority of Scripture, and a biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. One can ask the three African bishops who attended the meeting being criticized whether they felt dominated or demeaned by any American participation.

Moving Forward

For a number of years, Good News has advocated that progressives and evangelicals come together to agree on a way forward for the church that would allow each group to go its separate way, each doing ministry as it believes God is calling, with the respect and blessing of the church. Could we not be like Paul and Barnabas, who, despite a “sharp disagreement,” parted company in a way that allowed for future reconciliation (Acts 15:36-41)? Could we not adopt the attitude of Abraham in his conflict with his nephew Lot? “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Genesis 13:8-9).

There were glimmers of that possibility in private discussions at the 2016 General Conference. However, hopes of working toward an amicable separation were dashed in the Commission on a Way Forward process.

We are left now with adversarial choices that will bring about “winners and losers,” with the resultant pain and turmoil in the church. (Of course, no matter what decision the General Conference makes, there will be pain and turmoil in the church.)

The Traditional Plan, while firm in its accountability process, aims to be gracious toward those who cannot live with the decision of the General Conference regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Maintaining structural unity is not the only way the church can give a good witness to the world. After all, how loving is it to force people to go against their consciences and violate their deeply held beliefs, as the One Church Plan envisions?

If we must take the road of adversarial choices, can we not do it with love and grace toward one another, giving the world a witness of how we believe Christ followers should treat one another? Can we not find a way to allow those with deeply held beliefs that differ from the church’s teaching to depart with our blessing? And cannot those who deeply disagree with the church’s teaching find a more fruitful approach to ministry than to continue badgering the church to force it to change its teaching against its will? That would be a witness to celebrate.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He also served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Comments

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Tom – well written.

    The best solution for both sides – that would not create the perception of winners and losers – would be an amicable separation that the leadership on both sides of this divide would agree to and support in 2019 (or failing that, in 2010).

    The outcome of the Commission on the Way Forward has given us all the evidence we need that amicable separation is indeed the Way Forward.

  2. Again, well stated!

  3. “Can we not find a way to allow those with deeply held beliefs that differ from the church’s teachings to depart with our blessings?”

    Searching the history of this conflict, I am unable to find a petition of departure by the liberal wing of the church that has ever been brought before a General Conference for a vote. I cannot imagine a General Conference that would not have voted in favor of such a petition and ended this conflict years ago.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong — the liberal wing of the UMC has never shown any desire to depart the denomination with which they are in deep disagreement with. It seems like the antithesis of this has been the reality for these 40+ years. It looks like the good witness has flowed in only one direction.

    However, pray God that the upcoming General Conference, indeed, is a good witness as BOTH sides approach this in good faith and actually arrive at an amicable solution.

    • Exactly. Sure we can allow progressives to depart but they won’t. That is the problem. They intend to stay and continue their disobedient actions. Do we leave like sheep or are we willing to force them out?

      • They will not leave because they do not have the money to keep the show going. This is why they will not let you leave without paying a huge penalty. Look at PCUSA and all the churches that have left. The paid a king’s ransom to leave and now PCUSA is bleeding members and cash. PCUSA says they are in the process of reimagining the church because it cost too much. If the One Church plan wins it will mean bankruptcy.

      • I absolutely agree – progressives have no intent on leaving – see the new UMC Mainline group that will try to control everything in 2019 and 2020 as they raise funds to push this like a political agenda.

        The only way there will be an amicable separation will be if traditionalists bring it to the floor and win the vote against progressives, who will mostly vote against it.

  4. Is anyone else grieving over the perilous condition of the United Methodist Church as we approach the most important General Conference since the 1840s? The enemy is inside our church and attempting to transform it into little more than a pagan organization.

    • Thomas Luther says:

      I believe the enemy has succeeded in his attempt.

    • We are reaping our reward for being “inclusive” and “welcoming”. We have welcomed and included bishops and clergy who are dishonest and do not believe what United Methodists profess to believe. Now they want the rest of us to change what we believe and we seem to be powerless to get rid of them.

  5. The article says…..”Progressives believe that the Bible does not speak about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and that the Holy Spirit is showing the church a new way that affirms such relationships as equivalent to marriage in every way. They believe that to discriminate (as they see it) against same-sex attracted persons is a violation of Jesus’ commandment to love one another and is therefore a false teaching that must be changed and repudiated by the church.”

    This statement afirms there is no way there is ever going to be a “peaceful, gracious, loving exit” for those on this side of the issue. The don’t want to exit. They are like irrational, emotion driven teenagers who want, what they want, when they want it.

    The only way to deal with them is not through conversation but through a consistent calm “No”. It is futile to try and reason with them. It is useless to try and debate with them. They will not be willing (or able) to hear your side. They will twist your words, no matter how lovingly you say it. The longer they can keep the Traditional side in deadend futile arguements, they believe they will be able to change our minds. To grind us down. It’s time to step away.

    As Jesus said in Matthew 10:14…
    “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet.”
    There is a time to leave them to their fate. To walk away.

    • Do progressives believe that the Holy Spirit is now in disagreement with God’s creation of male and female, telling Him that His created order for marriage was wrong or incomplete, and, likewise, in disagreement with Jesus as He reaffirmed God’s created order for marriage? Can the Holy Spirit be in conflict with the Father and Son? Progressives obviously need to take a hard look at who is actually showing them this “new way”.

      No, of course there is no way a real Wesleyan Christian could ever accept this. If the One Church Plan is approved, traditional Wesleyan Christians will be forced out of the church and into the new Wesleyan Covenant Association denomination or other.

  6. Scott Campbell says:

    Thanks, Tom, for a fair and balanced description of the reality before us. The legislation you submitted to the last General Conference could have gone a long way towards lifting us out of the current dilemma. I am sorry it never made it to the floor.

  7. For the sake of unity the Traditionalists are expected to suck it up & go on. One Plan however only hanging in there for the $600 million annual budget and a UMC Bureaucracy/Bishops over halfway there already (accountability per the joke (The Discipline) dumped a long time ago. The Melvin Talbert/Joseph Sprague/David Meridith cracks are now valleys (not counting the 30 years of erosion in the seminaries). I’ve been contemplating escape for a long time, not sure if I can wait for Traditionalists to do final cave-in at St. Louis.

  8. I guess I am a progressive. Although I truly believe in the word of God I find myself thinking that we must change our stance on same sex marriage. The Bible is the word of God interpreted by man. Could it be that man put their own beliefs into God’s word? I pray that our church will not split, but I believe this is going to destroy the UMC as we know it today. God be with the special conference in 2019.

  9. Waymon Hughen says:

    Reading all the comments only solidifies my opinion th
    at the UMC will have to split into different factions of beliefs. I agree we must go our separate ways.

  10. Bill Holland says:

    The problem seems to be the labeling of people. The UMC is becoming, and may already be, only an institution of like minded people. It is becoming something that Wesley would have objected to and certainly Jesus would not accept as the “church”.

  11. Jack Groshans says:

    I want to start by saying I have been a Methodist for 4 years. With that being said, I will start from the beginning and work my way down through biblical history. We read in Genesis where Satan got the idea that he should place his throne above the throne of GOD. Why would he do that, because of his pride. He felt it was his right, so he started a rebellion to overthrow GOD. I am still in Genesis and we find Satan that came and had a “conversation” with Eve. Rather than shut satan down, she negotiated with him. Now, listen up people, EVERY TIME you negotiate with Satan, YOU WILL LOSE. The church is in negotiations with Satan for the right of the church to proclaim the church for JESUS. However, they are negotiating with Satan. The church hierarchy is trying to give their terms to Satan and yet we hear militant homosexuals rebuffing all attempts as they want full admission into all levels of church policy making, and implementing full authority in all church matters.

    Now to continue. I have asked many pastors through my 30 years as a preacher; why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Most all of them said, HOMOSEXUALALITY. I responded with a resounding NO, that is not why. I told them they had the very same response to God as Satan had. We want our throne to be above GOD. They shook their fists at God and demanded to have sex with an angel of GOD. They had no regard for GOD nor for his workers, angelic and human. We see this very same spirit today. Homosexuality is a demonic spirit.

    Scripture tells us that our weapons for battle are spiritual for the pulling down of strong holds. Scripture does not preclude us from dealing with people who are blatant about their beliefs and how the church should bow down to them. I do realize Methodists have little if any clue about spiritual warfare but, we are in a war. The spirit of homosexuality is THAT, a spirit. Why are homosexuals so adamant to add Methodists to their long list of denominations that have also negotiated with Satan and have fallen to his lies. Because they are in need to add a MAJOR denomination so that there is the appearance that the church is on their side and not the side of GOD.

    God is not mad at any person alive. He does have standards and GOD does not change, that is if you believe what scripture says. His desire is for people to come to him, NOT negotiate terms with him.
    It is also my opinion that should Methodists go the tradition route, they will see an exodus of churches, but not near the number they are projecting by treaty to those who truly seek it’s destruction and they would not be lowering their yearly budgets to the tune of $150,000,000.

    Here is a prophetic word I received. “Something GREAT is about to happen in the church”. Do Methodists desire to participate in what I call another GREAT AWAKENING, I believe that is a resounding YES. Love the homosexual, do not negotiate with Satan. Remember he knows the word and is an expert in twisting it. This war does belong to GOD, but we need to speak HIS words and not that of militant groups that seek to over throw HIM. It is time for Methodists to know how to do battle, I should know, I spent many Years in the U.S. NAVY. I worked in Navy Intelligence and I know how our enemies work. This is the year of the CHURCH, not our enemy Satan.

  12. Brian Breeding says:

    Sadly, the writer errs two-fold. First, the quoted scripture does not advocate “unity.” I am “one” with my wife but we are often not “united” in our beliefs and ideas. This choice of a term is false and closes down doors of communication. A far better choice is “harmony.” We will probably not agree on specifics but we CAN be harmonious in the relationship. Second, his understanding and interpretation of scripture regarding “traditional” marriage is profoundly antiquated and out of date with contemporary research and evidence. Again, he simply states the Bible states marriage to be between one woman and one man, obviously ignoring ample evidence to the contrary. While I respect his right to his views, in this case he is simply wrong.

  13. Wayne R. Perry says:

    I believe that the book of Discipline is based on the Bible. As far as the gay people, I know a few and that is their business. I do not believe that they should hold a position of authority in the Methodist Church such as a pastor or higher. I do believe that we should help them. If the church decides on the one church model, I will leave the church after 78 years in the Methodist Church.

  14. Lloyd Nyarota says:

    What about asking both extremes out of the church and leave people who want to focus on mission and preaching repentance doing what Christ instructed us to do. Making disciples for him for the transformation of the world. serving the poor, the hungry, and outcast healing the sick and educating the uneducated.
    I am an African and I am tired of this American fight that is not going to come to an end.
    Americans as star born as they are I tell you once the traditional plan is passed there is going to be a huge demonstration and mostly Africans are going to be blamed as they are blamed by everyone in The United Methodist Church when things do not go the way they want.
    Again that means another road of these demonstrations at every General Conference. Almost in every conference in the USA there is a group that support homosexuality and a group that oppose it.
    I stand to be corrected can someone name one conference in the USA where there are no LGBTQQIA people and allays.
    If that is the case then even if WCA becomes a denomination in 2020 they will still have to deal with homosexuality because it has become part of the American society. My surprise I am not hearing any traditionalist saying we are going to preach against homosexuality and cast out the demons as a way to purify the church. All are talking about chasing them away. Jesus did not chase away the lepers who were unclean but he healed them.
    If homosexuality is something these people decided to do why are the American traditionalist not working to convict them by the gospel. The church was established by Christ to preach and make disciples and we make these disciples out of sinners.
    The church must not legislate control of sin but the church must pray for sin to be eliminated unless even the traditionalist no longer believe in the power of prayer and the power of the gospel.
    You Traditionalist Americans what have you been preaching in your churches for this behaviour to grow in your churches.
    These are the questions that bother me every time I listen to Americans talking. Now you are making efforts to drag Africa into the fights and when we point it out you turn around American style to blame us for saying neocolonialism is a sin.

  15. Mary Spurgeon says:

    You all would be greatly helped and comforted by informing yourselves about what the “One Church” plan actually says. What I read in this article bears little resemblance to how the Bishop of the Great Plains Conference described it. The God you claim to follow appears to be a small-hearted, puny, punitive bully. If that is the kind of God that you think any church structure should be based upon, then the sooner that church falls apart, the sooner it will stop hurting people. If you are worshipping that God out of fear, then stop it. Quit giving it your power. Throw it over your shoulder. There is a much bigger God out there. Seek, and ye shall find. When you are not scared, you will find that you can actually think.

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