Case for Separate Paths

By Kent Millard and David F. Watson –

The Revs. David F. Watson and Kent Millard work side by side at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of United Theological Seminary.

As the 2019 General Conference limped toward its conclusion, those in attendance were reminded that we could not stay beyond our allotted time in the convention center. The next major event would be a monster truck rally. The monster truck rally prep crew needed time to spread dirt on the floor, set up the ramps, and roll out the old junkers that would meet their doom beneath the massive tires of trucks with names like Grave Digger and Maximum Destruction.

Given what we were sitting through, however, the prospect of a monster truck rally seemed relatively peaceful. As far as we were concerned, Maximum Destruction had already smashed its way through the room and left a pile of rubble in its wake.

The two of us write this article in a spirit both of lament and hope. Neither of us were “early adopters” of separation proposals. We are both ordained elders. We have both served on boards and agencies, in local churches, and in a United Methodist seminary. In fact, we have worked together at United Theological Seminary for over three years. One of us, Kent, is a Centrist. The other, David, has aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. There is much upon which we agree. There are a few things upon which we disagree. Yet we do so respectfully and without rancor. We are friends and colleagues. The debates within The United Methodist Church will not change that. We have worked hard together to foster an ethos at United that honors the Triune God through the historic Christian faith, while also accommodating the diversity of thought that facilitates intellectual growth.

Both of us have The United Methodist Church in our bones. Nevertheless, we recognize the political realities of the denomination we serve have become unsustainable. The 2019 General Conference was supposed to bring closure to our denominational dispute over human sexuality. It did not. In fact it made things much worse. The atmosphere was toxic, the rhetoric vitriolic. Each of us has friends and respected colleagues on all sides of our denominational dispute. We hurt with our friends who were hurt by those four days in St. Louis.

We cannot change what happened in the past, but the future is another matter. The path before us is not yet determined. It is entirely possible that the 2020 General Conference will be a repeat of 2019. This will only bring more acrimony and heartbreak, and will ultimately drive more people away from the church. While one “side” will prevail in the 2020 voting, there will be no true winners. Everyone will lose. It has become abundantly clear that more or better legislation cannot solve our denominational problems. Continued fighting will only further compromise our witness to the gospel.

We have both come to believe, then, that the best course of action would be for The United Methodist Church to enter a formal process of separation. It is time for the different factions in the UM Church to say to one another, like Abraham and Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me … for we are kindred” (Genesis 13:8). Our desire for separation comes not from a place of contempt for those with whom we disagree, but from a desire to have peace and focus on bringing redemption to a broken world. The conflict within the UM Church only draws our attention away from the church’s evangelistic mission. While our denomination is focused on internal disagreements, we cannot focus on those outside the church who so desperately need to hear the redemptive message of the gospel.

We believe that this may be a time to divide and multiply. If we divide from each other and stop fighting we will be free to multiply our ministries among our particular constituencies. We might even be able to offer each other a blessing as we go our separate ways in sharing God’s Good News as we understand it. God brings resurrection and new life out of crucifying experiences, and this may be a way God can bring new life to the Methodist Movement out of the crucifying experience we all had in St. Louis in February 2019.

To be clear, neither of us is suggesting exactly what the division of the UM Church should look like or how it should happen. There are myriad possibilities for how division might take place. We are simply saying that we must get enough space between the warring factions in the church to stop the endless cycle of fighting.

If you go to the visitor’s center at the top of Mount Denali in Alaska you will see the skeletons of two bull elk with their horns interlocked. They crashed into each other so forcefully that they could not disengage from each other. Both died and were later found by hunters, their horns still interlocked. Our concern is that if we do not disengage from the fighting within our denomination, our unending conflict itself will bring us all down.

It doesn’t have to end this way. The 2019 General Conference in St. Louis demonstrated that we cannot live peaceably together in the same house. Perhaps the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis could demonstrate how we could live in different houses and learn how to be good neighbors to each other. Before the 2020 General Conference traditionalists, centrists, and progressives of good will could come together to present a process to General Conference for amicable separation with a fair distribution of denominational assets. It could ultimately be a win for both sides. Yes, it will be a challenge, but it will be a better way forward than simply continuing the decades long conflict.

Kent Millard is President of United Theological Seminary. He served 47 years in the UM Church as a pastor, most recently at St. Luke’s UM Church in Indianapolis. He is the author of The Passion Driven Congregation (with Dr. Carver McGriff), Lead Like Butler (with Brad Stevens and Judith Cebula) and The Gratitude Path.

David F. Watson is Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary. His most recent book is
Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever. He is one of the hosts of Plain Truth: A Holy-Spirited Podcast and blogs at www.davidwatson.me. 

Comments

  1. Doug Lee says

    This article reflects my thinking. I lean conservative but have no animosity toward my liberal bothers and sisters who act with dignity and Christlike. I see your ideas as the best way forward,

    • Sue Brooke says

      I agree. We cannot and should not change the UMC to accommodate those who disagree with the current policies which I firmly believe are the Biblical truth. If liberals want something different, they need to start their own denomination without any assets from the current church. They want something different. That’s fine, but not at the expense of what has been the policy.

  2. Henning M Poulsen says

    This is the most reasonable and balanced I have seen for a very very long time!

  3. The UMC should be disbanded completely, with all assets divided between churches proportionally, and the name defunct.
    Each church could then build it’s own connections with whomever it chooses, and pursue the ministries it chooses. It could structure itself (with/without bishops, etc.) as it chooses. If individual churches form into larger groups that are similar to the UMC, then they can also choose their own name.
    And if, at some point in the future, the factions decide they have enough of a belief system in common, they could come together again.

    • April Jagger says

      A reasonable idea

    • Very well said!

    • Delores Revelle says

      I agree with this Christian. I don’t understand how the Methodist
      church has become so divided when there is the Discipline which
      Explains what Methodist are suppose to follow regarding LGBT
      Matters. I believe the church should disband with assets being given
      Back to the individual churches and members. I do not want to belong
      To a church whose bishops and top hierarchy does not abide by the Disciplines they promised to uphold

    • Alice C Moore says

      I believe there are so many fractions that this would destroy the missions and evangelistic programs that we have so much more strength doing together with our larger organization. Read Psalm 133.

    • Dan Duff says

      What is sin and do I accept that I have sinned? We are called to Love not to the world. Be in the world but not of it. Do we live by principles set forth by the Holy Spirit or our own desires? In Roman’s 1: 26 -27 Paul said something about this issue. Matthew 19 Jesus had something to say about God’s plan. Who do you follow Jesus or world? standards?

  4. Although a life-long Methodist I had difficulty accepting an appointment 8 years ago as a licensed pastor in a denomination embroiled in civil war for half a century. The situation has only escalated during my tenure and when I was called by a church of another denomination I accepted the position to become their pastor. I am not especially enamored with their liberal polity but their’s is a covenetal system rather than connectional which speaks to the local church, not for it. This allows my traditional congregation the latitude to remain true to their biblical understanding in the practice of ministry without compromising their values. Say what you want about the UCC but they’ve never elected a gay bishop…

    • Metho-Anglican says

      They don’t have bishops, do they?

    • w h dailey says

      The UMC does have a “biblical understanding”. Those who disagree should demonstrate and honor their convictions by leaving and forming congregations under whatever name and symbols they choose with the full understanding that nothing in the church they are voluntarily abandoning belongs to them. Church doctrine is not what makes this separation difficult. It’s the “things” that those leaving want to take with them. I would respectfully submit that if those who feel compelled to leave make a truly “clean start” in a new “home” of their choosing they will be stronger for it. The sooner this happens the better for all.

  5. I heartily agree the divisions are deep and unrelenting. It is time for the
    Methodist church to part ways.

  6. Jon Burk says

    Ellen, wouldn’t that that would be letting down the UMC worldwide? Those who stood and voted for historical values and voted to uphold the Book of Discipline in other countries, would then be set adrift? That sounds like a drastic solution which is not appropriate.

  7. Stephen Burkhart says

    Unfortunately, the “collegiality” expressed in this great witness, is nearly non- existent in “the field”. Evangelical pastors and churches are persecuted for taking a stand against the elite centrist/progressive corrupt leadership structure . Praying you both can move past the “safety” of “generalized theory” and work witin your network to participate in developing definatuve solutions. Those on the front lines don’t need more “ war is bad” articles; we are in dedperate need of a battle plan . Until then? We proceed anyway, very alone!

  8. It’s a shame that all this infighting has diverted our attention from our common purpose: to bring the word of God, however perceived, to people, and to care for ALL the children of God. Whatever happened to “love one another, as I have loved you”?

    • Benjamin U says

      When the UMC voted into existence the ugly 1972 rhetoric against the GLBT community, it dumped the “love one another, as I have loved you,” philosophy of Christ.

      And you wonder why progressives, and even many centrists, are so angry? Really?

  9. Gary Bebop says

    Anyone who has read the the Chronicles of Narnia understands the fix we’re in. There’s a battle to be fought. C. S. Lewis believed even children could understand and be instructed, for scripture is saturated with the narrative of God’s mighty acts revealing both salvation and sovereignty. Let’s not be gulled by counterfeit claims for peace and unity.

  10. Of course you are right. But the reality is that the easiest solution for both individuals in the pews and the institution itself is for the UMC to uphold its current teaching and simply enhance the exist provisions for local churches. The only people for whom this is not the simplest is for the clergy- and that makes sense because at a practical level this has always been a clergy issue.

    I don’t think it is likely that any reasonable official separation can be adopted; yes, the Spirit can work in miraculous ways, but the details of that separation will be befuddled by the same problems. The minority will demand that any AC or local church can choose by a simple majority to separate from the majority UMC; the majority UMC will demand that the default position for every local church must be the majority UMC unless they have meet a 2/3 threshold. It may be possible for some type of AC separation from the majority UMC to be approved, but the majority UMC is unlikely to agree that they automatically get to take any local church with them without a 2/3 local church vote. The details are problematic and many are probably constitutional.

    I am not saying it’s impossible- what I am saying is that the simplest and shortest path is for dissenting churches and clergy to leave by current and enhanced mechanisms. I am unconvinced the minority will ever accept an official institutional separation of the UMC that can actually be passed by a majority at GC.

  11. Paul Cooper says

    “…the best course of action would be for The United Methodist Church to enter a formal process of separation.” Sadly, I agree. And I think the word “United” should not be used in the name of any new denominations that are created after separation.

    • eloise griteman says

      Sad to say my baby sister’s mispronunciation ” United”
      will become true. We will be untied! This seems to be the best way forward.

    • Philip Bruce Jacobs says

      The “United” part of our denominational name refers to the uniting of two denominations, The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. To remove the “United” from our name(s) would dishonor the memory and contributions of our EUB “ancestors” in the faith. So, while I understand the motivation behind your suggestion, I could never support it in view of the historical meaning behind our “United” existence.

    • There goes the “United” Brethren heritage! We had agreed that we would honor their part in the Methodist Church when we came together.

  12. I agree with the sentiment of the article. No visitor center at top of mt Denali. Maybe a weather station. Some elite climbers may make the ascent to the top. Visitor center in the wonderful Denali Park is probably where the bull elk locked in a battle are located. The time to figure out a way to separate is now. It is painful to admit.

  13. Barry Bennett says

    Up front, I am grateful to Dr. Watson and Dr. Millard for plainly stating their position. I am grateful also for their years of service to the church, particularly in their work in training clergy. In that regard, I do wonder how they each articulate the position of amicable separation in light of
    the New Testament call for unity. I struggle with the concept as I cannot bring it into harmony by way of the analogy of faith. I appreciate the reference to Lot and Abraham from Genesis 13, but is that the only text we have to go on regarding this matter? I ask this not as an accusation, a challenge, a refutation, or a critique. This is truly a struggle for me with what to do with Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, St. Paul’s call for unity in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 1, Ephesians 4, etc., or even the acceptance of diversity of thought amongst the apostles found in the book of Acts (Here, I’m referring specifically to the divide between St. Peter and St. Paul). Is it possible that the reason separation is likely to happen is because it was put on the table as a possibility to begin with? What if there was a restrictive rule in the Discipline that made such separations nearly impossible, preventing that negotiation from ever being a consideration? Would we then manage to find a way forward? In other words, what if the only option was reconciliation? Certainly, there is a different way we all need to be relating to one another. I am completely agreeable to the notion that the relationship as it stands is toxic. But why, then, is separation the next and only logical solution? When I was in seminary (Duke 2006), I was taught that the single greatest shame – if not sin – that has blotted the Church’s witness for the previous 1,000 years has been the visible reality of institutional separation of the various ecclesial families, particularly in the West. From our own history as Methodists in America, we have not proven that separation accomplishes anything of the like as you state or imply from this article. The separation of 1844 did not end the slavery questions. Millions had to die before that issue could be settled (but settled by the state, not the Church). Even at the conclusion of the Civil War and the expansion of Methodist denominations which were finally freed of the toxicity of that fight, the question of race was not settled. Instead, Jim Crow spread far and wide. I would argue that even the reunion of 1939, though having been a huge leap forward, still created the Central Jurisdiction. It was a concession designed to prevent the old arguments from starting again, but it did so by protecting those bishops and conferences from having to fully engage on the topic of race. My point is just to say that I find little if any justification from history for amicable separation ever ending a debate or solving a problem. These are my questions, but, again, thank you for the statement and for the clarity with which you have offered it

    • George Johnson says

      You seem to miss the main point of this article. The Methodist church is fighting and has been for a long time over this issue. We need to get on with spending energy, time and money evangelizing not wasting resources fighting. The best way to get on with our mission for both sides is to amicably separate.

  14. Houston Parks says

    I agree, sadly, that it is time to craft an amicable separation. I think it’s time for smart minds to start crafting what separation needs to look like.

  15. I would like to see this happen and have both sides agree that neither would keep the “United Methodist” name. After all, it seems rather ridiculous to say that Methodists are united in any way after the
    animosity that was displayed at General Conference.

  16. While I appreciate the spirit exhibited by the two pastors, I must ask a blunt question: why would UM progressives, who have lost all major general conference votes for the past 50 years, choose to work toward an amicable solution? Despite defeat after defeat at countless general conferences, the progressives have regrouped and come back with some new slant on the same liberal agenda. The latest announced approach is one of outright noncompliance to the UMC Discipline (although the UM Bishops have already beaten them to that tactic). While I mean no disrespect, the atmosphere at a seminary is far different from that of a local church. Many UM pastors have already felt the disapproval of a left-leaning DS or bishop and continued backing of the BOD or the Wesleyan Covenant Association will only propagate further retribution. What professing Children of God SHOULD DO is one thing; what current diametrically opposed groups within the UMC CAN DO is another thing entirely. While I believe God is capable of anything, the history of the UMC suggests that we must figure out exactly what is possible, when dealing with two groups of polar opposite theological mindsets.

    • I agree. When the “created” begins to demand the authority tegu has clearly belongs to the “Creator” there is no room for compromise!

  17. William W Fitzgerrel says

    “I beseech you, brethren…that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you…” (I Corinthians 1:10, King James Version). I used King James Version (KJV) because it is a more literal translation in this case. Most modern translations say something like “that you all agree…” But KJV follows the Greek that admonishes the church at Corinth that they all SAY the same thing. Obviously, that can be taken to unreasonable and unbiblical ends that I do not think Paul intended. But his admonition is that the church be in such agreement that they can all say the same thing–about the deity of Christ or the Trinity…or homosexual behavior. So, UNITY is not a matter of people just kind of getting along and all showing up at the same place on Sunday. Christian unity is a matter of understanding that our identity as Christians is laid on a foundation of deep convictions about the truths taught in the Scripture. When those who wrote that most controversial statement, that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” they were alluding to I Timothy 1:9-11. Those verses contain one of the “laundry lists” of sins that serve to give us sufficient information of what is out of bounds that we get the idea. Paul refers in I Timothy 1:10b-11 to “whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (NIV) Unity in the church calls us to have deep convictions about the gospel and the “sound doctrine” that flows out of that. That sound doctrine teaches that homosexual practice is off-limits. If we cannot all say that, then we’re not in unity. Obviously, there are quite few other things that sound doctrine teaches us that some within the denomination also refuse to say. For example, some are not willing to say that no one comes to the Father except by Jesus Christ (John 14:6). If we are in disagreement about the foundational truths of the gospel, then we are not in unity. I John describes how certain members of a local church or group of churches simply left because “they really did not belong to us…” (I John 2:19, NIV) “Institutional unity” does not demonstrate Christian unity. It simply perpetuates a foundational disunity that is destructive to the spiritual lives of those who are seeking to follow Jesus and serve God in Spirit and in truth. Yes. It is time for separation.

    • Thank You and a Hearty AMEN. Well said and very clear, particularly your statement that “Institutional Unity does not mean or demonstrate “Christian Unity”. To Me is is time the D.S. and Bishops also step up an enforce the Book of Discipline. It is their lack of integrity and willingness to show some intestinal fortitude and say to “some”… You are wrong and double minded. Please seek another denomination or start your own Church. Do not try to hijack our Church and Denomination.

    • Ross Dunn says

      I totally agree. I can never believe that homosexuality is something God approves of and I would never agree to being a part of any church that allows same sex marriage or homosexual pastors. In my opinion there is no such thing as same sex marriage. It is just two people living in sin. Marriage is now and always will be between a man and a woman. That is what the scriptures have always taught. The Bible not sinful culture needs to guide us in what we believe.

      • George Johnson says

        Maybe so. However I believe many church’s, including the Methodists have already failed in not being a part of this world and being totally obedient to God’s word. The practices in the church associated with divorce might be a good example. The church has conformed to the ways of the world (i.e. changes in cultural practices) in regards to divorce. Another might be the typical American’s standard of living while most of the world is in poverty/starving.

  18. David Bryant says

    I’m fascinated by the clarity of this article and the perceptiveness of the writers. However, the discussion between “separation” and “dissolution” is the very real heart of the matter. The Wesleyan Church already exists for those who desire a literal relationship with the written word of scripture and the specific words of John Wesley. The Episcopal Church already exists for those who seek a covenetal relationship with the living word of scripture and the communal use of reason, experience and tradition in applying scripture (Wesleyan Quadrilateral). What we really are talking about when we discuss a “way forward” is the division of business assets, not a theological middle ground.

  19. Jeremias F. Baniqued says

    The basic issue here is evangelism as any preacher spreading the gospel has to be convinced that he/ she practices what he is preaching, nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the preacher that his/her personal acts are aligned to his/her preachings in order to be credible, as it is a way of people listening to be convinced of his/her preaching. No one should be in the church pulpit if he/she cannot convinced himself/herself that he/she is preaching the gospel truth. If we cannot agree on this, then perhaps a space for discerning is timely an appropriate. Let us be honest to ourselves, we owe it to our lay people witnessing the squabble among our so called “Pastors “ , the leader of the flocks. Peace be with you.

  20. Sandra Merrick says

    Sadly, I agree that the time has come for the “united” Methodist Church to become the “untied” Methodist Church. In that way, we can have relative peace. I am a 59-year member, and fourth generation Methodist.

  21. Lewis A. Grell says

    Where is the scriptural argument from the “liberal side”? I keep looking for a persuasive argument from the “liberals” that would cause me to even consider their cause. This in NOT a social issue. Any argument must be based upon the Bible, not contemporary thought. Show me where God changed His mind about homosexual practice as expressed in I Timothy I :9-11 and quoted above by William W. Fitzgerell.

    • George Johnson says

      You speak in a narrow manner. Yes God did not change his mind but he also did not change his mind about a lot of other things that are becoming normal practices in America and seem to be accepted by the Church. Examples are Divorce, standard of living of the typical American while most of the world is trying to live on $2.00 a day, watching too much TV or on the internet instead of worshiping and serving God, and gluttony/overweight .

  22. Rev. Mark Charlton says

    As a Progressive, I totally agree with everything in this column. Satan is overjoyed with the fracture we are all experiencing; our witness to the world is being severely compromised by what’s happening.

    Although it may be a piece of proof-texting by Wesley, I think the scripture he quotes in A Catholic Spirit applies to our situation: “And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart And Jehonadab answered: It is. If it be, give me thine hand.” 2 Kings 10:15.

  23. George Klohck says

    While I understand why Reverends Watson and Millard reach the conclusions they have, and I know that the history of the Christian Church has been a record of splitting again and again when people didn’t agree about what they thought was essential truth, I still hope for the Holy Spirit to prevail and draw all United Methodists closer to Jesus.
    It breaks my heart when I see what is happening in our nation and in our world and our church’s failure to speak with a clear voice for loving every single person and caring for the whole earth. These are terribly dangerous times. Jesus gave himself up to suffer and die when he lived and spoke for justice and would not back down or go away.
    Sadly Christians have always argued and spent energy on defending narrow interpretations of scripture instead of devoting our lives to loving like Jesus and drawing all people to him.
    How can we act as though the Bible is a simple how-to book that gives guidance for what we should believe and how we should live. It is the story of human beings’ search for God, and it tells more about human failure than about human success. What it says in some places is plainly wrong.
    In 1844 Southerners could find verses to support slavery. Men who wanted to maintain their control in the church and not allow women to have any positions of leadership could find support for that in the Bible. People now who believe that homosexual activity is an abomination can find those words in the Bible.
    BUT…, The Bible is not an authority about sexual activity. Among the people of God in the beginning were prominent men had multiple wives and concubines – one man and one woman, no. We can find approval in the Bible of male domination – not so much about sharing love in a mutual relationship. In spite of how Galileo was treated, the Church eventually was forced to accept what science said about the universe. I am asking, shouldn’t the Church now accept what social science has learned and is learning about sexuality?
    Anyone who wants support for their prejudices can find something in the Bible that speaks for them.
    But what church leaders and church members need to do is find others who are open to new truth, seeking to change and grow. We are called to church because none of us finds truth alone very well, and we must find ways to change, since none of us knows the whole truth yet.

    • Daniel A Radley says

      This is easily the most eloquent and accurate commentary in this entire thread. Sometimes the way forward is to try something new. Are we willing to adapt to the new world we face, or are we insistent on moving back to a world that no longer exists?

    • George Johnson says

      This is not eloquent to me. It is confusing. Isn’t the Bible the inerrant word of God? It is confusing to me to pick and chose the pieces that fit the current cultural and societal norms. Doesn’t the Bible say things like not to be a part of this world, the word is true, and you need to be righteous, holy and obedient. You can’t conform the church to the world as the world becomes more sinful. In my opinion you also missed the boat with your statement about what social science has learned and is learning about sexuality. Don’t you think 2000 or 4000 years ago that homosexuality existed. I am sure it did and God decided it was a sin. There is nothing wrong with being a homosexual, it is the sex act that makes it a sin. You can be a homosexual and not sin. That is obvious from what we know and what the Bible says.

Trackbacks

  1. […] At the same time, Christ enables us to love our enemies. Only by loving them do we keep from carrying the dysfunctions of the United Methodist Church into the new denomination. This is why Kent Millard, President of United Theological Seminary, makes the case for separation. […]

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