A Crisis of Identity

By Tom Lambrecht –

The current crisis in The United Methodist Church is often portrayed as a crisis of unity. The unity of our denomination is threatened by deep theological disagreement and the refusal of some parts of the church to abide by the decisions of General Conference and live by our legitimately enacted Book of Discipline.

Some prescribe the remedy for this crisis of unity as a loosening of the boundaries of the church, enlarging the “tent” under which the church exists, so that there is “room for all.” The priority here is maintaining some sort of institutional unity where we can all say we are United Methodist, even though we believe different things and adopt different practices of those beliefs.

Followed to its logical conclusion, this prescription would lead us to wonder just what it means to be “United Methodist.” If one can believe just about anything and practice our faith in diametrically opposite ways, yet still be United Methodist, that identification becomes almost meaningless.

This points us to an underlying issue in our church conflict, which is a crisis of identity. There are sharply different understandings of what it means to be “United Methodist.” The divergence can be summed up in the title of the book, Mainline or Methodist, by the Rev. Dr. Scott Kisker, a professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Is our church’s identity better defined as “Mainline Protestant” or “Wesleyan Methodist?”

A recent talk given by retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker traces the evolution of Methodism from its early roots in England and America through its theological liberalization and incorporation into the Protestant mainstream. He maintains, “Our problem is not merely a failure of action, it is also a loss of identity.”

“The defining characteristic of mainline Protestantism is its close relationship with the dominant surrounding culture,” describes Whitaker. “It is so important to mainline Christians to stay close to the dominant culture so that the identity of the Church is shaped more by the surrounding culture than its own tradition.”

We see this born out in the church’s attitude toward the practice of homosexuality. Over the past ten years, there has been a dramatic shift in the U.S. and Western Europe toward acceptance and even affirmation of same-sex relationships. In line with that shift, a major part of the U.S. mainline church has shifted, as well. United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and The Episcopal Church have all changed their stances to endorse same-sex relationships as God’s will. A significant percentage of United Methodism in the U.S. and Western Europe has made the same shift. (One can quibble with the assertion that two-thirds of U.S. Methodists support this shift. Certainly, that is true of the annual conference and general church leadership. It is questionable whether that same degree of shift is present at the grass-roots level.)

The vision of special-interest caucuses such as “UMC Next” and “Uniting Methodists” is to be “on the right side of history” and to support the cultural shift toward affirmation. They seem to desire identification as “mainline” and to be in step with the liberal culture of our time and place. They take it for granted that the UM Church should change its position to endorse same-sex marriage and welcome practicing gays and lesbians as ordained clergy. For the sake of church “unity,” they may be willing for a time to put up with those who have not yet made the shift. But traditionalists who hold steadfastly to an “outdated” understanding of morality will not long be welcome.

In sharp contrast to this cultural, “mainline” conception of the church, most traditionalists believe the church ought to be faithful to its Wesleyan Methodist roots. From its very beginning, Methodism was a counter-cultural community within a decadent society. Its strength was its cohesion around that identity in adopting both strictly orthodox theology and high moral standards and practices that set them apart from the culture in which they lived. (Some of those standards and practices make us wince today. Have you read the General Rules lately?)

As Bishop Whitaker points out, this concept of a counter-cultural community dates back to the Exodus, when God called the people of Israel to be set apart for him, different from all the other nations of the world, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). For over 3,000 years, the Jewish people have maintained their unique identity as a people set apart, with different standards and different practices. These were not just cultural differences, but born out of obedience to the one true God, who commanded them, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

The New Testament extends this conception of the people of God to the Church. We are incorporated into God’s people through faith in Jesus Christ, as recognized in baptism. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Peter 2:9). Therefore, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy'” (I Peter 1:15-16).

We seek our identity not in adapting to the culture around us, but in remaining as God’s set-apart people, “in the world, but not of it.” Our values and standards are often different from those of the culture in which we live. We proclaim and show by example that the way of Jesus Christ is a better way than the world’s way.

Such an identity as a set-apart people requires boundaries that are enforced. That is all that traditionalists have wanted. As a church, we have determined such and such to be our beliefs and practices. Therefore, we expect all leaders and members to abide by what we have decided.

Some have a problem with boundaries because they do not want to exclude anyone. But doing away with boundaries does away with identity. Where there are no boundaries, there is no clear identity. We become part and parcel of what surrounds us – in this case, the culture in which we live. As biblical scholar and theologian James Dunn puts it, “An identity which does not distinguish from others is no identity; a definition which does not define out as well as define in is no definition. … It is the dynamic within bounds, not entirely free from bounds, which characterizes NT theology as it does all Christian theology worthy of its name” (cited by Michael Bird).

Those promoting the “mainline” view of church are partly doing so because they believe only by adapting to culture will the church successfully attract younger generations and those who do not identify with any religious tradition. The track record of other mainline churches is not promising, as they have continued to dramatically decline after taking a more adaptive approach.

In fact, it was the very stark difference of the primitive church of the first three centuries and the Wesleyan revival in England and America that attracted new adherents. People saw something different about the early Christians and the early Methodists, and it was this difference that proved attractive. Who would sacrifice their time or money or even their lives for the sake of belonging to an organization that merely embodies the culture in which they live? The “set apart” vision of the church offers people a higher purpose for which their sacrifices are worthwhile: to live for God, to embody God’s intention for humanity, to serve the world in love, to invite others into this new life, and to prepare for an eternity with God as his sons and daughters.

These two different visions of church, these two conceptions of the church’s identity, cannot coexist in the same structural body. Are we “mainline” or are we “Methodist?” We cannot be both at the same time. The two contradict each other. It may be time for each identity to embody itself in its own church structure. It may be time for us to walk apart.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. Jim Wolfgang says

    Tom lifts up the irreconcilable difference the centrist/progressive and traditional viewpoints have. Since the centrist/progressive factions in many conferences and jurisdictions have hijacted the accountability and fair due process remedies the members of the denomination were promised, we find ourselves in the scandalous position the denomination is now in. I must assume these opponents believe they are right in their positions but as our Lord said “a tree is known by its fruit”, the harvest is loss of entire congregations and many members from congregations. Evidently this “collateral damage” is acceptable by the progressive/centrists such as Adam Hamilton who foresees at least 3000 to 6000 congregations leaving the denomination if the progressive/centrists have their way. This attitude is symptomatic of their methods and why we have their chaos and harm inflicted upon our church. Such “leaders” have no business leading the church, they have led it to impending shipwreck and I hope they will be dismissed from whatever is left of this denomination.

  2. Jeffrey Parker says

    >> In sharp contrast to this cultural, “mainline” conception of the church, most traditionalists believe the church ought to be faithful to its Wesleyan Methodist roots.

    Uh… no. We “traditionalists” believe the Church of Jesus the CHRIST, including the Wesleyan tribe thereof, ought to be faithful to the sacred WORD of the Living GOD. Period, end of story.

  3. Take this into consideration. The progressives in the formerly United Methodist Church want 11 millions members of the denomination to change to meet the wants, needs and desires of less than 4% of the population.

    In my non scientific survey of methodists and other Christians, I posed this question:

    If you were a member of a 100 person congregation, that is a “come as you are” casually dressed church, and one day during announcements 3 members of the congregation stand up and announce they are offended by the casual clothes at Sunday’s services and that it is their belief that everyone should dress in more formal Sunday attire, because that what they do, that’s what they believe, and that’s who they are.

    100% of those asked this question suggested the three formally attired members of the congregation should look for another church.

    In the case of the UMC, we have the exact same scenario. Less that 4% of its members want to force their views on the other 96%. So at the end of the day, the UMC will cease to exist next year (as if it hasn’t already) so that an extreme minority can have their way.

    There is one last thing to note. It’s been my opinion that the UMC should have created its own spin off liberal denomination. Now before anyone says that would not have been inclusive of the the less than 4%. You’re probably right. But guess where we are, the denomination will dissolve next year, and the UMCNext crowd are posturing to form their own UMC denomination. The end result is the same, except the greater good of the once United Methodist Church has been destroyed.

  4. Lois Wellborn says

    I totally agree with Tom Lambrecht. I believe that these two different visions of the United Methodist Church cannot be resolved into one vision. We who remain true to the original Wesleyan doctrine cannot accept anything but the Word of God as truth. To add any other belief to God’s word is a violation of Holy Scripture. It is time for us to part ways with the other vision of our church.

  5. Stephen Rhoades says

    As usual, Tom’s writing has cut through the obfuscating language of our Progressive and “Centrist” friends with clarity and precision. The choices before The United Methodist Church are both plain and critical. But the choices can never be compatible with genuine unity. Some form of separation is necessary. The challenge before us, no matter which side of the divide one may prefer, is to move forward with respect and love for each other through whatever process we choose.

  6. Bryan McRoberts says

    Anyway – you are correct that this current crisis is about identity. Mainline vs Methodist is an interesting juxtaposition. Without getting into the ‘why’ are they doing this, or even the theological disagreements, it’s recognizing that ‘what’ they are doing is exactly the path trod by other denominations. Those denominations have continued to dwindle *because* they lost their identity, their ability to offer anything to a world of darkness that needs to see a light. To be ‘holy’ is to be set apart. It is holy because it is not common. To call it counter-cultural is an interesting insight. It was this ‘set apart’ nature that caused even the Israelites to kill most of the prophets who spent most of their time telling their fellow Israelites how they were falling short of the glory of God. Telling anyone that truth is now abhorrent – it’s better to lie to people in the name of ‘tolerance’. It’s better to lie about abiding by vows to the Discipline, so you get ‘in’ the organization that you intend to subvert. The UMC has lost its identity because there are groups within it that have completely opposite beliefs. And just as polar north magnets cannot abide polar south, the forces within the UMC will bust it apart. The part that focuses on being set apart and remaining true the morals and holiness of God, regardless of the changing mores of the common culture, is a church that I can support.

  7. Robert A Combes says

    and the grand announcement that is contrary to everything we as Christians stand by :

    An evangelical Lutheran pastor in Colorado earlier this month became the first known transgender Latina to serve as a pastor in the U.S.
    Nicole Garcia, 60, gave her first sermon at Westview Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colo., in early December.
    “Nobody can question my faith, my devotion to Christ, my devotion to the church. That’s why I’m the pastor here,” Garcia told NBC News. “Being trans is secondary.”

  8. It’s decision time, eternal choice time. Tom Lambrecht clearly lays out the two choices. Although many have already elected their choice — God or culture — many others have not. The seriousness of this cannot be overstated. In this schism, there is no middle ground in that the competing identities for the church cannot coexist under one roof any longer. Undecided Methodists will have to choose one or the other either directly or let someone else do it for them. Either way, a choice will be made — especially in America between a secular, cultural driven identity “church” or a God focused, Biblical identity Wesleyan church.

  9. Robert A Combes says

    and now the Salvation Army is under fire because it helps all those that subscribe to the lbgqt and does not agree with the premise. While we are called to help others we can never support the destructive choices one makes; “No one, Lord,” she answered. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Now go and sin no more.” Jn 8:11. It is evident to me that no matter what we do as Christians that will not go along with the current agenda won’t ever be known other than haters. Maranatha

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