The Myth of “Progress”

Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson, Candler School of Theology

By Thomas Lambrecht –

One often hears that Methodism used to believe the “wrong” thing about slavery, the ordination of women, and the affirmation of same-sex relationships, and that Methodism moved to believe the “right” thing about slavery and the ordination of women, leading the way to a more just world. Therefore, the argument goes, Methodism should also move to believe the “right” thing about affirming same-sex relationships.

The implication is that Methodism changed its position based on biblical or theological principles that overcame earlier errors in biblical or theological reasoning. Therefore, Methodism should adopt a new, affirming position on same-sex relationships based on a new biblical or theological interpretation.

Back in January — before the full ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent — Dr. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, wrote an important article puncturing this myth of historical progress.  One can read his full article in First Things (which I would highly recommend) and a short blog here . I want to delve more deeply into Watson’s argument.

The essence of Watson’s contention is this: “We have been using the Bible to discriminate against gays and lesbians, it is argued, and need to progress in the same way that we aligned ourselves with God’s justice in opposition to slavery and the subordination of women. The problem with this myth is that it is not true. When confronting slavery, racism, and the exclusion of women from ministry, the dominant strain of Methodism actually conformed to the dominant culture. It did not, as the UMC presumptuously ascribes to itself today, lead the way in progress or ‘the transformation of the world.’ On the contrary, United Methodism in the United States was more often transformed by the world” (emphasis original).

Slavery and Racism

Early Methodists had a very strong stance against slavery. John Wesley famously wrote a letter six days before his death encouraging British anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce to “Go on … till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away.” The first U.S. Methodist Book of Doctrines and Discipline forbade the ownership of slaves, and Methodists who owned slaves were required to set them free or be excluded from church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Compromise arose almost immediately, however, when those leading the church in the South protested that it would be nearly impossible to get anyone there to join the church because slavery was so ingrained in the southern culture and economy. Accommodations were made in the Discipline and enforcement of the remaining restrictions was weak, until things reached a breaking point in 1844. Bishop James Andrew acquired slaves through marriage and was unwilling to resign from the episcopacy. The church split between an abolitionist North and a pro-slavery South, a split that lasted nearly 100 years.

When the northern and southern churches came back together in 1939, one would have assumed that the issue of slavery and race was resolved. However, the price of a reunion of the church was the sanctioning of racial segregation. A new central jurisdiction was created for black pastors and churches, and the whole church was divided up into regional jurisdictions that allowed a continuation of racism and Jim Crow discrimination in parts of the country. Even during the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, courageous white pastors like Maxie Dunnam and Robert Tuttle who spoke out against racial discrimination were threatened and exiled from their ministry in the South.

It was not until 1968-1972, in the process of the merger that formed The United Methodist Church, that the structural racism of the central jurisdiction was eliminated. Of course, the battle against racism in our hearts and minds continues today. But it was not until the cultural pendulum swung strongly toward desegregation that the Methodist Church acted to remove that structural racism. It followed the movement of the culture; it did not suddenly find a principled opposition to racism.

In Watson’s words, “The churches that merged to create The United Methodist Church should not have caved to cultural pressure to accept and accommodate racism and slavery. They should have stood firm in their theological commitments. The more biblically formed branches of the Wesleyan Holiness family [such as the Wesleyan Church and Free Methodist Church] did just that.” Had we stuck to our original convictions, we may not have grown as large, but we might have had a greater influence on American culture and history. At the very least, we would have been true to our identity in Christ as founded on the truth of God’s word.

Ordination of Women

As Watson puts it, “The story of the ordination of women in American Methodism follows a similar trajectory.” The Methodist Church officially affirmed the ordination of women in 1956, fully 36 years after women were granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the post-war years, women in the U.S. gained in status and rights because they had contributed greatly to the war effort and increasingly had jobs outside the home. The cultural shifts and pressures drove the Methodist Church to change its position. As good and beneficial as the recognition of women’s equality was for our church, we were very late to the game.

By contrast, early Methodism and other strands of American Methodism affirmed the leadership of women. John and Charles Wesley’s mother, Susannah, notably led Bible studies and took on other leadership responsibilities, causing John to allow women to serve alongside men in some aspects of leadership in the English Methodist movement. The Wesleyan Church ordained women as early as 1853, only ten years after its founding and over 100 years before the dominant Methodist Church. The Free Methodist Church ordained women in 1891.

“The argument based on the myth of Methodist progress on slavery and race, then the ordination of women, and now same-sex marriage, is therefore bad history. Mainstream Methodism bowed the knee to culture on questions of race and female leadership, rather than leading the way there on the basis of its theological heritage.”

LGBTQ Affirmation

Watson goes on, “The desire by United Methodists in the United States to change the church’s position on same-sex marriage fits this history, not the common myth. As American cultural elites began to embrace gay rights and same-sex marriage, United Methodist leaders in the U.S. began to fall in line. Tellingly, the church has become more liberal first in the places where the dominant culture had already become more politically and socially liberal.”

As a result, “Far from being countercultural, The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have too often functioned like cultural chameleons, changing their values and practices to fit in with the dominant culture. They have not operated with a strong sense of identity grounded in Scripture and tradition, and thus have not been able to face off the unpredictable and changing winds of cultural pressure and change.”

Our church over the decades has been willing to sell its identity for the fleeting reward of being “culturally relevant.” The same motivation is at work today, when we hear the justification, “If we do not change our position on same-sex marriage, we will not be able to attract young people to the church.” We seek to be “relevant” and influence the culture, when in fact we are allowing the culture to influence and shape the church.

We run the danger of being “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” and the latest cultural fad. Instead, Scripture urges us, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).

Only by growing up into spiritual maturity and finding our identity in Christ can we resist the fickle winds of the world that sometimes blow with the truth and sometimes bluster against it. Our foundation cannot be an ever-changing society, but the never-changing truth of God’s word and Christian tradition.

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

Comments

  1. John Loper says

    As such, if it be as you say, our argument is and has always been against “rulers and principalities and the powers of darkness.” So, then why are we always satisfied with the “small victories” of the Christian life? You know, paying the bills, keeping the doors of the church open, going to church on Sunday, visiting with the sick, and caring for the poor among us? I will answer that question for you even if you don’t want to hear it from me. We are satisfied to be good enough to be seen and known as the “good” people in an evil world. In case you haven’t noticed, we are at war. the devil and his legions are going about the earth seeking to devour the souls of men. And he has kept us too busy with the “little show” to notice the “Big Show.” This is not a new thing as Watson points out, because we are dominated and ruled by cultural values more than Christian values and have always been so dominated and controlled. Sadly, this will not change by separating the denomination no matter how it is done. The only thing that will change us from our captivity to culture will be captivity to our relaationship with Jesus Christ, a captivity in which I have seen little interest either in past or present times.

    • “Visiting the sick” and “Caring for the poor” are small victories?

      I don’t even understand how you can think so. They flow directly from ‘Love your neighbor’.

    • It appears my original comment made a few days ago didn’t make the cut. I realize my honest appraisal of who progressives are and what they intend to do is not easy to read and probably not politically correct.

      But 1 Timothy 5:20 tells us that, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

      That said, I will try not to be so honest in my analyzation of the progressive movement.

      I fully believe the WCA movement must continue to move forward. A perfect day in my estimation is the WCA receiving a wire transfer of 25 million dollars from the UMC, so that traditionalist can move on with the business of being the hands and feet of God here on earth.

      On Homosexuality…

      I have listened to countless progressives in the UMC make the argument that Jesus never said a word about homosexuality, so He must be good with it. That’s a ridiculous statement especially when coming from a Pastor, Elder or Bishop (usually worded with a bit more fluff than I used).

      The reality is Jesus changed a number of laws we were given in the Old Testament. Jesus had plenty of time while walking here on earth to change everything the Father told him to. But, as we know there are many laws he never mentioned. Therefore the only reasonable inference we can draw is that Jesus was good with the law as written in Leviticus on man lying with man as with a woman being an abomination.

      I can’t wrap my head around the thought process progressive theologians use to come up with this stuff. The Bible is what it is, and for anyone to say “we will set aside some scripture as not being in keeping with the times,” or “that scripture was written for a different people in a different time and it does not apply today.” How do you reason those statements. That would mean any scripture could be deleted or rewritten to meet the social needs of the times, when in fact the social needs of the time should be reflective of the scripture.

      This comment may not get posted either, but the reality is that anyone who does not believe the Bible to be the divine inspiration of God is clearly looking for something other than the Lord. The progressive movement to turn the Bible into an a-la-carte reference manual is lunacy.

      I welcome your comments.

      • Thanks for posting my cleaned up comment. I believe with all my heart that God has great things planned for traditionalist who have faith in His Word. I have seen nothing in writing or video from the WCA that doesn’t lead me to believe anything other than that the Holy Spirit has enveloped the WCA and traditionalist in general.

        I am excited about what God has planned for Methodist around the world. Too often folks think the UMC is Methodism when in fact it’s but a fraction of the 80 million Methodist around the world who are not affiliated with the UMC .

        Methodism is strong in America and around the world.

        May the Peace of Jesus Christ be with you all as we move forward in making disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.