By Thomas Lambrecht –
I recently expounded the primary reasons I see for separation taking place in The United Methodist Church. That article drew the response of the Rev. Adam Hamilton, who felt that my characterization of centrist and progressive understandings was not an accurate description.
I respect Adam and the vibrant ministry he has led at Church of the Resurrection. I have used some of his Bible study materials and found them helpful. His views on Scripture have appeared to evolve over time, however, and some statements in his 2014 book Making Sense of the Bible seem to reflect an approach to Scripture at odds with that of most traditional Methodists. In this article, I would like to delve a bit deeper into our differences.
The Primacy of Scripture
I focus on the traditionalist/evangelical understanding of Scripture as the primary authority for what we are to believe and teach as Methodist Christians. In his response to my article, Hamilton writes, “nearly every United Methodist I know believes … that Scripture is primary in determining what we believe, and tradition, reason, and experience are secondary.” He elaborates, “I do not know anyone who sees tradition, experience, and reason as equal to Scripture.”
An interesting survey of United Methodist members in 2018 done by United Methodist Communications asked the question, “What is the most authoritative source of your personal theology?” Scripture was identified as the number one source by 6 percent of self-identified progressives/liberals, 25 percent of moderates/centrists, and 41 percent of conservatives/traditionalists. In fact, Scripture was identified as the number three source of theology, after reason and tradition, by moderates/centrists. And for progressives, Scripture was the least important source of theology.
Granted, the subjects of the study were laity, not clergy. But it appears that there is a distinct difference in approaching Scripture between progressives, centrists, and traditionalists in general. I have to believe that at least some of this difference is due to their pastors, who reflected that difference of approach in their teaching and preaching.
A glaring example of that approach is the clergy delegate at a General Conference years ago who stood up on the floor of conference and said, “We don’t go back to the Bible for the last word on anything.” There may be more people in the church than Hamilton realizes who hold a different view of Scripture, for whom Scripture is not primary in guiding our beliefs and actions.
Hamilton’s statement of his beliefs about the Bible’s inspiration demonstrates the difference between a centrist understanding of Scripture and that of a traditionalist. “Divine influence on the writers [of Scripture] was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences [people] by the Spirit today,” Hamilton writes. “The difference between biblical texts and some contemporary writings also influenced by the Spirit is that the biblical authors lived closer to the events of which they wrote. … This view allows us to value the Bible, to hear God speaking through it, yet … to recognize that some things taught in scripture may not represent God’s character nor his will for us today, and perhaps never accurately captured God’s will” (Making Sense of the Bible, p. 143).
By contrast, most traditionalists believe the Bible is “God-breathed,” which is why we can receive it as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). If all Scripture is not God-breathed, but only some parts of it, how can we view it as our true rule and guide? This morphs over very easily into making ourselves and our own ideas the true rule and guide, since it is we who decide which parts of Scripture to regard as authoritative. If something in Scripture does not make sense to us or does not fit our cultural perspective, we can too easily discard it as one of those “not inspired” parts, rather than allowing Scripture to correct our understanding or cultural myopia.
Scripture and Culture
In my article, it was my contention that many centrists and progressives believe, “when modern knowledge contradicts our understanding of Scripture, we must change our understanding of Scripture. … Human knowledge and understandings are more important than any long-standing perception of what Scripture teaches.” This is seen among those who have changed their understanding of Scripture’s teaching on marriage and sexuality due to recent cultural shifts.
In reply, Adam names a number of illustrations where he claims new knowledge and a changing cultural perspective have altered the church’s interpretation of Scripture.
Hamilton puts forward the narrative that many preachers in the 1800’s promoted slavery as consistent with, if not commanded by, Scripture. It was only as American society came to reject slavery that such an interpretation became untenable. Tragically, however, the legacy of slavery is still with us in Jim Crow attitudes and racist practices among some in our society even today. So, I do not think we can regard the “progress” of society as the source for a changed view of slavery.
Historically, the progression was just the opposite. The early Methodists in England and America were adamantly against slavery. The early Book of Discipline forbade Methodists from owning slaves. However, as the church began to grow after the Revolutionary War, southern Methodists complained that the church’s stance on slavery was hurting their ability to evangelize among the slave-holding population. Because of this cultural influence, the church’s stance on slavery was weakened, and it was eventually not enforced in southern states. It was when the northern annual conferences wanted to enforce the slavery prohibition against a particular slave-owning bishop that the southern Methodists rebelled and forced a schism in the church in 1844. They removed the prohibition against owning slaves from their Discipline and rationalized that slavery (and, in some cases after the Civil War, racism) was God’s will.
Accommodation to a slave-owning and racist culture caused the church’s interpretation to change in a negative way. That is what we see happening today with the changing definition of marriage and affirmation of same-sex relationships.
The same could be said about women in leadership in the church. There are prominent examples of female leaders in the Bible, as well as in early Methodism. Not least among those examples was John and Charles Wesley’s own mother Susannah, who was in many ways a co-pastor with her husband. There were women leaders in early American Methodism, as well. Yet after its explosive growth on the frontier, the church failed to adjust its practice in line with its understanding of Scripture, and instead allowed the desire for social respectability to limit the leadership of women in the church. It was actually a return to its former understanding of the priesthood of all believers that enabled first the Evangelicals and United Brethren, and finally the Methodists to recover the equal role of women in leadership.
Here again, our society is not a stellar example of women’s equality, what with the gender pay gap and the paucity of female business and political leaders. It is just as fair to say that churches like the UM Church are leading society in this regard, rather than being influenced by society in our understanding of Scripture.
Truth and Identity
Adam questions my claim that “most centrists and progressives reject the idea of absolute truth.” However, that is not what I claimed. The actual quote is, “Most centrists and progressives value self-determination as the deciding factor in one’s view of oneself.” I say this is connected to the idea that “truth is defined by each person for themselves.”
I am heartened to hear Hamilton’s assessment that “Most United Methodists … would agree that God is absolute Truth, that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. And that Scripture bears witness to God’s truth.” I would say that Scripture does more than bear witness to God’s truth – it reveals and teaches God’s truth. Aside from that quibble, I can affirm Adam’s quote.
However, I have not found that to be universally true in my interaction with United Methodist clergy. Some of my colleagues do not believe the doctrines we are “required” to believe in our doctrinal standards, particularly the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. Some believe that everyone will go to heaven. Some believe Jesus did not need to die on the cross for our salvation. Some believe Jesus did not physically rise from the dead. There is not the universal agreement on the outworking of Adam’s quote above that he might think there is.
There are no better illustrations of people operating by their own “truth” than the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Christmas Covenant. Each of these plans envisions part of the church living by one truth, that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. Another part of the same church would be living by another truth, that God affirms the practice of homosexuality. It is the ultimate example of self-defining truth attempting to coexist in one church body. The result is confusion and the loss of identity as to what it means to be a United Methodist Christian.
A Social Justice Agenda
Of course, Hamilton is right that we should “be unapologetic in pursuit of [social] justice.” The question is a matter of priorities.
The survey I cited earlier asked the question, “Which should be the primary focus of The United Methodist Church?” 68 percent of self-identified progressives/liberals said, “Advocating for social justice to transform this world.” Meanwhile, 68 percent of moderates/centrists and 88 percent of evangelicals/traditionalists said “saving souls for Jesus Christ.” Here, the demarcation is between progressives on the one hand and centrists and traditionalists on the other.
Most traditionalists perceive the denomination’s agenda as driven by the progressive “social justice” priority. Most of the general boards and agencies and most of the Council of Bishop statements have to do with issues of social justice. Aside from some good communication materials produced by UM Communications, most of the programs and resources produced by the general church have to do with social justice, with very little related to evangelism or discipleship.
More troubling to many conservative United Methodists is that often the positions promoted by the general church are in line with partisan policies advocated by one political party in the U.S. Politically conservative positions are not considered, and thus politically conservative United Methodists feel marginalized and even chastised by their church.
I agree with Adam that, “we are to live the gospel, doing justice, practicing kindness, being the hands and feet of Christ in addressing the brokenness in our world.” But we cannot live the gospel if we never hear the gospel, if we are never called to respond to the gospel call of Christ, or if we are never ushered into the lifelong discipleship of Jesus. I know these things are present in Hamilton’s ministry at Church of the Resurrection, but they are often missing from many congregations across our church and from the leadership of the general church.
Breakdown of the Church’s Governance
In my original post, I state, “When significant portions of the church refuse to abide by that church’s governance processes, the church’s unity is no longer viable. Ordained clergy vow to abide by the church’s tenets, even when we disagree, but many now are renouncing that vow by their actions and words.” Adam acknowledges this point, but has no answer for it.
Many traditionalists are outraged that the consistent and continual will of the General Conference quadrennium after quadrennium can be summarily ignored and set aside by some bishops, clergy, and annual conference boards of ordained ministry who disagree with the outcome.
My colleague, the Rev. Forbes Matonga of Zimbabwe, put it well when he said, “Africans expected to see their American counterparts who are generally perceived as champions of constitutionalism and democracy to show them by example how democratic institutions and systems work. This was a massive let down. We began to be taught new lessons, that minority voices override majority vote. That when you don’t have it your way then you make the institution ungovernable. That you only follow the law when it is in sync with your cultural beliefs.”
For traditionalists, this last straw breaks the camel’s back. We could and did abide differences of opinion and belief for 40 years in the UM Church. But when widespread schism through disobedience to the order and discipline of the church began, it became apparent that we could not all go on together as part of one church body.
I appreciate the opportunity to exchange views with Adam Hamilton. It clarifies our understanding of each other. As we approach the possibility of separation within The United Methodist Church, clarity of communication and understanding will be important. It is our contention that after 50 years of conflict over the issues above, it is time to go our separate ways. Each person and each congregation will have an opportunity to decide what their beliefs and direction will be. As we prayerfully make these decisions, our goal is that we separate amicably, blessing one another, and allow each group to pursue its ministry in the way it feels led by God to do so. There is no benefit to continuing a conflict that only detracts from our church’s focus on mission and ministry.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
Prov: 9.7: He who rebukes a scoffer invites reproach. My translation: Avoid pissing contests with skunks. I commend your attempt to graciously engage Hamilton. As with all attempts to engage our errant brothers and sisters, your words will fall upon deaf ears. Peace.
THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE AND SPEAKS TO THE ISSUE THAT IS FACING THE CHURCH. MAY THE WORDS OF JOHN WESLEY RING TRUE AT THE GENERAL CONFERENCE LEVEL. “I TEST ALL THINGS BY GOD’S WORD, I DO NOT LET SOCIETY TEST GOD’S WORD.” John Wesley 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “The whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives, it straightens us out and helps us do what is right. It is God’s way of making us well prepared to every point, fully equipped to do good to everyone.” (The Living Bible) It was the religious leaders that rejected Christ and had Him put to death. In so many situations in our mainline churches that is what is happening to day. They need to repent, die to self and turn from their wicked ways and stand on the authority of Scripture. We stand in need of a movement of the Holy Spirit to bring the fire once again into the life of those that call themselves Methodist!
There is no question that Hamilton is a great speaker, writer, and influencer who leads the largest church in the denomination. In fact, the size of his congregation makes him even more so an influencer among bishops. He speaks and they listen, but as critical thinkers, we have to drill down to what he really believes. You identify his core beliefs pretty well, but you do so with soft white confirmation gloves.
Hamilton represents the progressive side of the denomination, and we can’t overlook the damage they have done. When bishops proudly violate church law and even gloat about it in UMC News, we very literally have a problem Houston. What separates the UMC from the other 80 million or so Methodist around the world is the discipline, without it, there is no denomination.
The UMC today is comprised of several factions that are linked in Wesleyan tradition with very different reads of the scripture and its application leaving each segment of the pie diametrically opposed to the other. Hamilton’s response to your initial post is as expected, wonderfully crafted, uplifting and signalling of unity. The only problem is there is no unity.
I want to briefly go back to Hamilton’s influence among progressive and even some traditional bishops. Where has he been in condemning violations of church law among progressives? When has he made a statement on the progressive use of UMC News to celebrate the appointment of Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay and married bishop, or the other gloating posts on newly ordained gay clergy. In the short span of time since the special general conference we have seen UMC News literally transformed from denominational news and into a social justice news service. Where has Hamilton been on all of this or any of this?
In closing let me tell you that I don’t think Hamilton is a bad person. He has clearly brought thousands to Christ, but from a purely traditional viewpoint, he has convinced far too many people that tradition, experience and reason are more important when combined than the scripture itself. John Wesley always made it clear that scripture always trumps the other three elements of the quadrilateral. Hamilton touched on that in his response, but in practicality, we have seen no evidence of this from progressives. If we had, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Thank you, Tom. This is the kind of article I want to share with my people. It was well-reasoned and clearly-sourced, and it was free of caricature, inflammatory speech, deceptive tactics, and false claims. The church needs more like this right now.
Tom, you are most generous towards your response to Adam Hamilton here. You two represent a very large part of American Methodists, and honestly communicating those differences are obviously crucial for future informed affiliation decisions.
There are really only two sides in this schism — traditional and progressive. There is actually no such thing as a theological centrist side. The so called centrist position is a theological oxymoron. But, even more, it is a secular driven political tactic beginning to emerge among the progressives. Adam Hamilton seems to be taking the lead here. He is a progressive now calling himself a centrists. He seems to be rebranding the progressive perspective into a more politically palatable centrist narrative.
Color me a skeptic — but I believe that progressives who plan on remaining in the new post separation UMC will adopt this tactic. I keep posting the following from the progressive North Georgia Conference bishop:
(1) This Protocol offers a path for The United Methodist Church to continue to be a denomination for those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives. The post-separation United Methodist Church will continue to have room for divergent perspectives and value diversity as an essential component of our faith.
NOTE: Of course this is untrue. If true, there would be no separation Protocol in the first place. We would not be in schism in the first place. The progressives and traditionalists are suddenly going to start agreeing in this new post separation UMC? How, by both groups becoming centrists and declaring they can accept two diametrically opposite theological positions simultaneously? But, I believe it is a tactic that will be used by progressives dressed in centrist clothing in order to fool as many traditionalists as possible into staying.
(2). The Protocol also offers a path to separate for those whose convictions do not allow them to continue to be United Methodist.
NOTE: So, who are “those”? “Convictions”? What is this really saying about the new traditional Methodist denomination that’s in the works?
Good article that gives a Methodist outsider some context in the developing schism.
When speaking about divorce and remarriage what is the traditional Wesleyan belief? I know Wesley thought remarriage would be polygamy (if the first spouse was still living.). I also know the Book of Discipline has changed it’s stance through the years. It seems like today’s view on divorce and remarriage even by conservatives has evolved markedly over the last 250 years. As divorce became more and more frequent, the church changed it’s views.
A real question I have is, “Do conservative Methodists argue that their support of divorce and remarriage is in line with scripture (even when sexual immorality has not taken place)?”
This was awesome to read. I hope that a lot of traditionalists read it. You could build an ethos and a movement off of this article. Isn’t it amazing how God grants clarity through our respectful disagreement? I think your two articles on why you split should be followed with this mans rebuttal and then your response here. It says everything. The comments about social justice – everything. It makes ME want to be a traditionalist UM and I’m UCC. The humility and Scriptural wisdom is so wholesome and a welcome breath of fresh air.
We know the positions of Traditionalists and Progressives in the UMC on the presenting issues of our deeper schism — definition of marriage, sexual ethics, ordination standards, and Scriptural authority. These positions are diametrically opposite and irreconcilable, as all parties who negotiated the Protocol of Separation Plan have agreed.
However, centrists seem to be staking out a position that they have a solution for resolving this schism in the new post separation UMC for both traditionalists and progressive to stay together there, suddenly stop being in conflict, and move forward together in peace after being rid of this renegade contingency who are forming this new global orthodox Methodist denomination. And, it looks like centrists will also attempt to portray this schism as unreal-overblown, not really a major issue, and easily taken care of after being rid of the renegades.
HOWEVER, THEY HAVE A PROBLEM. ADAM HAMILTON AND HIS FELLOW CENTRISTS ARE COMPELLED TO TELL ALL CURRENT METHODISTS HOW THIS WILL HAPPEN.
How will this new post separation UMC preach, teach, communicate, and theologically define two direct opposite definitions of marriage, of sexual ethics, of ordination standards, of Scripture interpretation-understanding that ALL will suddenly accept and agree upon – the same irreconcilable differences that had just recently split the old UMC in the first place after 50 years of conflict.
It need not be this complicated. Either one believes that scripture is the instructive Word of God or is simply a book of suggestions. The difference in these beliefs is a line in the sand on which no one can long stand. It really is that simple.
The below is part of a statement (found on UM News) issued by three bishops asking for others to sign on. They admit that the polity of the UMC (they must mean the post separation UMC) will change regarding the present stance on the practice of homosexuality in the future — they go on to state, in so many words, that traditionalists who remain “will not be forced” to go along. These people actually have the nerve to make such a statement! Someone has already labeled this THE GRAND LIE. And yes, it is an egregious lie build on a foundation of total deception and distortion of Wesleyan theology. This deception, with Adam Hamilton as the point man, is picking up steam.
We are committed to the United Methodist Church and we pledge to continue our episcopal leadership in the UMC valuing the personal dedication of members and clergy who will remain in agreement with the present stance on the practice of homosexuality. Expecting the polity of the United Methodist Church with regard to human sexuality to change in the future, we will exercise our leadership in such a way that those, who choose to remain in the UMC, may continue to express their personal conviction in alignment with the present stance and will not be forced to participate in acts that are against their personal, religious convictions.
Some excellent points, but we should be careful in our sanctimony. Some of us in the above are likely right to cite Scripture as our guide and light…others continue to cite the Discipline and rules and church laws of the day. That makes us sound a bit akin to the Pharisees, which might not be an altogether pleasing comparison. Church law, one might argue, ought not to be our destination or guide – Jesus wasn’t a fan – and the more we cite that, and not the words and actions and intentions of Jesus, our case loses some credibility.