By Rob Renfroe
I don’t understand those in The United Methodist Church who call themselves “centrists.” I have listened carefully to their claims, but the more I listen, the more questions I have.
First question: Do centrists actually believe that truth is “contextual”? I’ve heard them say the UM Church can have different practices regarding sexual ethics because we are in different contexts. They state in more liberal parts of the country we may marry gay couples and ordain practicing gay persons. In more conservative areas, people may not be ready for the church to adopt those practices, so it’s permissible not to.
But is truth contextual? Missiologists stress the importance of using words and images that present the gospel in a way that is understandable in a given culture/context. But they never argue we should change the message of the Bible to be acceptable to a particular culture. But that’s what centrists are championing – the church may proclaim two contradictory truths at the same time – one affirming same-sex behavior, the other condemning it. Why? Because one view will be accepted in one context and the other in a different context.
Do centrists believe the culture we live in should determine our message? That truth is relative and ethics are situational? That when necessary the church may, and perhaps should, “conform to the pattern of the world” (Romans 12:2), rather than transform the world? The apostles proclaimed a message of sexual holiness that was easily accepted by the Jews of their time. It was the same message they preached to the hedonists in Rome who found the apostles’ views offensive and restrictive. Different contexts. Same message. Why? Because the apostles knew their task was to make the truth plain, not palatable.
Another question: How can centrists state they are staying within the UM Church because UM theology will be uniquely positioned to reach our current culture after the traditionalists leave? Those who believe adopting a progressive sexual ethic will attract secular people to the UM Church and reverse our 50 plus years of decline are either so monumentally naïve that it borders on the miraculous or they are disingenuous.
In 2010 The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed for the ordination and marriage of gay persons. Today the ELCA’s Office of Research and Evaluation projects that the whole denomination will have fewer than 16,000 in worship by 2041. Since endorsing same-sex marriage in 2005, United Church of Christ membership has declined by 30 percent. Since the Presbyterian Church USA re-defined marriage in 2015 as the union of “two people” membership has decreased by 20 percent and youth profession of faiths have dropped by over 50 percent. The Episcopal Church USA approved their clergy performing same-sex unions in 2015. Rather than an influx of secular people to the church, the Episcopal News Service quotes church growth expert the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile, “The overall picture is dire … At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
Abandoning the biblical view of marriage has not caused any mainline church to grow. Doing so has only increased the rate of their decline. There is no reason to believe it will be any different with the UM Church.
A third question: How can centrists promise the post-separation UM Church will not become predominantly progressive in its teachings? I know one centrist pastor of a large church who responded by saying, “That won’t happen, not on my watch, I won’t allow it.” I had to laugh.
The Reconciling Ministries Network recently hosted a panel that was asked about their dreams for the future UM Church. One panelist shared his hopes that the UM Church would become a “queer denomination.” Another envisioned a church that includes “every thought, every idea.”
A pastor on the staff of the church I served for over twenty years recently attended a seminar for youth pastors. Led by staff members of some of the denomination’s largest “centrist” churches, he and others were informed that in the future youth leaders would not use the word “kingdom” because it represents God as King – as male. In fact, those leading said we should no longer refer to God as Father. Gender-neutral pronouns would be used for the kids, who would not be divided into groups for boys and girls. This, he was told, was the future of youth ministry in the post-separation UM Church. He was uncomfortable with the presentation, but not as uncomfortable as when the lecture stopped and the entire room stood and applauded. His conclusion was that he and other traditionalists have no place in the future UM Church.
When traditionalists are gone, the pastor who said the UM Church will not go woke on his watch, and others like him – 10 years or so left in ministry, white, in large churches and who are trying to keep the UM Church from becoming thoroughly progressive – will be who we conservatives have been for decades: the enemy progressives see as impeding the march towards justice. They will be surrounded by progressives who care little about their achievements as leaders and pastors because status in the brave new world that will be the UM Church will be gained not by growing a church but by how many “victim boxes” a person can claim, what’s known as intersectionality.
Centrists will not be the driving force of the Post-separation UM Church. Very quickly, they will not be the ones electing bishops or delegates to General Conference. Young, woke progressives will soon be in charge. You may believe the centrists know where the UM Church is going and that they will keep it from going too far. Or you can listen to those who long ago predicted that the church would be right where it is today when we tell you that the future of the UM Church will become more and more theologically and socially progressive until it is unrecognizable as a truly Wesleyan church.
One last question: Would centrists rather be in a denomination that requires its pastors and bishops to be orthodox but would not marry gay persons? Or would they rather be in a denomination that marries and ordains gay persons but allows its bishops and pastors to deny critical Christian beliefs? The UM Church presently has a bishop who has taught that Jesus can be an idol. We have a past UM seminary president who said it’s wrong to tell others about Jesus if they already have a religion. We have pastors who believe that Jesus did not die on the cross to pay for our sins. We have annual conference boards of ministry that will not ordain persons who believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life for everyone. We have pastors who do not believe in the virgin birth and some who either do not believe in the resurrection or who teach that believing in the resurrection is not essential for Christian faith. This will not change in the future UM Church. It will only increase.
So, my question is this: when did gay marriage become more important to centrists than being in a church that with one voice proclaims that Jesus is Lord; that he is the Savior of the world; that he died for our sins; that he was crucified, dead and buried, but on the third day he rose from the dead?
I know many centrists hold to the most important truths of the Christian faith. But for the life of me, I do not understand the claims they make: truth is not absolute but situational, the UM Church will grow once we codify a liberal sexual ethic, and the UM Church will not become significantly more progressive and woke. And I certainly cannot comprehend how being part of a church that rejects 2000 years of Christian teaching on marriage is more important than being in a church with pastors and bishops who together, as one, affirm the great scriptural truths that define the orthodox Christian faith.