By Thomas Lambrecht –
Recent communications from proponents of the One Church Plan have attempted to portray traditionalists and evangelicals as a small group within The United Methodist Church seeking to divide the denomination. In 2016, moderate leaders suggested that maybe 10-20 percent of the church is progressive and 10-20 percent is conservative, but the “broad middle” is 60-80 percent and constitutes the bulk of the denomination. (We are speaking here only of the American part of the church – roughly 60 percent of the global denomination.) In my own thinking, I have often surmised that American Methodism is one-third progressive, one-third moderate, and one-third evangelical.
It turns out we are all wrong. A recent survey by United Methodist Communications has found that rank and file laity in the American church self-identify as 44 percent conservative-traditional, 28 percent moderate-centrist, and 20 percent progressive-liberal. (It found 8 percent were unsure.)
One can quibble with the methodology of the survey, how the questions were worded, and the validity of accepting someone’s self-identification. But the fact remains that the largest segment of the church considers itself to be conservative or traditional in their beliefs. And this is at a time when reactions against harsh partisan secular politics are causing some American conservatives to be reluctant to use that term about themselves.
Furthermore, although moderates tended to fall between traditionalists and progressives in their answers, they were often closer to the conservative position. “I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is,” said Chuck Niedringhaus, who oversees research for UMCom. “Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.”
The survey indicates that the center of gravity of American Methodists is on the conservative-traditional end of the spectrum. Delegates to the special General Conference this month will need to take into consideration how rank and file members of our churches think and believe. A way forward that adopts a non-traditional understanding of human sexuality risks alienating a substantial portion of the church.
Niedringhaus suggested that the survey results have implications also for how our general boards and agencies function. “There’s a big theological gap,” he said. “At the very least, boards and agencies should be looking at this data.”
For decades, Good News has challenged our boards and agencies to give greater respect and weight to the thoughts and beliefs of conservatives within the church. Too often, agency leaders are themselves progressive in theology and out of touch with what rank and file members believe. As a result, agencies end up promoting many positions and programs that are at best irrelevant to many members and at worst offensive to them.
According to the survey, conservative-traditional members are more active in the church. Fifty-seven percent of conservatives claim to attend church at least 2-3 times per month, compared with 44 percent for moderates and 39 percent for progressives.
The survey points out how wide the theological gap is between traditionalists and progressives. For conservatives, the top two sources for their personal theology are Scripture (41 percent) and Christian Tradition (30 percent). For progressives, the top two sources are Reason (39 percent) and Personal Experience (33 percent). (Only six percent of progressives view Scripture as their most authoritative source.)
In the secular world, there is a perception that conservatives get their news and information from Fox News, while liberals get theirs from CNN. Having different sources leads to divergent opinions and even worldviews. Similarly, traditionalists and progressives in our denomination derive their personal theology from mutually exclusive sources. This is bound to create highly divergent theological perspectives, and it is probably one reason why the two groups often seem to talk past each other. They are using some of the same words, but with totally different meanings and contextual understandings.
The survey also seems to bear out the contention of evangelicals that the disagreements in our church are over the authority of Scripture. When progressives name Scripture as the least authoritative source for their personal theology, named by only six percent, that is a stance that evangelicals are not able to understand or support.
This theological gap has practical consequences in the life of the church.
What should be the primary focus of The United Methodist Church? Eighty-eight percent of conservatives said “saving souls for Jesus Christ.” Only 32 percent of progressives agreed. Progressives favored “advocating for social justice to transform this world” by 68 percent.
For contemporary evangelicals, this is an old and unfortunate dichotomy. Obviously, we believe in preaching the gospel but we are equally compelled to care for the physical needs of our neighbors and work to right injustice. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).
From an evangelical perspective, both focuses are essential. Our mission statement is “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Evangelicals, however, tend to emphasize the priority of evangelism and discipleship because it is something only the church can uniquely do. If we do not do this, no one else will.
Furthermore, evangelicals believe that the way to transform the world is through personal transformation. Yes, structures need to be transformed and laws changed. But unless the human heart is transformed, sin and injustice will continue and grow, regardless of one’s commitment to social justice. We all need Jesus, first and foremost.
Given the disconnect in terms of priorities, one can see how the heavy emphasis on advocating for politically liberal agendas for social justice on the part of our general boards and agencies without a corresponding emphasis on evangelism and discipleship can seem irrelevant and at times even offensive to conservatives and traditionalists. They often feel like their tithes and offerings are going toward an agenda that they do not support. This is part of the reason for a reluctance to pay apportionments.
It is important to note that these deep theological differences (we will highlight more of them in a future blog) were not somehow “ginned up” by Good News or other renewal groups. They reflect the deep-seated differences between groups in our church that are playing out now in the conflict over human sexuality and marriage.
Many evangelicals think they can no longer support an agenda at odds with their beliefs. If The United Methodist Church goes forward with a change in the definition of marriage, allowing same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, most conservatives and traditionalists will feel alienated from their church. If even half of them were to leave, the church would lose one-fifth of its members in the United States. The consequences for the denomination could be devastating.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.
Thank you, Thomas, for this very revealing article. As an evangelical, Bible believing Christian, I would be afraid to remain in the UMC if they change the definition of marriage. I fear God, and believe that He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sexual perversion. Ezekiel 16:50 and Jude 7 support this. The Leviticus 18 text is quite clear on what God thinks about homosexual acts. There is no mention of a distinction between those associated with a “loving, committed, monogamous relationship, and any other. The NT text in 1 Cor 6:9-11 makes it clear that this is a gospel issue. Romans 1:18ff makes me tremble at the thought of even being associated with people who reject the clear teaching of Scripture on this topic (esp. vs 32). We are not discussing whether people who are caught up in this sin should be loved as a person. But if we truly love someone, we must warn them when they are involved in a lifestyle that will exclude them from the kingdom of God. It thrills me to listen to the website purepassionmedia.com, where former homosexuals give their testimonies of how God delivered them through the gospel of Jesus. God is not limited in His power to save and transform (2Cor. 5:17).
I agree. Over and over again, minister after minister that we receive seem to not even believe in god. They definitely do not see god as someone who can touch and transforms lives. Why in the world would someone go to a church where god’s power is not offered.
We have problems no matter what passes due to a non believing and non effective clergy.
This entire issue could be put to rest forever if we would quietly listen to the holy spirit. I believe Jesus would say to those involved in or supportive of homsexual behavior, “Go and sin no more. Live by the truth.” To those of us who stand on the word of God, He would remind us to “rebuke the sin and love the sinner.”
exactly. The declaration of clearness of what sin is has been neglected because it will drive away parishioners and the need for continual repentance. Romans 12 confronts the issues of transformation and Paul also urges us to study to show ourselves approved 2 Tim. I continue to study and I hope you will also
I don’t think any of the plans at GC will gather enough votes to pass, so we will stay the same. That being said, the reason is because of clergy having 1/2 the votes. If lay members had more control, this issue would be dealt with.
If you allocate the ‘centrists’ and others at about the same rate as the rest are split, you come up with something like this:
68% evangelical or leans evangelical
32% progressive or leans progressive
This is consistent with other findings of the study, including 70% of members who say that the most important mission of the UMC is the salvation of sinners, while 30% say it’s advocating for social justice; and 72% who believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation, while 28% say that he is not.
So, without a doubt there is a large segment of the denomination that is theologically liberal. But it is far from a majority.
All of this commentary is based on the premise that homosexuality is a choice, but according to Matt 19:11 that may not be the case. I think it says a person could be born a homosexual. Since there is no provision for same sex marriage in the bible, that person would have to serve the lord as a celibate, once he or she were saved.
Nothing is ever said about “practicing (unmarried) heterosexuals.” Is that a sin?
It has become labeled as “unloving” to call sin what it IS–sin. And some perceive diagnosing sin as the Bible does (and therefore as GOD does) as something evil—as if the person who believes what the Bible teaches were gleefully condemning others. This is the VERY OPPOSITE of what Jesus taught us—to live in righteousness, and to call OTHERS to righteousness–out of LOVE–because righteousness (to be found ONLY in Jesus Christ) saves us, while sin DESTROYS us. To call people away from sin, and to righteousness, is therefore AN ACT OF LOVE–not of hate.
An example: Let’s say a person were to go to a doctor, and the doctor discovered that — even though the patient felt no symptoms, they had Stage 4 cancer. What if the doctor were to say to himself, “The patient doesn’t feel ill–yet–and doesn’t realize he’s ill. If I TELL him he has Stage 4 cancer, then that will UPSET him–it will make him FEEL BAD–it will make him maybe feel very discouraged, or depressed, or angry. It would be UNKIND and UNLOVING of me to make the patient feel bad—so I’ll just tell him that everything’s fine, and that he’s perfectly OK.” What would you think of such a doctor? Inexcusable, right? If the doctor were to tell the patient that he IS ill–but that there is a TREATMENT that may be able to SAVE him—would that not be the more “LOVING” response—even though the “truth might hurt”?
THAT is EXACTLY what we are called to do, as Christians—to tell a DYING world that they ARE dying, and WHY they are dying (sin)–and what the CURE is (salvation through Jesus Christ).
To do anything less would be as irresponsible as a doctor KNOWINGLY keeping from a patient the knowledge of his TRUE state of health, so that he doesn’t get the treatment that could SAVE HIS LIFE.