A Partnership in Healing

A Partnership in Healing

A Partnership in Healing

By Jenifer Jones

 

It’s hot and dusty outside the Methodist Faith Healing Hospital in Ankaase, Ghana. Vendors sit beneath umbrellas, selling food for families to purchase for themselves and their patients. Cars drive past on a tan-orange dirt road. Inside, the wards are clean and smell of Dettol, a disinfectant similar to Lysol. Lab techs help doctors diagnose diseases like malaria and typhoid. In the clean and sterile operating rooms, lives are saved daily. 

For people who need healthcare anywhere near Ankaase, Ghana, the Methodist Faith Healing Hospital is the place to go. Located in a rural farming community, the 112-bed facility has a staff of more than 500 people. It has 15 full-time doctors, including six Ghanian specialists. It serves as a referral hospital for two main districts in the Ashanti region of Ghana and manages eight clinics spread across the region. 

It wasn’t always like this. A project of the Methodist Church Ghana (MCG), the Methodist Faith Healing Hospital Ankaase was dedicated in 1988 and opened as an outpatient department in 1991.   

Growing up together. When Cam Gongwer arrived in 1998 with his wife and nine-month-old daughter, he was the first full-time doctor at the facility. Cam is a former cross-cultural worker (CCW) with TMS Global and is currently a CoServe consultant with the organization. When he began at the hospital, there was a staff of 12.

The hospital and TMS Global have grown up together. Joseph Amankwah is the CEO of the Methodist Faith Healing Hospital Ankaase. “Right from the beginning” he says, “TMS Global has been in collaboration with the Methodist Church Ghana in developing the health ministry in Ghana.” 

The Methodist Faith Healing Hospital is the district hospital in its area. It serves a population of more than 200,000 people.

Care closer to home. Cam says malaria remains the most significant health problem in Ghana, particularly among children. It’s the leading cause of death for children younger than five years old in Ghana. 

“If the hospital didn’t exist,” Cam says, “sick people would have to travel longer distances typically on public transport taking a longer time to reach a comparable functioning hospital.”

Mary Kay Jackson is a former TMS Global CCW, now staff member, who used to serve in Ghana and visited the hospital on several occasions. She says patients come from all walks of life, and all faith backgrounds – Christian, Muslim, and traditional.

“I have seen mothers rejoicing at the birth of their new babies,” she says. “I have seen mothers sitting by the bedside of their children who are ill. I have heard babies and toddlers scream as they get their immunizations. And I have seen mothers wailing as their child dies of dehydration due to malaria or cholera. I have seen nurses bathe the elderly with tenderness and care as they wait for their final homegoing.”

A partnership that endures. Enoch Osafo is the director of health for the Methodist Church Ghana. He says one of the keys to the enduring relationship between TMS Global and the hospital is that the partnership was never with the hospital itself, but rather with the MCG. 

“That always opens the door for any need that requires TMS Global to come in and fulfil their mission through the Methodist Church Ghana’s mission,” Enoch says. “So if there’s a need for a doctor, they come in. Sometimes needs include provision of water; sometimes there’s a need for discussions about how to revitalize the local Church.” 

Because the relationship isn’t just between individuals like Cam or Joseph or Enoch, but rather between TMS Global and the Methodist Church Ghana, the work continues on even as the people involved change.

The Methodist Faith Healing Hospital is fully led and run by the Methodist Church Ghana. 

Enoch says that was the design from the beginning. “We started with two institutions (TMS Global and the MCG) coming together to say that we are both in mission together, rather than TMS Global coming in to say, ‘We want to do the hospital and run the hospital and when we have finished, take your turn and go.’ But it was two institutions coming together saying, ‘We have one mission, and our mission is to serve God’s purpose within the community.’” 

Focused on ministry. Enoch also emphasizes that anyone who comes to work with the facility isn’t there to help with a hospital, but rather to be involved in ministry. “That keeps the mission focus,” Enoch says. The hospital has a reputation for being a place where God is present. 

Cam notes, “I remember once a mother came from very far away with her sick child. She had been to other clinics and providers, but the child did not get better. When asked why she brought her child all the way to Ankaase, she said it was because she had been told that God is there. She believed that her child would become well if seen at Ankaase. Indeed, her child was admitted to hospital, and he responded to treatment. He went home healed and the mother was thankful to God.”

Transformed communities. Cam left Ghana as a full-time doctor in 2012, but he still has a relationship with hospital leadership and the Methodist Church Ghana and returns to visit the hospital. 

“The best part about it,” Cam said says, “is being able to see how God is at work drawing people and calling people into the mission that He has there. The development of the hospital has been rocky at times but with the leadership of Joseph and Enoch I believe God brought the right people in to steer the Church and its mission forward at the hospital.”

Enoch notes that even though the hospital is a health ministry, the focus is still on making disciples. He is currently collaborating with a partner from India to grow in that area. 

Joseph says the hospital has made an impact on its surrounding community. The facility is the largest employer in the area. Many young and skilled health providers and staff and their families have moved to the region. “We are transforming communities.”

Jenifer Jones is a communicator for TMS Global, which launched in 1984 as The Mission Society for United Methodists (and is now interdenominational). In the past 40 years, TMS Global has trained, mobilized, and served hundreds of cross-cultural witnesses who communicate the good news of Jesus in word and deed. TMS Global also comes alongside churches in the US and abroad, providing training and coaching to help them discover and live out their unique missional calling. For more information, visit us at tms-global.org. Photo: TMS Global.

Surveying General Conference Issues

Surveying General Conference Issues

Surveying General Conference Issues

By Thomas Lambrecht

The United Methodist General Conference is many things, but primarily it is a legislative assembly. The bulk of its time is devoted to considering, refining, and adopting legislative proposals that become the “laws” that are supposed to govern our church. (We have written elsewhere about the increasing tendency by some bishops and other leaders to disregard the requirements of church laws they disagree with.)

One can picture the General Conference as a Congress that meets for two weeks every four years. Like in Congress, various bills are proposed that would add to, delete, or amend current church laws. We call those bills “petitions.” Like in Congress, petitions are considered by one of 15 legislative committees – 14 regular committees plus the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. If a petition is adopted by its legislative committee (with or without amendments), it is then considered by the plenary session of all the delegates meeting together. Many petitions are adopted on a consent calendar, which allows them to be approved all at once as a large group. These are petitions that are non-controversial and receive very little opposition in their legislative committee. Plenary debate is reserved for the more difficult and controversial issues. Once all the changes are considered and adopted, the laws are compiled together into our Book of Discipline.

In addition to church laws found in the Book of Discipline, the church adopts policy statements on many social issues. These policy statements are called “Resolutions.” They are compiled together into a Book of Resolutions that is just as thick as the Discipline. They are not binding in the same way the laws of the Book of Discipline are. Instead, they are meant to be a resource guide for how to think Christianly about a particular issue. Some resolutions stray into political territory or propose concrete solutions to societal problems, which is why they tend to be more controversial and may take up a disproportionate share of the agenda time at the General Conference. Resolutions automatically expire after eight years, so they have to be updated and approved again in order to continue in effect. This process becomes a cycle of controversy as disagreements resurface every eight years when the resolution is renewed, promoting conflict.

According to United Methodist News Service, there are over 1,100 petitions and resolutions to be considered at the 2024 General Conference. Some consist only of one line (e.g., reapprove Resolution 52 in the Book of Resolutions). Others can be 10-15 pages long and highly complex.

In the past, Good News would recommend positions on 300-400 petitions and resolutions each General Conference, indicating whether we supported or opposed a given petition, and whether it needed to be amended to gain our support. This year, due to the liminal time we are in, with separation happening from the UM Church and many moving to the Global Methodist Church, Good News and our coalition partners are focused mainly on supporting petitions allowing disaffiliation to continue for a short time into the future and opposing the regionalization of church governance. Most of our constituency will be moving into the GM Church or otherwise disaffiliating from the UM Church, so it would be inappropriate for our coalition to heavily influence the future direction of United Methodism.

Articles on disaffiliation and regionalization have appeared in earlier issues of Good News magazine, so this article will examine the other issues that will be considered by the General Conference. While not taking positions supporting or opposing these petitions, we still think it is important for church members to be aware of the issues that will be decided in Charlotte.

There are at least 34 petitions related to disaffiliation and 39 related to regionalization proposals. The disaffiliation petitions propose various processes of disaffiliation, some more helpful than others. There are three major regionalization proposals: the Connectional Table proposal, the Christmas Covenant, and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters proposal. Each is slightly different and contains a number of different petitions. It will be up to the delegates to decide among these competing proposals.

LGBT Questions. The constellation of issues receiving the most attention at the General Conference will be questions around whether to allow the church to perform same-sex weddings, whether partnered gay and lesbian people may be ordained as clergy, and whether our church’s position on non-discrimination should be extended to their status as gay or lesbian or non-binary or transgender or other gender identities.

No fewer than 87 petitions have been submitted that relate to these questions. That makes it the largest category of petitions. Some would reinforce the traditional position adopted by the church in 1972 and reaffirmed every General Conference since, including 2019. The vast majority of the submitted petitions, however, would act to liberalize the church’s stance on these questions. They would change the church’s definition of marriage to “two persons,” instead of “one man and one woman.” They would allow pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and for such services to be held in UM churches. They would allow church funds to be spent to promote the affirmation of homosexuality. They would allow partnered gays and lesbians to be ordained as clergy and to serve also as bishops. They would remove all chargeable offenses related to homosexuality and end any current complaints or proceedings against anyone for such offenses. A few of the petitions would make this liberalizing contingent upon whatever the laws of a given nation stipulate. In countries where the practice of homosexuality is illegal, this liberalization would not take effect (similar to the regionalization proposals).

Given that a substantial number of traditionalist delegates have left the UM Church, it is likely that a progressive-centrist majority will adopt this liberalizing agenda regarding LGBTQ proposals.

Abortion. There are at least 14 petitions related to abortion. Most were submitted in 2019 and advocate for a stronger position against abortion. Several submitted last year advocate a position in favor of abortion rights. The U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade will undoubtedly impact the discussion of this issue, with a backlash favoring abortion rights in the U.S. likely to be decisive.

Africa Realignment and Bishops. A proposal will be considered to add a new central conference in Africa. In addition to the West Africa and Congo Central Conferences, the rest of the countries would be divided between an East Africa and a South Africa Central Conference. This would help with the grouping of similar languages and geographical area in the same central conference. The 2016 promise to add five new bishops to the existing 13 bishops in Africa will be reconsidered. One proposal adds the new bishops in Zimbabwe, East Africa, Nigeria, and two in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters will reconsider this proposal at the General Conference in light of budget cuts and possible disaffiliations.

Bishops. Traditional Plan proposals would enhance the accountability of bishops at the global level. Several petitions propose term limits of varying lengths for bishops.

Number of Bishops. Some petitions submitted in 2019 would maintain the number of bishops the church had back then in the U.S. A few more recent petitions would reduce the minimum number of bishops in each jurisdiction from five to four or otherwise reduce the number of U.S. bishops in order to provide more bishops for Africa. One interesting proposal would provide general church funding for the minimum number of five bishops per jurisdiction. Each jurisdiction could add more bishops to that minimum number, but the jurisdiction would have to pay for the extra bishops.

Fair Representation. Twenty petitions attempt to increase central conference membership on various boards and agencies of the church. Until now, while making up over half of the church’s membership, central conference representatives usually number around a third of board and agency members.

Voting Rights. A series of petitions would expand the right of licensed local pastors and Associate Members to vote on constitutional amendments, election of delegates to General Conference, and the character and status of clergy. Many of these rights have been given to full-time licensed local pastors who have completed the Course of Study, but the current petitions would expand that to part-time licensed local pastors and not require completion of the Course. They would also expand voting rights for provisional members, who are not yet ordained clergy.

Pensions. The General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (Wespath) is proposing to abolish the current pension program and replace it with a new Compass program. Compass would be an entirely defined contribution plan, where the money contributed by clergy and their churches would go into their individual accounts and provide the total retirement income they would receive at retirement. There would be no guaranteed amount of a pension, as there was in the pre-1982 program or in the current CRSP program (which is part defined benefit pension and part defined contribution investment program). Wespath says the current CRSP program is financially unsustainable and takes on too much long-term liability for the annual conferences, so must be discontinued.

Retirement Age. There are several petitions to eliminate mandatory retirement for clergy, which is currently required at age 75. One petition clarifies the age of retirement for bishops, in light of the fact that several African bishops have surpassed the mandatory retirement age but have not stepped down. Other petitions either raise the retirement age for bishops or eliminate it altogether.

Separation Plans. There are 53 petitions related to separation plans. These include the Protocol, the Indianapolis Plan, the Plain Grace Plan, the Jones plan for forming new Methodist denominations, the Two Jurisdiction plan, and the UM Communion plan. They were all submitted in 2019. Since disaffiliation has already moved forward in the U.S., these plans are probably moot, in that their time has passed. More applicable petitions would provide official recognition of the Global Methodist Church as another Christian denomination and would encourage the development of positive relations between the two denominations. Other petitions clarify that active or retired UM clergy cannot serve in congregations of another denomination without the permission of the bishop and board of ordained ministry.

Social Principles. The General Board of Church and Society is proposing a newly rewritten version of the Social Principles, our denominational statement on numerous social issues. In development for at least eight years, the rewrite is supposed to make the Social Principles more contemporary, succinct, and theologically grounded. Readers will have to judge whether that objective was achieved. Most of the church’s stances on issues did not change with the rewrite, except for the issues of marriage and human sexuality. The rewrite changes the definition of marriage to “two people” and removes language calling the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Traditional Plan. There are 12 petitions relating to the Traditional Plan that was passed at the 2019 Special General Conference. Two of them would further implement the Traditional Plan through clarifying legislation. The other ten would repeal aspects of the Traditional Plan, including several provisions not related to sexuality that attempted to make the complaint process more fair, transparent, and accountable.

This survey only scratches the surface of the many issues coming before the General Conference. (Some observers would see that as part of the problem with the General Conference, that it tries to speak about too many issues.) There are proposals about divesting from industries developing fossil fuels, divesting from support of Israel, support for environmental causes, and many others. It will be up to the delegates to decide which proposals become church law in the Discipline or enshrine the church’s opinion in the Book of Resolutions. Good News will be tracking the outcome and sharing reports throughout the General Conference.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: General Conference 2012, Tampa by Steve Beard. 

Regionalization Support is Hardly Unanimous

Regionalization Support is Hardly Unanimous

 

Regionalization Support is Hardly Unanimous

By Forbes Matonga

The United Methodist Church continues to be an exciting organism. It never stops, especially during General Conference season. We are exactly in that season again.

One of the complex dynamics of The United Methodist Church is the existence of pressure groups, commonly known as caucuses. Historically, caucuses were largely an American phenomenon, unknown to African United Methodists.

In the U.S., these groups took the flavor of national politics. Thus, the division was clearly along the lines of conservatives vs. liberals or traditionalists vs. progressives. It used to be that when Africans got to General Conference, they were amazed to see how these groups would solicit their votes, at times using demeaning methods I shall not describe here.

Over time, Africans realized that they do not exist at General Conference to push American interests. They have their own. African interests have included funding for Africa University, funding for theological education in Africa and fair representation on boards and commissions of the general church, to name a few.

The need for Africans to advocate for their own interests led to the formation of the first African caucus, named the Africa Initiative. This group was able to galvanize African delegates into a force that could not be ignored.

American conservative caucuses quickly formed alliances with the Africa Initiative that included providing financial support to gather and strategize. Progressive American caucuses, meanwhile, supported the startup of other African groups that differed from the Africa Initiative. They provided funding and helped these groups strategize.

Africa was targeted because its delegate numbers were growing, while American numbers were decreasing.

This sets the context to understand what was happening in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, recently, where Africans attending the United Methodist Africa Forum gathering are said to have unanimously endorsed regionalization and rejected disaffiliation by the same margin. Those who made this big decision included some African delegates and alternate delegates to the upcoming General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The first thing that makes this gathering interesting is the presence of big names in the United Methodist hierarchy, such as the chair of the Connectional Table, who happens to be the resident bishop of the hosting episcopal area including Tanzania. This is a sign of an express approval of this group by the powers that be in the denomination, both in Africa and globally. By contrast, in 2022, the African bishops denounced the Africa Initiative and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

The question must be asked: How legitimate was the Dar es Salaam gathering?

I am the head of the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference delegation to General Conference. We were not invited to Dar es Salaam. I know in fact that no delegates from either Zimbabwe West or Zimbabwe East or the Malawi Mission Conference attended this gathering or the first Africa Forum gathering in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2023. I may not be qualified to speak for all African delegations to the General Conference, but this is the case for the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area.

The United Methodist Africa Forum may speak for itself and pronounce its position, but it does not speak for me or the Zimbabwean delegates. The Africa Forum is not a forum for all African delegates.

The Africa Initiative, which has a substantial number of General Conference delegates as its members, clearly opposes the regionalization agenda. The initiative’s position is regularly articulated by its general coordinator, the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia, a General Conference delegate himself.

A few African delegates have since moved away from The United Methodist Church in response to a wave of disaffiliations that hit the U.S. United Methodist Church, leading to the birth of the Global Methodist Church. However, most African delegates to General Conference chose to remain in The United Methodist Church, contending for the retention of the disciplinary language that prohibits same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” homosexuals anywhere in The United Methodist Church. This African group is very much alive and very capable of frustrating the liberal agenda to change the position of the church on human sexuality.

Let me stress this point: Regionalization as proposed does not go far enough to assure Africans that their position against the affirmation of same-gender relationships will not be compromised under the so-called big tent theological umbrella. Indeed, as long as the Council of Bishops itself is not regionalized, then this whole talk of regionalization is a smokescreen.

Currently, bishops of The United Methodist Church are bishops of the whole church. A gay bishop elected in America is a bishop for Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is what Africa is rejecting. I hope our progressive and centrist brothers and sisters will understand that this time around.

The regionalization legislation requires a constitutional amendment, which needs approval by two-thirds of the delegates, plus two-thirds of all annual conference members across the globe. That’s not going to happen.

Many African delegates, who are the principal reporters to annual conferences on the outcomes of the General Conference, will advocate against regionalization, and it will fail at the annual conference level – even if progressives somehow get a favorable vote at General Conference.

It is instructive to note the pushback Pope Francis is getting from African Catholics for trying to promote liberal theology on human sexuality. They are rejecting his reasoning that one can bless gay people without marrying them while they are living as married couples. The United Methodist Church will, if it veers from its current policies on human sexuality, face similar pushback from Africans.

It is written, “A man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). “…. and he (Jesus) said, ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’” (Matthew 19:5, NIV). “For this reason, a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31).

We African United Methodists shall listen to no other voice, be it from angels, those who call themselves apostles, theologians, biblical scholars, or philosophers of this world. We trust the Word of God as given in Scripture! SOLA SCRIPTURA!

Forbes Matonga is a pastor and a General Conference delegate in the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference. This commentary was first produced as a point-counterpoint from UM News with an opinion piece from the Rev. Gabriel Banga Mususwa. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Why We Will Be In Charlotte

Why We Will Be In Charlotte

Why We Will Be In Charlotte

By Thomas Lambrecht

Two recent stories from United Methodist News deserve a response. The first was a news articles about the announced intention of Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) to participate in the General Conference in Charlotte, NC.

The second article was a commentary by the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. further criticizing Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) for our involvement. The argument voiced in both articles is that only those who have a long-term commitment to the UM Church should participate in deciding the future of that church.

In the words of the Rev. Drew Dyson, a delegate from Greater New Jersey, “Our polity should be determined by those whose intention is to remain faithfully within the UMC. In my estimation, Good News and the WCA are simply attempting to undermine and harm the work of the UMC under the guise of ‘fairness’ for their allies.” There were a handful of other critical responses in the news article. Fair enough. (It should be noted that both Good News President Rob Renfroe and I remain ordained clergy in good standing in the UM Church.)

Since 1972, Good News has participated in every General Conference by expressing our views on topics up for consideration at the conference. We have helped to organize like-minded delegates to support traditionalist positions on issues. Other caucus groups, such as Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, and other more liberal groups have engaged in similar activity at these same General Conferences. In the past, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition has even recruited non-United Methodists to come and participate in protests that have disrupted the functioning of the General Conference.

Our participation in the 2024 General Conference, however, will be different. Rather than lobbying the delegates on a host of issues of concern, Good News and the WCA are in Charlotte to focus on only two issues. First is the need to provide equitable, feasible disaffiliation routes for annual conferences and local churches outside the U.S. who have been denied the possibility that we in the U.S. had to discern our future. Second is to support our African friends in their opposition to the proposed regionalization of the church.

We will not be in Charlotte to “undermine and harm the work of the UMC” in any way (unless one considers enacting fairness and justice harming the work of the church). We will not be lobbying on the budget or attempting to block changes to the denomination’s definition of marriage and ordination standards. We will not be critiquing the proposed new Social Principles or weighing in on the number of bishops the church should have.

The future of the UM Church is for those who will be living with that future to determine. The question is, however, who will be part of the future UM Church. Will the church be a “coalition of the willing” or a “fellowship of the coerced?”

Is Disaffiliation Over? The heart of the institutional UM narrative is that, in Weems’ words, “The period of disaffiliation is over. It is time for all groups to move on from dividing to unifying and disciple-making.”

Who gets to say that the period of disaffiliation is over? Institutional leaders in the U.S.? People who have already had the chance to discern their future in the UM Church?

How can disaffiliation be over when more than half the UM Church has not had an opportunity to consider disaffiliation, much less act on it? If the shoe were on the other foot, would the charge of colonialism be leveled? U.S. leaders should not be the lone arbiters for determining that the privileges and opportunities available in the U.S. will not be allowed in the central conferences outside the U.S.

There are other questions of fairness:

• How can disaffiliation be over when several annual conferences convinced some of their churches to wait to see what the 2024 General Conference does before considering disaffiliating?

• How can disaffiliation be over when a dozen U.S. conferences imposed such draconian costs on the process that it has been nearly impossible for churches in those conferences to afford to disaffiliate?

• How can disaffiliation be over when one annual conference said in late 2023 that churches had no grounds under the Discipline or Par. 2553 to disaffiliate and denied all further requests?

• How can disaffiliation be over when there are at least four lawsuits underway in annual conferences that have made it nearly impossible for churches to disaffiliate?

Weems writes, “The upcoming General Conference is for those who remain after the chaos of recent years. … They have chosen to remain not because they all agree, but because they are willing to live together despite differences.” Unfortunately for Weems, nearly half the delegates there have NOT chosen to remain. They have not been given the choice. In denying them the choice, the UM Church has handicapped itself and compromised its ability to move forward in a new direction.

Disunity Incompatible? Weems states that “disunity is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It is easy to make that glib statement and point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21, “that all of them may be one.” At the same time, one must acknowledge that Christian unity is not necessarily expressed by all Christians being in the same denomination. Otherwise, we would all have to become Roman Catholic.

Unity is built on a common faith in Jesus Christ and a willingness to work together for the cause of the Gospel, regardless of denominational affiliation. Such unity and cooperation is less likely to develop in the aftermath of the imposition of punitive costs or the denial of equal rights and fairness.

At times, it may be pragmatically better to separate and work independently for the Gospel when people are unable to agree sufficiently to work together. Paul and Barnabas found that to be the case, as recorded in Acts 15:36-41. In the wake of the unity engendered by the Council of Jerusalem, they had a “sharp disagreement” and parted ways for their second missionary journeys.

Weems recounts that John Wesley and George Whitefield disagreed “vehemently” over some aspects of doctrine. Weems believes, however, that “Wesley concluded that it was better for the cause of Christ for them to work together, despite their differences, than to separate.” However, Wesley and Whitefield did separate in 1741. While they still considered each other brothers in Christ, and Wesley preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon in 1770, they did not work together in any organized way after 1741. Those who held a Calvinist doctrine were not allowed to preach in Methodist preaching houses.

This was one of the first of many separations that occurred within Methodism, on average one every ten years during the first century of Methodism’s existence. Separation, however, does not have to mean disunity. It will take a time of healing of wounds on both sides of the latest separation, but the possibility remains of some form of cooperative unity in the future between those who remain United Methodist and those who have separated. All on both sides should continue to strive now to maintain an attitude of graciousness toward those with whom we disagree in order to minimize the healing that is needed and hasten the opportunity for constructive cooperation.

I agree with Weems’ invitation to that graciousness: “In a country seemingly unreconcilably divided today, is not God calling us to put aside the accumulated acrimony and bitterness from years of words and deeds for which we all could have done better and wish for each other God’s blessings for the future?” Absolutely! Restoring fairness for all could go a long way toward putting “the accumulated acrimony and bitterness” behind us and enabling a positive future working relationship.

Agree on All Topics? Weems describes the people who choose to remain United Methodist as “compatibilists.” He defines them as those “who do not expect all other members to agree with them on all topics.”

Anyone who has read a Twitter feed or Facebook group of Global Methodists and other disaffiliated persons knows we do not agree with each other on “all topics.” Traditionalists have remained a constructive part of United Methodism and its concomitant pluralism for over 50 years. It is only when the church failed to uphold its own teachings and disciplines that many traditionalists could not in good conscience remain in connection.

From all indications, the upcoming General Conference will most likely change the church’s definition of marriage to allow for same-sex marriage. Furthermore, it is expected to change the ordination standards to allow for the ordination of partnered lesbians and gays. For many traditionalists, this would be a contravention of the plain teachings of Scripture.

Not all traditionalists believe that disagreement over these issues is a church-dividing issue. But we believe those who do should have a fair opportunity to disaffiliate from a church that is changing its teachings and practices in these vital areas. Congregations and annual conferences that in conscience cannot support this change should not be required to forfeit their buildings and property and abandon their mission in order to disaffiliate.

We will be in Charlotte to give voice to those traditionalists who have not had a fair opportunity to disaffiliate, some in the U.S., but mostly in the central conferences outside the U.S. We pray the General Conference delegates will see the justice of our cause and respond in a way that opens the door for congregational self-determination and ends the unfair discrimination against Africans, Filipinos, and Europeans who cannot support the evident new direction of the UM Church.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Karolina Grabowska (Pexels)

To Contend for the Faith

To Contend for the Faith

To Contend for the Faith

By David F. Watson

Jude 3 weighs on me: “Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

We are not just to teach the faith, but to contend for the faith – and not just any faith. This is the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. What does that mean? It’s another way of talking about the witness of the Apostles. This faith was passed on through Jesus to the Apostles, and through them to trustworthy witnesses across the centuries. Over time, guided by the Holy Spirit, the church would develop in its understanding of this faith. It would come to rely upon a canon of Scripture and particular summaries of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These beliefs form a minimum standard for what we call Christian orthodoxy.

I know God doesn’t need me to defend his church or the faith it professes. I’m not that important. I have no illusions about the fact that God could raise up stones to witness to him. Yet the Scriptures teach us to contend for the faith, and not just in Jude 3. Peter warns, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

The Apostle Paul writes, “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (2 Timothy 1:14). He goes on further, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (2 Timothy 4:15).

As uncomfortable as it may be at times, the Bible admonishes us to contend for the apostolic faith. To be clear, the Bible doesn’t admonish us to be jerks. But Jesus turned over tables! will come the response. Fine, but he only did it once, and you’re not Jesus.

Perhaps some reflection is in order before the table-flipping commences. As we read earlier, Peter urges us to make our defense with gentleness and reverence. To proceed in this way isn’t a sign of weakness. You’re not a squish if you don’t crush people on Twitter when they make heretical statements. You’re not simply succumbing to the rules of polite society. You’re being obedient. What’s more, just on a practical level, I can’t think of anyone who has been brought to an acknowledgement of the truth by being browbeaten or humiliated in public.

Generally speaking, I try to get along with people and to maintain friendships across ideological and theological lines. I also, however, try to speak truthfully, even if I do so imperfectly. Truthful speech will sometimes make people angry.

When reflecting on “Christian orthodoxy” or the “Nicene-Chalcedonian” tradition, we could use the language of Vincent of Lerins and refer to it as the faith confessed “everywhere, always, and by all.” We could use William J. Abraham’s language of the “canonical tradition.” I think, however, it would be best to go with Thomas Oden’s term, the “consensual tradition” – a consensus that has emerged regarding how best to understand the witness of the Apostles.

To stand within the consensual tradition is to hold a set of remarkable claims. Among these are that the God of all creation became human in Jesus Christ, who lived a perfect life. Jesus died on the cross, and when he did, he took all of the gone-wrongness of creation (sin) upon himself, and he created a bridge between humankind and God. We call this “atonement.”

After three days, God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

To adopt this account of God’s saving work is to enter into an entirely new understanding of life. It is to take on a relentlessly optimistic and enchanted worldview. When God’s story becomes our story, life takes on depths of meaning we could never have imagined before. God’s story is greater than anything we could ever have made up in the best moment of the best day of our lives.

It would be utterly preposterous if it weren’t true.

The Church Got It Right. I was a church kid. I was in the children’s choir. I went to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and of course weekly worship. I participated in United Methodist Youth Fellowship. I did all the church things.

Many of our family discussions were around matters of faith. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Texas, faith and football were really the only two things worth talking about. Hal Lindsey was doing his thing. Most people in my neck of the woods were pretty sure Jesus was coming back soon, and it would have something to do with Russia, China, and the bomb. In the meantime, though, the Cowboys were winning, and Texas Stadium had a hole in the roof so God could watch his favorite team play.

I look back on this time with gratitude. My childhood in the church taught me the faith. It gave me a sense of identity and provided me with moral direction (which I’ve followed in varying degrees over the years). What’s more, the churches I attended taught me a basically orthodox version of the faith. During worship, for example, we recited the Apostles’ Creed. Week after week, year after year, the recitation of the creed was formative. The hymns we sang, including the Doxology and the Gloria Patri, and the prayers we prayed shaped my faith in ways that I could only see in retrospect. Lex orandi lex credendi – as we worship, so we believe.

When I got older, I came to understand that the faith in which I was raised was essentially consistent with the Great Tradition of Christian faith. I had learned about a God who was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I had learned that this God loved me, but that my sin kept me separated from him. I had learned that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, that Christ had died for our sins, and that after three days he rose from the dead. He will come again in judgment, and the faithful will reside with him forever, while the wicked will go into eternal punishment. Nothing fancy here – just basic Christianity.

In the wild and wooly world of late twentieth-century American theology, though, this narrative of salvation was consistently under fire. It reflected an ancient worldview, one we could not with integrity accept today, went the argument. It assumed a vision of God and divine action that we could no longer believe. It was mythological, superstitious, naïve, and patriarchal to boot. It was steeped in platonic philosophy. It mimicked themes of Greco-Roman mythology, such as the dying-and-rising God. It could not reckon with the problem of evil. It had been debunked by critical biblical scholarship. The formation of “orthodoxy” was the result of a power struggle in the early church. The dominant figures in the early church had suppressed “gospels” that did not fit their preferred narrative. High christologies were later developments. The preaching of the earliest Christians (the kerygma) had been obscured by mythological accounts of Jesus’ ministry and significance. You get the idea.

Reading John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography was a watershed moment for me. Crossan, a brilliant scholar and writer, argued that the church’s whole story of Jesus is wrong – no incarnation, no virgin birth, no healings, no exorcisms, no atonement. To understand Jesus, he wrote, we have to hear his message as one of “radical egalitarianism.” Oh, and he wasn’t raised from the dead, either. He was probably thrown in a ditch and eaten by dogs. So there’s that.

I hadn’t read enough biblical scholarship at that time to understand that Crossan was one of a long line of scholars, from Friedrich Schleiermacher to David Friedrich Strauss to Albert Schweitzer to Rudolf Bultmann to Robert Funk, etc., who made some form of this argument. The church had gotten it wrong, each said, but I’m here to show you how to get it right.

Fiction of the early church? Crossan was my introduction into radically revisionist biblical scholarship and, holy crow, did he make an impression on me. He forced me to confront a question I really wished to ignore: was the basic story of salvation, the one taught to me from my childhood, the one taught across the centuries to countless souls, some of whom gave their lives for it, simply a fiction of the early church? Had the church gotten it wrong for all of these centuries? Had she perpetuated a false narrative? Was the Great Tradition of Christian faith a lie?

I’ve met people across the years who have answered that question affirmatively. Yes, they say, traditional Christianity’s story of salvation is a lie. Its understanding of Jesus is a lie. And what’s more, many people have known about these lies but have perpetuated them for their own gain. Take the pastor who has gone to seminary, learned about critical scholarship, perceived the historical problems with early Christianity, and then enters the pulpit week after week to preach things he knows are untrue. Some people understand the clergy of their upbringing this way, and have thus developed considerable resentment.

It took me years to sort through all of this. In some ways, I’m still sorting through it. I remember sitting in a group of scholars and grad students whom the late William “Billy” Abraham had called together to work on something he would name “Canonical Theism.”

Billy made what was, in the theological world I had come to inhabit, an audacious claim: “The church got it right.” What he meant was, the church’s story, what philosopher C. Stephen Evans calls the “incarnational narrative,” is a true story. God really did become incarnate in Jesus Christ. Jesus really was born of a virgin. He really lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. He really did rise from the dead – in body, not just as a dream or apparition. And he really will come again to judge the living and the dead.

In some contexts, this claim – that the church got it right – would be uncontroversial. In the context of mainline Protestantism I was living in, it was a shot across the bow of the liberal consensus. Theological liberalism assumes that, in many of its basic truth claims, the church got it wrong.

The main point of difference between theological liberalism and the consensual tradition (theological orthodoxy) is the concept of divine agency. To insist that the church got it right requires a strong sense of divine action and divine revelation. Whereas theological liberalism conceives of God as lacking the power or will to work directly in this world, theological orthodoxy – the consensual tradition – bases everything on the idea that God has acted powerfully and decisively for our salvation. To put it more simply: God does things. Scripture tells us what God has done for our salvation, and the consensual tradition helps us to understand the witness of Scripture.

I recognize, of course, that the church hasn’t gotten everything right. The church has erred in many ways across the centuries. But in its basic story of salvation, in its conception of God and his work through Jesus Christ, the church got it right. Our story is a true story. It would take a lot of study, prayer, worship, conversation with friends, and annoying my professors, but I would come to believe this.

We’re the ones asking the questions here. When I was an ordination candidate, I was invited to interview before the Board of Ordained Ministry for my commissioning (a half-step toward ordination). With the group discussing theology and doctrine, one of my interviewers leaned in and looked at me with a mix of suspicion and irritation. “You said in your paperwork that the Nicene Creed is the most important creed. Who gets to decide which creed is the most important?”

“Yeah,” another interviewer chimed in, gazing quizzically as if beholding a caveman trying to make fire. “Who gets to decide?”

I promise you my response was a genuine question of clarification. I knew I was on thin ice and didn’t want to sink to the bottom of the pond. “What are the other options?” I asked. Did he mean the Apostles’ Creed? The Athanasian Creed? The Creed of the United Church of Canada? Apollo Creed? I just needed more information before I answered the question.

No creedal formulation has exerted more influence or shaped more theological discourse than the Nicene Creed. It provided a response to one of the most venomous and stubborn heresies in the history of the church – Arianism. It has shaped the faith of untold multitudes across the centuries. It was strange to me that my interviewers, presumably knowledgeable in matters of history and theology, wouldn’t take for granted its importance.

“We’re the ones asking the questions here,” he responded.

So that was awkward. Nevertheless, for reasons hidden within the mysteries of God, I passed my interviews and I was commissioned in spite of my archaic belief in the centrality of the Nicene Creed.

Betraying indifference. That memory has stayed with me, and not just because of the “We’re asking the questions here” flex. His question about the Nicene Creed betrayed an indifference to sound doctrine that has plagued the mainline and is increasingly prevalent among evangelicals.

Why should one statement of faith be any more important than another? With the emergence of theological liberalism in the late eighteenth century, many in the West came to think of the faith as something they construct for themselves, according to their own experience and standards of reason, rather than something they inherit.

At one church I attended, the confirmation class was charged with writing its own creed. That seemed like a tall order. Why would we ask a group of kids to write something as important as a creed? I’ve raised kids. Heck, I was a kid. I was interested in things like playing Donkey Kong and shooting my bb gun and scoring a cherry Dr. Pepper at the Dairy Queen.

It took the church hundreds of years to hammer out its creeds. Shouldn’t we just teach these kids one of the perfectly good creeds we already have, such as the Apostles’ Creed or (dare I say it?) the Nicene Creed?

Theology is hard. Talking about God is tricky business. Yes, saving faith is simple: we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we receive baptism, and we enter into the church with its attendant beliefs and practices. When we begin to give expression to the mysteries of our faith, however, things become more complicated. To articulate our truth claims about the nature of God, Christ’s saving work, the work of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the nature of the church is a delicate and difficult undertaking.

When I was a seminary student, we had to write a “credo,” a thirty-page account of the content of the Christian witness. In many seminaries it’s a capstone project. It’s supposed to demonstrate what you’ve learned in seminary and your ability to integrate ideas from various disciplines. I studied hard in seminary. I got good grades. I really took my theological education seriously. And guess what? My credo was hot garbage.

My professor was a merciful soul and he didn’t expect his students to be Thomas Aquinas, but I look back on this document with some embarrassment. All copies were tragically and accidentally shredded, incinerated, and immersed in acid.

Since that time, I feel like I’ve learned enough over the past three decades to teach Scripture without misleading people terribly and to talk about God with some degree of coherence and truth. Nevertheless I always tell my students at least 30 percent of what I teach is wrong. I just don’t know which 30 percent it is. The more deeply I’ve dived into study, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

This is one reason I lean so heavily on the Christian tradition. I trust the church’s collective wisdom more than my own wisdom. I trust the spiritual experiences, the discernment, the intellect, the wrestling of the great cloud of witnesses more than I trust any of these in me. Christian theology consists of a long, rigorous, prayerful conversation across the ages and throughout the earth.

Despite efforts in every age to undermine the consensus that began to emerge in the time of the apostles, a core set of truth claims has persisted. The faith once and for all entrusted to the saints has survived imperial persecutions, Arian emperors, bad-faith bishops, schisms, and wars. It has survived heretics from Marcion to Spong. It has survived the old atheists and the New Atheists. It will survive postmodernity, and whatever comes next. The Great Tradition of Christian faith frees us from the bonds of “presentism” – the assumption that the beliefs and values of our current moment are necessarily superior to those of the past.

How could this faith have survived so many attempts to destroy it, both from outside and within? Why hasn’t Christianity simply collapsed under the weight of human sin? Why is it that, despite periods in which the church has capitulated to the spirit of the age, God continually calls us back to something more profound than a single generation can discern? Perhaps God has guided us across the ages because he loves us, and this gospel, the consensual tradition, the faith once delivered, teaches us how to be saved. That is God’s will for us, after all – to be saved, to be plucked out of the clutches of sin and death and receive new life, even into eternity.

The God who so desires our salvation hasn’t left us to our own devices to figure out how this might happen. The saving faith first delivered to the apostles has been entrusted to the saints, who have entrusted it to other saints, and so on, across the ages. Now it is our turn. The faith once delivered to the saints has been delivered to us. Generations to come will remember our witness, for better or worse.

David F. Watson is Lead Editor of Firebrand. He serves as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. A version of this essay was first published in his Substack, www.davidfwatson3.substack.com. It is republished by permission. Image: Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum. Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea with text of the Nicean Creed in Greek. Public domain.