Things Haven’t Changed

Things Haven’t Changed

Things Haven’t Changed

By BJ Funk

I love to watch reruns of the “Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960-1968. During the 30-minute show, I fall back into a slower time in America. I laugh at Barney and enjoy the absolutely hilarious facial antics he brings to the show. I enjoy Andy’s wisdom with Opie, and I allow a quieter, more restful time to hold my interest for half an hour.

However, I looked at today’s recording a little differently, as it carried an important lesson coming through the script. It was Sunday, and Andy’s family was dressing for morning church. A pastor from New York visited Mayberry and would bring the message. Their excitement displayed their inner joy that a preacher all the way from the Big Apple would be in their pulpit.

Aunt Bee called her friend, Clara, and asked what she was wearing. Then, she got down to the really important thing about church when she asked Clara if she would be wearing earrings that day. Aunt Bee asked Clara if church goers in New York wore earrings. Clara didn’t know, so they decided to wear them, anyway.  Their conversation ended, and the next scene shows them inside of the church.

The theme of the pastor’s sermon was “Slow down. Rest. Don’t Be in Such a Hurry.” Each one sat as if glued to his seat until suddenly, on about the fourth row, Gomer began to snore. Somebody gave him a nudge. Then, the quietness of the church joined the steady voice of the preacher, making for a very sleepy morning. Barney succumbed next, but Andy shook him a bit, and he woke up.

As the family was leaving the church, everyone was smiling and congratulating the pastor for his excellent sermon. I, however, was sitting in my chair wondering what just hit me. What sermon? In the 1960’s did pastors really get by without talking about Jesus in a sermon? Not even one time? For real? Or was that just to make an interesting script?

Here’s a question for you to ponder. Have you ever heard a Sunday morning sermon that didn’t mention Jesus? Or God? Or Faith? Or hope? Or grace? Or love? What about salvation, Pentecost, the Holy Spirit?

Do we have enough time to leave cherished, hallowed words out of our sermons? Is there enough time left for us to do more than just tickle ears, bring a feel-good sermon and make sure that the pastor knows how much we love the sermon even if nothing was said about the gospel?

Then, there’s the challenge of the earrings. Do we have enough time left in this life to stay on the phone trying to find out if ladies in New York decorate their ears for church? Is that the most important question of the day?

Some things haven’t changed that much. We do not have enough time left for the frivolous, the mundane, the unimportant, the trivial, the silly. We only have time to give them Jesus and to proclaim him as Savior and Lord.

People come to church thirsty for a drink of Living Water, starved for the Bread of Life, and hoping an hour in church will help them know there is always room for them at the altar. Hurting souls come to find a smile, get a hug, hear a Word, make a friend, and learn to believe in themselves again. They come to church to find out if there is hope for them at the foot of the cross. And, they don’t give one thought if the ladies in New York wear earrings or not.

God help us. I have watched the following scene many times in my life. You have, too. People are leaving church with big smiles, shaking the pastor’s hand and saying how much they loved the sermon. It’s just what you do.

What if – just what if – a weary soul fell upon the pastor as she walked out? And what if – just what if – the pastor stopped shaking hands, sat down on the steps by her and led her in the sinner’s prayer?

Heaven comes to earth, an explosion of angels’ voices ring out, a heart changes, and church might never be the same. It would all happen regardless of whether the ladies in New York wear earrings to church or not.

B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of  It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon.

Things Haven’t Changed

A Place of Rest

A Place of Rest

By Jenifer Jones

About 300 miles west of Paris, in the center of the Brittany region of France, stands a three-story stone manor house. 

Over the past 410 years it’s been home to lords, ladies, their servants, and in the 1960s and 70s, a famous Breton singer. 

Today it’s inhabited by Mike and Valerie Smith and guests who stay at Le Manoir Du Poul Coeur de Bretagne Bed & Breakfast. Some are tourists, others are cross-cultural witnesses (CCWs) who come for rest and rejuvenation. 

An answer to prayer. The Smiths have been in Brittany for more than two decades. They had served in France years before and were looking for an opportunity to move back.

“We felt strongly that God spoke to our hearts saying, ‘You will return to France, but next time it will be with a job,’” Mike said. 

It was an answer to prayer when friends purchased the manor house and offered the Smiths the role of property managers.  That’s how Valerie, an artist, and Mike, a musician who used to work in a bank, found themselves running a bed-and-breakfast. 

Learning to serve. The Smiths make the beds in rooms decorated in bright whites, light blues, soft yellows, and neutral tones. In the kitchen, a load of laundry tumbles in the washing machine, while a sink-full of dishes fills with soapy water. 

“I even like to wash dishes now,” Mike confesses. “Before moving to France, I just dreaded it. And that was just for our little family. Now we’re doing it for groups, and we love it. We don’t have a dishwasher. It’s all by hand. So it’s funny how we evolve.”

In the dining room, wooden beams run across the ceiling, connecting one stone wall to another. The space is decorated with Valerie’s artwork. Jars of homemade jam sit on the windowsill. A large stone fireplace occupies much of one wall, its mantle reaching nearly to the ceiling. 

“I didn’t even know how to set a table properly before we came here,” Valerie said. “In my family, we just put out stuff. It didn’t matter. Just plop it on the table. I had to learn. It always made me nervous at the beginning, but now it just comes naturally.” 

When Valerie and Mike lived in the United States, they didn’t have people over often because she was always nervous about what to make, and afraid her guests wouldn’t like it.

“I can’t believe now how many hundreds of people we feed every year now,” she said. 

Valerie notes she had to learn to stop being self-conscious and remember that serving is not about her. 

“It’s all about meeting their needs and making it wonderful for the guests and just doing my very best to make it as nice and as good as possible for them,” Valerie said. “They’re not there to judge me. That freed me up to serve and concentrate on blessing them. I think that changed me. We love the service.”

Mike adds, “I never thought we were hospitable before, but well, it turns out we are.”

And then there’s the yardwork. The B & B is surrounded by 30 acres of woods. The Smiths maintain the lawn and flower beds. The birds love it here. 

“I worship when I’m working in nature,” Valerie said. “It’s the most amazing thing and it makes me feel so good, like we are accomplishing something that God wants us to do. And I think, but it’s just gardening. And yet I feel such a sense of pleasure that God is happy with me for taking care of his ground.”

The Smiths serve people from all over the world who come to the B & B on holiday. But they also serve CCWs who need rest and restoration. “And they love it because it’s so peaceful,” Mike reports. 

A light in a dark region of France. He says serving CCWs keeps him encouraged. In this region of France, he says, it’s easy for Christian workers to want to give up. Though each town in Brittany has a Catholic church, many are closed. Protestant Christians are few and far between. 

“Most communities don’t have one single Christian living in it,” Mike observed. “But there are communities that might have one or a family, and so they have to search. They’re just scattered.” 

The Smiths helped plant a church in their area. 

“And once we started that, a few more hidden Christians came out of the woodwork and appeared,” Mike said. “So maybe we’re just trying to establish something there to be a light and draw more people. But it is difficult. A lot of French people prefer to be atheist.”

The Smiths continue to build relationships in their community. Valerie is in an artist group, and Mike plays in a band. 

In the daily grind of caring for the manor house, its grounds, and the guests who come to enjoy them, it can be hard to see the fruit of ministry. 

Valerie notes, “I often think, what am I really accomplishing when all I’m doing is cleaning rooms and weeding and all of that. You can wonder, am I really doing the right thing, you know? And yet, no, I know I am. God put us here.” 

Mike adds, “When we lived in Texas, I worked in a bank with my white shirt and tie. I can’t even picture that now. I’m a completely different person.”  

Jenifer Jones is a communicator for TMS Global (

Things Haven’t Changed

After the Holidays


After the Holidays

By Scott N. Field

By all accounts from the signals in our broader culture, I’m a voice crying in the wilderness on this issue: the “holiday mashup” was in full swing these past few months. Disorientation was a high probability for many of us.

For example, a week before Thanksgiving, I noticed at a local big box retailer that the Thanksgiving décor was already pushed to a small section of “clearance” items while the Amazing and Expansive ToyLand was full to overflowing.

After the holidays, how about a bit of theological untangling as we launch the new year and move forward in our ongoing, church by church, conference by conference, disaffiliation conflict that is overshadowing our Methodist family? 

I want to step away from the denominational drama for a moment to bring your attention to three post-seasonal observances that are of particular importance to Christians, yes, but are deeply connected to three timeless dynamics of God’s relentless redemptive action in our world here and now.

Thanksgiving: The Holy Spirit is Always at Work in Everyone Everywhere. “Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me” (Psalm 103:1-2 NLT).

We live in a time of simmering unrest, conflicts that threaten individuals, families, and social order, and, for many, rising apprehensions about the future. And that is just a description of the world within Methodism. If we consider the wider world, it is no wonder that many of us were running a little low on gratitude as we gathered “together to ask the Lord’s blessing” over the holidays.   

Looking at our current situations through the lens of Scripture can change our perspective dramatically, however. God’s unwavering purpose is the redemption of the world. “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9 NLT).

Jesus said that the continuing work of the Holy Spirit involves convicting the world of its sin, convincing the world of God’s righteousness, and inviting the world to redemption rather than certain judgment (John 16:5-11). Anyone anywhere at any time who responds to this convicting, convincing, and inviting through faith in and devotion to Jesus Christ are adopted into God’s family.

We not only read about adoption into the family of God in the Scripture, but we know it unmistakably by the personal witness of the Holy Spirit within us (Romans 8:15-17). God’s redemptive initiative promised to and through Abraham now, by the presence and empowering of the Holy Spirit, comes to and through us to others (Galatians 3:5-6, 4:6-7).

In his book Simply Christian (Harper Collins), N.T. Wright observes what he calls “echoes of a voice” woven throughout our world: the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty. Each of these echoes points beyond itself. From my perspective these echoes are related to the existential questions whispering in the soul of every person: Who am I? What am I here for? What gives meaning to my life? What is my destiny?

Beginning to explore any or all of those questions opens the door to the unexpected and wondrous gospel of the Lord Jesus. In Christ we know who we are, why we are here, to whom we belong, and where we are headed in life and in life after life.

This is part of what Wesleyan Christians mean when we speak of “prevenient grace.” It is the grace of God all around and within us that draws us to faith in Christ.

The Thanksgiving observance months ago had its roots in a recognition that, as the old and familiar hymn puts it:

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget/ That though the wrong seems oft so strong,/ God is the ruler yet./ This is my Father’s world: why should my heart be sad?/ The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!/ God reigns; let the earth be glad! (UMH # 144 / OGRP # 19).

As we begin a new year, let’s begin by giving thanks that, in the providence and the prevenient grace of God, throughout the world’s events and within each person’s soul the Holy Spirit is always engaged in the compassionate work of redemption. Always. Everywhere. In all situations. Even in times of denominational disaffiliation.

Advent: We Live Between the Cradle and the Coming Again. The commercial juggernaut of a Commercial Christmas makes a joke out of waiting. But waiting is where we find ourselves almost all of the time. Advent lifts up the gift of waiting in active faith for God’s promises to be fulfilled. We live between the coming of the Messiah Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; who descended to the dead, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Throughout the year, we are reminded that we live between the cradle and coming again, between his cross and the consummation of the New Heaven and New Earth.

In the brokenness of the world, even while we are waiting, we are sent together, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name.

During the Christmas season – this included concerts, movies, parties, parades, sales, and celebrations – we may have had a hard time keeping ourselves steady between the cradle and the coming again. And since many of us have been fully engaged in denominational disaffiliation conflicts, we may have been anxiously focused on our local church strategies for separation success or, alternatively, deeply disillusioned with a failed vote.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to prefer our plans to God’s promises?

As we close out the holiday season, take some time to stay close to the person and the promises of Christ. Ponder the Advent Scripture readings. Worship. Join or launch a small group gathering. Use your money to reflect your devotion to Christ and the mission he has entrusted to us. Hold all of the discord of disaffiliation with open hands, waiting and wanting the wisdom, guidance, and restoration of the Holy Spirit.

During Advent we were invited to be pointed in the appropriate direction:

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus/ Born to set Thy people free;/ From our fears and sins release us,/ Let us find our rest in Thee./ Israel’s strength and consolation,/ Hope of all the earth Thou art;/ Dear desire of every nation,/ Joy of every longing heart. (UMH # 196/ OGRP # 163)

Indeed, may the desire of every nation also be the joy of our hearts, too.

Christmas: Messiah Jesus is the Center – Always. Of all the distractions in the holiday mashup, none seemed more common than the hijacking of Christmas. It gets hijacked, of course, by commoditizing Christian devotion, generosity, compassion, and love. Those options are recognizable for most of us, though. The ones that so easily creep in, however, are things like worry, anxiety, disappointment, and anger.

I bring up these dynamics within us because, well, it seems we can easily rationalize them in our current disaffiliation conflict. Some of us might have resented Thanksgiving-Advent-Christmas as an interruption in our path to congregational disaffiliation. We’re still a bit miffed that this time of recognizing God’s providence, of living between Jesus’ cradle and his coming again, and the joyful celebration of his birth, with all of those “Holiday Special Worshipers” – those ChrEasters! – showing up to light a candle and sing, “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve… I mean, don’t they know we have the serious business of disaffiliation to attend to?

Friends, let’s turn it down a couple of clicks.

During this time – in season and postseason – someone you know is trying to respond to the echo of God’s voice in their soul. Perhaps somebody near you recognizes the world is hopelessly broken and is wondering if there is any word of hope. Or maybe when they attended a Christmas Eve worship they wondered if Jesus is still worthy of their devotion … and whether they might add their voice to the Christmas carols, too. Invite them to Jesus. Put off the temptation to recruit them to your team in a church fight.

Jesus knows all about our troubling and worrisome concerns. His directive is clear: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT).

If that “seeking the Kingdom of God” got a bit foggy, now would be a good time to read again the entirety of Matthew 5-7, what we call Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Lord teaches us there what it means to live a Kingdom-devoted life. And it will help us remove the hijackers from our hearts so that we can be among those genuinely faithful who come to worship “joyful and triumphant,” no matter the worry, anxiety, disappointment, and anger that might lie so close by.

May we, like Simeon, recognize Messiah Jesus as the center of it all: “I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.  He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people  Israel!” (Luke 2:30-32).

This disaffiliation drama and its outcomes is for a season. God’s relentless desire, beyond our immediate situation, is that all would repent and come to faith in and devotion to Messiah Jesus.

Sursum corda, friends. “Lift up your hearts.” It is a right and good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to the Lord our God. We are sent, together, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name. Don’t settle for anything less.

Scott N. Field is the President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Dr. Field is a retired United Methodist clergyperson who has worked for renewal for decades through his work with the Good News Board of Directors and the Northern Illinois chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

Things Haven’t Changed

Will Regionalization Be An Option for Africa?

Will Regionalization Be An Option for Africa?

By Jerry Kulah

It has become abundantly clear in recent times that the issue of “regionalization” has taken center stage within The United Methodist Church  body politic. This is evidenced by the fact that some influential structures within the general church, such as the Connectional Table, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and the Council of Bishops, have given their endorsement of the plan. The centrists and progressives within the UM Church have made it their common talking point, claiming that it is the most reasonable path to pursue going into the 2020 General Conference, scheduled for April 23 to May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

We understand regionalization as the process whereby each of the seven central conferences in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines will function as a regional conference, while the five jurisdictions in the United States will combine to form one regional conference. Following their formation, each region would create its own “book of discipline” that addresses its missional needs. The general church would maintain a general book of discipline to address needs and operations of the general church. Proponents claim that regionalism would promote missional effectiveness. One retired bishop even claims that it would “keep the UMC alive and relevant in a worldwide context,” and would address “the mandate of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28: 16-20: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’”

This assertion could not be further from the truth.

Not only has the regionalization conversation become prevalent within the United States and Europe, it has also found a fertile soil among African bishops, who made the issue of regionalization a priority during their recent annual meeting in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, September 2-8, 2023. Without initiating conversations about the regionalization proposal within their various annual conferences, the African bishops took a vote among themselves to determine whether to accept regionalization as the path to pursue in Africa. But consideration of any regionalization legislation will be the prerogative of General Conference delegates in North Carolina, not the bishops (Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 406). Bishops have no vote in this matter.

Apparently, most African bishops are now inclined to remain with the worldwide UM Church even if its biblical interpretation, theology, and polity contradict the clear teachings of Scripture, including its legalization of same-gender marriage, ordination of self-avowed homosexuals, and election and consecration of gays and lesbians as bishops to represent the UM Church worldwide. According to them, “Notwithstanding the differences in our UMC regarding the issue of human sexuality especially with our stance of traditional and biblical view of marriage, we categorically state that we do not plan to leave The United Methodist Church and will continue to be shepherds of God’s flock in this worldwide denomination.” We consider this a contradiction.

Our current African bishops cannot claim that they uphold the sanctity of Scripture regarding human sexuality and yet remain in an ecclesial marriage with those who vehemently oppose this biblical view and theological position, unless there are other factors relative to some personal benefits necessitating their decision. Their decision runs contrary to the biblical stance and spiritual formation of the majority of the members and clergy within the UM Church in Africa whom they claim to shepherd. We doubt many United Methodists in Africa consider regionalization an acceptable option.

The African church is aware of the history of the regionalization plans within the worldwide UM Church. Since 2008 to present, centrists and progressives have featured it in several forms at past General Conferences without success. At the 2008 General Conference, a task force on the Worldwide Nature of the Church proposed 32 constitutional amendments. Twenty-three of those amendments sought to create regional conferences within the denomination, while the remaining nine were devoted to other vital concerns of the denomination. Concluding these changes counterproductive to the connectional polity of the general church, almost all annual conferences in the United States and Africa voted against those proposals in 2009.

African bishops supporting regionalization seem ready to betray the doctrinal integrity of the UM Church in Africa. However, the Africa Initiative stands with a majority of African United Methodists and delegates to make it clear that regionalization is not an option for the UM Church in Africa. We stand ready to vote against these multiple changes to the constitution at the upcoming General Conference. If the General Conference approves them, we will work at the level of the annual conferences to make sure they do not receive the 2/3 majority support needed for ratification.

While we respect the rights of liberals, progressives, and centrists to endorse and promote the regionalization proposal, it is equally our right to reject legislation that does not align with our understanding and practice of biblical Christianity. Here are further reasons why we reject regionalization:

1. Regionalizing the UM Church is biblically and theologically wrong. Regionalization would create national churches, with the probability of different doctrinal standards and practices, under one general UM Church umbrella. In essence, we will be different denominations pretending to be one. Each region would have no say in what other regions of the same church may believe, teach, and practice.

While we will claim to be one denomination/church, our moral qualifications for church membership and for becoming a clergy or bishop within the same UM Church will differ greatly, as per regional requirements. For example, while it would be illegal to ordain persons involved in same gender marriage or elect and consecrate gays and lesbians in one region, it would be biblically and theologically legal to do it in some other regions of the same church. This is deception; for by doing so, we would pretend to ourselves to be one denomination, yet preach different gospels (Galatians 1:6-9; 6:7).

Our founding father, John Wesley, referred to himself as a homo unius libri: “a man of one book,” the Holy Scriptures. While tradition, experience, and reason aid in our theological reflection, Scripture remains primary. The Gospel is above culture, not below or of culture. Hence, we believe that every cultural practice must align with and not contradict Scripture. The African church wants to maintain the clear and consistent teaching of Methodist doctrinal statements. We want to be a part of a church that maintains a robust accountability to its doctrines.

2. Regionalization contradicts the connectional nature of the UM Church. Regionalization disconnects the general church and does not reflect the United Methodist way of serving Christ. The principle basic to the UM Church is that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. Regionalization divides while connectionalism unites. Regionalization is therefore counterproductive to the worldwide connectional nature of the UM Church. We want to be a part of a church whose statement of faith, doctrinal standards, and ethical teachings apply to all, irrespective of the region of the world in which one finds oneself. The General Conference is the highest decision-making body of the church where all the annual conferences come together each quadrennium to make decisions jointly that will govern the programs, projects, and ministries of the church. To attempt to change this unique polity of the denomination for regionalization is counterproductive.

3. Regionalization is a recipe for segregation and marginalization. Regionalization bars other members of the UM Church who do not belong to certain regions from having a say in what fellow United Methodists believe, teach, or practice. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were among the first African Americans licensed to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church. They received their licenses at the St. George’s Church in 1784. Three years later, protesting racial segregation in the worship services, Allen led about forty black members out of St. George’s. Eventually they founded the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, which led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. We are concerned that regionalization might take us along this path.

4. Regionalization enhances financial inequity within the general church. We believe regionalization enhances financial inequity within the general church, in favor of the jurisdictions in the United States. It further impedes our pursuit toward mutual partnership, and the empowerment of financially less privileged annual conferences within the general church. Among the 80 million worldwide Methodists and 12.5 million United Methodists, Africa accounts for the largest membership anywhere on the planet. Until recently, the United States has enjoyed majority membership. With the great decline of Western Christianity, the UM Church in Africa has ascended to the majority position in terms of membership. However, the UM Church in America is still the economic powerhouse of the denomination.

Currently, the UM Church in the United States accounts for 99 percent of budgetary support to the ministries, projects, and programs of the general church, including the payment of salaries and operational funds for episcopal offices in Africa. Regionalization, given the Western liberal and progressive stance on many cardinal biblical issues like human sexuality, would silence the voice of the church in Africa. Proponents could certainly bring economic pressure to bear on African conferences lacking financial self-sustainability. Regionalization is therefore detrimental to the continued growth of a biblically committed and Christ-centered church in Africa

5. Regionalization undermines African community life. We are a communal people. The concept of the Bantu word, Ubuntu describes this: “I am because we are.” The concept of Ubuntu describes how Africans live in community with and for each other, share common affinity, working together to achieve the common good. We seek to have equal access to assets of the community to benefit everyone. We come together, through the elders, to discuss our needs and concerns and address them corporately. We live in unity, working collectively and harmoniously for the common good.

Another concept we cherish within our community life is umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu. That is, “a person is a person because of others” (from Indigenous Κnowledge and the Εnvironment in Africa and North America, edited by David M. Gordon and Shepard Krech III, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2012). Hence, in African culture, the community, rather than individuals, raises a child. We translate these concepts into the way we understand biblical Christianity (Hebrews 10:24-25) and do church. On the contrary, regionalization promotes ethical autonomy, and disconnects the church as individual regions develop different rules and ways of doing church. Under such circumstances, many important areas of church life that the General Conference previously decided would now be the decisions of individual regions. This is unacceptable for the UM Church in Africa.

Inevitably, regionalization is a difficult, if not impossible, path to pursue for the general church. As Mark Holland of “Mainstream UMC” admits, “Regardless of how generous [some] delegates and Bishops in Africa may feel towards regionalization, they face serious social, political, and even legal pressure back home unlike anything we [centrists/progressives] face in the US and Europe.” In addition, we have a strong holy discontent about the creation of several national, partly independent churches under one umbrella denomination. This is incompatible with our connectional polity and lacks any effective way to give the church the unity it needs to be alive and effective.

Proposal for the Way Forward: Amicable Separation. While the path to regionalization, in our opinion, is almost impossible, we wish to proffer a recommendation that could help both the progressive and conservative wings of the church to move forward. We acknowledge that Centrists and Progressives within the UM Church desire regionalization. As traditionalists, we desire the same opportunity to disaffiliate as was afforded to traditionalists in the United States. We deserve justice! In addition, we believe that a more acceptable way forward for both wings of the church would be to pursue the path of amicable separation. In this way, we can bless each other and go our separate ways to fulfill our mission as we know best. We can then endeavor to do some ministries together where we both find it appropriate.

Against this background, we have submitted two petitions for disaffiliation for the next General Conference. The first is a new Par. 576. This petition, when passed, gives the rights to annual conferences outside the United States to disaffiliate from the UM Church and join another Wesleyan church.

The second is a revised Par. 2553. Even though we voted for passage of the original disaffiliation pathway, we were shocked and surprised when the Council of Bishops informed Central Conferences in Africa that its implementation did not apply to us. If this is not an act of segregation and marginalization of the UM Church in Africa, then I do not know what it is.

Our denial by the Council of Bishops to implement Par. 2553 in the Africa Central Conferences was another action of marginalization. It is similar to another case in point: While jurisdictions in the U.S. and central conferences in the Philippines, and Europe, by decision of the Judicial Council, elected new bishops in 2022 to replace their bishops due for retirement,  with the acquiescence of the Council of Bishops, the Africa College of Bishops denied its central conferences the rights to elect new bishops.

Despite these impediments, the UM Church in Africa continues to forge ahead in raising faithful disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the people of Africa in particular, and the world in general.

Jerry P. Kulah is Vice President of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies, United Methodist University in Monrovia, Liberia. He is also the General Coordinator of the UMC Africa Initiative.

Things Haven’t Changed

Are All Sins the Same in God’s Eyes?

Are All Sins the Same in God’s Eyes?

By Matt Ayars, Christopher T. Bounds, Caleb Friedeman

The idea of all sin being the same in God eyes is commonly accepted in the church. It pervades contemporary Christianity. Through sermons, Sunday school classes, Bible studies and friendly Christian conversation, we pick up the idea quickly. To question it is to invite immediate suspicion. However, no major theologian or historic Christian tradition has ever taught the equality of sin. It exists only as “folk theology,” a belief uncritically held by laity and preachers.

Historic Christian Teaching. One of the most famous examples of historic Christian instruction on the subject is the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins are so serious they lead to a Christian’s spiritual death if continued without amendment of life. Venial sins, in contrast, are “light;” they do not harm irreparably a believer’s relationship with God.

Unfortunately, the idea of some sins being worse than others is dismissed too quickly as “Catholic teaching.” Every major Protestant expression of Christianity, however, has recognized there are degrees of sin, as witnessed by the Presbyterian tradition’s Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?

A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition also makes similar distinctions when reflecting on what makes some sins worse before God. The sin itself, motivation behind the sin, the age and maturity of person who commits it, how many times committed, and in what manner it is done are taken into consideration in the evaluation of sin’s severity.

Biblical Teaching. The Bible shows repeatedly some sins are worse than others. While there is not enough space to walk through all biblical evidence, here are three clear examples.

First, God sees intentional sin as more serious than unintentional sin. In the Pentateuch, God distinguishes between the two. Unintentional sin is forgiven through the sacrificial system (Leviticus 4), intentional sin is not (Numbers 15:30-31). On the holiest day of Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the high priest enters the temple’s holy of holies to give a blood offering for unintentional sins (Hebrews 9:7). In the end, there is no atoning sacrifice provided in the Old Testament for intentional sin. 

A similar distinction is carried into the New Testament as well. Paul declares to the church at Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Paul, however, has a clear operating definition of sin here:  a deliberate transgression of a known law of God. This is not about unintentional sin or a sin of ignorance. In larger context, the apostle begins his letter by discussing the problem with the Gentiles. They have been given an internal code to follow, the law of conscience. Nevertheless, they have chosen deliberately not to obey it and God has judged them accordingly (1:18-32). Paul then turns to the Jews (2:17-3:23). They have been given the written Torah and intentionally broken it as well. Therefore, he asserts “all have sinned” (3:23). Both Gentile and Jew have deliberately disobeyed God’s law. Paul’s opening discussion of sin, then, provides his definition of it in 6:23.  He warns Christians of the dangers of continuing in intentional sin – spiritual death. 

The Letter to the Hebrews picks up the same theme. Here, the author makes an exhortation for the church to persevere in their faith, lest they fall and miss the Promised Land (Hebrews 5:11-6:12). While Christ is a greater priest who makes a superior sacrifice in a better sanctuary than the temple (7:1-10:18), Christians are warned if they continue in “intentional sin” there is no sacrifice that can atone for their sin, not even the blood of Jesus (10:26-27). Again, a clear distinction is made in the eyes of God between intentional and unintentional sin. 

Second, the Bible indicates that a person’s relationship to God impacts the severity of sin, not just knowledge of it. After Israel committed idolatry with the golden calf, Moses accused them of a “great” sin, and God threatened to destroy them (Exodus 32:30). In this moment, Israel reverted to what they had done in Egypt. The calf represented a common god in the ancient Near East. They had returned to what they had practiced in the past. What made their sin now more “grievous” is the covenant they had made in Exodus 19, where they promised to serve only Yahweh. The change in their relationship with God at Sinai, the sacred vows taken, made their idolatry here far worse than in Egypt.

Jesus also recognized the relational nature of sin in his words to Pilate, “The one who betrayed me is guilty of a worse sin” (John 19:11). Judas’ sin was worse than Pilate’s because he was Jesus’ friend who had followed him for three years. Pilate had just met Christ. Both Judas and Pilate sinned against Christ, but Judas’ sin was worse because of the type of knowledge and relationship he had with Christ.

Third, greater and lesser sins are seen in the New Testament through how they are addressed. Jesus warned the religious leaders of an “unpardonable sin” (Matthew 12:22-32). Paul instructed the Corinthian Church to ex-communicate a young man sleeping with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), while “grumblers” in the community were only given a warning (9:24-10:13). Similarly, he disciplined Hymenaeus and Alexander by “handing” them “over to Satan” because of false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:18-20). He further warned the Galatian churches of the “works of the flesh” and that “those who live like this will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). And the apostle John in his letter made a distinction between Christian engaging in sins that lead to “death” and sins that do not (1 John 5:16-17).

Theological Teaching. Theology also teaches that all sin is not the same before God. While we can have good without sin, we cannot have sin without good. Sin is ultimately the expression of a corrupted or broken good. The more sin is corrupted of original goodness, the worse it is. Because God is the creator of the good, God is fully aware of the degree to which it has been corrupted.

First, while it may seem counter intuitive, all sin has its source in the “good.” For example, God created us male and female for the purpose of procreation. Without sexual relations, humanity will cease to exist. But there is more to human sex than reproduction. God has made humanity to experience pleasure in the giving and receiving of love between a husband and wife through sexual relations. Sex and the sexual drive are good. However, when they become corrupted, they bring a host of sexual sin in thought and deed. 

The same is true for love of oneself. God formed us to love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). A part of self-love is the desire for self-preservation, seen in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed for the “cup” of crucifixion and death to pass from him (Matthew 26:36-46). However, when the love of self becomes corrupted in us, it leads to pride and selfishness on one hand and self-loathing and hatred on the other.  Both extremes were avoided by Christ in his full surrender to the will of the Father and his embrace of the cross.    

Second, every sin reveals different degrees of damaged goodness; the more corrupted a sin is of its original goodness, the worse it is in God’s eyes. Some sins express greater degrees of “falleness” from their intended goodness. Sexual violence, as such, is worse than consensual sex between a man and woman who are not married. Why? Because sex between a consenting male and female more closely approximates the original design of sex between husband and wife than sexual violence. While both are sinful, one is more so because it expresses a greater corruption of the original good of sex, in addition to the violence perpetrated against the victim. 

Practical Teaching. On a practical level, saying all sin is the same in the eyes of God does not work.

First, if we are not careful here, we can make God look like a monster. Sometimes, to elevate the holiness of God and our sinfulness, we portray God in unhelpful ways, trivializing real depths of depravity in the world. Parents who mistakenly offer loving advice to their children, but unintentionally lead them astray from God’s “perfect will” is not the same before God as Adolf Hitler murdering six million Jews. To equate them is to misrepresent the God revealed to us in Christ. Jesus warned the Pharisees of being so focused on the minor details of God’s law, they missed “the more important matters” like justice, mercy, and the needs of others (Matthew 23:23). 

Second, it undermines wise pastoral counsel. Genuine progress in the process of sanctification can be stunted by the “all or nothing” mentality of “sin is sin.” Often Christians make improvement in one area of their lives without having complete victory in it. To say all sin is the same risks denying the growth that has taken place and the encouragement accompanying it. It is a real step forward when alcoholics stop drinking, even if they still desire to get drunk; when people who struggle with anger management no longer lash out, even if they think about it; when gossips stop talking in unflattering ways about others, even though they continue to imagine doing so. In each case, Christians are not where they need to be, but they are more like Christ than they were.  Sometimes as we pray and counsel other believers, we just want to see them take the next step toward full victory over a particular sin.    

Conclusion. All too often the contemporary church suffers from a simplistic understanding of sin. Biblically, theologically, and practically, the church has recognized that some sins are worse than others in God’s eyes. The purpose of which is to help Christians and the church avoid “mortal” sins, those which pose a serious spiritual threat to them, and to provide a guide for discipline and accountability that leads to transformation into the likeness of Christ.    

Dr. Matt Ayars is president and assistant professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi; Dr. Christopher T. Bounds is professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky; and Dr. Caleb T. Friedeman is associate professor of New Testament at Ohio Christian University in Circleville, Ohio. This essay was adapted from Holiness: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Theology (IVP Academic, 2023) by Matt Ayars, Christopher T. Bounds, and Caleb Friedeman. Utilized by permission.

Things Haven’t Changed

Fighting for Fairness

Fighting for Fairness

By Thomas Lambrecht

Some have wondered why Good News is still around. Now that disaffiliation is “over,” shouldn’t Good News just go away?

The Council of Bishops and other UM leaders are anxious to put disaffiliation in the rear view mirror. Advocacy groups like “Mainstream UMC,” a “centrist” caucus group, are stridently opposing any renewal of disaffiliation options at the upcoming 2024 General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Throughout the disaffiliation process, Good News has been advocating for a fair process to be used. We have wanted to honor the decisions made by local churches, whichever way they decided, as long as the process was fair. But has the disaffiliation process really been fair?

Unfortunately, disaffiliation is not “over.” Although Par. 2553 in the Book of Discipline allowing local churches to disaffiliate expired at the end of 2023, not all churches have had a fair opportunity to disaffiliate. Until they do, Good News will continue to stay and advocate for a fair disaffiliation process for all.

Why Central Conferences still need a disaffiliation process. Par. 2553 provided a process for local churches to disaffiliate and retain their buildings and property. This paragraph was intended to apply to all parts of our global denomination.

However, the Council of Bishops has stated that Par. 2553 does not apply outside the United States. They point to new language adopted by the 2019 General Conference that states, “Legislation passed at the 2019 called session of General Conference shall not take effect in central conferences until twelve months after the close of the 2020 General Conference …” This provision was added to allow central conferences (parts of the church outside the United States) to hold their regular sessions and make any necessary adaptations to the Discipline before it takes effect.

Because of the Covid pandemic, the 2020 General Conference was never held, so Par. 2553 never took effect for the central conferences before it expired on December 31, 2023. (I disagree with this interpretation of church law that allowed a duly adopted provision in the Discipline to never come into force, but that is the reality we are dealing with.)

Congregations in the U.S. could use Par. 2553 to disaffiliate. Congregations outside the U.S. were unable to do so. Is that fair?

Annual Conference disaffiliation. Then there is the question of whether a whole annual conference can disaffiliate. For many annual conferences in Africa, that would be the preferred route, as they often operate in a consensus model whereby they all agree to do the same thing together. Many votes in African annual conferences are unanimous or nearly so.

The Bulgaria Annual Conference disaffiliated in 2022. However, the Judicial Council ruled after the fact that such a conference disaffiliation was illegal under the Discipline. They ruled that annual conferences may disaffiliate, but that the General Conference has to provide a process for them to do so. Since the General Conference has not met since 2019, it has provided no process for annual conference disaffiliation.

There is a process in the Discipline for annual conferences outside the U.S. to become autonomous Methodist churches. Annual conferences could use this process to separate from the UM Church. However, such annual conferences do not want to become autonomous; they want to join the Global Methodist Church. So, this provision really does not answer their need.

Furthermore, the process of becoming autonomous is long and laborious. It would require the annual conference to write its own new “Book of Discipline.” That would be wasted effort in this case, since the annual conference wants to come under the Global Methodist Church Book of Doctrines and Discipline. In addition, the decision to become autonomous would have to be approved by the relevant central conference and the General Conference, which means the process could take four years or longer.

There is no need to provide a way for U.S. annual conferences to disaffiliate, since those that would have been likely candidates have already lost the majority of their traditionalist churches and clergy. But there is a legitimate need to provide a way for annual conferences outside the U.S. to move straight from the UM Church to the GM Church or another Wesleyan denomination that doesn’t take years to accomplish.

Has the U.S. disaffiliation experience been fair? As the disaffiliation process in the U.S. winds down and over 7,000 congregations have disaffiliated, surely we can say that disaffiliation in the U.S. has run its course, right? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no.

A small number of annual conferences in the U.S. have handled disaffiliation unfairly, even as the vast majority of conferences followed a mostly fair process. These few annual conferences added costs to the disaffiliation terms that made it nearly impossible for most congregations to disaffiliate and keep their buildings.

Some conferences added the requirement for the church to pay a percentage of the property value. This would require parishioners who paid for the property to be built and maintained once to pay for it a second time to an annual conference that in most cases had put zero dollars into that facility.

Requiring 50 percent of the property value were: Baltimore-Washington, California-Pacific, and Peninsula-Delaware (after July 12, 2022).

California-Nevada required 20 percent of property value, while South Carolina and West Virginia required 10 percent.

Eastern Pennsylvania, Greater New Jersey, and Mountain Sky all gave their trustees discretion to charge for a portion of the property value in individual cases.

On the east and west coasts, inflated property values have made it nearly impossible for congregations to afford the cost of disaffiliation. In California-Pacific, in particular, multi-million dollar property values caused only three of 20 churches who voted to disaffiliate actually being able to afford to keep their property. One pastor estimated the cost of disaffiliation at $60,000 per member.

Greater New Jersey took the prize for requiring nearly a dozen different charges and requirements, including paying 18 months of the pastor’s salary plus moving expenses if the pastor did not disaffiliate, a percentage of all cash and investments equal to the percentage of members voting against disaffiliation, and administrative fees and other costs.

Several annual conferences for a time refused to allow any disaffiliations. This was the case in South Carolina and West Virginia until they finally started allowing disaffiliations near the end of 2022. Churches in North Georgia had to go to court in order to force the conference to allow them to disaffiliate. Alabama-West Florida allowed nearly 250 churches to disaffiliate, but then closed the door on all further disaffiliations, prompting a number of congregations to file a lawsuit against the conference that is still on appeal. Peninsula-Delaware allowed over 100 churches to disaffiliate before suddenly imposing the 50 percent property value fee that prevented any additional churches from disaffiliating.

There was such wide variation between how different annual conferences treated their churches, that it created an unfair playing field across the U.S. One conference that saw over 80 percent of its churches disaffiliate used conference reserve funds to pay for unfunded pension liabilities and future apportionments, so that the cost to a congregation to disaffiliate was practically zero. Another conference used its pension reserves to pay for the unfunded pension liability of all its congregations, including those remaining UM, that drastically reduced the cost of disaffiliation. Use of conference funds in these ways was fair, as all churches had contributed to them and all churches (remaining or leaving) benefited from the funds.

Is it fair that some congregations had to pay nearly nothing to disaffiliate, while others had to pay so much it was impossible for them to raise the money? Is it fair that some conferences and some congregations denied their members from even hearing about or discussing the option of disaffiliation? Is it fair that some bishops summarily removed pastors who indicated they were open to considering disaffiliation?

Denomination-wide, nearly 26 percent of UM congregations have successfully disaffiliated. But among the conferences named above with extra costs, fewer than five percent of congregations disaffiliated. Seven of the ten conferences in the Northeastern Jurisdiction had less than five percent disaffiliate. Three of the seven conferences in the Western Jurisdiction had less than five percent disaffiliate. The unfair playing field had real-world consequences.

Finding a solution. Given the unfair treatment experienced by our brothers and sisters in the central conferences, as well as the examples of unfair treatment here in the U.S., Good News remains committed to working for a fair and just disaffiliation pathway for all congregations globally and annual conferences outside the U.S.

A new Par. 2553 has been submitted to the next General Conference that would reinstate the congregational disaffiliation process. It would limit the costs to those contained in the original 2553 – two years of apportionments and the local church’s share of unfunded pension liabilities. It would also provide for a fair and equal opportunity for congregations to learn about and discuss the options of disaffiliation without heavy-handed interference from bishops and district superintendents, while still encouraging advocates for remaining UM to also present their best case.

A new Par. 576 has been submitted to the next General Conference that would institute a streamlined process for annual conferences outside the U.S. to leave the UM Church in order to join another Wesleyan denomination. It would still require approval from the relevant central conference for an annual conference to make this move, but it would not have to wait until the next General Conference meets in order to take effect. Annual conferences intending to become autonomous or independent would still have to use the old longer process.

It is time for the UM Church to level the playing field and make it fair for all. We ought not discriminate against our central conference members. The ability to successfully disaffiliate should not depend upon what zip code a church is located in.

It is time to honor the consciences and prayerfully considered decisions of UM congregations, instead of believing that the denomination can and should coerce churches into remaining with a denomination that no longer reflects their beliefs. Where congregations have voted to disaffiliate but been turned down by their annual conference, what is left in the UM Church is often only an empty shell of the former congregation. Such an outcome serves no one. It devastates a local church’s ministry, dishonors the congregation’s decision, and besmirches the denomination’s reputation in the community.

It is hoped that General Conference delegates of all perspectives will see the unfairness and act to provide a just solution, for the good of the church and for the advancement of the cause of Christ.

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