Rev. Rob Renfroe
By Rob Renfroe-
If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to create a schism within The United Methodist Church, its delegates could not have devised a better plan than their recent election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto to serve as a bishop of the UM Church. As is widely publicized, Oliveto is married to another woman and has announced that she has performed over fifty same-gender weddings.
This provocative act is simply the latest indication that the UM Church is coming apart. Nine annual conferences have now voted that they will not comply with the church’s positions regarding sexuality – meaning they will allow partnered gay persons to serve as ordained pastors and they will not hold accountable pastors who marry gay couples.
Unfortunately, the way the UM Church is organized, there is little that can be done to bring these annual conferences into compliance with UM doctrine. And though Rev. Oliveto’s election has been appealed to the Judicial Council, it is unlikely that the Council will rule her election out of order. Any elder “in good standing” may be elected to the episcopacy. At the time of her election, Oliveto was in good standing within her annual conference.
The election of a partnered gay bishop was not a surprise. Good News had been predicting such an event for the past two years. Knowing progressives could not change the church’s official views legislatively at General Conference, they had two options: give up the fight or step up their acts of disobedience, in hopes of demonstrating that there is no real accountability within the UM Church and signaling to others that they may now disobey the church’s instructions regarding sexuality.
The ironic part to this drama is that when orthodox United Methodist leaders have questioned whether, with all of our differences, we could live together as one church, they were condemned as “schismatics” by progressives who said we should all remain at the table and “continue the conversation.”
What’s obvious at this point is that when the conversation is not to the liking of progressives, they feel free to disregard the views of the majority and do what they “know to be best.” And they expect us “to stay at the table and remain in holy conferencing” – not because they are open to change or to honoring the conversation but because they know they can turn over the table and dishonor the practice of holy conferencing without any consequences. And should we even hint that we don’t see the point of continuing in dialogue any longer since it has no bearing on what progressives do, we are made out to be the villains, rather than those progressives who disrespect holy conferencing and the table they claim brings us together.
Question. If I was unfaithful to my marriage covenant and my wife discovered it, and if I responded by saying that I had my reasons and that I intended to be unfaithful in the future and that there was nothing she could do to change my mind, what would you tell her to do? If I told her that to be a good spouse she needed to stay in relationship with me and keep talking about our relationship, not because I’m open to changing but simply because that’s what a good wife should do – how would you advise her?
I’m guessing you would think that I have no right to tell my wife how she should respond. (I have never counseled a couple whose relationship has been shattered by adultery that the cheater should be the one to determine the rules for the faithful spouse.) I’m guessing that if she was willing to put up with such continued abuse, you wouldn’t find her noble and healthy but weak and co-dependent. At some point, you’d tell her “he’s not going to change; it’s unhealthy for you to stay in this relationship; so you can respect yourself, you have to say, ‘enough.’”
That’s where we are. We have an unfaithful spouse. He has his reasons for what he’s doing and he has told us that he is never going to change. And he tells us that we should stay in conversation because that’s what good people do.
This is the situation that the bishops’ commission must address. Trying to create some compromise that allows continued unfaithfulness will not work. Re-writing our marriage vows so that fidelity is no longer required won’t heal our relationship. Attempting to “contextualize” our behavior so that the spouse can cheat in places where cheating is acceptable won’t resolve our differences.
That’s why “A Third Way” failed. That’s why talk of re-writing the Book of Discipline and removing restrictive language about the church’s teaching on sexuality is foolish. And that’s why claiming that churches in more liberal contexts should have a different position than those in more traditional parts of the world is unthinkable. We don’t determine faithfulness based on the sentiments of a fallen culture but on the clear teaching of God’s word.
So we are in a time of crisis and chaos. And the future of the UM Church is in question. Why are we here? There are many reasons but the primary one is this: our bishops have been permissive parents. Many have signaled that pastors are free to be unfaithful to our covenant in their annual conferences. And even the conservative bishops have not unified, organized, spoken out together, or warmly promoted our church’s biblically based sexual ethics. And what permissive parents always discover is that failing to enforce the family’s rules never leads to a healthy, unified family but to a family that is dysfunctional and selfish.
In this vacuum of leadership, many orthodox leaders – lay and clergy – have created the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This network of innovatively traditional Wesleyan churches is coming together to witness and work together for the orthodox faith, to resource each other for effective ministry, and to strategize for the future, regardless of what the commission may recommend. They have decided that it’s time to stop waiting for the progressives to change their stripes (they won’t) or for our bishops to restore integrity to our covenant (they are too divided to do so).
Whatever God has in mind for the people called Methodist, the Wesleyan Covenant Association is prepared to lead the way to a better day for Bible-centered Methodists. It will have no authority to change the church’s teachings and has no desire to do so. But it does have the power to encourage faithful United Methodists to step into the future strong, smart, strategic, and together.
God has the ability to bring order out of chaos, blessing out of brokenness, and life out of death. What he asks of us is faithfulness. And if we do that – if we remain faithful and together – whatever happens, there is a better day coming. God will create it. And honestly, I cannot wait to step into that future with brothers and sisters who long for the world to know Jesus.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
Flowers are left in tribute to Father Jacques Hamel who was murdered during a church service in France. Associated Press.
By Steve Beard-
“Jacques, you were a faithful disciple of Jesus.”
If he were given the opportunity to overhear the proceedings at his own funeral, these are the words that Father Jacques Hamel would have been most pleased to hear. They were said with a mixture of solemnity, sorrow, and triumph by those who knew him best.
In what can only be described as barbaric bloodlust, Father Jacques’ throat was slit by two jihadists in front of the altar of the church at St Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, nearly 80 miles northwest of Paris. He was 85 years old.
Father Jacques’ death sparked international controversy for politicians and religious leaders in the midst of our current battle against terrorism. Some call his death martyrdom. Others wish we could call it something else so as not to add further tension to an easily flammable international tinderbox. It is pitiable that the ghastly murder of an elderly priest should have very smart observers tiptoeing through a minefield, but such is the world we live in.
Thankfully, from the testimonies given at Father Jacques’ funeral, there are more celebratory observations to be made.
1. Lifelong commitment. One of his ministerial colleagues used to jokingly remind Father Jacques that he was getting up in years and that perhaps it was time to take his pension. The old priest would laugh and say, “Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath.”
What was said with good humor ended up being manifest in great tragedy. Serving communion would be his final pastoral act. “This is my body given for you,” said Jesus. “This is the new covenant in my blood…”
“When Jesus wanted to explain to his disciples what his death was all about,” writes Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, “he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.” As the disciples noted, these are very difficult concepts to grasp. When offered, however, we receive the gifts of the sacraments with grateful and childlike faith.
What was intended to be sacrilegious, Father Jacques’ death in the shadow of the altar ended up becoming an amplified witness of lifelong devotion to the incarnate love of a God pierced with bleeding wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Blood remains the key element that binds all of humanity. When pooled in a puddle, it may appear grotesque; but coursing through our veins, blood remains the source of life.
2. Spiritual vision. At his funeral, it was recalled that Father Jacques tried to push away his murderer with his feet, twice saying, “Go away, Satan.” As taught by St. Paul, Father Jacques knew “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but … against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Father Jacques had seen many horrors during military service as a younger man. His life had been spared when other soldiers lost their lives. His ministry was one way of responding to the mystery of why his life had been spared. His sister Roselyne spoke of his humble spirit: “The God of love and mercy chose you to be at the service of others … until your last breath.”
3. It’s all about Resurrection. “Christ is risen, it is a mystery, a secret, a secret that God gives us to share,” Father Jacques wrote to his parishioners last Easter. Archbishop Dominique Lebrun responded to this message at the funeral: “Perhaps this mystery, this secret you confided was what was winning hearts in our assembly: yes, Christ is risen. The death is not the last word.”
Lebrun continued: “The resurrection of Jesus is not a catechism lesson, it is a reality, a reality for our heart, for the secret of the heart, a reality at the same time to share with others, as a confidence told with trust.”
There were several thousand French men and women in attendance at Father Jacques’ funeral. For a proudly secular society, this was an enormous audience. Each listener was challenged by Archbishop Lebrun’s message: “Brothers and sisters, let us be simple and honest about ourselves. It is in our heart, in the depths of our heart that we have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Jesus, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the path of truth and peace, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the victory of love over hatred, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to his resurrection.”
Lebrun concluded: “God will never force us. God is patient, and God is merciful. Even when I, Dominique, have resisted, and said ‘no’ to love; even when I told God, ‘I will think about it; we will see later,’ even when I have forgotten, God is patient. God expects me because of his infinite mercy.
“But we must uphold with Jesus that every man, every woman, every human person can change his heart with His grace. This is how we make ours the words of Jesus, even as they may seem beyond our strength today, ‘Well! I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
It is with grace that we remember an elderly French priest, desperately loved by his parishioners. It is with grace that we ask God for the strength to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is with grace that we receive with open arms the power of the resurrection, the great mystery and the great secret that we are empowered to share.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
The Rev. Karen Oliveto accepts her election by the Western Jurisdiction as a United Methodist bishop. At the time of her election, Oliveto was the senior pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, Calif. Her wife, Robin Ridenour, stands behind her. Photo by Patrick Scriven, Pacific-Northwest Conference.
The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, senior minister of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, has been elected as a bishop by the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. She is the first openly married lesbian to be elected bishop within the denomination. After two other candidates withdrew concluding the 16th ballot, Oliveto’s name was the lone candidate choice on the screen before the delegates.
She was one of three openly gay candidates running for bishop within The United Methodist Church. Gathering in Phoenix, the Western Jurisdiction delegates sent a provocative message to the worldwide 12-million member United Methodist Church – a denomination with over 5 million members in Africa and the Philippines.
“I think at this moment I have a glimpse of the realm of God,” Oliveto said from the podium after her election. “I want to thank the candidates who I have journeyed with these past few days, for the grace with which we walked with each other. And I know I stand before you because of the work and prayers of so many, especially those saints who yearned to live for this day, who blazed a trail where there was none, who are no longer with us, and yet whose shoulders I stand on.”
Oliveto was a prominent signer of an open letter written by 111 “local pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry” with the intent to publicly come out to General Conference delegates on the day before the policy-making event took place in Portland. She has been the chair of the board of Reconciling Ministries Network and recently served as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Pacific School of Religion where she continues as adjunct professor of United Methodist Studies.
“There is a lot of dissatisfaction on all sides of the theology divide about the state of the church,” Oliveto told CBS News in San Francisco in May. “While the ‘issue’ is human sexuality, it goes much deeper theologically into how we interpret Scripture. It is time the UMC finally has an honest conversation about this.”
The Council of Bishops was charged by the 2016 General Conference to create a special commission to explore the possibility of how the denomination can move forward with seemingly irreconciable theological differences over interpretation of Scripture, marriage, and sexuality. Half a dozen annual conferences in the United States preemptively voted to pass variations on a resolution of non-conformity to the provisions of the Book of Discipline on issues of human sexuality.
The election of an openly gay bishop is not the kind of conversation that moderate and conservative lay and clergy leaders had in mind as the bishops prepare to appoint the commission to study the church’s sexual ethics and preserve denominational unity.
“It is deplorable that the Western Jurisdiction, along with many annual conferences, has ignored the Council of Bishop’s proposal, ratified by the General Conference, for a ‘pause for prayer – to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God’s will for the future,’” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, in response to the Western Jurisdiction election.
“Instead, these conferences have moved ahead with legislative enactments pledging non-conformity with the Book of Discipline, culminating in the election of a practicing homosexual as bishop,” said Renfroe. “If the Western Jurisdiction wanted to push the church to the brink of schism, they could not have found a more certain way of doing so.”
Matt Berryman, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, said that Oliveto’s election “breaks through anti-LGBTQ law in The UMC and carries queer people to the highest levels of church leadership. Officially barred from so many churches and positions of spiritual leadership, queer persons may now see themselves as leaders of the body of Christ in the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States.”
According to the New York Times, Oliveto has performed more than 50 “holy unions” for same-sex couples. “My bishop has been very supportive of me and my wife,” Oliveto told CBS.
The Northeastern Jurisdiction passed a resolution of non-conformity regarding the church’s prohibitions against same-sex weddings and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The jurisdiction also called on annual conference financial officers to state that there are no funds available to investigate complaints or conduct trials for clergy who violate the church’s teachings.
“In light of the Western and Northeastern Jurisdiction’s actions effectively renouncing their connection to the rest of global United Methodism, evangelicals and traditionalists within the church will be conferring in the next few days to agree upon responses that will acknowledge this grave breach of unity,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News. “If our covenant is no longer in force, we will be forced to live into a new reality in our denomination.”
– Good News Media
Newly elected Bishop Karen Oliveto, a married Lesbian who has become the first openly gay bishop in United Methodism, stands with Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, left, and Bishop Minerva Carcano. Photo by Charmaine Robledo, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.
By Kathy Gilbert, UMNS-
The first time she stood and faced a packed church as the newest bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, Karen Phyllis Oliveto was blessed with a resounding standing ovation. On July 16, the pews at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, were filled with family, friends, and supporters who cheered and danced with her to the recessional hymn, “Somos el Cuerpo de Christo, We Are the Body of Christ.”
As the first out lesbian to be elected a bishop, she is not receiving the same affirmation from across the denomination. Her day started with a press conference where she and Greater Northwest Episcopal Area Bishop Grant Hagiya answered questions about what her election as bishop means, since the denomination forbids ordaining practicing, self-avowed homosexuals. Oliveto has been legally married to Robin Ridenour for more than two years, and they have been in a relationship since they met at a junior-high camp as counselors 17 years ago.
Hagiya said the election of Oliveto was led by the Holy Spirit. “We understand there may be some political implications, but in our mind this was the best person. It was not a question of (sexual) orientation, it was a question of who was the best spiritual leader. The body spoke and said ‘Yes, this is the one.’ ”
He added this election will not derail the General Conference 2016’s decision to support the Council of Bishops’ plan to appoint a special commission that would address all aspects of human sexuality currently covered in church law.
On the heels of her election, members of the South Central Jurisdiction voted 109-84 late on July 15 to ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding gay and lesbian church leaders. The Judicial Council is the denomination’s supreme court.
What will happen with any challenge to the election, such as the South Central Jurisdiction’s appeal to the Judicial Council for a declaratory judgment, is unclear. “There are no precise precedents for the drama of this kind of thing where church law specifically says a person in this situation shall not be ordained or appointed and, suddenly, exactly the person described in church law is elected bishop,” said the Rev. William Lawrence, a Perkins School of Theology professor of church history and former president of the denomination’s Judicial Council.
“I think in the short run there will be significant anxiety and negative reaction in many parts of the church,” he said. “And there will be great celebration in other parts of the church. The election reflects an expression of the division we currently have over matters of human sexuality.”
Oliveto’s election might intensify tensions within the council, said Lawrence. “There will be members of the Council of Bishops, active bishops who have voice and vote, who find themselves in a position where their own theology and their own ecclesial leadership in the church would find Bishop Oliveto’s presence intolerable,” Lawrence said.
To Lawrence, Oliveto’s election “has changed the dynamic” and created a situation unlike any the denomination has faced. “I don’t think schism is inevitable but I think it is more likely now than it was yesterday,” Lawrence said.
Reactions across the connection
The Rev. Ed Tomlinson, pastor of Lanier United Methodist Church in the North Georgia Conference, said he is disappointed that the Western Jurisdiction did not wait to see what the bishops’ commission would do. “It seems they rushed to judgment without really caring whether all voices are heard or not,” said Tomlinson, a retired district superintendent and veteran General Conference delegate.
The Rev. Beth LaRocca-Pitts, a Southeastern Jurisdiction delegate, is the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Saint Mark United Methodist Church where a majority of members are LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. “We’re ecstatic (about Oliveto’s election),” she said. “It means a lot to that population that one of their number has been lifted up as a bishop of the church.” Oliveto’s election, she said, also means the voice of gay people will be represented in the work of the bishops’ commission.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a clergyman in the California-Pacific Conference who went through a church trial for officiating at the same-gender wedding of his son, said Oliveto’s election is good news for the LGBTQ community and strengthens the LGBTQ rights movement.
“It’s a seismic shift towards LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church! It is bound to propel the dialogue within the church to a higher and more urgent level,” he said. He added he hoped this election will not be used as an excuse to force schism similar to what happened following the election of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
Many of the United Methodists in Africa will have serious problems with this decision, said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Liberia. “We are in prayers here in Africa as we trust God to continue to lead us on the ancient path (the holy, undiluted Word of God) Jeremiah 6:16. We shall not be moved. We will continue to remain obedient to the teaching of Scripture and loyal to Jesus Christ,” he said.
The Bible is the primary authority, supported by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, he said. “Those violating the Bible and Book of Discipline of the UMC are saying to the global UMC community that they are taking their exit and transferring their loyalty somewhere else,” Kulah said.
But the reaction at the Western Jurisdiction was a celebration.
“We just blew the socks off the denomination,” said Lynn Magnuson, laity from the Pacific Northwest Conference.
Wesley Hingano said, “It is a beautiful day.” His father, the Rev. Sisofina Hingano, was also a candidate for bishop. When Hingano withdrew his name from the ballot, he said he was doing it so people like his son could walk through the doors to freedom in the church. “I want to see gay and lesbian people walk freely,” he said.
Lonnie Brooks, Alaska Conference, said the election of Oliveto was the Western Jurisdiction declaring its independence from The United Methodist Church. “A lot of folks will look at it and think that is what they intend. What they haven’t given much thought to is that this will also cause a split in the West. We have some of the strongest red states here,” Brooks said, sounding a note of caution.
The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, who was a strong bishop candidate in the Western Jurisdiction, said during her withdrawal speech that the election of Oliveto was “a miracle we could not plan.”
“And I would like to say to my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, that as in this moment you are being included in an extreme way, do not forget what it’s like to be excluded to those who do not agree with you. Because if we don’t make a witness to the world to be loving of the whole body of Christ, then why in the heck are we here?” She said this was a moment to show the rest of the world the denomination does not have to split because of theology.
Acknowledging the pain her election will cause for many in the church, Oliveto said she hoped she could bear witness to their pain. “I know they are carrying great pain and a lot of questions. … I hope I can catch their tears, bear witness to their pain, then walk as their sister in Christ as we both seek to be led to a place neither one of us intended to go.”
Kathy Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. UMNS reporters Sam Hodges and Heather Hahn contributed to this story, as did Todd Seifert, director of communications, Great Plains Conference.
By Kathy L. Gilbert, UMNS-
The United Methodist Church declares “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Book of Discipline bars openly gay or lesbian people who are not celibate from being ordained or becoming bishops. The church’s lawbook prohibits officiating at or participating in same-sex weddings and annual conferences cannot fund LGBTQ programs or events.
But this summer, The New York conference ordained four openly gay clergy. The California-Nevada and California-Pacific conferences endorsed two openly gay clergy as bishop candidates, and the Rocky Mountain Conference passed a resolution that sexual orientation and gender identity should not be a bar to election to the episcopacy. The North Central Jurisdiction also considered an openly gay clergyman as a bishop candidate.
The New England Conference was the first to approve a resolution titled “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church,” which stated the conference would not comply with provisions of the denomination’s lawbook that discriminate against LGBTQ persons. That conference was followed by the Desert Southwest, California-Pacific and Pacific-Northwest conferences, which passed similar ‘non-conformity’ resolutions.
The California-Nevada Conference passed an “aspirational resolution” calling for the Book of Discipline not to be followed as it relates to items concerning LGBTQIA persons and ceasing judicial processes in matters related to prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons. LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual.
In Iowa, the Rev. Anna Blaedel came out as gay and three clergymen immediately filed a complaint against her.
Support for special commission. Many conferences offered words of encouragement and prayers for the Council of Bishop’s “An Offering For A Way Forward” as it starts the process of appointing a special commission to deal with all the portions of church law dealing with LBGTQ people.
Bishop Mike Lowry, Fort Worth Episcopal area, stated the bishop’s special commission was not an invitation to violate the Book of Discipline.
The United Methodist Church in Estonia passed a resolution that “human sexuality belongs only within the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Bishops in the U.S. Southeast denounced as “divisive and disruptive” the public refusal by some conferences to conform with church restrictions related to LGBTQ individuals. “We recognize the pain felt both by those advocating for and those opposing change,” the Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops said in a pastoral letter. “We also view the acts of nonconformity as a violation of our covenant and as divisive and disruptive.”
The college released the letter the evening of July 12, the eve before United Methodist bishop elections began. “We wanted to assure the Southeastern Jurisdiction that we understand the tension in the church, but we also wanted to give them the confidence in our leadership as we uphold the vows we made at our consecration (as bishops),” Nashville Area Bishop William T. McAllily told United Methodist News Service.
The South Georgia Conference passed a motion asking their resident bishop not receive any clergy who have publicly stated their intent to disregard the current language of the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.
The Rev. Robert Beckum, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Columbus, South Georgia, proposed the resolution to the conference to “close a loophole” allowing bishops to transfer United Methodist clergy from one annual conference to another. “It is most unfortunate that we have bishops, annual conferences, and conference boards of ordained ministry choosing to flagrantly disregard our Disciplinary Covenant while expressing concern for our historic connection and the unity of The United Methodist Church,” Beckum said.
Conference boards of ordained ministry. The Oregon-Idaho conference board of ordained ministry joined Northern Illinois, Baltimore-Washington, Pacific Northwest, and New York to consider all candidates for ministry without regard for their sexual orientations and gender identities. And the Oregon-Idaho clergy session voted during annual conference to affirm the board of ordained ministry’s action.
Membership in RCRC. Oregon-Idaho, New England, New York, California-Nevada, and the Pacific-Northwest conferences supported the work of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and voted to join the coalition. California-Nevada joined both the national coalition and the the California Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the Rocky Mountain Conference passed a resolution affirming its membership in the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
General Conference withdrew membership from the national organization that advocates for women’s reproductive health and abortion in May.
Fossil fuel divestment. The New York and Pacific Northwest Conferences and the Northwest United Methodist Foundation will divest from fossil fuels following decisions at their annual conference meetings in June. Pacific Northwest also adopted a Statement of Lament on General Conference 2016’s Affirmation of Fossil Fuel Investments, which was submitted to the Western Jurisdictional Conference 2016.
Celebrations. Conferences paused to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ordination of clergywomen in The United Methodist Church and 20th anniversary of the ordination of Deacons.
Many celebrated their contributions to the Imagine No Malaria campaign, which has raised more than $68 million to end malaria deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa where one child dies from malaria every two minutes.
Kathy Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
The Rev. Jerry Kulah preaches during the African central conference worship service during General Conference. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.
A Message from the UMC Africa Initiative
We have been following the events and activities of the five jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church with mixed emotions and serious concerns about the future of our beloved church. We have read of actions taken by some in gross disobedience to the Bible and our Book of Discipline, and of others who have written to express their disagreements. We are deeply concerned. However, we are praying for God’s intervention as we discern God’s plans for the future of our church.
It is shockingly amazing that in the letter sent to the Council of Bishops from the organization called “Love Prevails” prior to the 2016 General Conference there was no mention of a specific reference to any passage of the Holy Scripture, our primary authority for doctrine, faith, and Christian living as the Church of Jesus Christ, to support any of its claims, arguments, and demands and justifications for the actions it has taken in recent times. This attitude and behavior has the propensity to embarrass, ridicule, and blur the message of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone has the power to save and transform society.
In light of the commitment we (African delegates to the 2016 General Conference) made to the request of the Council of Bishops by our support to have them set up a special Commission to inquire into all human sexuality issues contained in our Book of Discipline, many of us are deeply saddened by the actions of some of our brothers and sisters to attempt to derail the unity of global Methodism. Their actions to grossly disrespect our bishops and disobey our global decision at the 2016 General Conference are incompatible with fostering unity within global Methodism.
Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out.”
When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.
We are left to wonder, why are we not identified as Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, etc., but Christians? It is because every religious faith has a doctrine and a religious code of conduct that distinguishes it from all other religions. In the case of Christianity, it is the Bible, the Holy Word of God, as the Quran is for the Muslims. One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents. One cannot claim to truly be a member of any of the world’s religions and live in gross disobedience to its teachings (John14:15; Psalm 119:9-11,105; 19:7-11).
Let the church be the church; and let not the culture of the day define the global Christian community called United Methodist, but the Bible (Joshua 1:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Christian Church, bought and birthed with the blood of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:1-13; Matthew 27: 32-61; John 10:10-11; Hebrews 10:1-39) is not and cannot be a social club; it cannot be directed by any form of political activism that contradicts the teachings of Scripture. And it is not a social or political system based on humanism or secular ideologies and philosophies (2 John 2;15-16; Colossians 2: 8-15;1 Samuel 8) that seeks endorsement for a kind of “human rights” to the detriment of human existence as God our Creator has designed it. Instead, the Church of Jesus Christ is a global community redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who lives in loving relationship with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They are a people called out from the world and yet sent into the world (John 16:7-11; Acts 1:8; Genesis 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 28; Judges 2:10-13; 17:6) to share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in order that persons might come to faith in Christ and become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We cannot in any way be “bad news” by our decisions, actions, and attitudes, and yet attempt to proclaim the good news.
It is time to return to the faith of our fathers and mothers (the Holy Scriptures) and be the church. In spite all that is going on, there is hope for the continued growth and development of the Church of Jesus Christ because Jesus is still the Lord of His Church. We will remain committed and determined to live in loyalty and obedience to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and to our Book of Discipline.
We will also remain supportive of the unity of the global United Methodist Community as long as the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and Christian living. We shall remain loving of members of the UM Church who have chosen to tread the cultural path of contemporary society that is inimical to the teaching of Scripture, in the hope that we will reconcile our differences and submit to the Lordship of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters for whom Christ also gave his life. However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.
We are confident that God is in sovereign control of His Church. He promises to continually build it until He returns to receive us unto Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b). We need to only be still, yet vigorously prayerful and discerning in such a time as this, and we will see the deliverance of the Lord.
We must admit that the global United Methodist Church is at the crossroads (Jeremiah 6:16). We have choices to make. On one hand, we can choose to obey God and His word, and thereby repent of the sin of gross disobedience and abandon the quest to be like the rest of the world. On the other hand, we can choose to continue in pursuit of what the cultural practices of the day dictate that denies God’s sovereignty over God’s creation and accepts what feels good, what seems politically acceptable to society, etc. The choice is ours.
But as Joshua, at the close of his ministry in Shechem, said to all of the Israelites, and by implication to all United Methodist at the crossroads today, we wish to challenge all born-again believers in Jesus Christ (John 3:3-5), in the words of this great general of God’s people, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness…But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household – the UM Community in Africa, in particular, and all faithful Christians everywhere who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the undiluted Word of God for belief and practice – we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15).
Together, we shall make it for God’s glory (Joshua 2:17-18; 2 Samuel 10:9-12). God has wonderful plans for the prosperity of His Church on earth (Jeremiah 29:11). Let us be firm and very courageous in prayer and in discerning God’s will for the future of our church, always abounding in the Word of the Lord; for we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain (Joshua 1:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:58). May God bless the people called United Methodist.
The UMC Africa Initiative is a coalition of United Methodist leaders in Africa who were elected to the 2016 General Conference. This message was written by Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah on behalf of the UMC Africa Initiative. Kulah is the West Africa Central Conference Coordinator of the UMC Africa Initiative and the dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Liberia.