by Steve | May 26, 2023 | In the News, Perspective / News
The Changing Shape of Methodism
By Thomas Lambrecht
As many churches considered the option of disaffiliation, there has been a focus on the contrast between a traditional understanding of our Methodist doctrines and practices compared with how The United Methodist Church has evolved over the past couple of decades. Now that the disaffiliation process is moving forward with the current wave of annual conference votes, it is appropriate to look at how the structure of Methodism will be changing as a result.
As of this week, 1,836 congregations have disaffiliated from the UM Church in 2023. Added to the 2,017 that disaffiliated before this year, that means 3,853 churches have disaffiliated, representing 13 percent of all U.S. congregations.
There have been arguments about whether this constitutes a “schism” or a “split” or instead a “splintering” of United Methodism. Some are unwilling to call it a schism or a split until it reaches half the denomination separating. (That is a somewhat arbitrary definition of schism or split, which simply refers to a division in the body.) It should be noted that five annual conferences have experienced the loss of more than 40 percent of their congregations. Even under the arbitrary definition, for those conferences it is a schism.
It is estimated that at least another 1,100 congregations will complete the disaffiliation process over the rest of this year. It will probably be more than that, as some conferences do not publicize the number of disaffiliating churches until right before the annual conference meets to vote on them. Even with this conservative projection, nearly 5,000 churches total will have disaffiliated by the end of 2023, which represents 17 percent of all U.S. UM congregations.
Although exact numbers are not available at this point, it appears that at least 80 percent of disaffiliating congregations are aligning immediately with the Global Methodist Church (GMC). Others are remaining independent for a time while they discern their future and heal from the wounds of disaffiliation. It is expected that many of these churches will eventually choose to align with the GMC. In addition, many new GMC churches are starting with the core members of congregations that did not reach the required two-thirds vote to disaffiliate.
Based on these projections, the GMC should have well over 4,000 congregations and nearly 1 million members in the U.S. when the current wave of disaffiliations is completed and churches work their way through the discernment and application process to join the GMC.
A Global GMC
Of course, the GMC is a global denomination not limited to the U.S. The very first congregational members of the GMC were in the Bulgaria Annual Conference, which officially joined the GMC on its launch date of May 1, 2022. Last Fall, Slovakia also joined the GMC. Since that time, Estonia and four conferences in Russia and Eurasia have voted to leave the UM Church to become autonomous, and they may become part of the GMC when that process is completed.
In the Philippines, UM congregations are moving to the GMC and new congregations have been planted there. One or more Philippine annual conferences are in the process of being formed. One of the first GMC church plants last year was Good News of Life Church, planted in Antipolo City, a part of Greater Manila.
The GMC has been registered in the Democratic Republic of Congo for former United Methodists who have been evicted from their UM membership by some of the bishops there, and new congregations are being planted there. Preparations for registering the GMC in other countries of Africa are also taking place. It is believed that at least half of the African annual conferences will eventually join the GMC if the language in the Book of Discipline regarding marriage and ordination is changed. That would make African members the largest block of members in the GMC.
In addition, Methodists in other parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America are exploring deeper relationships with the GMC as a way of linking with a theologically like-minded global denomination. Just this week, the Spain provisional district was formed with seven congregations centered around Barcelona. These explorations hold the potential for making the GMC a truly global denomination with a strong presence on each of five continents. Since the U.S. part of the GMC may not be a majority of the church, it will be an opportunity to explore what it means to be truly global, with voices from other parts of the globe giving leadership to the church and counterbalancing some of the “bad habits” U.S. Methodists have fallen into. There will be challenges and a learning process for all, but the end result promises to be a different kind of Methodist denomination that truly represents what the Kingdom of God will look like someday – people of every language, nation, and tribe!
Impact on United Methodism
While a new GMC denomination is growing up, rampant disaffiliation will have a serious impact on the structural reality of The United Methodist Church, as well. A recent UM News article begins, “The United Methodist Church will look and operate very differently going forward.”
That structural change impacts two particular areas: the general church budget and the number and allocation of bishops.
The recent meeting of the UM General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) and the Connectional Table agreed upon a proposed 2025-2028 budget that would be 40 percent lower than the 2017-2020 budget for the general church. The budget would decrease from $604 million to $371 million, the lowest amount in absolute dollars since 1984. Of course, with inflation, a $370 million budget in 1984 would be equivalent to over $1 billion today! Needless to say, the general church budget has not kept up with inflation over the years.
The membership of the church has declined in those 40 years, as well – from 9.2 million members to 6.1 million. Whereas, in 1984 the budget amounted to roughly $40 per member, today it would amount to over $60 per member. When adjusted for inflation, however, today’s number is about half what it was in 1984.
The recommended 40 percent decrease in the budget is prompted by the disaffiliation of an estimated 17-20 percent of church members, plus the “normal” decline in membership that has been averaging 3-5 percent per year. With the pandemic, local church expenditures have also decreased 7 percent from their normal levels. Until all the dust settles on disaffiliation, it is unclear what the financial ramifications will be, but there is no question there will be dramatically less money to work with at the general church level. That will undoubtedly mean reductions in the size and number of general church agencies and a reduction in the programs the general church can offer.
Number of Bishops
Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton is quoted as saying, “I don’t think that there’s anyone who is wanting to preserve the episcopacy in its current form. The numbers speak for themselves.” The budget proposal includes a 25 percent cut to the Episcopal Fund that pays bishops’ salaries and expenses.
The U.S. jurisdictions have already cut the number of bishops from 47 to 39. The Northeastern Jurisdiction cut four bishops to go from ten bishops to six. The South Central Jurisdiction cut two bishops to go from ten bishops to eight. The Southeastern Jurisdiction cut two bishops to go from 13 bishops to 11. In total, that represents a 17 percent reduction to the number of U.S. bishops.
Under the Discipline’s formula for determining the number of bishops, what will each jurisdiction be entitled to after this round of disaffiliations is complete?
The North Central Jurisdiction would be entitled to seven bishops, meaning they would have to cut two bishops from what they currently have. One possible scenario would have Wisconsin and Michigan sharing a bishop and Northern Illinois and Illinois Great Rivers sharing a bishop.
The Northeastern Jurisdiction would be also entitled to seven bishops, one more than they currently have. Currently, New England has no resident bishop and Susquehanna is sharing two bishops with other conferences. Some form of realignment would allow New England to have its own resident bishop, probably shared with another conference.
The South Central Jurisdiction would be entitled to eight bishops, the number it currently has. Realignment of conference boundaries will have to account for the fact that 80 percent of the Northwest Texas Conference will have disaffiliated, half of the Texas Conference, and one-third of both the Rio Texas and Central Texas Conferences. Five previous Texas annual conferences will probably become four, and may include New Mexico, as well, which could be down to 16,000 members.
The Southeastern Jurisdiction would be entitled to ten bishops, one fewer than it currently has. South Georgia and Alabama-West Florida currently share a bishop, as does Holston and North Alabama. Perhaps Mississippi and Tennessee-Western Kentucky will also share a bishop, or another alignment may be proposed.
The Western Jurisdiction will keep its five bishops, since a minimum of five bishops per jurisdiction is guaranteed by the Constitution. Reducing the number of bishops in the West would require a Constitutional amendment. This creates an inequitable situation, since each bishop in the West would have only half as many members and congregations to care for as bishops in the rest of the U.S.
Reducing the number of bishops according to the Discipline’s formula would result in 37 bishops, a reduction of 21 percent in the number of U.S. bishops. That is still short of the 25 percent reduction in budget proposed to the General Conference.
The reduced budget also does not appear to have room in it for the additional five bishops promised to Africa in 2016. Without further reductions in the number of U.S. bishops below the number allowed by the Discipline’s formula, it would appear that additional bishops for Africa will be off the table.
The changing alignments within Methodism will result in significant structural changes. The Global Methodist Church will be navigating how to structure itself as a truly global church with equal and mutual contributions from all geographic areas of the church. The United Methodist Church will be navigating how to restructure within the limitations imposed by a dramatically reduced budget and reduced number of bishops. Those looking to keep things the same as they were at the denominational level will find comfort in neither camp. But such changes hold the possibility of fomenting new ways of doing ministry that make the church more effective at reaching a lost and needy world.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.
by Steve | May 12, 2023 | In the News, Perspective / News
Are All Divisions of the Devil?
By Rob Renfroe
I don’t mind people thinking differently than I do. I often learn from such people, and I regularly benefit from considering opinions different than my own.
But I admit I am upset when influential leaders express views that seem shallow and vapid. Or when, to promote their agenda, they throw out emotionally laden half-truths that condemn their opponents.
On May 7, 193 churches in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference were approved for disaffiliation. Bishop David Graves used that occasion to state, “I’d like to use Scripture to tell you to behave and become better Christians and love each other more. For division is of the devil.”
Of course, we could all probably be reminded to behave and become better Christians and love each other more. But are all divisions of the devil?
That statement being made by a UM bishop is richly ironic considering the historical fact that the denomination he oversees began when the Methodist movement in the early years of a newly formed United States divided from the Church of England. Was that division of the devil? Were Wesley, Asbury, and Coke influenced by demonic forces in facilitating that separation? Should we all “renounce the devil and all his works,” and go back to being members of the Church of England?
Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline that made a path for churches wanting to leave the UM Church was originally written by a progressive delegate to the 2019 General Conference. Was she demonically inspired? What about the vote on May 7 that allowed 193 churches to divide from the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference. Were those who approved disaffiliation doing the work of the devil?
I am grateful that members of his conferences report Bishop Graves has been gracious and fair in handling congregational disaffiliations. That is what makes his statement all the more incongruous, perhaps a moment of emotional venting during a disheartening time for the continuing UM Church.
I assume Bishop Graves would say that his intention behind his statement was that the dynamics that led up to this division were of the devil. A pastor once challenged me in an accusatory tone after one of my presentations in Florida, “Well, it’s just wrong, this division that’s going on. Jesus prayed that we would be unified.” I asked her, “And whom do you hold responsible for this division? Those who have followed the Book of Discipline or those who have broken it? Those who say that until the Discipline is changed pastors should live by it and bishops should enforce it? Or the annual conferences that have publicly stated they will act as if parts of the Discipline do not apply to them, and the pastors who are disobeying it and the bishops who refuse to enforce it? Who is responsible for this disunity that you find so distasteful – those who have kept our covenant or those who have broken it?”
Divorce is not God’s will. But most pastors, myself included, have found ourselves counseling one who is being physically and/or emotionally abused by their spouse. We have heard others say that their spouse is breaking their marriage covenant and is unwilling to change. And though we know that divorce is not God’s perfect will, we end up stating, “You do not have to endure an abusive marriage. It’s OK to say that you will not stay in a relationship when you are being disrespected and mistreated in a way that puts your physical or emotional health in jeopardy. And even Jesus said that divorce is permissible in cases of adultery.” Very few UM pastors would say that divorce (the division of a marriage) in those circumstances is “of the devil.” Sad, yes. A last resort, yes. But, of the devil, no.
That’s where many of us in the UM Church have found ourselves. Our covenant has been broken. Those who have been unfaithful to it have said they will never change. And we traditionalists have been emotionally and verbally abused – being called everything from hard-hearted, hypocritical, incapable of reason, to not possessing the spirit of Christ.
In general, I agree that a church’s division is not the will of God. But there comes a time when a dysfunctional, destructive relationship needs to come to an end. Condemning the final act of division rather than all the events leading up to it – the breaking of the covenant and the abusive treatment that many progressives and centrists have shown toward those who have lived by the rules and obeyed the Book of Discipline – is at best shallow thinking and at worst a ploy to shame those who are leaving and an underhanded attempt to keep others from doing likewise.
We are living in difficult days. Some among us can no longer remain in a denomination that allows its bishops, pastors, and seminary professors to teach doctrines contrary to the orthodox Christian faith. Others have decided that they can no longer in good conscience give their name, their time, or their money to a denomination that allows its leaders to promote a sexual ethic that is not only in opposition to what the Bible teaches, but that might even lead people into sin and away from the Kingdom of God and eternal life.
Those decisions should be respected. If you believe the UM Church is unwilling to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” your decision to leave is not “of the devil.” It is reasonable, understandable, and may very well be the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Go out with grace. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Bless those who curse you. But don’t let their shallow thinking or their half-truths cloud your mind, change your heart, or bring shame into your spirit. As we say here in Texas, “Vaya con Dios.”
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.
by Steve | May 5, 2023 | In the News, Perspective / News
Same-Sex Wedding Prompts Bishop to Act
By Thomas Lambrecht
Bishop Sharma Lewis (Mississippi) has responded to two clergy persons who performed a same-sex wedding in January. The Revs. Elizabeth Davidson and Paige Swaim-Pressley officiated at the wedding ceremony of a “non-binary” couple in Tupelo, Mississippi. The term “non-binary” means that one or both persons participating in the wedding ceremony do not identify exclusively as male or female. The couple had reportedly met the two clergy persons when the clergy served as chaplains at Millsaps College, a United Methodist-affiliated school in Jackson, Mississippi.
According to a report from United Methodist Insight, a complaint was filed against the two clergy persons in February. Attempts to reach a just resolution of the complaint stalled and the two clergywomen requested a mediator be brought into the talks, which is allowed by the Book of Discipline. Bishop Lewis reportedly declined. According to Religion News Service (RNS), the clergywomen have been asked to surrender their clergy credentials or face a church trial. In the meantime, Lewis has reportedly requested the clergy persons be placed on involuntary leave. The Mississippi Board of Ordained Ministry Executive Committee would have to approve this request.
The “Traditional Plan” passed by the 2019 General Conference included provisions for a minimum penalty for clergy convicted in a church trial for “conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.” The minimum penalty for a first offense is one year’s suspension without pay. The minimum penalty for a second offense is termination of conference membership and revocation of credentials of ordination (Discipline, Par. 2711.3). Notably, the request by Bishop Lewis for immediate surrender of credentials goes to the maximum penalty.
Not In Virginia Anymore?
Bishop Lewis’ actions in the Mississippi case contrast sharply with her response to a similar case when she was the bishop in Virginia. In 2022, the Virginia Conference requested a declaratory decision by the Judicial Council alleging the failure of Bishop Lewis to follow the proper procedure for resolving a complaint.
According to briefs filed in the case, a pastor performed a same-sex wedding in September 2019. That same month, complaints were filed against the pastor. By January 2020, the supervisory process had failed to reach a just resolution, and Bishop Lewis referred the matter to a counsel for the church to proceed with charges and a trial. However, no charges were filed, no Committee on Investigation hearing was held, and no progress was made in resolving the complaints. Through emails sent to the accused pastor, Bishop Lewis made clear that she remained in control of the process during this time. In fact, she argued in her brief that she has six years (up to the limit of the statute of limitations) for charges to be filed. To this day, over three years later, no charges have been filed, and the accused pastor has not been held accountable for his violation of the Discipline. (The pastor has not been placed on involuntary leave, either.)
It is unknown why Bishop Lewis seems to have taken a firmer stand in the Mississippi case than she did in the Virginia case. One hopes that she will not pull a repeat and turn the case over to a counsel of the church, only to sit on it for years (or until the Book of Discipline changes).
Does the Discipline Apply?
In the RNS article, “Swaim-Presley and Davidson say the Book of Discipline is silent on the topic of weddings between two non-binary people, while, on other matters, it directs deacons and elders to act according to their consciences.”
The Discipline defines marriage as between “a man and a woman” (Par. 161C). Any marriage between persons outside that definition is contrary to church teaching and performing such a wedding would be disobedience to the Discipline. Further, one could argue that both members of the couple being “non-binary” means that they are both of the same sex or gender.
The clergy persons argue that the Discipline recognizes the right to civil disobedience. “We recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced” (Par. 164F). They justify their acting in defiance of the Discipline as an act of civil disobedience against what they consider an unjust church rule.
However, this situation is not in civil society, involving governmental legislation and courts, but in the church. In civil society, people have little recourse when faced with an unjust law. If unable to change the law, their only other option is to leave the country. In the church, however, clergy voluntarily submit to church rules. If they find they disagree so deeply with church rules that they feel compelled to disobey, they have the option of freely withdrawing from the denomination and joining another church that has beliefs more in line with their own. Integrity would demand that they do so, rather than cause conflict in the church by disobeying its rules.
In addition, our Discipline goes on to say regarding civil disobedience, “Even then, respect for law should be shown by refraining from violence and by being willing to accept the costs of disobedience.” It seems these clergy persons want to have it both ways. They want to be free to pursue “ecclesiastical disobedience” but not have to accept the consequences of potential suspension or loss of credentials.
Judicial Council Rules “No Abeyance”
This all takes place in the context of the concept of holding complaints involving LGBTQ persons in abeyance. (According to AskTheUMC: “The term ‘abeyance’ means ‘delay.’ It does not mean a refusal to implement the Discipline. It means delaying further action on certain kinds of charges for a limited period of time and for particular reasons.”). That idea was part of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation put forward in early 2020. The idea was that, since the impending 2020 General Conference would hopefully pass the Protocol and ultimately eliminate the chargeable offenses related to LGBTQ persons. It did not make sense at the time to pursue complaints regarding actions that would in a few short months be no longer contrary to the Discipline.
However, five months became four years and support for the Protocol waned among progressives and centrists. While the idea of holding complaints in abeyance was always up to the decision of individual bishops, the rationale for abeyance had passed. With the third postponement of General Conference, Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and UM Action all announced they would no longer refrain from filing complaints involving LGBTQ persons. (Very few complaints have been filed, and none of these organizations filed the complaint against the clergy in Mississippi.)
Recently issued Judicial Council Decision 1483 states, “It is only in the context of ongoing or imminent civil or criminal proceedings that abeyance can be contemplated. Therefore, Paragraph 2 is a prescriptive statement that directly affirms the abeyance or moratorium and constitutes a call to action that runs counter to the Discipline.”
The Discipline provides that, “A complaint may be held in abeyance with the approval of the Board of Ordained Ministry if civil authorities are involved or their involvement is imminent on matters covered by the complaint” (Par. 362.1g). That is meant to cover a situation where a clergy person might be charged with breaking a civil law and put on trial. In such cases, the church complaint process needs to take a back seat, so as not to impinge on the civil proceedings.
The idea of abeyance was always a bit dicey under church law. Traditionalists were willing to support the concept in the interest of reducing conflict in the church while we anticipated an imminent amicable separation. Due to the postponement of General Conference, no amicable separation plan has been adopted, and the current separation is often not amicable in some annual conferences.
With this latest ruling, the Judicial Council has taken abeyance off the table regarding complaints involving LGBTQ persons.
It is encouraging to see Bishop Lewis take firm action to enforce the Book of Discipline’s prohibition of same-sex weddings, provided that she follows through with a trial. We urge that fair process be followed and any church trial handled with the seriousness and sensitivity such a proceeding deserves.
The RNS article states that “both clergy had left Millsaps for nonprofit roles by the time they officiated the wedding in January.” Because neither clergy person is serving as pastor of a church, it is unclear what the impact of a suspension or involuntary leave would have on their position. Presumably the nonprofits with which each works agree with their stance on same-sex weddings and would not suspend or remove them from their positions. The bishop or annual conference could not remove them from their non-church positions, although the bishop could withdraw their appointments, forcing them to take a leave of absence as clergy while continuing in their nonprofit roles. If clergy credentials are essential to their nonprofit work, the loss or suspension of those credentials could impact their ability to do their jobs. Primarily, it would mean that they could not be involved in sacramental ministry, administering Baptism and Holy Communion, nor could they perform any more weddings for anyone.
It is widely expected that the General Conference in 2024 will remove the prohibitions against same-sex weddings in the Book of Discipline. What the two clergy persons have done illegally now would then no longer be illegal. If their credentials are removed this year, would they then be readmitted to ordained ministry next year? In this instance, it might seem that a one-year suspension or a leave of absence from ordained ministry might be the more appropriate penalty.
What this situation points out is that, as long as traditionalists remain in The United Methodist Church, the existing terms of the Discipline will be expected to be enforced. The best way forward for those who want to affirm and celebrate same-sex marriage would be to allow those traditionalists unwilling to support that to graciously exit the denomination. It makes no sense to try to coerce traditionalist congregations to remain United Methodist, where they will be a stumbling block to the “inclusive” agenda.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.
by Steve | Apr 21, 2023 | Perspective / News, In the News
Departing from the Faith
By Rob Renfroe
“Jesus did not die for your sins.” That is the message a professor at United Methodist Iliff Seminary posted two days before Good Friday earlier this month. Professor Miguel De La Torre titled his article “What if Crucifixion Is Not Salvific?”
It may come as a surprise to some that a professor at a UM seminary would promote such a view, but it is a belief that is not uncommon among UM pastors and professors. Last year on Good Friday a UM pastor posted the same declaration on the UM Clergy Facebook page and received the same complimentary responses as Professor De La Torre did from UM pastors – “thank you for telling the truth,” “thank you for saying what so many of us believe,” “thank you for stating that God would never require a sacrifice to achieve our salvation.”
According to De La Torre, “Jesus’ death neither pays a ransom nor is a substitution for us.” In fact, the idea that the cross secures our salvation, the professor states, is a “eurochristian” invention that disenfranchises the marginalized and threatens women. All this despite what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3). Despite John presenting Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Despite Peter writing that that Jesus “bore our sins in his body” upon the cross (I Peter 2:24). Despite Jesus himself saying, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28) and “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
One might think De La Torre is an isolated example. In a blog entitled “Hope for Regeneration” posted on Easter Sunday (!), Rev Mark Y.A. Davies bemoaned “the substitutionary atonement theology of Jesus being a human blood sacrifice for our sins to satisfy what could rightly be seen as a sadistic God, and the emphasis on a miraculous supernatural physical resurrection of Jesus.”
Davies goes on, “Members of the Christian tradition who insist on adhering to a theology of substitutionary atonement that requires the shedding of Jesus’s blood to take away the sins of the world would do well to remember that violent shedding of blood by an oppressive empire does not redeem us. … Persons can be followers of Jesus and the way of bringing good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed without making the crucifixion be the plan of a sadistic God who requires a gruesome human blood sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven.”
Regarding the resurrection, Davies asks, “What if the focus on physical resurrection has actually diminished the core message and meaning of Jesus’s life? What if the physical resurrection has become an idol of the Christian faith that hinders persons from engaging the life and teachings of Jesus in this world?” This despite Paul arguing for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and stating, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:14, 17).
Ironically, Davies is not only an ordained United Methodist elder, but he is also a professor of social and ecological ethics at Oklahoma City University. In addition, he is a member of the UM University Senate, “an elected body of professionals in higher education created … to determine which schools, colleges, universities, and theological schools meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with The United Methodist Church.”
Davies has abandoned United Methodist beliefs, as defined by our doctrinal standards – the Articles of Religion (AoR) and Confession of Faith (CoF). “The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required” (CoF Article VIII). “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, … wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day” (AoR Article III).
Yet, Davies is deemed qualified to judge whether colleges and seminaries are sufficiently United Methodist to be affiliated with our denomination! In fact, he writes, “You can be a follower of Jesus’ way … without believing that Jesus miraculously came back to life after the Roman authorities in Jerusalem executed him for sedition.” You can be a Christian without believing that Christ died for your sins and rose bodily from the grave as the first fruits of eternal life.
Not only is Davies wrong about what it means to be a Christian and a United Methodist, he is allowed to teach and preach these mistaken beliefs and even hold a position of authority within the UM Church in deciding which colleges and seminaries promote UM doctrine. No one is holding him accountable for departing from the faith.
We are told by centrists in the UM Church that they will not let the UM Church drift from its historical, biblical roots. But they already have. No one is holding professors or pastors who deny the central claims of the Gospel accountable. Not centrist leaders or bishops. It’s time to be honest. The chief shepherds of the UM Church, elected or self-appointed, are unwilling to defend our doctrines or protect their flocks from false teaching – even a doctrine that is as foundational to the Christian faith as “Jesus died for our sins and rose again on the third day.”
A close friend of mine accepted Jesus shortly before I did when we were both teenagers. It was at the same time as the “Jesus Revolution” depicted in the recent movie. My friend became a beautiful witness of a Christ-centered life. In college, though, he drifted from the faith and studied all the world’s religions. Eventually, he renounced his commitment to Christ and chided me for my simplistic faith. As an adult, he lived a promiscuous life and became very successful professionally. Years later, praise God, he came back to his first love and rededicated his life to Christ. When I asked him what brought him back to Jesus, he said, “I studied all the religions of the world and every one of them has some important truth to share. But as I looked at my life, I realized I didn’t need more truth to live up to – I couldn’t live up to the truth I already had. What I needed was a Savior who could save me from my sins. And there is no other Savior than Jesus.”
De La Torre, Davies, and other UM professors and pastors may not feel the need for a Savior. But my friend did. I do. And if you do – his name is Jesus. He died for your sins, he paid a ransom for your soul, he was buried and on the third day he rose from the dead. Because of his shed blood, you can be made right with God and live an abundant life in this world and eternally with the God who made you to be in relationship with himself.
De La Torre, Davies, and other professors at UM colleges and seminaries will continue to teach future UM pastors and leaders that Jesus did not die for our salvation and that he did not rise again from the grave. Those charged with protecting our doctrines and promoting our faith will continue to be silent. Many in our pews will continue to be oblivious or unconcerned because they love their local church or they feel a need to defend an institution. But our Lord Jesus will continue to be the Lamb of God whose death reconciles our sinful souls to a holy God and whose resurrection is the hope of the world.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News.
by Steve | Apr 14, 2023 | Perspective / News, In the News
By John Lomperis
Congregations who wish to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church (UMC) have a historic, rapidly expiring opportunity to keep their church buildings and parsonages. Despite the historic nature of this opportunity, proceeding with United Methodist disaffiliation can seem scary, even in conferences where the bishops have not effectively locked the exit doors.
Yet, it is important to understand that your congregation not voting for United Methodist disaffiliation before your final annual conference session this year is itself a major decision. That would be a decision to permanently stay United Methodist. There are no clear exit alternatives that your congregation would have after your annual conference’s final session this year (usually no later than June, although some conferences have scheduled special sessions in the fall). Any promises some bishops have made to potentially offer an alternative exit path within your annual conference after 2023 can be unilaterally rescinded by one UMC official or another, just as easily as we have seen so many bishops rescind other solemn vows and promises in recent years.
It is a major decision, either way.
But I have recently gathered detailed testimonies from several congregations who have decided that they needed to pursue United Methodist disaffiliation, even with all the daunting challenges of building consensus in the congregation, raising the finances required from the UMC, and questions about the future.
Obviously, every congregation’s story is unique. But as your own congregation perhaps considers stepping out in faith and pursuing United Methodist disaffiliation, it may be helpful to consider the testimonies of others who have gone before you. Thanks to their brave steps, these are no longer uncharted waters. These congregations span a range of sizes, internal cultures, and contexts, from a range of different states and annual conferences.
Building consensus is one major challenge.
In one larger South Central Jurisdiction congregation, lay opposition to United Methodist disaffiliation centered on skepticism that denominational leaders would openly defy the official rules of our denomination. This skepticism was quickly mollified by the sharing of the official report of how the New England Annual Conference had formally committed to “nonconformity” with the biblical, duly established moral standards of the UMC Book of Discipline. There are plenty of other examples that could have been shared from across the country. But for this congregation, that was enough, and their vote to disaffiliate was nearly unanimous.
Facts are our friends.
In one Midwestern congregation, a relatively small group within the membership eagerly rushed forward to hurry the congregation into United Methodist disaffiliation. But the reasons why they wanted this, or even what the congregation was really being asked to decide, were not clear to many outside this limited group. Predictably, things did not go well with this group’s initial failures to communicate.
But then this congregation stepped back and tried a different approach, consisting of multiple town hall meetings offering a wide range of information and involvement throughout the congregation. It is vitally important that in such discernment, members of a range of perspectives be given a chance to share information and have their concerns heard. In this congregation, the more members learned the facts about the current situation in the UMC, the more consensus steadily built. By the time of the church conference, this congregation, which had previously been divided on the question of United Methodist disaffiliation, voted by well over 90 percent to disaffiliate!
Even congregations that are theologically divided have reached strong consensus to pursue United Methodist disaffiliation as members, through ongoing discernment, learn the facts about the UMC’s dysfunction and decline as well as the increasingly unchecked liberal extremism and intolerance of its leaders.
From another congregation, one couple shared:
“For years we have been warned that the United Methodist Church was becoming more liberal and moving away from traditional Biblical theology. Being a small, rural congregation, we ‘assumed’ this would have no effect on us. We continued to worship, using the Bible as our guide, all the while maintaining our obligations to the United Methodist Church.”
But then their lay leader returned from their annual conference session with a report of a new liberal stance their region of the UMC had taken, along with the denomination’s growing intolerance of non-liberals. Now the once seemingly distant problems of the denomination were coming much closer.
This couple continued:
“This was a scary thought. How would we as a couple react? We have worshipped in this church 50+ years, we have been very active, and our church family has been very important in our Christian walk. We wondered if we should walk away and try to find another church? It was a very stressful and unsettling time.
We felt the United Methodist Church was changing the rules, becoming more worldly, more politically correct, and ignoring God’s Word.
God’s timing is perfect. A Pastor was sent to us who was willing to inform us of the disaffiliation process and guide us through it.
The United Methodist Church would not allow us to just walk away, many obstacles were put in place, none were easy to complete, and the financial ‘ransom’ fee felt unreasonable as well as unreachable. All of this was infuriating.
The vote to disaffiliate was nerve racking, requiring 2/3 of the membership, not just a majority. The time of the vote came. It seemed the counting took forever. The results were announced, what a BLESSING, 99 percent were in favor of disaffiliation. Relief, joy, happy tears, filled the sanctuary that evening.
God has been faithful, our documentation was complete in the allotted time, by people working diligently, and finances were made available.
The day the announcement was made that we were officially disaffiliated, it was met with much joy, at last we would be able to worship as the Bible says and have ownership of our building.
This decision has hopefully eliminated tears, sleepless nights, and that unsettled feeling for many. PRAISE GOD!”
The lay leader from this same small, rural congregation shared that what was instrumental for building consensus on United Methodist disaffiliation was having meetings where they could hear from one conservative and one liberal leader within their annual conference, to fairly hear both sides.
Overcoming financial obstacles
It must be remembered that staying United Methodist is itself a very long-term and costly commitment, financially and otherwise. However, paying the large one-time fee required for disaffiliation, which some annual conferences have needlessly and greedily inflated, can still seem daunting.
This same lay leader shared about how his small, rural congregation of 60-80 people raised more than $85,000 within two months, including a collection of $45,000 on a single day. He said, “I firmly believe that God blessed us miraculously and affirmed our decision to leave the UMC.”
The pastor of a Southern congregation averaging over 400 in worship told me: “My own church … had a disaffiliation number of $484,000. We set out to raise the figure and two weeks later had raised $750,000. We paid our disaffiliation, set up designated funds for children, students, and missions, and [are] moving forward in a mighty way.” While that congregation is larger and faced fewer annual conference barriers than many others, that is rather dramatic fundraising over a short period of time.
I spoke at length with a pastor of a congregation in a Northern jurisdiction, whose annual conference leadership was choosing to charge them much more than was required by the Discipline. The price tag they were given was roughly equivalent to the congregation’s entire annual budget, or about half of its earlier-assessed property value. It was intimidating.
But this second-career pastor drew on his business background. He told the story far and wide about how the congregation was taking this major step to pursue faithfulness. They raised some 25 percent of the funds they needed from outside the congregation, including friends who live elsewhere and people in the community who were impressed with their stand for faithfulness. For their part, some members sold possessions to help raise the money. At one point, the pastor suddenly came into possession of an unneeded car, which he promptly sold to give the proceeds towards disaffiliation fundraising.
This congregation ultimately ended up raising enough money to fully cover disaffiliation costs and also get into a strong enough financial position to pay off a second mortgage!
One woman from a large congregation (whose United Methodist bishop was notoriously heavy-handed) told me of her congregation being charged a needlessly “exorbitant fee” to disaffiliate, forcing them to borrow money. The pastor and leaders helped the membership understand the hefty price tag. As this lay member recalled:
“Fair or unfair, they knew the story. Even with the unfair fees being required by the conference, our church members still wanted to disaffiliate from the UMC. We wanted to contend for the Lord and His Word…all of them.”
They borrowed what they needed in the early fall of last year.
“Before the close of 2022, less than four (4) months later, on Christmas Eve, our borrowed funds had been paid back! Our church members stepped up to the plate and paid off our loan. We are now debt free and planning on worshiping passionately, loving extravagantly, and witnessing boldly as a new Global Methodist Church. The air seems fresher and cleaner at our congregation now. We wish this for all those considering disaffiliating from the United Methodist denomination.”
Facing fears of loss
With United Methodist disaffiliation, as with any other major change in a congregation, there are understandable worries about potentially losing people in the transition. But we need not let such fears paralyze us.
One pastor recalled, “We lost a few people who hated to pay the disaffiliation fee.” But then the congregation “has had more visitors and more join in the last five months than in the previous five years.” Its worship attendance has now significantly increased, which the pastor credits to “God at work drawing people in.”
There are other stories of congregations growing after they disaffiliated, even making up for the losses of others.
For example, I recently learned of one little congregation that for the last several years had only seen an average of 30 people in worship, but after they disaffiliated on December 10, saw their average weekly worship shoot up to 80, which is far more than doubling!
Whether your congregation chooses United Methodist disaffiliation or to remain, it is a major decision either way. Either path brings significant costs and uncertainties.
But United Methodist disaffiliation is no longer as uncharted as it was a couple years ago. If you go that route, there are now over two thousand congregations who have gone before you.
If your congregation is considering United Methodist disaffiliation, there are many helpful things you can learn by seeking out and hearing about the experience of other congregations near you who have already made that transition.
John Lomperis is director of UMAction, a program of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and a three-time delegate to General Conference.
by Steve | Apr 6, 2023 | Perspective / News
By Thomas Lambrecht
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This verse is sometimes called the “theme verse” of the Gospel of Mark. It encapsulates in one sentence what Jesus’ life on earth was all about.
As we approach the most sacred days of the church year – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – we are driven once again to consider the sacrifice Jesus made out of his own life, all for our sake.
That sacrifice began when he took on human form in the Incarnation. We cannot begin to imagine what it took to squeeze the divine life of Christ into a mortal human body. All that Jesus laid aside when he became a man is summed up in Paul’s quote of a first-century hymn, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).
Jesus laid aside all the power and prerogatives of being God in order to take on human form. Older versions translate it as “he emptied himself.” That is a good description of what he did. He sacrificed his comfort, position, and power in order to come to earth to save us.
Once on earth, Jesus lived a life of service. He came “not to be served, but to serve.” His life was not his own. He lived in obedience to his Father. As the hymn goes on to say, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient” (Philippians 2:8). Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized that he could do nothing other than what God told him to do. “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does … By myself I can do nothing; … for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:19, 30).
Of course, the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus’ purpose to be a sacrifice was carried out on the cross, where Jesus became “obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This was the most shameful and painful death the Romans could devise. Yet, it had a purpose. “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Christ sacrificed himself through his suffering and death in order to absorb the penalty for our sins and defang their power in our lives.
The validity and effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice was attested by his resurrection and ascension. “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). It was Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation that set apart his death as no ordinary martyrdom. Just as Jesus demonstrated his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralyzed man (Mark 2), God demonstrated that Jesus’ sacrificial death triumphed over sin and the grave by raising him from the dead and exalting him to God’s right hand.
This is the story of the Gospel, condensed into the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, which we remember and celebrate this week.
Jesus lived a sacrificial life. He calls on us to also live a sacrificial life. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
We could “sell our soul” in order to gain the whole world, but we would be unable to keep it. It would be ours for only a brief time, followed by a soul-less eternity. On the other hand, by surrendering our lives to Jesus and sacrificing our own wills for his, we will gain an eternity full of real life and love.
“Peter answered him, ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life’” (Matthew 19:27-29).
Our sacrifice is to put to death our sinful nature and the desires and actions stemming from it. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your [sinful] nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry … anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other” (Colossians 3:4-10). “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
It is hard to sacrifice what we want that is tainted by our sinful nature. Such sacrifice is only possible as we remain connected to Christ (“Christ lives in me”). He alone can give us the desire and the ability to surrender our self-will to his. “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me … Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Sometimes, our sacrifice is not only to lay down our sinful nature to surrender to God’s will and work in our lives. Sometimes, our sacrifice is literally to give up something material for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12). Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, sometimes we are called to lay down our lives for another or for the sake of obedience to God.
In order to be true to our understanding of the Gospel and God’s eternal will, sacrifice has been required of us. Sacrifice is not pleasant, fun, or fulfilling. It is an emptying of a significant part of our very selves. Just as Abraham was called to sacrifice his promised son (Genesis 22), we are sometimes called to sacrifice something very precious to us in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
We should not think such sacrifices are extraordinary or abnormal. Rather, they are part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, as pointed out above. Yet, such sacrifices are possible only by the grace of God living and working within us.
Amy Carmichael knew what it meant to sacrifice for God. Born in Ireland in 1867, she gave herself to missionary work in her late 20’s. She served as a missionary in India for 56 years without a furlough until her death in 1951 at the age of 83. Her life and writings were incredibly influential for a generation of missionaries and Christian leaders who came after her. Her attitude was, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.” In reflecting on what she was called to give up for God, she believed, “When I consider the cross of Christ, how can anything that I do be called sacrifice?”
As he demonstrated by the example of his life, Christ’s sacrifice calls us to a willingness to sacrifice in our own lives. We are to lay our sinful natures on the altar, purging sin and taking on Christ’s righteousness and holiness into our lives. We are to lay aside the things of this world as needed in order to embrace the fullness of life in Christ for eternity. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation show that our sacrifices will not be in vain.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.