Centrist Misconceptions —
By Thomas Lambrecht —
Over the last several weeks, this Perspective has been in dialogue with the weekly e-newsletter of Mainstream UMC, a caucus group representing United Methodist centrists. Mainstream’s articles have been illuminating what the future United Methodist Church will likely evolve into. They certainly have indicated the direction many centrists see the church pursuing.
Last week’s Mainstream missive contained a number of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about those who are disaffiliating. Their article is entitled “Clarity.” So in the interest of clarity, let us examine some of the mistaken ideas Mainstream puts forward about traditionalists who are disaffiliating.
The Mainstream article begins by describing disaffiliating traditionalists as “looking for a denomination where everyone will be forced into lockstep about Scripture, about what discipleship looks like, about whose love is worthy of God’s blessing and whose is not” (emphasis added).
First of all, there is no “force” involved. For example, those who align with the new Global Methodist Church are choosing to do so because they agree with the stated beliefs of the GM Church. Some centrists appear to have the misconception that people who voluntarily unite under a banner of common theological commitments are somehow being “forced” into some type of artificial unity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The GM Church has set forth its understanding of the faith, through its doctrinal standards and social witness statements. It subscribes to the ancient creeds of the church, as well as the doctrinal standards of the UM Church. It maintains the 2,000-year-old teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality. It understands discipleship as a process of becoming daily more like Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit and guided by the teachings of Scripture. If someone does not agree with these foundational understandings of the Christian faith, they would not voluntarily join the GM Church.
What is different about the GM Church is that it will expect its pastors and bishops to teach and maintain the doctrines of the church. Ironically, that is what the UM Church also says on paper. The “Historic Questions” asked of all candidates for ordination include these: “Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? After full examination do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Do you approve our Church government and polity? Will you support and maintain them?”
For many years, these “Historic Questions” have been viewed as a type of historical relic that some candidates answer with their fingers crossed. That is not how John Wesley, Methodism’s founder who wrote the questions, saw them. Wesley was big on accountability for both doctrine and polity (church government). He expected Methodist preachers to abide by both.
Maybe this is what the Mainstream article means when it says people are “forced” to conform to certain understandings about the Christian faith. Aside from the fact that this accountability is voluntarily chosen by (not “forced” on) those who seek ordination as clergy, accountability to the organization’s doctrines is no different in the church from what is expected in secular businesses. Employees and especially leaders in any business are expected to promote the “company line.” Deviating from that message is ample cause for loss of employment. Should the church exert less accountability on its leaders than secular businesses do?
In addition, there is no “lockstep” on all theological matters in the GM Church. The foundation is covered in its doctrinal standards and social witness statement. Aside from these foundational matters, there is considerable latitude in opinions and beliefs about various other, nonessential teachings. Within a commonly-held boundary of basic belief, there is much room for theological exploration and disagreement (see further below).
The Mainstream article goes on to describe those who are disaffiliating as those “who cannot tolerate differences.” It quotes John Wesley as saying, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike?” It argues that Wesley omitted the ancient creeds from Methodist doctrine “because he understood how they could become stumbling blocks to faith.” The article sums up its reasoning with the statement that “Methodists have never been about uniformity of belief, but rather uniformity of mission.”
Church historians can weigh in on whether Wesley thought the creeds could become stumbling blocks to faith (I think not). Suffice to say that the doctrines contained in the ancient creeds are also included in the Articles of Religion, which form the basis for United Methodist doctrinal standards. Perhaps Wesley thought including the creeds would be redundant and superfluous, given the already more robust doctrinal standards in the Articles of Religion.
It is certainly historically incorrect to state that Methodists have never been about uniformity of belief. Wesley himself during the formative years of the Methodist movement in England separated from the Moravians and then the Calvinists due to doctrinal differences. Both separations were actually quite sharp, with published articles pro and con trading accusations and even insults. Wesley was definitely concerned about doctrine. It is only in the 20th century that Methodists, in their drive toward ecumenical relations and denominational reunification, deemphasized doctrine as a uniting force.
Wesley’s quote above about thinking “alike” is taken out of context by Mainstream. In his sermon on the Catholic Spirit, he is urging that we treat one another as Christian brothers and sisters, despite differences in theology. But he is talking about belonging together to the larger Body of Christ, the universal or “holy catholic” church, not the qualifications for belonging to a particular denomination.
Elsewhere in the same sermon, Wesley says, “A catholic spirit … is not an indifference to all opinions. … This unsettledness of thought, this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine’, is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true Catholicism.” The saying that all manner of theological teachings and opinions are welcome within one denomination creates the kind of indifference and unsettledness that Wesley repudiates. Wesley’s sermon is best applied to the future relationship between the UM Church and the GM Church as different denominations within the one Body of Christ.
When it comes to belonging to a denomination, Wesley says, “every follower of Christ is obligated by the very nature of the Christian institution to be a member of some particular congregation or other, some church … (which implies a particular manner of worshipping God; for ‘two cannot walk together unless they be agreed’). … I ask not therefore of him with whom I would unite in love, ‘Are you of my Church? Of my congregation?’” Clearly, in his sermon on the Catholic Spirit, Wesley is talking about Christian love embracing brothers and sisters across denominational lines, not advocating for a “big tent” view of one’s own denomination.
Trivializing Doctrinal Difference
At the beginning of his essay, “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley writes, “We believe indeed, that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God; and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule, both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish church. We believe Christ to be the eternal supreme God, and herein are we distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
Plainly from this quote, Wesley believes there are certain foundational opinions or beliefs that are essential for being a Christian. The often-quoted admonition to “think and let think” does not apply to these foundational beliefs.
The Mainstream article charges that the church’s teaching “around LGBTQ marriage and ministry is a stumbling block to faith for many. It is standing in the way of our mission and keeping generations of people from a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.” Traditionalists counter that ignoring Scripture on these issues contravenes one of the basic foundational beliefs of Christianity, that “the written word of God [is] the only and sufficient rule, both of Christian faith and practice.” This is something that “strikes at the root of Christianity” and therefore cannot be ignored.
We might note that there are many teachings in the Bible that might act as “a stumbling block to faith” and in fact did so in the time of Jesus. The fact that there is only one God was a stumbling block to polytheistic Gentiles. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah was a stumbling block to Jews. Many of Jesus’ teachings were met with resistance and even caused some to walk away. Yet, the early Church never thought it was appropriate to further the mission of the church by discounting, watering down, or compromising on these foundational truths. In fact, it was the distinctiveness of the church’s teaching and proclamation that won converts in the early centuries. Compromising today regarding LGBTQ teachings would carry the same negative impact on the church’s mission.
The Mainstream article goes on to charge that a “legalistic adherence to a few obscure Scripture passages is exactly what Jesus warns against in the Gospels. We should not be caught up in legalism, and neglect ‘the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.’” However, the article omits the next sentence in Matthew 23:23, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Jesus does not set “justice, mercy, and faith (or faithfulness)” against “a few obscure Scripture passages.” It is not either/or, but both/and. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
The Mainstream article concludes with the acknowledgement that “if our social witness does not align with our professed faith, then we are not only failing in our mission, but we are doing a disservice to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is precisely what traditionalists believe is happening in the UM Church. Progressives and centrists have taken their social witness in a direction that does not align with our professed faith. Many traditionalists have determined that they cannot continue in a church that is failing in its mission and doing a disservice to the Gospel.
These are deep theological difference that cannot be trivialized by saying, “There is a place for everyone in the UMC.” Who is right, traditionalists or centrists and progressives, may not be obvious for another 100 years or more (or until we get to heaven). In the meantime, however, it is apparent that we cannot live together in the same church denomination and maintain our separate strong convictions. As Wesley advocated in his sermon on the Catholic Spirit, we must allow individuals and congregations the freedom to follow their own consciences without coercion or penalty. That is one basic way we can love one another.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Art: John Wesley at 85. Stipple engraving by F. Bartolozzi after J. Zoffany, 1760. Public domain, Wellcome Collection.