By Rob Renfroe-
Facing reality can be painful. Especially when the only choices reality offers us are difficult, unsatisfying, or confusing. At that point there is a tendency to walk away from the problem emotionally and mentally in one of two ways. There’s the Scarlett O’Hara approach: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Or we tell ourselves everything is going to be ok and make up some reason why we don’t have to act. In other words, we create a comforting myth that helps us sleep at night but that actually does nothing to resolve the issue. Either way, we deny reality and usually end up with a solution far worse than what might have been.
I’m afraid many United Methodists are still denying the reality of how deep our divisions run and how difficult a workable solution to our problems will be. I believe this because of the myths I hear people, many well-intended, clinging to and trying to persuade others to believe.
One long-standing progressive myth, recently restated by a retired bishop, is so obviously false that it’s hard to imagine anyone still holding on to it. It’s the idea that our differences over sexuality can be resolved through “the local option” – that is, allowing individual pastors to determine whether to marry same-gendered couples and permitting each Annual Conference to decide whether to ordain practicing gay persons.
Only persons who have been asleep longer than Rip Van Winkle was could find any solace in this illusion. More benign compromises failed to gain General Conference approval in the past decade. And more recently in Portland last May, after several of our leading pastors and our most influential administrative body, the Connectional Table, used all of their influence to promote such a plan, it was so soundly defeated in committee that it was not even brought to the plenary floor. The local option is dead. I pray that the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward will not waste precious time following our own Alices in Wonderland down that rabbit hole.
A conservative myth that needs to be dispelled is “maybe the progressives will leave.” It usually begins with the statement, “If they don’t like the way the church is, they should leave and start their own.” Sorry to burst your bubble, but this is a political battle. And in politics “should” has nothing to do with what people actually do. The progressive goal is to change the whole church, not create a progressive subdivision of the church.
An amicable separation (or as some have begun to call it “a new form of unity”) may be proposed by the Bishops’ Commission, but the progressives are not going to just up and leave on their own. Why would they? They just elected as bishop a married lesbian who has stated that she has performed 50 gay weddings. In the entirety of the Western Jurisdiction, in most of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, and in much of the North Central Jurisdiction pastors may marry gay couples and break the Book of Discipline with no consequences of any kind. A dozen annual conferences are on record that they will ordain practicing gay persons regardless of church law. So, why would progressives leave when they can do what they want to do, have continued access to general church funds, and can keep the name United Methodist?
“Well, we’ll write stricter legislation at General Conference and make it even harder for them to break the rules.” We have good policies now. Our problem has never been bad legislation; it has always been bad actors. You can be sure they will be just as disobedient to stricter rules as they are to the present ones.
“Then, let’s go nuclear. Let’s make the rules so that we can vote out any pastor, bishop, or congregation that breaks church law.” I understand this approach, but I find it less than realistic. Conservatives hold the line against gay marriage and ordination by the slimmest of margins every four years. It is a misguided myth to believe that the General Conference is going to give some governing body the authority to start excommunicating pastors, churches, and bishops. That’s not who United Methodists are. We are nice people, warm-hearted and generous of spirit. General Conference will never pass a proposal for some small group to be authorized to decide who’s a good enough Methodist to stay in the church and who’s not.
“But maybe in 20 years, we can ‘win.’” Faithful United Methodists are leaving our congregations every day because of the continuing battle over sexuality. People are tired of it and they’re walking away. Two large churches in Mississippi – one the 15th largest church in the denomination – have announced they are leaving. That’s in conservative Mississippi where no one is marrying gay couples and where the bishop upholds the Book of Discipline. In the Good News office, we regularly receive calls from pastors who are under pressure by their congregations, especially in liberal areas, to lead them out of the denomination.
If the Bishops’ Commission does not resolve this issue, there will be no “twenty years from now.” People will leave. Pastors will leave. Churches will leave. Conservative people, pastors, and churches. If the Commission does not come up with a solution, the church will be in so much chaos that the slow drip, drip, drip of faithful evangelical members leaving will become a roaring flood.
As evangelicals and traditionalists, we need to do some serious thinking about what it means to “win.” Win what? A church that 20 years from now could be so depleted in numbers that “a faithful remnant” would be a generous euphemism to describe what’s left? Winning is not holding onto a church that is a shadow of what it once was and what it could have been. A win for the Kingdom is coming out of the present mess with as many faithful Methodists as possible connected to each other and working together for the Kingdom.
One final myth is that “what’s at stake is the unity of the church.” We’re way past that. One bishop recently stated to his pastors, “Twelve of our annual conferences are in schism right now. They are unwilling to live by our covenant and that places them in schism.” Twelve annual conferences. That’s over one-fifth of the conferences in the United States and there are others who do not live by the Discipline, they just haven’t stated so publicly.
We are not a united church. Having the same name on our signs and the same logo on our letterhead does not make us a unified church. The bishops had their opportunity to work for the unity of the church by teaching our doctrines and enforcing our covenant for the past 50 years. Instead, many decided to be permissive parents allowing disobedience and rebellion, and others actually promoted such behavior. And sadly, few of our conservative bishops have banded together to speak out or call the rogue bishops to task. And the result, as it is with all families headed by permissive parents, is not unity but dysfunction, self-centeredness, and division.
Over a decade ago I told a group of bishops, tasked with creating unity within the church, “You may wish you had another issue to deal with other than sexuality. But this is the issue of your time that threatens to divide the church. You will either act in a way that holds us together or you will act in a way that guarantees our division. Either way, it will be on you.” Now here we are. And to be told by some of those same bishops that the unity of the church is now at stake – well, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Look, the Commission is the game. Not stricter legislation in 2020. Not a local option. Not hoping or making the progressives leave. Those are myths and nothing more. Please do not be distracted by illusions that may bring comfort the way pleasant dreams do at night but that disappear upon waking. What the Commission recommends will either be based in reality or in wishful thinking.
Let’s make sure its members hear from us that clinging to or promoting myths and illusions – progressive or conservative – will not serve the church or the cause of Christ well. Reality may not be what we wish it was but it is what is. Let’s face it honestly and courageously with our eyes wide open.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
We are in de facto governance of the church now. The Judicial Council will have to decide whether to make that “official” or not at its April session. Perhaps after this Judicial Council session, the commission will have a better sense of how to proceed. Given all the intrigue and maneuvering about to unfold, it might be a good idea for Scripture to be referenced. Paul has a proposal for all to consider as found in 1 Corinthians 5 for the church at Corinth. He did not seem well impressed with those practicing sexual immorality while claiming to be brothers and sisters in Christ. What would his advice be to the Judicial Council, the Commission, the Council of Bishops, the General Conference regarding marriage and the practice of sexual immorality, including, of course, the practice of homosexuality?
Having read this article in conjunction with the one titled “Shaping our Theological Core”, it seems the church is living in the aftermath of the 1972 General Conference being “whatever” re theology but adamant about a social creed and social principles. Another obvious problem that arose out of 1972 was the modern church distancing itself from the church of the past. The only reason I have achieved a spiritual footing that feels solid compared to my past nebulous understanding gleaned from being a loyal church-going Methodist/United Methodist is that I distanced myself from all things church and looked to teachers from the past, including John Wesley and The Heidelberg Catechism. This looking to the past then led me to modern teachers who exposed me to the power and relevancy of the story of God’s creation, humanities sin and rebellion and the unfathomable steps God took to rectify the situation as told in modern, easy to understand verbiage that did not diminish the WOW Factor one bit! I do not regret the strong presence of the Methodist/United Methodist Church in my life–she made a much needed positive contribution. But my future with her is questionable because theological diversity has been allowed to run amuck for so long it has finally invaded the local church where I have been a long time member–I first walked in the door in 1981. Beginning in 2001, what once was a church with a very orthodox/traditional worship service has now become Christianity of the moment with a focus on social justice. The local church is no longer something I trust, it is something I have become wary of. When I was primed for a better understanding of who God is and who I am, all the church could offer up was a “new and improved” way to “do church”.
Thanks Rob for your clarity. The question now is when not if the division will occur. We can only pray that the commission will truly give us all a way forward.
Great analysis, Rob.
Can’t help but reference Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option”. The culture war in America is over. Those of us with persuasions not “Progressive” have lost. In fact, I believe we lost in 1972 (Roe V. Wade)when there was no unrelenting push back from the institutional churches of the land. We have been in denial ever since.
And the culture has now overwhelmed the institutional churches of America. What we are living through in American Christianity is a”mopping up” action. Of course the progressive wing of Methodism will not come to a compromise. They have prevailed.
Whether Dreher has given orthodox Christians us a plan forward is yet to be determined. But orthodox Methodists have to form a new community.
Rob, as always, you have explained a difficult issue with clarity and precision. Progressives who believe that a conservative viewpoint is narrow and bigoted, must try to convert others to their way of thinking by rewriting history and re-defining words that have been a part of the lexicon for centuries. In order to change the thinking of others, progressives bend logic so far away from truth that the opposite of the truth appears reasonable. In essence, the progressives abuse the power of persuasion, thereby creating myth.
Thank you for being the voice of reason in a world where some unreasonably distort the Truth, Rob.
The “reality” is the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ have been, and are being, questioned by liberal bishops in the UMC. The resulting lack of godly leadership has resulted in irreconcilable differences over the issue of sexuality in the church. Either the Bible is our rule of faith and Christ alone is Lord, or not. That’s the reality that has to be faced — NOW!
I have been looking for your voice on this. You have covered it completely.
I haven’t found no one else explain with such clarity.
Thank you for all you do. You make this comment which represents my view ( “Then, let’s go nuclear. Let’s make the rules so that we can vote out any pastor, bishop, or congregation that breaks church law.” I understand this approach, but I find it less than realistic. Conservatives hold the line against gay marriage and ordination by the slimmest of margins every four years. It is a misguided myth to believe that the General Conference is going to give some governing body the authority to start excommunicating pastors, churches, and bishops. That’s not who United Methodists are. We are nice people, warm-hearted and generous of spirit. General Conference will never pass a proposal for some small group to be authorized to decide who’s a good enough Methodist to stay in the church and who’s not.”) By not viewing scripture in the highest regard and standing up for God’s word by enforcing it within our number, then we will continue to be under constant assault. By putting people out of the Church our hope is for them to return to us, saved. We are a loving people, but are we truly being loving without discipline? What we are actually saying here is that by holding these liberal views regarding sexuality that those conservative among us who hold strictly by scripture, we believe those on the liberal side are not on a path that will lead them to Heaven, so how is it “loving” not to discipline them within Church rules? The Churches in Africa give us the ability to put the judicial practices in place to begin to discipline ourselves, but only by a small margin, and as conservatives leave it will become impossible. Let us stand up for God’s word and have our own Reformation through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will build His Church.
I appreciate your passion and your commitment to the church. I am reading some cognitive dissonance in your article here, though, and want to ask a few questions.
Considering that you characterize Methodists as people of warm heart and generous spirit, and considering that you assume (rightly, I would agree) that no Methodist would allow some group within the Conference to decide who is in and who is out, why is the local option unreasonable to you? What harm does it do to First UMC in Anywhereville, if Epworth UMC in Anywhereville chooses to conduct weddings of gay people? If you are concerned that First UMC might be tainted by association, or that people might be confused, then what if each clearly identified itself in this regard?
What makes you think that this is a political battle, rather than a Biblical and faithful one?
How do you reconcile your assertion that the Bishops’ affirming the existing Disciplinary language on sexuality is the only path to “holding us together” (if I am understanding your third-to-last paragraph correctly), with your assertion that — with the Disciplinary language repeatedly (if extremely narrowly) affirmed over the past 40 years — we are already divided? How would repeating the affirmation of the Disciplinary language once again produce unity in the church, if it hasn’t already?
Thank you for your help in understanding these details.
The “Local Option” should be given more of an option than you offer. But we need to greatly expand what’s optional. Not just on gay marriage, etc. but also apportionments, resolutions, Conference priorities, etc. etc. In other words, our connection should not be institutionalized but inspirational (in the true sense of in-spirited). I recognize this means no longer being “connectional” in the modern sense of the word for United Methodists but it opens a way forward to a possible unity by a willing association.
Simplify with speed & conviction:
Each congregation hold a charge conference to vote to accept the existing Discipline & disciplinary processes as is. Congregations voting affirmative re-branded the Methodist Church-Episcopal. Congregations voting negative re-branded the Methodist Church-Progressive. All congregations pre-accept a unifying Pan-Methodist-like document under the umbrella of a new United Methodist Church entity to meet every 10 years at a UMC Global Conference to consider petitions passed by either the MCE or MCP General Conferences unrelated to doctrinal standards. Doctrinal standards are solely decided at the MCE & MCP Conference level every 4 years via a digital medium to save cost.
Two distinct non-geographic branches emerge within a unified UMC umbrella entity without lawsuits; pension plans are frozen and stay at the UMC umbrella entity level while the two new churches establish IRA’s for all newly ordained pastors going forward. Bishops serve in the global umbrella UMC entity to build unity of the whole & provide ecumenical shepherding; Superintendent Elders serve at the MCE & MCP level to make appointments & keep their church’s discipline.
The UMC umbrella entity then provides a structure to gather all Methodist churches into a single global entity if/when they so desire (AME, CME, British Methodist, etc.). In 10 years, the new MCE & MCP can freely & independently decide to remain yoked within the UMC umbrella with other expressions of global Methodism or not.
That transforms the issue from divisive tactical in-fighting to a global unity strategy to build for Christ.
Fifty years ago, the Presbyterians were wrestling with this same challenge. It became the focus at all levels. Scriptures were flung by each side. No concessions or comprises were reached. The products of this focus were legal battles, verbal battles, property battles and over the years dissolution of many Presbyterian connections. Let’s skip the battles and proceed directly to Go: work on an amicable split and get back to serving Jesus.
I think faithful United Methodists should leave and form our own churches. The progressives can have The UMC. They won’t last a generation or two without us. They need conservative tithes to fund their social experiments. Conservatives can either fund the things that they don’t believe in or they can fund the things they do believe in. I think The Church of The Nazarene would welcome conservative prayers, presence, tithes and service. The Nazarenes would have enough funds they could buy up the emptying properties from The UMC progressives for pennies on the dollar since the progressives could not afford to run them without conservatives. Forget political battles, and remember that A/C D/C song “Money Talks”. Unlike in the government run churches in old Europe, modern churches run on donations, not Taxes. If a church isn’t delivering “The Word” and instead wants to deliver “The World”, don’t buy it.
Thanks for your very insightful comments. Your last four sentences express my feelings exactly.