By Norwood N. Hingle III —
William Willimon has been a noteworthy figure for the last half-century in United Methodism. Not only has he served the denomination as a bishop who is now in retired status, but he has also influenced scores of students and pastors to this day through his teaching at Duke Divinity School and his books. One could say he is a respected patriarch to United Methodism’s centrist faction.
His article, “The United Methodist Divorce Is a Mistake,” appeared in the United Methodist News Service on August 17, 2022. Willimon’s article forced me to reflect on my own circumstance, as well as many of my colleagues. Last July, after over 28 years as a pastor, I withdrew from The United Methodist Church as an Elder in Full Connection in the Louisiana Conference and am now an ordained Elder in the Global Methodist Church. Was I wrong?
My story is similar to many of yours. I was born and raised United Methodist. My Mom is, and my deceased Dad was, United Methodist. And my grandparents on both sides identified with the UM Church. My family history spans over a century in Methodism, and the Lord has richly blessed us through this denomination. Unfortunately, there have also been serious concerns about the UM Church.
As a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s, I was aware that there were essentially two streams flowing within United Methodism. One was fully committed to the expression of Christianity in the Book of Discipline where the doctrinal standards and other doctrines presented were viewed as correct understandings of the Bible, and it was expected that United Methodists – clergy and laity – should embrace them and be held accountable to them.
The other stream was a broad group committed to one of two views: either to allow for re-interpretations of traditional doctrines though not necessarily believing each of these re-interpretations, or to pursue significant re-interpretations of traditional doctrines, where at times re-interpretations led to outright rejections of these doctrines. This second stream would allow for clergy and laity to believe some things usually seen as outside the orbit of Christianity.
Examples are the following: Jesus had merely a spiritual, not bodily, resurrection; Jesus’ virginal conception and divinity are optional; salvation only through Jesus is too exclusive; other world religions should be affirmed as equally true to Christianity; discipleship is equivalent to social justice; and marriage and ordination should include those in same-sex relationships.
It is this second stream which dominates key areas of the UM Church: the General Boards, denominational literature, college and seminary faculty, and Council of Bishops. And it is this second stream which is expected to change the Book of Discipline in General Conference 2024 – if not, then certainly by 2028 – to allow for marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals.
In this assessment of United Methodism I believe Bishop Willimon and I would be in basic, if not total, agreement. Nevertheless, we disagree whether a “divorce,” as he calls it, is necessary. He makes at least five points against a divorce that we do well to evaluate.
First, he asserts we have only just begun to discuss homosexuality. “After just 40 years of debate on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination – a mere twinkling of the eye in church history – some self-proclaimed traditionalists (and a very few progressives) say they’re tired of arguing.” Actually, it has been 50 years of debate, going back to General Conference of 1972. But perhaps that is nit-picking. One must ask how long is long enough to debate these issues?
Are such issues settled by time or by a sober recognition that reconciliation of the two positions is impossible? It is noteworthy that over the decades of debate on homosexuality, the two streams have grown farther apart, not closer. Evidence of the growing divide can be found in events just from this year, such as a drag queen’s certification for clergy candidacy in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference and the LGBTQ celebration service in the chapel at Duke Divinity School – which the Chaplain’s Office apparently helped coordinate – where God was addressed as “the Great Queer One,” “Drag Queen,” and “Transman.”
Lest we think these are merely isolated events, we should recall the Western Jurisdiction’s election and consecration in 2016 of a female bishop married to another woman. Perhaps what is even more disappointing is that the Council of Bishops did nothing to remedy this unauthorized consecration. Such circumstances do not encourage hope for unity, but rather dismay at the high level of disfunction, chaos, and anarchy that is entrenched in the UM Church.
The careful observer will perceive that divorce in the denomination is not a mistake. Moreover, the expiration in 2023 of the Book Discipline’s paragraph 2553 – which allows congregations to leave the UM Church with their property – brings an urgency to disaffiliate now.
Second, Bishop Willimon has a strong distrust of where many disaffiliating United Methodists will land – in the Global Methodist Church (GMC). He states the GMC doesn’t “accept the label schismatic (what schismatic ever has?)” and they “prefer instead to say that they have been pushed out of the church they once loved. Give me a break. No UMC congregation in the world has ever kicked out a member for being too orthodox, traditional, or conservative.”
Unfortunately, Willimon has descended from critical thinking to mockery. In all my experience with the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and GMC, I have never heard or read anyone say he or she was pushed out or excommunicated from the UM Church. Instead, it is the dominant presence of the second stream described above which has in effect pushed them out of the UM Church; they no longer find it possible to use their God-given gifts and graces in such a denomination.
Willimon also dislikes the GMC’s draft Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline. He claims it “defines the first of their ‘basic qualifications of the ordained’ as ‘fidelity in Christian marriage between one man and one woman, chastity in singleness.’ This comes first, before ‘knowledge and love of God’ and ‘a call by God and the people of God.’ Really, GMC? Aren’t you setting the clergy competence bar a bit low?”
Indeed, Willimon would be correct here – but only if this is what the draft document actually states. Unfortunately, again, he has sunk to mockery and misrepresentation of the GMC. One is encouraged simply to go to globalmethodist.org, click on “Our Beliefs & Governance,” and then click on “The Ministry of the Called.” There, one will find “basic qualifications of the ordained,” and the first qualification listed is, “Have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and be committed to Christ as Savior and Lord.” The second expectation is a four-line paragraph which begins, “Nurture and cultivate spiritual disciplines and patterns of holiness consistent with the General Rules…” and lists a number of areas such as “integrity in all relationships” and “fidelity in Christian marriage between one man and one woman.” It is the third expectation which mentions a call from God to ministry.
Willimon has been negligent not only in his misrepresenting the GMC, but also in missing the spiritually mature discernment the GMC has expressed here.
A third reason Willimon is against a UM separation is that he believes conservatives are consumed with only one issue – homosexuality. “GMC advocates charge that the UMC has sold out to contemporary culture. But who told the GMC that same-sex relationships are the chief challenge in the UMC? Not the Bible. Not Jesus, who makes not even a cameo appearance in most of these debates.” What is perplexing here is that Willimon seems to dismiss that homosexuality could ever be “the chief challenge” in the denomination. But even the liberals don’t doubt that! Haven’t the liberals brought up this chief challenge at every General Conference since 1972? Didn’t we have a special session of General Conference in 2019 which was devoted to that one chief challenge?
Significantly, though, I have never read or heard anyone in the WCA or GMC state that homosexuality was the chief challenge. Willimon has set up a straw man. I have found that the WCA and GMC often assert that homosexuality has been the presenting issue along with a host of many other issues, as described in the second stream above.
Also, it is surprising that Willimon brings back the tired, old argument that Jesus never addressed homosexuality, which implies it was not that big of a deal to him. There are many sins Jesus did not address, but no one thinks that he would have approved of them. Over 20 years ago New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon showed how specious this “silence of Jesus” argument is in his near-exhaustive work, The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Gagnon concludes, “The portrayal of a Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jew who was open to homosexual practice is simply ahistorical. All the evidence leads in the opposite direction” (p. 220). Three points about Jesus are relevant here.
First, Jesus was a law-abiding Jew, not wishing to abolish the law and the prophets but fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). Jesus’ Bible was the Old Testament, and whenever homosexuality appeared there it was without exception presented as the antithesis of God’s will. Second, in the time of Jesus of the first century AD, homosexuality was not a debated issue within mainstream Judaism, and such behavior was rejected, as seen in the writings of Philo and Josephus. Gagnon observes that “first century Judaism, as far as we know, had no dissenting voices on the matter” (p. 188). Third, Jesus’ teaching on marriage is relevant here. His understanding of marriage was based on Genesis 1-2 on the creation of a man and a woman; moreover, Jesus was known to strengthen, not weaken, the Old Testament teaching on marriage, as seen in the issue of divorce (Matthew 19:1-9). Thus one gets the sense that if Jesus had been confronted with someone caught in the act of homosexuality, as he was confronted with the woman caught in the act of adultery, he would have been compassionate and have said to her, “Go, and sin no more.”
Fourth, Willimon thinks that Jesus would never have been for a divorce in the UM Church. “As a preacher, I know the frustration of being unable to talk others into my position on some important subject. Sure, I’ve longed to excommunicate the intransigents. Alas, Jesus doesn’t work that way. He never walked away from an argument or refused conversation with even the most thickheaded of opponents.”
I think Willimon has confused keeping personal ties with ministry focus. Many of us, like myself, know those across the theological aisle whom we truly love and like, and we hope to keep up these relationships no matter where we minister. But Jesus did give instructions to the disciples on church confrontation and, if necessary, excommunication from the church where one believer sins against another (Matthew 18:15-20). And we do know of instances in the early church where there were splits over deep theological differences. For instance, in 1 John there was a church split because one group did not believe Jesus was the Son of God who had come in the flesh (2:18-25; 4:1-3). I believe there is sufficient evidence from the discussion here so far that, unfortunately, we have deep theological differences. The time has come for those on both sides to abandon attempts to persuade the other and to think both understandings of the gospel can work well together. The two streams represent incompatible worldviews. It is time to part ways.
Finally, Willimon also presents the odd argument against divorce based on the fact that most Methodists are “clueless” about denominational issues. “In their unconcern for Methodism beyond their congregation I think they’ve [laypeople] got things in proper perspective. The denomination is largely irrelevant to their encounters with Christ, in church or out, and contributes little to their taking responsibility for the mission that Christ has assigned to their congregation.”
This is an odd argument, indeed – especially coming from a bishop. Whatever happened to the Methodist connectionalism about which we hear regularly at annual conferences? It is this connectionalism that affects all Methodists with a trickled-down effect. We see this from our apportionment dollars going to support seminaries, our itinerant appointment system connecting various clergy to different congregations, and our bishops exercising the substantial authority to appoint pastors. Willimon is correct in that most laypeople don’t know what is happening in the denomination, but whether they realize it or not, they are connected to the UM Church and thus significantly affected by it.
Bishop Willimon’s desire to avoid a divorce in the UM Church is laudable. As a conservative, my hope – and that of such groups as Good News and the Confessing Movement – was to try to bring renewal so the centrist/liberal stream would change its ways and merge with the traditional one, the two becoming one. The evidence shows that this hope will not be possible. In a practical sense, a divorce happened in the UM Church years ago, and we are just now realizing it formally. It is time for conservatives, as I have found, to move on to the ministry the Lord has for us.
Norwood N. Hingle III, is the pastor of Lighthouse for Christ Church in New Orleans. His PhD in New Testament is from the University of Aberdeen. Photo: Shutterstock.