Our Side of the Street —
Editorial by Rob Renfroe —
I often read that we traditionalists are guilty of giving out misinformation about the United Methodist Church – its beliefs, practices, and future. It would be understandable for traditionalists to respond with a litany of falsities that have been stated by UM bishops and centrist leaders about our beliefs and our practices. Honestly, I’ve done my fair share of that. People need to hear the truth.
But we also have a responsibility to “take care of our side of the street.” We need to make sure we do not propagate untruths or write in such a way that we are easily misunderstood. If we have ever done so, we need to do our best to make it right.
One charge against traditionalists is we are telling people “the UM Church is going to change the Articles of Religion” which go back to the time of John Wesley. Along with a few other foundational documents, the Articles of Religion define what United Methodists believe about the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus, justification by faith, the sacraments, and many other important topics.
I can honestly state that I have never heard a traditionalist leader make this claim. I haven’t read everything my colleagues have written, but I’ve read a great deal. Over the past three decades, I have been in scores of discussions with other traditionalist leaders. Never in public or in private, never in writing or in conversation, has anyone stated that once we conservatives are gone, the UM Church will change its foundational beliefs.
What we have said is that the UM Church does not hold accountable bishops, pastors, and seminary professors who teach contrary to our doctrines and the Articles. You don’t need to change the rules if no one is enforcing them. Teach that Jesus is just one of many ways to salvation. Preach that he did not die for our sins. Declare that it is not important whether Jesus was raised from the dead. Undercut what the Articles of Religion (and the orthodox Christian faith) state, and you can remain in your pulpit or continue to teach in a UM seminary. Teach that Jesus was prejudiced and bigoted and you can be a UM bishop.
So, to clear up the misinformation, will the UM Church change the Articles of Religion any time soon? No. Will the UM Church and its bishops who are charged with upholding our doctrines enforce the Articles of Religion in the future? If they didn’t do so before the traditionalists left, it’s hard to believe they will do so in the future when most of us are gone.
Another accusation is we have portrayed everyone who is staying within the UM Church as theological liberals and cultural progressives. If we have, we were wrong to do so. I have close friends whom I respect and admire who are “staying UMC.” These are pastors who have a high Christology and who believe the Bible is God’s inspired word. Some of them even possess the same view I hold that marriage is the sacred union of one man and one woman and that sexual relations outside of marriage are contrary to God’s will.
Staying or leaving is a complex matter. Individual life circumstances come into play. Frankly, I have been baffled by some who are remaining. But we who are leaders within the traditionalist camp are grown-ups. We know the world and the human heart are complicated realities, and good people can differ on whether and when to leave. I am sure many centrist leaders love Jesus as much as I do and have devotional lives far superior to mine. I know that in the process and the politics of disaffiliation harmful things are said and there is a tendency to paint with an overly broad brush. If I have done that, I apologize. If laypersons on the way out have unfairly maligned the faith or the character of their pastor, they, also, need to ask forgiveness.
I have also been told that a common bit of misinformation is the conservative talking point that churches remaining in the UM Church will one day be forced to accept a partnered gay person or a theological progressive as their pastor. I don’t think we’ve ever put it that way, but this one is difficult to get just right. Churches that have been told they will never have to accept a pastor whose theology is progressive need to think carefully about that promise. By the end of this year most strongly traditionalist UM pastors will have left. A good number of those who stay will be nearing retirement age and will soon be gone. Very few young traditionalists will enter the UM pastorate in the future. So, in a very short time there will not be many conservative pastors to appoint to UM churches.
As for being forced to receive a practicing gay pastor, I don’t think anyone can guarantee that won’t happen. The definition of marriage and the requirements for ordination will change within the UM Church. There will be many more openly gay UM clergy and leaders. Most bishops and pastors who remain in the UM Church will see “full inclusion” as a matter of justice. Can you imagine a bishop promising a church that it will never have to accept a female or a black pastor? No, if the bishop thought such an appointment was best for that church, he or she would make that appointment, even if the church was resistant. To discriminate based on gender or ethnicity would be unjust.
In a similar way, it’s very likely there will come a time when giving in to a church’s desire to have only straight pastors will also be considered unjust. And bishops will decide to do what’s necessary to help a congregation grow, overcome its bigotry, and become “a real United Methodist Church.” Will it happen right away? Probably not. But will it one day happen? I can’t tell you for sure it will. But no one can tell you for sure it won’t.
I have assumed above that the UM Church will change its position on sexuality, marriage, and ordination. I have been told – and in the official UM series “Is the UMC Really …” it is stated – that no one truly knows where the UM Church is headed regarding sexuality. There are some proposals, we’re told, but no one is certain where the UM Church will come down, and it’s misinformation to say we know that the church will liberalize its position.
Ok, in the interest of full disclosure, I do not have a crystal ball, the gift of prophecy, or “a word from the Lord.” But it’s not disinformation to say that progressives and more recently centrists have for many years argued and fought for a more liberalized sexual ethic. Votes to uphold traditionalist views at General Conference have recently prevailed by only a few percentage points. It’s not “fearmongering” (as we are sometimes charged with) to conclude that once most of the traditionalists have left, the centrist-progressive coalition will constitute the majority and will be able to legislate what they have long wanted to be the UM position on sexuality.
The only question is “how far will they go?” As the culture becomes more and more progressive and begins to approve of loving sexual relationships beyond two adult persons, what will a denomination committed to full inclusivity and diversity not accept? If love is love, what love will be intolerable in the future UM Church? I don’t know. But have you heard any centrist leaders state they recognize this will be an issue for the UM Church in days to come? Have you read any bishop or denominational leader crafting a sexual ethic that states, “this we will accept, but this we cannot?” Have you seen anything that gives you confidence that the leadership of the UM Church is prepared for, or even aware of, the progressive wave that is coming its way regarding sexual ethics?
So, no, I don’t know where the UM Church will end up when it comes to marriage and sexual relationships. But it is not misinformation to say it will be more liberal than it is now. Possibly much more liberal.
We traditionalists need to be very careful when it comes to misinformation. We need to focus on issues, not attack people. We need to apologize and make amends where we have stepped over the line. But having a difference of opinion is not misinformation. Good people can differ. Grown-ups can talk about those differences. Christians can discuss those differences in a respectful way. That should be our goal and our commitment.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.