By Rob Renfroe
I have now been banned in two states. Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Two annual conferences, each covering an individual state, have determined that I may not speak to their churches. Even though I am still a United Methodist elder. Even if I am invited by a United Methodist pastor to speak to his or her congregation.
As a matter of fact, I was recently disinvited to speak at a church. A district superintendent threatened the church’s pastor that my coming would likely result in the conference making it more difficult, if not impossible, for that church to exit the denomination – even though they were also hosting a proponent of staying in the UM Church.
One has to wonder: what are they afraid of? If the United Methodist Church is really a big tent that welcomes all. If the UM Church is still committed to the core doctrines of the Christian faith and our Wesleyan heritage. If it’s still the same church it was when we were all so attracted to its doctrine, polity and mission that we said, “that’s the church for me,” and we promised to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. If nothing has changed, why be afraid of a critic? Bring him in, listen to his misguided presentation, and dismantle his arguments with the truth about the UM Church.
Well, the charge is because I (and others – I’m not the only one who has been banned) spread “misinformation.” I guess the fear of some bishops and district superintendents – and their lawyers – is that people in UM churches will not be intelligent enough to determine what’s true and what’s not if they hear from people like me. In the past, UM leaders trusted the people in the pews to listen to God and determine a congregation’s mission, teach Sunday school classes, disciple children and youth, oversee budgets, and pay the salaries of conference officials. Today, these same conference officials do not trust the people in the pews to listen closely to all points of view, discern truth from error, pray and then make the right decision for how God would have their congregation move forward.
In the Old Testament when rulers felt threatened by the message of a critic, he was referred to as a “troubler of Israel.” Today church royalty use the term “dispenser of misinformation” to discredit those who challenge their narrative that all is well in the UM Church. Why? Because that is what privileged leaders who feel threatened do. They attack the messenger instead of critiquing the message.
On numerous occasions I have been charged with providing “misinformation.” My response is always the same: “Please show me what I have stated incorrectly, and I will be happy to apologize.” The response is always how someone felt about what I stated, what he or she inferred from my remarks, or a complete distortion of what I said or wrote. Recently when I was speaking at a church, someone said, “I watched a YouTube rebuttal to your videos about the problems with the UM Church by a leading pastor. He intended to disprove all the misinformation you had given out. When I finished, all he had done was give me more evidence to believe what you had said.”
Of course, the irony is that the same bishops and district superintendents who are silencing certain voices are at the same time selling the “big tent” promise of a future UM Church. Some of these leaders are claiming there will be room for divergent beliefs and practices and every voice will be respected, all the while shutting down the sources they deem to be troublers of Israel and dispensers of information that challenges what they want you to believe.
We may be able to disagree about the future of the UM Church. But there cannot be any dispute that:
1. Not every United Methodist voice is allowed to speak to UM churches about their future.
2. Not every church that follows and fulfills an annual conference’s rules for exiting the denomination is allowed to do so. Just ask the three churches in Arkansas and the over 200 in North Georgia who did everything required and still were denied disaffiliation.
3. Not every point of view is respected by our leaders. Bishop Will Willimon described those who hold to a traditional understanding of sexuality as having hard hearts. Bishop Robert Hoshibata stated that traditionalists do not have the ability to incorporate reason into their thinking. Bishop Minerva Garza Carcaño wrote that Africans who do not accept homosexual practice need to grow up. Bishop Tom Berlin referred to the current UM position on sexuality as a virus that will make the church sick. Bishop Connie Mitchell Shelton recently described those who do not believe in ordaining practicing gay persons as “those with mean spirited arrogance” and told them it’s time “to move on and quit causing chaos.”
So, one point of view (mine) is that the UM Church will become a more and more hostile home for traditionalists and if you can leave, you need to do so now. Another point of view (held by most UM bishops including those referred to above) is that the UM Church will always be a big tent where every voice is respected and where traditionalists and their views will forever be welcome. One of those views is misinformation. You can decide which one. But one of those views is not allowed by some of our bishops to be stated in some of our UM Churches. At least, not by me and other troublers of Israel.
Oh, that church where I wasn’t allowed to speak? Evidently, they don’t like being threatened and bullied. They voted overwhelmingly to leave the UM Church the following week.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.