By James V. Heidinger II
Each week, word comes of persons who have decided to leave The United Methodist Church and it’s happening too frequently across the church.
Sadly, many who leave have been lifetime United Methodists. They have served, given, prayed, attended, struggled, endured, become discouraged, and finally given up. With heavy hearts they leave the church their parents and grandparents attended in order to seek a fellowship more compatible with their understanding of the Christian faith.
With full awareness of the various controversies and conditions we face within the church, we would still encourage United Methodists to reject the urge to leave.
Ultimately, of course, that decision must be made by each person individually, in the context of his or her own personal struggle. We are also aware that the United Methodist Church may not be for everyone. But we are convinced there are compelling reasons for United Methodist evangelicals to remain and labor faithfully in their church.
First, though we acknowledge serious problems in our denomination, we must also recognize, in fairness, that in thousands of United Methodist churches, persons are finding Christ as Lord and Savior, are being grounded in his Word, and nourished in Christian fellowship. We fail to see the picture adequately unless we acknowledge that at altars of prayer, in counseling rooms, church school classes, Bible study groups, and in the pews, thousands of United Methodists are hearing the Word and responding to it in faith. Lest we be unfair in our analysis, we must admit that numerous United Methodist churches are doing many things right. As evangelicals within the denomination we have a responsibility to help strengthen, establish, and preserve the fruit of such ministries. When evangelicals leave, they weaken the Body in its nurturing function.
Second, to pastors the responsibility has been given to “Tend the flock of God that is your charge…” (I Peter 5:2). They are charged with the task of overseeing the flock, to be shepherds willing to lay down their lives for the flock. But when evangelical pastors, grounded in the Word of God, leave the denomination, it diminishes the general spiritual wellbeing of 9½ million United Methodists. In addition, upon leaving, many find a new set of problems in their new church and discover that all communions of Christ’s Church have their struggles and disagreements.
The Wesleyan contribution
Third, the Wesleyan branch of Protestant theology has made a major contribution to Christendom. United Methodists are the largest group in a world Methodist community of over 50 million members. And it is the evangelicals within United Methodism who are excited about Christian doctrine and committed to the Wesleyan theological tradition. The great Wesleyan distinctives of prevenient grace, original sin, justification by faith, assurance, sanctification, and perfect love must not be relegated to the theological archives. We can be sure that today’s liberals will not maintain our rich Wesleyan tradition. Only the evangelicals will do that.
Fourth, the United Methodist Church remains a strategic opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel and the renewal of the nation. Through a vast connectional system, this church reaches into villages, towns, and cities the length and breadth of the land. There are more local United Methodist churches today than there are post offices in America! We have a chance to be God’s vessel for spiritual and evangelical renewal all across the nation. If we think this is not possible, let us remember that “…with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Contending for the faith
Fifth, we must be willing to contend for the faith. Jude wrote: “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We must “contend” for the faith without becoming contentious in spirit. In spite of being misunderstood or misrepresented, it is imperative that in our contending, we exhibit the love of God and the very fragrance of Christ. If we don’t, we find ourselves in the contradictory posture of contending for the Gospel which brings holiness of heart and life, but doing so in an unholy manner.
The early church soon and continually encountered doctrinal controversy. Paul confronted Peter when he compromised with the Judaizers. Paul did not just affirm that they had diversity. Rather, Paul “withstood” or “opposed” Peter “to his face” (Galatians 2:11). Peter, who walked with Christ, was literally rebuked by Paul, the apostle born out of season. Why? Because Paul knew that a vital theological principle was at stake. He would accept no deviation from the doctrine of justification by grace alone though faith. To do so would have destroyed the Gospel. What significant “contending” that was on behalf of the integrity of the Gospel!
Many pastors and lay persons have talked with me about how much they dislike controversy. I share those feelings. I would much rather focus on reconciliation. But I am alarmed that many choose to avoid controversy totally. To follow that course may mean never standing firmly and publicly for anything.
The major temptation for United Methodist clergy may be just that—to become so amiable that they stand firmly for nothing. To assume such a posture means one has settled down and become comfortable with some things that should arouse anger and opposition. The One who called us into ministry said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). It was the Prince of Peace who said our peace might be disturbed because of the Gospel.
United Methodist clergy would do well to remember periodically that we were asked when ordained if we would “…give faithful diligence duly to minister the doctrine of Christ, the Sacraments, and the discipline of the Church, and in the Spirit of Christ to defend the Church against all doctrine contrary to God’s Word?” We answered, “I will do so, by the help of the Lord.” Not to defend against contrary doctrine is an abdication of our responsibility as ordained ministers. Our charge is to “contend,” not leave.
Enabling bold leadership
Finally, by remaining and bearing faithful witness, United Methodist evangelicals will encourage other leaders to be bold in their stand. A United Methodist bishop once remarked, “Some bishops are really evangelical, but to be very honest, we don’t want to risk the scorn of some fellow bishops who identify conservatism as not being intellectually respectable.” The specter of intimidation among evangelicals in the church is a sad reality. Many are silenced or compromised by such intimidation. Laity know of it too, so let none of us underestimate the power of intimidation. To feel the scorn of one’s colleagues can bring fear to even the strongest.
An encouraging sign is that an increasing number of laity, clergy, and church leaders are voicing their convictions. By remaining in the church and continuing to bear faithful witness, United Methodist evangelicals will give encouragement and support to United Methodist leaders to speak their mind boldly as they ought. Renewal within the United Methodist Church will continue as the Holy Spirit helps us restore church discipline and accountability within the community of believers. He will enable us to confront one another in love. Bonhoeffer’s words from Life Together have never been more timely: “Where defection from God’s Word in doctrine of life imperile the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the word of admonition and rebuke must be ventured.”
Good News has been and remains committed to working for renewal within the United Methodist Church. We believe there are compelling reasons for such a commitment. We urge United Methodists to remain within the church, working and praying fervently for the Lord to do in and through us that which he wills.
James V. Heidinger II is president and publisher emeritus of Good News. This article originally appeared in the July/August 1982 issue of Good News.