A Church In Crisis: Reflections on the UMC
“Closed hearts. Closed minds. Closed doors.” That’s how some people are responding to the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The top legislative body met to act on a report that examined the church’s position on human sexuality and explore options to strengthen church unity. Church officials and lay members had to decide whether or not to retain the church’s position which is against same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. In a hotly debated and contentious decision the church doubled down on the current position and even tightened its restrictions.
I’ll admit that the General Conference captured my attention — I watched, listened, and read with great interest. Now, you may wonder why a confessional Presbyterian would be attentive to the things going on in the United Methodist Church. After all, our theology and polity are significantly different. True as that may be, what interested me most was not the denominational polity or theology but the talking points. The surrounding debate revealed an extremely complex church crisis. Actually, to be more accurate it’s a complication of many crises that signal a serious problem. So serious that, in my opinion, while I applaud the final decision it seems, at best, to be the patching of a hole in a burning church building.
However, I don’t write that to heap up criticism against the United Methodist Church. You could just as well erase the denominational name and scribble “Presbyterian,” “Baptist,” or “Lutheran” in its place. It would be extremely nearsighted if we thought our particular denomination or confession made us immune to the crises pulling that church apart. Rather, this critical situation — a story that’s been told again and again — is a cautionary tale to every church no matter our creed or polity.
Crisis of Culture: Some of the most pointed and critical comments came from Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, Dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. He said: “And please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up.’ Let me assure you, we Africans, whether we like it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.”
Those extremely uncomfortable words confront and rebuke an unholy alliance that often exists between the church and the world. When Jesus taught that the church is the salt of the earth and the light of the world he intended that we should influence the world not adopt its darkness and rottenness. That’s because the motives, values, and agenda of this world are at odds with those of the church. The Bible is clear: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4). We don't need a church that is panting after friendship with the world but one that stands upon the claims of Jesus Christ in direct opposition to the world.
Crisis of Consistency: Many who opposed changing the position of the church rightly pointed to the Bible’s definition of marriage. But those who advocated for an all-inclusive church were quick to demonstrate inconsistencies present in the church. For instance, one speaker challenged all the seated bishops as to how many of them had gotten an unbiblical divorce concluding: “I’m convinced there’s people pushing a button to oppress people for the first half of Matthew 19 who are guilty of the second half. In another speech a man said: “I wish we had a purely holy church. But when I become a United Methodist there were pastors who were marrying people after two or three marriages. And I said ‘Isn’t that against the book,’ and they said, ‘Well, we’re a gracious people.’”
Additionally, Adam Hamilton pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in Leawood, KS said: “I’d like to say a bit about biblical interpretation […] Paul says more about [the role of women in the church] than about same sex acts in the New Testament. Yet [you have] clearly stated that [you] support women in ministry. You say Paul had women in leadership. True. But despite this he was clear ‘Women must not teach a man and they are to remain silent.’ How did you get there? You interpreted the text in light of the cultural context and with an ear to more important biblical ideas.”
There’s a tragic truth present in those comments: there’s a lack of moral and interpretive consistency. Now, this lack doesn’t mean the traditional conclusion is wrong. But it does weaken a faithful witness and the moral authority of the church. In fact, Paul warned of this very thing: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:23-24).
Crisis of Conviction: In response to the final decision a pastor wrote an open letter to his congregation saying: “We are ‘orthodox’ (some would say conservative) when it comes to the historic essentials of the Christian faith. I believe in the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, his miracles, in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, and in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Yet under the rules the WCA has just passed at General Conference, I don’t think I could be approved for ordained ministry as a United Methodist today.”
True, those are the “historic essentials” of Christianity. But there’s a subtle danger in reducing ordained ministry and denominational identity to the lowest common denominator. That’s because God’s Word doesn’t only give us historic essentials. The Bible teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duties God requires of us — and it does so authoritatively, sufficiently, and clearly. This kind of doctrinal minimization isn’t in keeping with the Apostolic ordering and expectation of the New Testament church. There is a wide array of doctrinal convictions that the church is to receive, teach and guard (see 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 Timothy 1:14, Jude 1:3, etc).
Crisis of Control: During debate there was a lot of contending and clashing about whose opinion mattered the most. In fact, one speaker rose to caution against the attitude that assumed “some delegates in this room are more important than others.” This was a necessary caution.
For instance, Cheryl Jefferson Bell appealed to her historic pedigree as a reason to reject the traditional stance: “I will be very sad if I cannot claim the cross and flame anymore because I’m being kicked out of my church. [My family has] been part of this church for five generations.” In another case a group of young people asserted: “A large number of people have been speaking here that do not represent the church that will be left years down the road.” Another said: “I am unsure of many things but here is what I do know. The voting of this body has not reflected the voice of the majority of our young people.”
Behind these emotional appeals — ancestry, heritage, bloodlines, age, personality, majority rule — is a thinly veiled power struggle and sneaky argument for control worse than the disciple’s quarrel of who was greatest in the kingdom (Mark 9:33-35). The church isn’t a place for party factions or for partiality to one demographic over and against another. After all, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:25).
Crisis of Constitutionality: Many churches have agreed upon procedures and policies that are put to writing and used on occasions like this. That’s not a bad thing. The Bible doesn’t specify every jot and tittle of how the work of the church is to be done. To have these procedures ensures a fair and balanced approach especially in times of conflict.
Throughout the debates several plans were put forth and considerable time was spent arguing about the constitutionality of those plans. In frustration, one speaker — holding up the Book of Discipline — declared that it was pharisaical to hold the church to its own constitutional standards. In an impassioned (and largely incoherent) plea, Jeffrey Warren said he wanted a “church that doesn’t waste its money on a conference and come out with no decision because it was unconstitutional. The pain that would happen from this crucifixion of putting the nails in our Methodist church, the pain of this death might be worth resurrection, but I’d like to see if that can happen together without being called unconstitutional.”
I understand that constitutional policies and procedures can make the wheel turn slowly. But whatever disadvantages that seems to create cannot be outweighed, in my opinion, with the benefit. Constitutional requirements help to maintain order (1 Corinthians 14:40) and impartiality (1 Timothy 5:21). In the church so that all are held to the same agreed upon standards.
Crisis of Confusion: In an emotional speech in favor of inclusivity, one young woman noted that the day before she came to the General Conference she read Jesus’ desire for unity from John 17:21. Of course, the implication of her words was that those who favored the traditional view were actually counteracting Jesus’ prayer for unity in his church.
This call for unity was often repeated. One speaker said: “While there are three texts in the New Testament that speak of some kind of same-sex acts there are over a hundred that call for unity and to stay together.” Another said: “This plan does not unite us because it only allows for one perspective and does not balance an approach to different understandings.” Yet another commentator said: “Love and acceptance are never in error.”
It’s impossible to emphasize the importance of unity in the church. But all of these comments demonstrate the confusion about true Christian unity. Unity cannot be achieved by abandoning the ethical teachings of the Bible — even if there’s only a few texts that speak to the ethical issue. Unity does not demand that on every issue there must be room for different understandings. The Apostles warn of the need to avoid those who are divide contrary to the truth we've been taught. Even the Apostle John — who wrote more about Christian love than any other biblical authors — said: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 1:11, see also 16:17, Galatians 1:8, and 2 Thessalonians 3:14).
Crisis of Cowardice: A lot of discussion revolved around the collateral damage that would result in not affirming an all-inclusive church. Most of that damage was measured in losing members. Some clergy bemoaned having to return home to explain to their congregations that they weren’t welcome anymore. One woman asserted that it would drive the youth from the church: “There is a lot of well meaning behind the traditional plan but it is indeed causing harm, and friends we need to reevaluate. For a denomination who claims to so desperately want young people in our churches maybe it’s time we reevaluate.”
Perhaps the most pointed comments were from the chairman who presented the all-inclusive plan. He said: “What’s being said in private conversations is that if the traditional plan is voted on today you will be putting a virus into the church that will make it very sick, and it will be sick quickly. Many of us have members who will leave and have already told us so. And the reason is, whether you like it or not, they feel their church is exhibiting itself against gay people. It’s not your intention, I know. But it’s what they experience that matters. This virus of conflict will spread and spread.”
I understand the fear of collateral damage and the cost to local congregations and the burdens of the ministry. At the same time, the loss of members is not an indication that a church is spreading a virus. In fact, it was the faithful teaching of Jesus that led many to abandon him: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). To fear the ramifications about what may or may not happen in an effort to be faithful and committed to the truth of God is cowardice, and the church is called to be courageous (Ephesians 6:10-13).
Again, I don’t write all of this to heap up criticism on the United Methodist Church. These crises — the crises of culture, consistency, conviction, control, constitutionality, confusion, and cowardice — do not know denominational boundaries. It's a sad story that has been retold a thousand different times in the history of the church. And against the backdrop of this critical situation we should have ears to hear. For he who walks among the seven lamp stands and holds the seven stars in his hand – through warning and rebuke – has promised much to the one who conquers.