What Loving LGBTQ Ministry Could Look Like

At the St. Louis General Conference and since, conservatives have often been accused of being hateful, bigoted, and punitive toward LGBTQ persons. We frequently hear quoted “Do no harm!” and “Love your neighbor!” These statements are aimed at the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman and that the practice of homosexuality (as well as any other sexual relationship outside marriage) is contrary to God’s will.

The statements imply that the traditional view is unloving, but that is because we have different understandings of what love looks like. Perhaps it would be helpful to flesh out how traditionalists might engage in loving ministry with LGBTQ persons. (Obviously, in a blog post I will only be able to hit the high spots, rather than delving into the details of each person’s situation.)

From a traditional perspective, love seeks the best for the other person. The problem becomes discerning what the “best” is. We know that we have trouble understanding what is best for ourselves. In the same way, it is also risky to accept another person’s discernment about what is best for them as always being right. The way out of this dilemma is to trust that God knows and has revealed what is best for us. The Bible teaches us the way of righteousness and holiness, leading to living at our best. As Psalm 19 explains, the precepts of the Lord are “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey.” “By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is much reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Loving God and seeking God’s ways (not our own) is the first and greatest commandment for a reason. We too often impose our human judgment in replacement of what God has revealed to us.

To love lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer persons as our neighbor means to treat each one with love, respect, and kindness as a fellow human being created in the image of God. Therefore, there is no room for insults, put-downs, joking comments at their expense, foul language directed at them, or violence of any kind. On a human level, LGBTQ persons should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). There are no exceptions to the Golden Rule.

As Christians and out of love for others, we are compelled to share the love of Christ with our friends and neighbors so that they may come to know him as Savior and Lord of their lives. That includes our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. We will never help move a person closer to Jesus by harshly condemning them, insulting them, or mistreating them in any way. Rather, in a winsome and invitational way, we seek to introduce people to Jesus because we know and love him ourselves. We know that apart from him — gay, straight, or questioning — we are all lost and separated from God, so we seek to bring others closer to God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20).

In our conversations, we should not insist that gay people become straight before they can come to God, just as we do not insist that others of us have our lives all together in order to come to God. Rather, we come as we are, with only “the desire to flee the wrath to come,” as John Wesley put it. As we respond to God’s grace expressed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to change from the inside out. We journey with Christ toward becoming the person he created us to be.

To love LGBTQ persons is to fully embrace and support them in their journey of discipleship. None of us is meant to walk that journey alone. We are assigned the task of “watching over one another in love,” as Wesley put it. We stand not in judgment over one another, but as fellow pilgrims traveling toward the common destination of becoming perfect in God’s love. For many lesbians and gays, it will mean a life of celibacy, meaning that we the church will need to help form that supportive community and provide a family relationship as the embodiment of God’s love.

To love LGBTQ persons is to teach clearly, lovingly, and sensitively what God requires of us — gay, straight, or questioning — in all aspects of life. In this era of “designer religion” where we are each tempted to create our own belief system, it is imperative that we begin to learn and understand the truth from God’s perspective. We do so in humility, knowing that none of us can perfectly understand that truth, nor do we always live up to what we know. Instead, we seek together to grow in our understanding of the truth, faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God’s intent for the exercise of his good gift of human sexuality has become clear in Scripture, as interpreted and understood by over 1,200 years of Jewish history and the additional 2,000 years of the Christian church. Some who propose to change the definition of marriage to include persons of the same gender may not fully appreciate what it means to say that every single biblical scholar of the church, bishop, and defender of the faith for 2,000 years has been wrong in their understanding of God’s word. The heavy weight of that much accumulated wisdom and piety is not to be lightly cast aside by a majority vote of a General Conference.

It is not my task here to argue the biblical case for one man-one woman marriage. I would refer the reader to Richard Hays’ masterful chapter in his volume, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (chapter 16). Ambitious scholars desiring a more thorough examination of the biblical and cultural evidence may turn to The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon.

To love LGBTQ persons is to not set ourselves above them, as if we were somehow superior. Rather, it is to acknowledge that we, too, stand in need of God’s grace, forgiveness, and transformation. No one’s sin is worse than another’s. Heterosexuals, no less than LGBTQ persons, need to learn God’s ways and discipline ourselves to keep them by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

We may never lose the attraction toward sin, whether it is greed, same-sex desires, the desire for that next drink, or whatever it might be. The gay person may never completely lose same-sex attractions. The alcoholic may never be able to safely take a drink. The greedy person may always want more than they have. But by the grace of God, the desire can weaken and lessen, until it has no more control over us. We can have the ability to say “no” to sin, despite whatever temptations we face.

On the other hand, some do experience deliverance from sin and a restoration to wholeness that allows them to no longer be tempted by sin. Some lesbians and gays have been healed and delivered to the point where they can enter into healthy opposite-sex marriages. We must not foreclose on God’s ability to supernaturally work in our lives.

We may never become “perfect in love” or without sin until we get to heaven. But we keep “attending upon all the ordinances of God” – those means of grace that strengthen our faith. We keep “consider[ing] how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, … but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The ministry of love for all people, including LGBTQ persons, is the ministry of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit through a supportive Christian community. All of us are in equal need of that transformation, gay or straight. God will do what he promises, no matter what challenges we face in life, as we respond to the leading of his Holy Spirit. “And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).

 

 

 

Progress Report on Annual Conference Actions

We are halfway through the U.S. annual conference season. Annual conferences represent local churches and clergy in regional areas of the country. There are currently 55 annual conferences in the U.S. As of Friday, 29 of those annual conferences have met.

Several of the annual conferences have passed resolutions opposing the 2019 General Conference enactment of the Traditional Plan. Some of these have been challenged by a question of law because they commit the annual conference to not enforcing the Book of Discipline. Other resolutions are legal because they merely register an opinion. Some other annual conferences have defeated or refused to consider such resolutions opposing what the General Conference did.

In addition, Baltimore-Washington, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and North Texas have ordained or commissioned openly gay clergy. The woman ordained in North Texas is living in celibacy, so she qualifies for ordination under our standards. The two clergy in Baltimore-Washington and one in Northern Illinois are living in same-sex marriages, so they definitely do not qualify. One of the two gay persons commissioned in Michigan is living in a same-sex marriage and thus does not qualify, while the other is not and so apparently does qualify.

This effort on the part of some annual conferences to explicitly defy the Discipline is part of the “resist” campaign fostered by progressives and moderates. Because they do not agree with what the church has decided, they are refusing to go along with it.

The “resist” effort is best summarized by a statement made by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, convener of the UMCNext Conference, at the close of that conference. “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” A number of U.S. bishops have publicly stated that they are going to run their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed, regardless of what General Conference actually enacted. Such an approach demonstrates even more vividly the division that exists in our denomination. The divide has been deepened and moderates have generally moved in the direction of the progressives.

Nowhere has this shift been illustrated more than in the election of delegates to General Conference. Part of the agenda of the moderate and progressive coalition is to switch enough votes among the U.S. delegates to overturn the actions of the 2019 General Conference in 2020. The passion and anger among those opposed to the church’s position has motivated them to unprecedented efforts to elect sympathetic delegates. We have heard there has been a concerted effort to get many more retired clergy are attending annual conferences in order to vote for progressive candidates. We have also received reports of voter suppression in some annual conferences, where Licensed Local Pastors who meet the qualifications of the church Constitution have been denied the ability to vote for clergy delegates or have been required to provide extra paperwork, such as seminary transcripts.

So far in the election process, the number of conservative delegates has been reduced by about 20 percent compared to the previous delegation. It is not yet enough to switch the results of General Conference, but the progressive and moderate coalition is making progress toward that goal. In the end, the conservative delegation would need to lose about a third of its strength to give the progressives and moderates a realistic opportunity to reverse the outcome of St. Louis.

Interestingly, all of the traditional delegate losses have come among clergy. Overall, traditional lay delegates have actually gained slightly in numbers. This result points to the fact that the clergy and the laity in our denomination are generally headed in different directions.

In the delegation in St. Louis, 46 percent of the traditional delegates were clergy. So far in the 2020 delegation, only 30 percent are clergy.

There are several possible reasons why the clergy vote has shifted dramatically to the left.

A Northern Illinois Conference ordained two deacons and seven elders, including an openly transgender deacon. Four were commissioned as provisional deacons, including two openly LGBTQ candidates. Video image from Northern Illinois Conference livestream.

Most obviously, many moderate clergy who in the past would have been “swing” voters, voting for both progressive and conservative candidates, have decided to cast their lot entirely with the progressives. This illustrates that there is no “middle” or “center” in the church anymore (if there ever was). All United Methodists are committed to the belief that all individuals are persons of “sacred worth.” There can be no compromise about that tenet.

At the same time, we have argued for a long time that one either supports the practice of homosexuality or one does not. There is no compromise or middle ground between those two positions. One either favors same-sex marriage in the church or one does not. One either approves of ordaining practicing gays and lesbians as clergy or one does not. The decisions in St. Louis have sharpened the question for many who previously were trying to sit on the fence, and they have generally come down on the side of supporting the practice of homosexuality. One working definition of a “moderate” that has been floating around is that a moderate is a progressive who wants the change in the church to go slower.

In the clergy shift, we also see the influence of our United Methodist seminaries, nearly all of whom explicitly support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians as clergy. Many UM seminary presidents and deans signed statements before and after the special General Conference calling on the church to change its position. Many faculty at these institutions come from a progressive viewpoint-some very forcefully so. Many of our UM seminaries are taking steps to explicitly welcome and encourage LGBTQ persons to attend. Many UM seminaries emphasize social justice coursework and deemphasize biblical study. For many of them, the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was written is optional. This approach to theology and the advocacy for LGBTQ equality deeply influences students at a formative time in their lives, leading to a clergy that is substantially more liberal than the laity who make up the people in the pews.

Clergy also tend to be institutionalists. We naturally gravitate toward protecting the institution of the church, since it is our livelihood and career. Many moderates believe the best way to protect the institution is to make it more relevant to the culture in which we live. They have bought into the mistaken assumption that a progressive Gospel will attract more members than a traditional one – a false premise that has yet to materialize into reality within any of our progressive mainline sister denominations.

Furthermore, when clergy hear a consistent progressive message from their bishop and other conference leaders, who also tend to be disproportionately progressive, they bow to that pressure. After all, if “getting ahead” or receiving a good appointment depends upon upholding the “party line” of the bishop and leadership, that is the direction many clergy will go.

Ironically, in a quest for diversity, the church is becoming less diverse. We are hearing that more and more of the delegates are coming from metropolitan areas, rather than rural churches. Support for traditional theological approaches is waning. Other mainline denominations have found that growing more progressive means growing older, whiter, and smaller. That may be where the moderate and progressive wing of the church is headed.

As we argued in the lead-up to St. Louis, many moderates would be willing to tolerate the presence of evangelicals in the church, as long as the moderates and progressives get to do ministry the way they want. Now that the church is trying to get serious about seeing that clergy live by its policies, however, they are singing a different tune. Many moderates cannot be in a church that does not allow progressives to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing gay and lesbian clergy. So they have cast their lot with the progressives.

The result of this approach would be to jettison most of the global church and adapt United Methodism to current American culture. That is the direction being chosen by many in these important delegate elections. That is the opposite direction from where most evangelical United Methodists would like to see the church move.

Since different parts of the church are headed in different directions, it would make more sense to allow the different parts to separate and move unencumbered in the direction they believe their ministry should go. It remains to be seen whether that is the approach moderate and progressive leaders are willing to take.

 

 

Rejoinder to Rebekah Miles

The Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles recently invited her readers to join her going down the “rabbit hole” into the “Alice in Wonderland” that is currently The United Methodist Church. The point of her post is to critique elements of the Traditional Plan and encourage her readers to worry about what it might mean if the rest of the Traditional Plan is enacted at General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis.

Although I would not use her over-the-top rhetoric, I do see truth in her short-term prognosis for United Methodism. “Conservative groups will keep pushing for legislative accountability, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. Progressives will keep pushing the limits of that accountability through increasing ecclesial disobedience, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. And many moderates, horrified by the draconian extremes of the So-Called-Traditional Plan, are finally ready to join them. Nobody will back down. And as far as I can tell, all of us believe we are acting according to conscience and in loyalty to the people with whom we are in ministry.”

In Miles’ mind, the solution is “to find a way either to amicable separation or a profoundly new form of unity.” She refers interested readers to her chapter in a recently published anthology. “I make a more sustained case for separation or significant restructure in my article, ‘When Brothers and Sisters Fight to the Death: Ecclesiology, Mission, and the United Methodist Church,’ in Where do We Go From Here? Honest Responses from 24 United Methodist Leaders, Kevin Slimp, ed. (Market Square Publishing, 2019)”

Although we come at this solution from opposite ends of the theological spectrum, Miles and I ultimately arrive at the same place. The only healthy way forward for The United Methodist Church is some form of separation. (So far, proposals to resurrect the Connectional Conference Plan or some other “significant restructure” into a “new form of unity” have failed to attract concrete ideas or substantial support.) I think we would both agree that finding our way to that reality in an amicable way that is generous of spirit would be a significant witness to our faith in Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So far, so good. Where I part ways with Miles is over her caustic characterization of the Traditional Plan as containing “draconian extremes” that “horrify” many moderates.

The way Miles describes the Traditional Plan, it sounds like the provisions of the Traditional Plan were dreamed up by some mad church scientist having a nightmare. Unfortunately, such a description ignores the context and history of our church and how we got to this point. As a colleague portrayed it to me, this would be similar to being late to attend a play. Walking in during intermission and starting the story with the second act of the play, one would have missed the first act. The reason why the characters are acting the way they are would make no sense because the foundations for their actions in the first act were missed.

Act One of the United Methodist drama is a 30-year-long story of increasing disregard for the teachings and standards of the church and for the ability of General Conference to make decisions on behalf of the whole church. This act included a number of high points such as incidents involving the “Sacramento 68,” Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Karen Dammen, Beth Stroud, and resolutions passed by up to a dozen annual conferences repudiating the teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality, including innovative legislative strategies aimed at circumventing church requirements. The list could go on.

The climax of Act One, however, was the series of events beginning in 2011, when hundreds of UM clergy signed statements indicating their willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Bishop Melvin Talbert twice invaded another bishop’s territory for the purpose of performing high-profile same-sex weddings, while calling for increased disobedience. Some bishops began settling complaints against clergy performing such weddings by first a 24-hour suspension, then no consequences at all, and finally even giving these clergy a platform to promote disobedience in their annual conferences. About a dozen annual conferences officially declared they would not comply with the Book of Discipline and boards of ordained ministry openly recommended self-avowed practicing homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.

This growing bishop and clergy rebellion in some parts of the U.S. led to the realization at the 2016 General Conference that the situation in our church was untenable. A group of respected leaders asked the bishops to create a commission to develop a plan for amicable separation of the denomination. Instead the Council of Bishops recommended a Commission on a Way Forward to try to keep the denomination together.

Act Two began with the work of the Commission, which resulted in three alternative “ways forward” that would preserve some amount of unity in the church. The Connectional Conference Plan was a “significant restructuring” of the church, for which Miles recognized the need. However, neither end of the theological spectrum (nor the moderate institutionalists) embraced the restructure option. This left two “winner-take-all” options.

The One Church Plan would dramatically change the church’s teachings and allow same-sex weddings and ordination, at which change conservatives indicated they would have to withdraw from the denomination. (Tellingly, many moderate institutionalists were dead-set against allowing anyone to leave and refused to consider any kind of exit path. They wanted to force unity, even at the cost of people’s consciences and the prospect of a multitude of lawsuits.)

The Traditional Plan was an attempt to restore accountability and compliance with the Book of Discipline and the decisions of the General Conference, while providing a gracious exit for those who could not live with the current standards of the church. Here again, it is important to note that many moderate institutionalists refused to allow for a gracious exit, even for themselves. Instead, they did all they could to obstruct the Traditional Plan and attempt to prevent the General Conference from making any decision at all.

The key to this narrative is that the Traditional Plan would not have been necessary at all, except that the instruments of unity – primarily some bishops and annual conferences – failed to maintain the unity of the church by enforcing the Discipline’s requirements. Over the past 30 years, it has been the escalating disobedience that has forced the General Conference to take repeated actions to close loopholes and adopt punitive measures to ensure compliance. Without such compliance, the church would experience chaos and a constitutional crisis. Ironically, that is where we are now, at the end of Act Two, in chaos and constitutional crisis.

For Dr. Miles to write as if the Traditional Plan were developed in a vacuum is unhelpful as various factions discuss the future in good faith before we arrive in Minneapolis. Her comments in this instance can be seen as both disingenuous and misleading. Nitpicking individual provisions of the Traditional Plan with scaremongering rhetoric misses the bigger picture described above.

Moderates such as Miles had a chance to help the church move into a healthier place in 2016 by either ending the disobedience or helping the church to consider a plan of separation. They did neither. Instead, they attempted to force an artificial unity on the church that is belied by the differing foundational theological commitments held by progressives and conservatives. Failing in that attempt, they are now engaging in the very same divisive and schismatic actions they have accused conservatives of contemplating over the years, but magnified ten-fold. When the shoe is on the other foot, the standards for behavior and expectations change radically.

What will Act Three hold? Will the confrontation simply escalate until the church explodes? (Think of the movie, War of the Roses.) Or will there be partners across the theological spectrum willing to work together to formulate a fair and reasonable plan of separation that allows the groups with contradictory theological commitments to walk apart, while retaining the possibility of cooperation in areas of agreement? One hopes that the public relations battle being waged by some on the left to demonize and misrepresent the Traditional Plan and its supporters does not make such cooperation impossible.

 

 

 

What Do United Methodists Believe (Part II)

A recent survey by United Methodist Communications indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

In a previous blog, I examined the implications of this finding. Last week I delved more deeply into specific beliefs United Methodists hold about Jesus Christ, who is the center of our faith. Today, I want to look at some other Christian doctrines and what United Methodists believe about them.

The Bible

What do United Methodists believe about the Bible? The survey posed a number of statements about the Bible, from which respondents had to choose one. Three of the statements emphasized the divine origin of Scripture, with different levels of trust in the specifics:

  • “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with no errors, some verses symbolic.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with some factual or historic errors.”

Traditionalists were nearly equally divided between these three statements (30, 28, and 30 percent). Moderates decisively preferred the third statement (47 percent), while 15 percent approved the first statement and 26 percent the second. Liberals also preferred the third statement (37 percent), while distancing themselves from the first statement (4 percent) and moderately supporting the second (22 percent).

Strikingly, 88 percent of both traditionalists and moderates affirmed the inspiration of Scripture (approving one of the above three statements), while only 63 percent of liberals did.

One-third (34 percent) of progressives supported the human origins of the Bible by affirming one of these two statements:

  • “The Bible is not inspired. It tells how writers understood the ways and principles of God.”
  • “The Bible is just another book of teachings written by men.”

Less than ten percent of moderates and conservatives agreed with either of these statements.

The significant minority of progressives holding a low view of Scripture’s inspiration fits with the finding that only six percent of progressives chose Scripture as their most authoritative source in personal theology.

Encouragingly, only one percent across the board of all United Methodists thought that “the Bible is an ancient book with little value today.”

What is salvation?

As expected, 89 percent of traditionalists believe that “salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God,” while 80 percent of moderates and only 69 percent of liberals agreed. Fully 31 percent of liberals (and 20 percent of moderates) believe that “all people will die saved.” This strain of universalism is not consistent with our Wesleyan theology and acts as another brake on evangelism. (If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency to proclaim the Gospel.)

Disturbingly, only 33 percent of conservatives and 15 percent of liberals believe that “salvation is through faith alone,” while 67 percent of conservatives and 85 percent of liberals believe “salvation is a combination of faith and what we do in this world.” Salvation by faith alone is a cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, of which we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary. As Protestants, we believe that good works follow from faith, but they do not contribute to our salvation. That depends upon faith in Jesus Christ alone, through his death and resurrection.

The influence of American evangelicalism on United Methodism is seen in the fact that 41 percent of conservatives believe that “once you are saved, you are always saved.” One-third of liberals and 37 percent of moderates agreed with this statement. One of the primary distinctives of Wesleyan theology (in contrast to today’s more common Calvinist theology) is that “a person can fall away and lose their salvation.” “Backsliders” (as they were once called) can return to faith through repentance and once again be in right standing with God. But it seems on this question many of our members are more Calvinist than Wesleyan.

Another cardinal Wesleyan doctrine is that “God’s grace is available to every person.” Our people have gotten that message, as it is affirmed by over 95 percent across the board. Mystifyingly, while 97 to 99 percent of moderates and conservatives believe in God as “creator of heaven and earth,” only 87 percent of progressives affirmed that statement.

Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of conservatives believe in a literal heaven, in contrast to 73 percent of progressives and 80 percent of moderates. At the same time, 82 percent of conservatives believe in a literal hell, in contrast to only 50 percent of progressives and 67 percent of moderates.

These beliefs about salvation do influence how effectively local churches proclaim and live out the Gospel. If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency or even any point in trying to get non-believers to believe in Jesus. The belief by supermajorities that “what we do in this world” impacts our salvation plays into the American emphasis on doing, rather than being, and upon the idea that we in some sense earn our own salvation. The prevalence of “once saved, always saved” thinking minimizes the need to authentically live out our faith and continue growing in our faith. Yet, even these three beliefs are contradictory, meaning that we have not helped our members think through a coherent and consistent theology of salvation.

Conclusion

The survey questions were not worded as carefully as I would have liked. Multiple interpretations of some of the questions could easily have somewhat distorted the results. However, taken together, I think the survey results show a clear theological difference between conservatives and liberals in general. Sometimes, moderates fall in the middle, but on many questions, moderates are closer to traditionalists in their views. It is this underlying theological difference that accounts for the depth of disagreement in our denomination. One might almost say that different groups in our church are operating according to different theological worldviews or different doctrinal systems. There are very few of the questions on which there is theological agreement.

Where there is much agreement and a small number of areas of disagreement, it is easier to preserve an overall unity and “agree to disagree” on those few issues of disagreement. However, where the disagreement seems clear and widespread over many issues, it is much more difficult to preserve unity. That is the situation that faces our church today.

The survey also makes it clear that systematic, clear teaching of United Methodist doctrine and theology is sorely needed in our churches. Perhaps we tend to focus so much on preaching and teaching that hits the “felt needs” of our people that we forget about the importance of laying the theological foundation on which the more practical teachings of the faith are based. And we have forgotten how practically relevant those foundational teachings really are. Our church’s ministry needs more theological depth.

 

 

 

What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part I)

A previous “Perspective” blog called attention to a survey conducted by United Methodist Communications that indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

This finding runs counter to the narrative that the “vast majority” of American United Methodists are moving in a more progressive direction, particularly on issues like marriage and sexual ethics. While the survey did not include questions specifically related to the denomination’s current controversy, the results pointed to a substantially conservative theological foundation for United Methodism in the U.S. Even when there is a clear difference between conservatives and liberals, a majority of liberals often affirm a traditional theological perspective. (Of course, one wonders if people might be using the same words, yet defining them differently based on different doctrinal perspectives.)

The online survey was aimed at laity who were members or regular attendees of United Methodist churches in the United States, but who do not serve as local church leaders. As such, the survey attempted to reach the ultimate “grass roots” of the church in order to gauge their beliefs on a number of theological points. Previous surveys have found that the farther up the “ladder” from the grass roots membership into the leadership of the church one ascends, the more theologically liberal are the beliefs people hold.

Who Is Jesus?

The most important aspect of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christian doctrine answers the questions Who is Jesus and What did Jesus do? Over 92 percent of United Methodists of all theological stripes believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.”

When asked if Jesus was “the son of God?” 98 percent of conservatives believed so, compared to 82 percent of liberals (moderates were at 92 percent). At the same time, nine percent of both conservatives and moderates said “Jesus was only human and not the son of God.” (The numbers do not add up properly here, so the results may not have been accurately reported. Alternatively, some may have answered both “yes” and “no” to the son of God question.) Notably, 16 percent of progressives asserted that Jesus was only human. This is a small percentage and reflects a relatively high view of Jesus Christ even among United Methodist progressives.

More than 35 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was only a religious or spiritual leader.” While 21 percent of conservatives and 23 percent of moderates agreed, 25 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was a great man and teacher but not divine,” compared with 20 percent of moderates and 15 percent of traditionalists. These answers do not fit well with the answers to the previous question “Was Jesus the son of God.” One can only assume that many members have only a fuzzy idea of what it means to call Jesus “the son of God.”

Strikingly, 48 percent of progressives thought “Jesus committed sins like other people.” One-third of conservatives and 38 percent of moderates agreed.

Fully 82 percent of conservatives believe “Jesus will return to earth someday.” Only 66 percent of liberals agreed, as well as 76 percent of moderates.

Finally, 94 percent of conservatives believe Jesus was conceived by a virgin. Only 68 percent of liberals agree, along with 82 percent of moderates.

The inconsistent answers to these questions about Jesus indicate we may not have done a very good job as a church of teaching our doctrines. Our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith teach that Jesus was indeed the son of God, that he is divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and that he will return again to earth. And the Bible clearly states that Jesus did not sin (II Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, I Peter 2:22).

What did Jesus do?

Nearly all (98 percent) conservatives believe that “Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God,” while 96 percent of moderates agreed. By contrast, 84 percent of progressives affirmed that statement. The overwhelming majority of conservatives (95 percent) affirmed that “Jesus died so we could have eternal life” – 90 percent of moderates agreed, while 82 percent of liberals agreed. Disappointingly, 18 percent of liberals affirmed, “Jesus’ death has no impact on my eternal life.”

Not surprisingly, 86 percent of traditionalists believe “the only way to salvation is through a relationship with Jesus.” Only 64 percent of moderates and 54 percent of liberals agreed. More than 35 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals believe “there are ways to salvation that do not involve Jesus.”

In accordance with an orthodox perspective, 98 percent of conservatives “believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Meanwhile, 90 percent of moderates and 81 percent of progressives believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Here again, the official teachings of our church affirm that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God, so that we could have eternal life. Our teachings hold that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. The divergence indicated by the survey answers pinpoints a need for clearer teaching of the main essentials of our faith.

The fact that so many moderates and progressives believe in multiple ways of salvation is a key factor in the decline of evangelism in the church. Why focus so much on Jesus if he is not essential to our salvation?

Conclusion

There is nothing more at the heart of our Christian faith than our understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. It is encouraging that super-majorities of United Methodists hold to orthodox, traditional theological understandings.

Still, significant minorities of our members believe that Jesus is not God, calling into question the Trinitarian heart of our faith. This includes a significant number of progressives denying the virgin birth of Christ (one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed). Large numbers think that Jesus committed sins, just like the rest of humanity. And significant percentages do not believe Jesus will return to earth someday (another article of the Apostles’ Creed).

Next week, we will look at other beliefs of grass-roots United Methodists.

Why Traditionalists Are Not Leaving

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey observes the results from a Feb. 26 vote for the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

In a recent blog post, the Rev. Adam Hamilton outlined the results of two leadership meetings held to identify options for a way forward for The United Methodist Church from the perspective of moderates and progressives. He identified two options his groups are considering:

  1. Leave to form a new United Methodism
  2. Stay, resist, give the Good News/Confessing Movement/Wesleyan Covenant Association the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century

Is Option 2 a realistic one? Will traditionalists really leave? Let’s take a closer look.

Traditionalists have not been eager to leave the denomination. It is a mistake to think traditionalists have “been looking for” a gracious exit. For over 50 years, Good News has enthusiastically encouraged evangelicals to remain in The United Methodist Church and help reform it. We have heard from hundreds of clergy and laity that they would have left United Methodism long ago, if it were not for Good News. Our ministry’s whole reason for existence is to help bring reform and spiritual renewal to The United Methodist Church, not to lead evangelicals out of the church. There have been multiple times over the past 25 years when leaving might have seemed like a good idea, if that were the direction Good News wanted to take. Yet we have steadfastly committed to staying and helping make the church better.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has consistently said that its goal is to reform United Methodism. It has stated that, if the church were to change its position in order to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, only then would the WCA seek an exit for those wanting to maintain the current, biblically-based teachings on marriage and sexuality. When it looked like the One Church Plan might pass the special General Conference, the WCA engaged in extensive contingency planning in order to be ready for such an exit, should it be needed. But exiting the denomination was never the first priority of the WCA.

To fair-minded observers in the broad center of United Methodism, it would be more than a little befuddling to ask traditionalists to leave after the General Conference adopted a Traditional Plan. It would not make sense for traditionalists to abandon the denomination when it affirms traditional standards on marriage and sexuality.

Readers of the proposal at General Conference knew that the gracious exit that was part of the Traditional Plan was primarily for those who could not live with the current requirements of the church. We acknowledged that there might be a few traditionalist congregations that might desire to leave because of their unique local circumstances, perhaps feeling isolated in an overwhelmingly progressive annual conference. But in an attempt to implement the Golden Rule of treating others as we would want to be treated, we sought to implement as generous an exit path as possible for progressives who could no longer live under the church’s Discipline. Ironically, it was the moderates and progressives who opposed an exit path and blocked our attempts to ensure it was constitutional. The very ones that it was for, rejected it.

Traditionalists believe that we stand in the line of the Wesleys and Asbury, Otterbein, Boehm, and Albright. We see ourselves as purveyors of the same doctrine, the same disciplined way of discipleship, and the same spirit that prompted the founding of Methodism in England and America. Justifiably, traditionalists would be reluctant to depart from that inheritance.

United Methodism’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics stand in continuity with 2,000 years of Church teaching and 135 years of Methodist teaching. It is those who want to jettison our teachings on marriage and sexuality who should be unencumbered to launch into a new direction with a new vision and a new denomination (Option 1 in Hamilton’s scheme).

Traditionalists are unwilling to abandon our brother and sister United Methodists outside the United States. Generally, United Methodists in Africa, most of the Philippines, and Eastern Europe and Eurasia hold to the same traditional perspective on marriage and sexual ethics as traditionalists in the U.S. They make up the vast majority of United Methodist members outside the U.S. Devoid of evangelicals and traditionalists in the U.S., our international brothers and sisters would have few partners left whom they could trust to share their theological perspective. It would set up a dynamic of conflict between U.S. United Methodists and those outside the U.S. Such a conflict would probably spell the end of a global United Methodist Church. Persistent attempts to create a U.S. central conference demonstrate the move away from global Methodism to national Methodism on the part of some. The hostile reaction of some moderates and progressives toward African and Russian United Methodists who spoke out for the traditional perspective at General Conference are harbingers of the coming conflict, should U.S. traditionalists leave the church.

Traditionalists believe we have the votes to fully pass and implement the rest of the Traditional Plan at General Conference 2020. With Africa gaining votes and the U.S. losing votes, and with the full ten-day time frame available, revised versions of the provisions that failed to pass in St. Louis or are declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council can be passed and implemented. The denomination can continue to move in a more traditional direction, opening the way for other reforms that can make the church more effective for 21st century ministry. Why would traditionalists leave when their prospects for further success in reforming the church are growing increasingly brighter?

There are many reasons why traditionalists are reluctant to leave The United Methodist Church. But traditionalists would be open to a mutually agreed separation that multiplies Methodism into two or three new denominations. In that case, no one would be “leaving” the UM Church, but everyone would be on the equal footing of deciding on a new affiliation with a new denomination.

A scenario of multiplying Methodism would seek to treat everyone fairly and equally. There would be no winners or losers. All annual conferences and local churches would be able to make an informed choice about which new Methodist expression they want to be part of. The consciences and convictions of all would be respected because all could belong to an expression that embodies their convictions.

The contingency planning that the WCA has done could provide the foundation for a new evangelical Methodist denomination. The current Discipline altered to include the Simple Plan or the One Church Plan could provide the foundation for a new progressive Methodist denomination. Both groups could modify and reform their church structures in a way each believes would best position the church to engage in 21st century ministry.

Unhindered by the theological conflicts over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, marriage, and sexual ethics, each expression could focus more intently on its vision for mission and ministry. The possibility for two new vital expressions of Methodism could spark the turnaround that our denomination needs after 52 years of decline.

Multiplication/separation is a lot different than “leaving.” And Good News has maintained for a number of years that some form of separation, allowing different groups to follow their own path in ministry, is the only reasonable way to resolve our theological conflict.

Interestingly, this multiplying Methodism scenario is not included among the progressive/moderate options, based on Hamilton’s published report. It appears that some progressives and moderates may still be stuck in binary win/lose, leave/stay models that ensure continuing conflict, rather than leading to peaceful resolution. One hopes that they will be willing to entertain other options. If they are banking on traditionalists leaving The United Methodist Church, they are simply setting us all up for another hurtful and divisive General Conference.

 

 

 

The Church’s Foundation

After Notre Dame fire, a GoFundMe ensured black churches burned in Louisiana also got funds

Watching the fire consuming the roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on the evening news aroused a feeling of horror and helplessness. Would the whole building be consumed? Would priceless treasures from 850 years of history be lost? Would beautiful works of art and sculpture be destroyed? News in the aftermath provided hope that at least some elements could be preserved or restored.

More personal for many was the awareness that this cathedral was a working church, a place where children were baptized, marriages celebrated, departed loved ones remembered. And it was a cathedral not just of a particular parish, but of the nation of France, holding the place of sacred space for the crowning of monarchs, the celebrating of deliverance in war, and the mourning of national leaders. The loss of this place as it was threatens the precious memories of what was celebrated and remembered there.

These thoughts and feelings captured on a grander scale what other congregations have gone through, even recently, as three African-American churches were burned down in southern Louisiana, allegedly set afire by a young white man. The sanctuaries were St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre, as well as Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist in Opelousas.

These three churches each carried over 100 years of memories. One parishioner, Monica Harris, said, “Seeing the church in the condition it is now, it’s almost like losing a family member.”

The fact that the Notre Dame fire occurred on Monday of Holy Week added to the tragedy. This is the high point of the church year, when Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, stretching from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, enduring the trials and torture, his crucifixion, burial, and finally, triumphantly, his resurrection from the dead. There would have been services of worship scheduled for every day, with hours-long remembrances on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Now, where will the people worship?

In the midst of the tragedy, in the providence of God, perhaps we are to focus on the oft-repeated cliché that the church is not the building, but the people. As the Rev. Harry J. Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, put it, “They burned down a building. They didn’t burn down our spirit.” The building is destructible, but the people of God is eternal. In fact, Jesus said the very gates of hell could not prevail against the Church.

On Good Friday, we remember how Jesus gave his body to be put to death for all of humanity, to reconcile us to God. We cannot fathom the immensity of the gift. Yet his spirit remained, and was endowed with a new, resurrection body for a new, eternal existence as the ever-embodied Son of God and Savior of the World. Church buildings can suffer destruction, but the Spirit of Christ can remain in the community of God’s people in that place, ready to be embodied in a new structure that can serve as the ongoing launching place for worship and ministry.

The most essential point of focus for Holy Week, however, is Jesus Christ himself. This week is all about him – what he did, what he said, what he allowed to be done to him. If it were not for the events of this week, there would be no Church, there would be no people of God. In instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), with the washing of the disciples’ feet, and even with his last words on the cross, Jesus was creating a new family – the family of God. We are joined together by him and because of him. (See the sermon by Fleming Rutledge posted on the Good News website.)

That is why my favorite hymn about the Church is The Church’s One Foundation written by a Church of England clergyman in 1866. It realistically describes the Church in all her glory and in all her fallenness. Through it all, Christ is the single foundation of the Church, for

She is his new creation by water and the Word.

From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Far from being narrow or parochial, the Church is

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.

This universal reach was seen in the outpouring of faith and sorrow by the internationally diverse crowds in Paris and condolences from around the world. The Church is a global community of faith encompassing every nation, race, gender, and language.

At the same time, the hymn is realistic in seeing the struggles of the Church.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,

Yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

We long for things to be set right according to God’s perspective, and we grow weary of the struggle and impatient for God to act. But S. J. Stone, the hymn writer, encourages us that after the night of weeping comes the morn of song. On Good Friday, we remember that Easter Sunday is coming. God will make all things right once again.

She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;

Till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,

And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

We press on to one hope, “with every grace endued.” In the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of what seems like death, the Father pours his abundant grace out upon his children. We are sure, not of what we have, but of what we hope for. We are certain, not of what we see, but of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

We walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7), trusting that after death comes resurrection, believing God’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, whether the denomination divides, the church building burns down, or whatever in life we might experience. It is this hope, this faith, this certainty, that gives us confidence to face each day, not standing on our own powers and abilities, but built together by faith on the one foundation that can withstand all – Jesus Christ, our loving Lord.

 

 

 

An Open Letter Response to James Howell

Dear Dr. Howell,

A friend called my attention to the video you posted on YouTube for your congregation. I believe you to be an informed and thoughtful person, which makes your gross misrepresentation of the Traditional Plan and those who support it appear to be not just a mistake but a purposeful mischaracterization of the motives and character of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

We may well see the issues of marriage and sexuality in different ways, but there is no reason to call into question the character and motives of those we disagree with.

At one point in the video, you describe Traditional Plan supporters as “not your kind of conservative” to the conservative members of your congregation. Frankly, the persons described in your video are not my kind of conservative either. In fact, I have never met anyone in The United Methodist Church who conforms to the ugly caricature you have labored so hard to create.

As one of the primary authors and the submitter of the Traditional Plan, allow me to address a few of the misstatements you make in your video, with the hope of correcting the record and enabling your listeners to get a more accurate picture of the Traditional Plan.

You say, “The goal of the Traditional Plan is to stamp out homosexuality from the church and to stamp out even those who are sympathetic.” There is no truth in that statement. The Traditional Plan affirms the long-standing position of The United Methodist Church that all persons are created in God’s image, of sacred worth, in need of God’s grace, and in need of the ministry of the church. At the same time, the church affirms that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for human flourishing.

As the Wesleyan Covenant Association recently stated, all persons, gay or straight, celibate or sexually active, are welcome in our churches and ministries. We are all broken and fall short of God’s glorious standard. We can, and do, welcome people into the church and into our lives whether or not we can condone all of their behaviors. Our hope is that all persons will have a personal, life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, own him as their Savior and Lord, and experience the transformation of life we all seek by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You say that Traditional Plan supporters “wish to be rid of centrists, moderates, progressives, and even thoughtful conservatives.” Once again, there is no basis in the language of the Traditional Plan for this claim. The Traditional Plan sought to regain conformity across the church with what the church has decided in conference, the actions of the General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for United Methodism as a whole.

What organization establishes rules and standards and then allows its leaders to routinely violate those standards with impunity? The Traditional Plan allows those who cannot abide by the policies of the church to withdraw under gracious terms, keeping local church property. It expels no one. The Plan’s concern is not over people who disagree with the church’s policies, but with those who willfully break them. Would you not do something similar with clergy who were unwilling to provide infant baptism or ordain women to ministry in our church?

You say, “Severe penalties are imposed on anybody who thinks at all sympathetically and doesn’t act at all severely toward the LGBTQ community.” Once again, this is false. The Traditional Plan says nothing about what anyone thinks about gay persons or hopes for the church. It establishes penalties for clergy who perform same-sex weddings. It also requires annual conferences to abide by the church’s policy restricting self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being candidates, commissioned, or ordained into ministry in our church.

The Plan requires no one to “act severely” toward the LGBTQ community. The Plan merely continues the long-standing policy of not allowing same-sex weddings to be performed by our pastors or on church property and of not allowing self-avowed practicing homosexuals to serve as clergy.

You claim, “None of our pastors who serve our [local] church could be ordained under this plan.” This could be very confusing for the members of your local congregation. The only persons who could not be ordained under the Traditional Plan are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who are merely supportive of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ ordination are not addressed in the Traditional Plan and certainly are not penalized. I would encourage your listeners to read the Traditional Plan for themselves to determine what it says.

You go on to say, “If you answer yes to the question ‘will you accept gays in your church’ you cannot be ordained.” Again, this is false. All the Traditional Plan supporters would, to use your phrase, “accept gays in our church.” Accepting LGBTQ persons in the church does not prevent a person from being ordained under the Traditional Plan, only an unwillingness to abide by the policies set by the church, which every candidate for commissioning and ordination promises to uphold.

You cite the first rule of John Wesley’s Methodism is to do no harm, and you state that the 2019 General Conference “did a lot of harm.” I agree. When Traditional Plan supporters are called hateful and bigoted, when they are accused of bringing a “virus” into the church, when every parliamentary trick in the book is used to thwart the will of the majority and to mock our longstanding practice of holy conferencing, a lot of harm is done. When Traditional Plan supporters’ motives are falsely represented, when provisions of the Traditional Plan are distorted and misrepresented, when deception becomes an acceptable advocacy practice, a lot of harm is done. Even in deep disagreement, we can and should treat one another with Christ-like love and respect. Can we not treat one another the way we would want to be treated?

It is possible you are saying that the church’s position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching is inherently harmful. If so, that indicates to me that some form of separation is most likely the only way to resolve our differences, as you yourself have acknowledged.

Neither of us wants to be part of a church that does harm. For you, calling same-sex relationships sinful does harm. For me, affirming same-sex relationships does harm by contradicting the Scriptures and by foreclosing the opportunity for repentance, personal transformation, and holiness. When the church calls out sin — whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, or non-sexual — it might be “harmful” in the sense that it hurts the feelings of those caught in that sin, but the ultimate goal is our healing, forgiveness, and redemption. Just as many medical treatments cause short-term pain in the interest of healing, God’s call to holiness may cause pain but lead us to reconsider our life choices and pursue God’s will for our flourishing. That is the goal of the Traditional Plan.

Finally, you say that you “stand with people whom other people may not want to be around.” That kind of derogatory innuendo is a tremendous disservice to your congregation when you attempt to portray in this way your fellow United Methodists who supported the Traditional Plan in St. Louis. It is reckless for you to presume to say we do not want to be around LGBTQ persons. Many of us have gay persons in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our local churches. We want to be around them — and we are — simply because we love them.

Furthermore, we want to be a living example of Jesus’ love in drawing them to himself. How can people be drawn to Christ (our primary goal as Christians) if we are unwilling to “be around” them? That is a self-defeating proposition and one that would not characterize most evangelical United Methodists.

Dr. Howell, I am disappointed that you would so cavalierly dismiss Traditional Plan supporters with your false portrayal of the Plan and our thoughts and motivations. Such an approach might influence your congregants, but it does a disservice to the church, and it will not help us to resolve our church’s crisis in a God-honoring way. It would go a long way in advancing the dialogue in our church upon a higher plane if you retracted or corrected your video.

Thank you for your consideration.

In Christ’s service,

Tom Lambrecht

 

 

 

The Rise of the Moderate Incompatibilists

When the Committee on a Way Forward was first established, I floated a way of categorizing various perspectives regarding United Methodism’s view of marriage and sexuality. In these categories, “traditional incompatibilists” and “progressive incompatibilists” could not live in a denomination that allowed practices they disagree with. On the other hand, “traditional compatibilists” and “progressive compatibilists,” while still holding their perspectives, could see themselves living in a denomination with the practices of both perspectives allowed.

There were those who later would emerge as “moderate compatibilists” who could live with either perspective as long as there was institutional unity.

Recent statements from the “moderate compatibilists” demonstrate that they may well have jumped categories – proving to be neither moderates nor compatibilists.

Good News president Rob Renfroe has described UM moderates as progressives who simply want to move more slowly to change the church. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, for example, has stated that he believes the controversy over same-sex marriage and gay clergy will be a non-issue in twenty years because the church will have become fully affirming of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, he has been willing to tolerate the presence of a theologically conservative voice within the UM Church, believing that it will eventually fade away.

Prior to General Conference 2019, many moderates declined to take a position on whether or not they themselves would perform same-sex marriages. However, the decision of GC 2019 to reaffirm the church’s long-standing teaching that all persons are of sacred worth and that, simultaneously, the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching appears to have radicalized many moderate leaders.

With uncharacteristic hyperbole in the aftermath of St. Louis, Hamilton wrote, “The policy … passed at General Conference treats gay and lesbian Christians as second class. ‘You are people of sacred worth, but so long as you wish to share your life and love with another, you are living in sin.’ … How long will our people continue to feel it is okay to treat their LGBTQ friends this way?” In an open meeting with members of his church and livestreamed on the internet, he said, “I cannot pastor a church in a denomination that treats LGBTQ persons as second class citizens.”

The Rev. Tom Berlin, a Virginia pastor who submitted the One Church Plan to General Conference, told his congregation, “Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ.” He instituted a special committee in his church to come up with a six-month plan to be more intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ persons in the congregation.

Neither of these prominent moderate leaders have publicly said so, but their statements seem to imply their willingness to perform same-sex weddings if allowed by the denomination to do so. Of course, many other more progressive clergy have already signed statements indicating they are willing to perform same-sex weddings now in defiance of our church’s teaching.

The point is that many moderates no longer seem to be on the fence. They are no longer trying to hold a middle ground between theological conservatives and progressives. They appear to have joined the progressive advocacy for same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

At the same time that these moderates seem to have become radicalized, they have also become incompatibilists. Prior to St. Louis, they all waxed eloquently about how maintaining the unity of the church was the most important value. They asserted repeatedly that there is room in The United Methodist Church for people with all different views and practices regarding LGBTQ ministry.

Now, however, some of these same leaders have decided it may be time to leave the church or to work toward some form of separation. Hamilton wrote in his blog, “I’ve never seriously thought about leaving the UMC, until now.” He is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for [centrist churches].”

According to the Post article, the Rev. James Howell, a nationally known moderate leader and pastor of a 5,000-member church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has come to the same conclusion. “Right after the conference, people were saying, ‘Are we going to leave? Is there going to be a new denomination?’ Not today. There’s millions of people involved. You can’t form a new denomination by Thursday,” said. Howell. “I don’t know anybody who thinks we can continue to stay together with what we have now. I was someone who dreamed of that for a long time…. It’s sad, but it’s just not viable.”

“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the Post article.

Compatibilists in the past have given the impression that they can get along with a variety of perspectives and practices. It appears that this only holds true if progressive practices are allowed. In other words, they are happy to stay in one church with different viewpoints as long as they get to do what they want to do. If the church says no, as it did in St. Louis, they become an incompatibilist and cannot remain in the church.

This is actually an encouraging development, as it means that at least some progressives and moderates are coming to the conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences in the church that make it impossible for both groups to live together in one structural body.

It was striking to read both Hamilton and Berlin say that many of their people felt that the way the church or traditional delegates characterized LGBTQ persons was hurtful or offensive. I do not recall any comments made by traditional delegates at General Conference that maligned the character of LGBTQ persons. What this means is that the traditional message that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful is a message that a significant group in the church finds hurtful and offensive. At the same time, it certainly is hurtful and offensive for traditionalists to be called hateful, bigoted, and backward.

If the basic message of each perspective is that harmful to those of a different perspective, how is it the best decision to stay together in one church? It appears that more moderates and progressives may be coming to the same realization. Our only hope of not repeating the battle of St. Louis in Minneapolis is to come to a negotiated agreement on separate ways forward. Hopefully, enough leaders across the theological spectrum will come to that realization to work together toward a positive future for Methodism in America and around the world.

Doing General Conference Math

Supporters of the One Church Plan are considering a number of options in the wake of the decision by the 2019 General Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. One of those options is to come back in 2020 to the General Conference in Minneapolis and attempt to reverse the result, adopting the One Church Plan (OCP) in place of the Traditional Plan (TP).

One commonly hears the statement that there were “only” 54 votes separating the two sides in 2019, which means that 28 delegates would need to change their minds and vote for the One Church Plan in order for it to pass. Those 28 delegates would most likely come from the U.S., since it is unlikely that OCP supporters will gain more adherents among the central conferences than what they already received in 2019.

But the task in 2020 for OCP supporters gets more daunting. For starters, there were 31 delegates from Africa who did not obtain a visa to attend the General Conference. If all of them are able to gain visas in 2020 (or there are replacement delegates who can), that will likely add at least 28 votes for the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters would then need to gain 42 new votes in the U.S. (half of 54 plus half of 28).

But the delegate totals will not remain the same in 2020 as they were in 2019. Due to changes in membership, Africa will gain an additional 18 delegates in 2020. That will most likely add at least 16 votes for the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters would then be up to 50 new votes required (half of 54 plus half of 28 plus half of 16).

That is not all. The U.S. delegation will lose 22 delegates. If two-thirds of U.S. delegates generally support the OCP, then the OCP would lose a net total of 8 votes. (7 votes lost would be offset by the 7 votes that the Traditional Plan would also lose in the U.S.) That means OCP supporters would then be up to 54 new votes required (half of 54 plus half of 28 plus half of 16 plus half of 8). This would be offset by potentially 5 new votes from African delegates, bringing the total new votes needed for the OCP from U.S. delegates to 49.

This means that OCP supporters would need to either convince nearly one-third of U.S. Traditional Plan supporters to change their mind, or elect OCP supporting delegates in place of TP supporting delegates. That would be a tremendous swing in votes and highly unlikely to happen.

Another way of doing the math is to look at the various constituencies and estimate what percentage of them would vote for the Traditional Plan. The totals could look something like this:

  • 33 percent of U.S. delegates (482) equals 159.
  • 80 percent of Filipino delegates (52) equals 42.
  • 90 percent of African delegates (278) equals 250.
  • 50 percent of European and Eurasian delegates (40) equals 20.

The Total for the Traditional Plan would then be 471, which would leave 391 delegates supporting the OCP, a difference of 80 votes.

Based on this second method, OCP supporters would need to “flip” 41 delegates in order to gain a bare majority. This represents one-fourth of U.S. Traditional Plan supporters who would have to change their vote. Again, this would be a very significant shift.

There are of course some variables in all these math “problems.” But the bottom line is that a lot of circumstances would have to break one way in order for the OCP to gain the votes needed to reverse the results of the 2019 General Conference.

Of course, the OCP supporters could still try to delay and obstruct the will of the General Conference, as they did in St. Louis. But why? As Africa continues to grow in membership and the U.S. continues to decline, the numbers will only get more daunting for OCP supporters.

And the prospect of another public legislative battle, with all the vitriolic rhetoric that came from the progressive side, would only continue to damage the church. I have read numerous remarks by people on social media saying their relationships with persons on the “other side of the aisle” had been damaged by the process at St. Louis. At least one newspaper described what is happening in The United Methodist Church as a “civil war.” Is that what we want to perpetuate?

Based on the public responses from many on the moderate to progressive side, they cannot continue to serve in a church that does not allow them to perform same-sex weddings and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. They desired unity in the church, as long as it meant that they could engage in ministry the way they wanted to do so. But faced with a choice between unity and denying their principles, they are choosing to adhere to their principles, even if it means disunity.

So would it not be more productive for persons across the theological spectrum to agree on a way to separate from each other, freeing everyone to engage in ministry the way they believe God is leading them? An equitable way could be found to divide assets and provide for the continuation of vital ministries such as UMCOR, Wespath, GBGM, Communications, and Archives and History.

Freed from the need to continue fighting one another, the resulting new denominations could devote their whole energies to evangelism, church planting, discipleship, missions, and social action – all according to each group’s theological perspective. In areas where there is agreement, the new groups could continue to cooperate on joint projects and mission endeavors.

In the end, The United Methodist Church does not face a math problem, but a spiritual problem. Is it now possible to choose a different path, one that leads to a constructive future, rather than a destructive one for the church? Can we not work toward a different form of unity that allows for both the separation needed and the possibility of cooperation where warranted? The former United Methodist Church is already dead. We are in the birth process of something new. Can we work together to create that new reality in as painless and Christ-like a way as possible?