One often hears that Methodism used to believe the “wrong” thing about slavery, the ordination of women, and the affirmation of same-sex relationships, and that Methodism moved to believe the “right” thing about slavery and the ordination of women, leading the way to a more just world. Therefore, the argument goes, Methodism should also move to believe the “right” thing about affirming same-sex relationships.
The implication is that Methodism changed its position based on biblical or theological principles that overcame earlier errors in biblical or theological reasoning. Therefore, Methodism should adopt a new, affirming position on same-sex relationships based on a new biblical or theological interpretation.
Back in January — before the full ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent — Dr. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, wrote an important article puncturing this myth of historical progress. One can read his full article in First Things (which I would highly recommend) and a short blog here. I want to delve more deeply into Watson’s argument.
The essence of Watson’s contention is this: “We have been using the Bible to discriminate against gays and lesbians, it is argued, and need to progress in the same way that we aligned ourselves with God’s justice in opposition to slavery and the subordination of women. The problem with this myth is that it is not true. When confronting slavery, racism, and the exclusion of women from ministry, the dominant strain of Methodism actually conformed to the dominant culture. It did not, as the UMC presumptuously ascribes to itself today, lead the way in progress or ‘the transformation of the world.’ On the contrary, United Methodism in the United States was more often transformed by the world” (emphasis original).
Slavery and Racism
Early Methodists had a very strong stance against slavery. John Wesley famously wrote a letter six days before his death encouraging British anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce to “Go on … till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away.” The first U.S. Methodist Book of Doctrines and Discipline forbade the ownership of slaves, and Methodists who owned slaves were required to set them free or be excluded from church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper.
Compromise arose almost immediately, however, when those leading the church in the South protested that it would be nearly impossible to get anyone there to join the church because slavery was so ingrained in the southern culture and economy. Accommodations were made in the Discipline and enforcement of the remaining restrictions was weak, until things reached a breaking point in 1844. Bishop James Andrew acquired slaves through marriage and was unwilling to resign from the episcopacy. The church split between an abolitionist North and a pro-slavery South, a split that lasted nearly 100 years.
When the northern and southern churches came back together in 1939, one would have assumed that the issue of slavery and race was resolved. However, the price of a reunion of the church was the sanctioning of racial segregation. A new central jurisdiction was created for black pastors and churches, and the whole church was divided up into regional jurisdictions that allowed a continuation of racism and Jim Crow discrimination in parts of the country. Even during the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, courageous white pastors like Maxie Dunnam and Robert Tuttle who spoke out against racial discrimination were threatened and exiled from their ministry in the South.
It was not until 1968-1972, in the process of the merger that formed The United Methodist Church, that the structural racism of the central jurisdiction was eliminated. Of course, the battle against racism in our hearts and minds continues today. But it was not until the cultural pendulum swung strongly toward desegregation that the Methodist Church acted to remove that structural racism. It followed the movement of the culture; it did not suddenly find a principled opposition to racism.
In Watson’s words, “The churches that merged to create The United Methodist Church should not have caved to cultural pressure to accept and accommodate racism and slavery. They should have stood firm in their theological commitments. The more biblically formed branches of the Wesleyan Holiness family [such as the Wesleyan Church and Free Methodist Church] did just that.” Had we stuck to our original convictions, we may not have grown as large, but we might have had a greater influence on American culture and history. At the very least, we would have been true to our identity in Christ as founded on the truth of God’s word.
Ordination of Women
As Watson puts it, “The story of the ordination of women in American Methodism follows a similar trajectory.” The Methodist Church officially affirmed the ordination of women in 1956, fully 36 years after women were granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the post-war years, women in the U.S. gained in status and rights because they had contributed greatly to the war effort and increasingly had jobs outside the home. The cultural shifts and pressures drove the Methodist Church to change its position. As good and beneficial as the recognition of women’s equality was for our church, we were very late to the game.
By contrast, early Methodism and other strands of American Methodism affirmed the leadership of women. John and Charles Wesley’s mother, Susannah, notably led Bible studies and took on other leadership responsibilities, causing John to allow women to serve alongside men in some aspects of leadership in the English Methodist movement. The Wesleyan Church ordained women as early as 1853, only ten years after its founding and over 100 years before the dominant Methodist Church. The Free Methodist Church ordained women in 1891.
“The argument based on the myth of Methodist progress on slavery and race, then the ordination of women, and now same-sex marriage, is therefore bad history. Mainstream Methodism bowed the knee to culture on questions of race and female leadership, rather than leading the way there on the basis of its theological heritage.”
Watson goes on, “The desire by United Methodists in the United States to change the church’s position on same-sex marriage fits this history, not the common myth. As American cultural elites began to embrace gay rights and same-sex marriage, United Methodist leaders in the U.S. began to fall in line. Tellingly, the church has become more liberal first in the places where the dominant culture had already become more politically and socially liberal.”
As a result, “Far from being countercultural, The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have too often functioned like cultural chameleons, changing their values and practices to fit in with the dominant culture. They have not operated with a strong sense of identity grounded in Scripture and tradition, and thus have not been able to face off the unpredictable and changing winds of cultural pressure and change.”
Our church over the decades has been willing to sell its identity for the fleeting reward of being “culturally relevant.” The same motivation is at work today, when we hear the justification, “If we do not change our position on same-sex marriage, we will not be able to attract young people to the church.” We seek to be “relevant” and influence the culture, when in fact we are allowing the culture to influence and shape the church.
We run the danger of being “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” and the latest cultural fad. Instead, Scripture urges us, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).
Only by growing up into spiritual maturity and finding our identity in Christ can we resist the fickle winds of the world that sometimes blow with the truth and sometimes bluster against it. Our foundation cannot be an ever-changing society, but the never-changing truth of God’s word and Christian tradition.