April 4, 2013

There Will Likely Be No United Methodist Schism

By Mark Tooley (Follow on Twitter)

My friend Ted Campbell of Perkins School of theology has a column in The United Methodist Reporter warning of the perils of dividing The United Methodist Church. He’s thoroughly correct that schism offers no easy solution. Americans, religious or not, are especially prone to hoping for climactic conclusions. But in real life, most issues simmer and brew, ebbing and flowing, with no truly final end.

There is only one real way to precipitate United Methodist schism. If a General Conference compromised the current church policy affirming sex only within heterosexual marriage and prohibiting same-sex marriage and sexually active clergy outside marriage, some conservatives would depart to create a new denomination. When the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America compromised their sexual teaching, conservatives left and created new denominations. Those schisms will continue to play out for decades to come. Meanwhile, the membership spiral of those three liberalizing denominations has accelerated, and there’s no reason to think it will ever reverse, absent divine intervention.

Almost alone among the oldline Protestant denominations, United Methodism has not compromised its sexual teaching, primarily because its membership is global, and the overseas churches are growing while the U.S. church continues its decline. Non-U.S. delegates were 40 percent of the total at the 2012 General Conference and likely they will be 50 percent in 2016. These conservative, mostly African churches ensure that as long as United Methodism is global, there will be no liberalizing our sexuality standards. Interestingly, as United Methodism continues to lose hundreds of thousands of members in the U.S., it is now possibly the 9th largest denomination globally, thanks to Africa.

This situation has caused a few liberals of late to ponder whether liberals should possibly leave, advocate division, or at least stop fighting. Here is a new development with potentially interesting consequences. But there is virtually no precedent in American, or global, religious history of liberals creating NEW denominations. Liberals may take over already existing denominations, but when have they generated new ones? It’s very rare. After the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980’s, a very small number of liberals departed to create the Alliance for Baptists. It remains very small.

It’s unlikely that liberal United Methodists will corporately quit the United Methodist Church to create a new body. If they do, it will make history. Instead, I suspect they will do what evangelicals in United Methodism did for many decades. As the church becomes more global and less U.S./liberal controlled, U.S. liberals will sustain a wide sub culture, doing their own thing, and largely ignoring the general church. They will carefully work around the legal prohibitions on same-sex unions. And they will fully exploit the freedom of pulpit that United Methodists have long had. Just as evangelicals for years in their sub culture subversively preached salvation and holiness, liberals in the future will preach sexual liberation, environmentalism, feminism, and the Social Gospel. Our denomination is unlikely ever to control the message of the pulpit, and local churches will largely do want they want, with whatever consequences.

Campbell suggests returning to the pre-1972 era when United Methodism had no official stance on homosexuality. If he wants schism, then removing the current stance on homosexuality is the sure way to precipitate it, causing exodus by a combination of U.S. evangelicals and Africans. There was no stance prior to 1972 because there was no serious debate. I’ve noticed in looking at old Books of Discipline that the church had no specific policy on extra-marital sex until the mid-20th century. It’s not because early Methodism was sexually liberated. It’s because the formal stances were only necessitated by the rising challenge of liberal forces seeking overthrow of traditional Christian teachings previously resting on unstated consensus.

There’s no easy, smooth path for United Methodism in the future. Evangelicals can be moderately hopeful about the global growth and its ultimate impact on the U.S. church. Liberals are concerned about losing their long-time power monopoly. And they are frustrated that United Methodism is breaking with its past and this time is not following the other declining oldline denominations and not following the secular culture. But liberals, in their own churches, will largely have continued freedom to do almost whatever they want to do. That freedom is probably more appealing than the prolonged labors of trying to create a new structure.

Neither side will ever be completely happy with the status quo. But Christ warned there will always be wheat mixed with the tares until He returns. We are called to be patient and hopeful, understanding that even our adversity can be providential.


  • http://www.facebook.com/marco.bell.39 Marco Bell

    Mark Tooley wrote – April 4, 2013…

    “…United Methodism has not compromised its sexual teaching, primarily because its membership is global, and the overseas churches are growing while the U.S. church continues its decline. Non-U.S. delegates were 40 percent of the total at the 2012 General Conference and likely they will be 50 percent in 2016. These conservative, mostly African churches ensure that as long as United Methodism as global, there will be no liberalizing our sexuality standards.”

    The African portion of the (Global) United Methodists will be slow to realize the marriage equality issue because they are still fighting their own “Jim Crow” days, and the sexual mores of that country are still quite puritanical.

    Any schism will be birthed in the US, and the General Conference will probably take place in Africa in the future.

    • http://js1979.wordpress.com johns79

      And this makes no sense whatsoever, “…they are still fighting their own “Jim Crow” days,…” Jim Crowe laws were used by White Majorities to control Black Minorities. Where in Africa does this or has this occured?

      and, the last I heard Africa was a continent with a wide range of almost everything not: a country with puritanical sexual mores. I understand the limitations of the American educational system but this looks like a comedy sketch.

      BTW I believe the Puritans sexual mores were sex only within the context of marriage. Remarkably similar to the Book of Discipline.

      Yes, schism will probably start in the US, if at all, as they try to supplant scripture with polls. The issue isn’t “marriage equality”.

    • http://donnie2016blog.wordpress.com Donnie

      If following the Bible makes me puritanical, then I guess I’m a puritan.

      I doubt any of our African brothers and sisters would be too bothered by that word either.

  • http://sandytnaylor.wordpress.com sandytnaylor

    There won’t be a split, because the libs wouldn’t dream of giving up the power they wield in the denomination. They’ve learned how to work the system: turn the Book of Discipline into one big scofflaw, with the far left bishops and district superintendents turning a blind eye at any violations of the rules that exist only on paper. Even so, their failure to get everything they wanted from the last General Conference must really gall them, particularly since their thuggish tactics would normally intimidate the spinally challenged “church mice” that make up such gatherings. Being drama queens, they will make a lot of noise about setting up their own denomination because they love attention, love to repeat the all-purpose accusation of a four-year-old, “That’s not fair!!”

    Totally aside from issues of doctrine and Christian moral teachings, am I the only one who has noticed that there is nothing even remotely Christian about the attitude of the liberal activists? I mean, nothing conciliatory or courteous about them, just this in-your-face coarseness more appropriate for street gangs fighting over turf. How can we have fellowship or rational discourse under such circumstances?

    • Frank

      Sandy, what do you see in your post that is “consilatory or courteous”?

  • http://frederickjohnsen.wordpress.com frederick johnsen

    “there is virtually no precedent in American, or global, religious history of liberals creating NEW denominations. Liberals may take over already existing denominations, but when have they generated new ones? It’s very rare.”
    Why not one might ask? The answer is simple, like a virus, Liberalism can only infect what already exists. It can never create anything good, anything on its own. It can only replicate itself – with devastating consequences for the host organism.

  • http://twitter.com/kjernald Andreas Kjernald (@kjernald)

    I think this is a fair assesment of the issue but I wouldn’t know from experience. However, does anyone else feel like this pulpit anarchy is a little disturbing? How can we claim to be one church if our message is legion?

    • http://js1979.wordpress.com johns79

      Until the seminaries are teaching and enforcing the Book of Discipline anarchy in the pulpit will continue. They preach ” liberals in the future will preach sexual liberation, environmentalism, feminism, and the Social Gospel.” because that is what they are taught at most of them.

  • http://skotiad.wordpress.com skotiad

    Actually, there is a precedent for a new liberal denomination forming: in the mid-1970s, a liberal faction within the Missouri Synod Lutherans broke away (starting with a massive faculty/student exodus from Concordia Seminary) and formed the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, but the splinter group’s own liberal seminary (Seminex, seminary in exile) floundered, and the AELC eventually merged with the other liberal Lutheran bodies to form the present ELCA. This isn’t quite analogous to the UM situation, because the Missouri Synod Lutherans were/are a rather blatantly conservative body, not the “patchwork” situation of the UM, so the Lutheran liberal splinter group did not have all the clout that liberals have within the UM. I don’t think there is any precedent for a liberal-dominated denomination to experience a liberal-led schism. Liberals are all about power politics, and they certainly aren’t going to give up their power base in the largest mainline denomination. But don’t rule out the possibility of a separation from the UMs outside the US, so as to escape the conservative influences of UMs from the global south.

    • http://apcroft33.wordpress.com apcroft33

      I remember that Missouri Synod Lutheran schism very well, having a Lutheran brother-in-law who predicted (correctly) as it turned out that the liberal schismatic group would not be able to stand alone but would link up with the other liberal Lutheran bodies. Liberals definitely prefer undermining an existing body tp making a fresh start, since they retain the clout of being the “original” body not a breakaway group.

      I agree with Noel Weymouth about bailing out of the mainlines. The spiritual vitality is all in the splinter groups and (conversely) when liberal churches merge (something they love to do, since it’s an effortless way to increase membership numbers), count on more decline. We may well live to see a “United Church of America,” with all the liberal church mice ensconced in one big office building, issuing their manifestoes and feeling very righteous.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/noel.weymouth Noel Weymouth

    My own take on the struggles within the mainlines is: Christians, leave. I can respect the attitude of UMs who want to “fight the good fight” and bring the denomination back to its very evangelical roots, and I can understand that this past General Conference gave them some hope. But the energy we use in these wranglings could be better used elsewhere. This is no sin in schism. Christianity was a splinter group from Judaism, Lutheranism and Calvinism splinter groups from Catholicism, Methodists and Baptists are splinters from the Church of England, etc, etc. An institution starts out right, then ossifies and starts focusing on maintaining itself instead of keeping the original vision alive. So, all you folks still hanging in there with the mainlines, I urge doing what I (and heaven knows how many others) have done, find a home where Christ is respected, where your tithes don’t go to support “bishops” who declaim about how unreliable the Bible is, or how “love” means having to accept all manner of sexual sins among the politicized clergy. You won’t a PERFECT church, but trust me, you can sure find a BETTER one.