by Mark Tooley
Some evangelical United Methodist friends have suggested our denomination possibly enact a formal division between conservatives and liberals. They understandably want a relatively amicable conclusion to the over 40 year denominational battle over sexuality. This battle has recently accelerated with a campaign of open defiance by liberal activists against our church’s teaching on marriage.
I’m against urging a formal schism for several reasons. First, it’s politically implausible. Changes to United Methodism’s constitution require a two thirds vote at General Conference followed by ratification by two thirds of voters at local annual conferences globally. A formal schism inevitably would require implementation by a subsequent and possibly specially called General Conference. So formal schism must have a level of consensus very distant from today’s reality. Short of cataclysmic upheaval between now and then, the 2016 General Conference almost certainly would overwhelmingly reject schism.
Second, a formal schism, even if implemented, would ignite an exponentially wider conflict as each of over 30,000 congregations in the U.S. would directly or indirectly have to choose its new denomination. Few congregations are purely liberal or conservative. Most congregations are right of center with left of center clergy. Most lay people are unaware of the current divisions and will be very surprised when forced to engage. Possibly hundreds of thousands would leave rather than endure the debate or abide the result. Likely hundreds of congregations, perhaps more, will default to litigation. What’s worse than years of debating sex? Years of litigation, costing millions of dollars, which nobody will win, except for lawyers.
Third, there is no person alive today who’s belonged to United Methodism when it was committed to theological orthodoxy. Our denomination’s seminaries went liberal 100 years ago or more, with the agencies and most bishops shortly following. For decades church elites rejected Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, unique deity and lordship, and the need for personal salvation. Evangelicals and other committed orthodox were functionally a minority in the denomination for most of a century. They could remain because the official theology remained orthodox on paper, even if liberals applied their own interpretations. Now, with the growing African church, which is 40 percent of church membership and climbing, evangelicals are the emerging majority. Why urge division now after having survived so long in the desert?
Fourth, an intact United Methodism, however troubled, restrains many from falling even further away from orthodoxy, which is itself an act of grace. A schism likely will lump many professed moderates into the new liberal communion, where full throttle heterodoxy will rule. And even many conservatives will be stuck in their home congregations defaulting into the new liberal body. Many who land by choice or default in the new liberal body will never then be exposed to an orthodox Wesleyan message.
Fifth, United Methodism doesn’t have two clear wings, conservative and liberal, but a multiplicity of factions and perspectives. Many, perhaps most, have no firm appreciation of Wesleyan doctrine and polity. Denominational loyalties in America are imploding, and United Methodists certainly are no exception. Many United Methodists are functionally congregationalist. In a formal schism, likely many will search for ways to avoid both the new conservative and liberal denominations, in favor of self-rule. Once the structure is shattered, the pieces will not easily coalesce into clean new divisions.
Finally, there is the example of John Wesley, whose Church of England, to which he was ever devoted, was, like United Methodism, officially orthodox while functionally latitudinarian. Wesley saw Methodism as a force for renewal, not a source of schism. Every manifestation of institutional Christianity is deeply flawed, and every generation must contend for the faith inside the church in different ways. Yet God works His will through flawed instruments. Christ warned that the wheat and the tares are intermixed until His return, and He warned against a premature, disruptive attempt to segregate them.
United Methodism very likely will not officially embrace schism. But there is one sure way to provoke de facto schism. If General Conference were to in any way support so-called “compromise” to dilute, abrogate or localize the church’s teaching on marriage, many evangelicals would quit the denomination and create a new structure. Many and likely most Africans, among other internationals, would eventually follow. The remaining highly diminished United Methodism would then be a mostly U.S. liberal denomination whose decline would accelerate, similar to each of the other churches that formally abandoned orthodox teaching on marriage over recent years. The latest sad example is the spiraling Presbyterian Church (USA), which won’t exist in 20 years at its current rate of decline.
I don’t expect United Methodism to abandon its officially orthodox standards. And I don’t expect a major schism. Instead, I hope and think the emerging global orthodox majority within United Methodism will work to globalize our church’s structures and more fully recover our Wesleyan heritage in doctrine and polity. The path forward will be VERY rocky. We all wish it were easier and shorter. But God will be faithful if the orthodox are patient and persevere.
For over 25 years, since a very young man, I have worked for renewal within United Methodism. My dream has always been a collectively restored Methodism that proclaims scriptural holiness. No earthly church ever fully lives up to this ideal. But a revived, dynamic, soul-saving Wesleyan witness for our whole denomination remains my fervent dream and hope.